A Travellerspoint blog

Day Effay! (as Mexico City is also known - D.F.)

overcast 16 °C

Every guide book you read actively discourages you from driving in Mexico City. In fact, Lonely Planet describes it thus: "Even more than elsewhere in the country, traffic rules are seen as suggested behaviour. Red lights may be run at will, no-turn signs are ignored and signals are seldom used. On occasion you may be hit with a questionable traffic fine." As if these encouraging words were not enough, the knowledge that street names change without warning and we have a history of getting lost made for an anxious few days prior to us taking on Mexico City. I was not just anxious, I was dreading the drive. Stephen pretended to be looking forward to it (he is a veteran of driving in Italy), but I think he was fibbing. I didn't take any photos of our drive in, but we ran into traffic like this:


We ran into this traffic several times, because at one point, we actually made the same wrong turn twice. We had a discussion about how that might have happened. We stopped about six times to ask for directions, with differing opinions. And then... our street magically appeared - we turned, drove for 15 minutes, with the map behaving the way it should and before we knew it, we were parked and in our hotel.

Our hotel Real Salamanca has small suites - each with a kitchen, living area, bathroom and bedroom. Our charming host upgraded us to a larger unit, and for at least the next week (we may stay a few days longer), we are stretched out and comfy. We're right in the Roma-Condesa area, which is leafy, residential, full of shops and restaurants, museums, art galleries and lots and lots of dogs. We love it. As with a number of other places we have stayed, we almost have the place to ourselves - it seems as though there may be just two or three other suites rented.

Perhaps the post-apocalyptic appearance of the interior courtyard has something to do with it. Our unit is just behind Stephen, with the white windows and the green bay window sitting area.


Yesterday, after we arrived and got over our giddiness at being alive, we headed out to check out our new neighbourhood. We were in Mexico City five years ago, and loved it then, but we stayed in a cheap hotel right in the centro and we got what we paid for - nonstop noisy street life. This time around, it feels like we're in a little village; with its own perspectives, eccentricities, and unique architecture.

It appeared to us that the Sister was asking the shoeshine man for directions. Perhaps she felt some divine intervention was necessary.


Mexico City is a sophisticated place, with great affluence and fashionable inhabitants. For the most part, well-to-do chilangos are as pleasant as the next person, but yesterday we got a chilly once-over from a high-heeled, well-coiffed woman who clearly found us wanting.
Is snobbery a desired ideal?


A rhino following a cow up a building, protected by razor wire.


The car shell is real, the driver is a cardboard dummy, and there is a wind-up key on the side. We presume this is a permanent exhibit.


Loved the symmetry of this exterior staircase.


There is so much to see and do in Mexico City that one week is not nearly enough. We may tag on a few more days to try and make a bit of a dent in the hundreds of museums, art galleries, current showings, music, parks, restaurants, architecture, shops, and people-watching that would take a lifetime to cover if we tried to see everything. One big attraction this Friday is Papa - Papa Francisco, to be exact. His Holiness is here for two days, and the city is pulling out all the stops to welcome him. Mexico still has phone booths everywhere, and they are covered with banners like this one:


The zocalo is where it is all happening. We walked past the stage and the seating, and tried to imagine this massive square filled with hundreds of thousands of people. Stephen wants to be there to witness it, (he is hoping to see people fainting from excitement), but I think it will be pandemonium.


Not everyone is looking forward to the Pope's arrival. This "nun" staged a one-woman protest against his visit; stating among other things
that he and his church harbours pedophiles.


Protests are a way of life in most areas of Mexico, it seems. They have a lot to be angry over, but I always wonder how any of it changes anything. I'm not in a position to know or guess, but I think most protests are either ignored or met with force of some kind - it wouldn't seem that they effect real change. Ongoing outrage over the missing and murdered 43 students (everywhere), the teachers' strike (Oaxaca), and today this march of hundreds of protesters on one of the main streets leading to the Palace. We have no idea what the protest was about, but it had menacing undertones to it. Many of the protesters were masked and carrying sticks. It seemed to have something to do with dissatisfaction over the state governor.


The police had no intention of allowing them through. By the time we left, there were dozens more reinforcements and another three police buses blocking access. No idea how it ended, but I'm hoping it was peaceful.


Just past the protest stand-off is the extraordinary Palacio de Bellas Artes, home to murals by Diego Rivera and Ruffino Tamayo, among other artists. The theatre shows a number of events, of note the world-famous Ballet Folklorico. The exterior of the building is a combination of art-nouveau and neo-classical design, surrounded by beautiful gardens and sculptures.


The interior is art-deco. Everything gleams - you want to slide down the brass banisters and you could eat off the marble floors.


A little further along, and we came upon this vertiginous sight - window washers hanging by a thread.


We kept walking down Paseo de Reforma, though various neighbourhoods and finally ending up at the edge of the Centro Historico. It is like falling though the third ring of hell. Gone is the sedate stroll. Hustlers come at you from all sides, thrusting discount coupons, offering tours, calling out, coming at you - I could feel my heart start to pound.


And then... we were attempting to cross a street, and a motorcycle came flying through the intersection, coming straight at Stephen. I screamed, and apparently a few birds fell from the sky. The bike went one way, Steve went the other, and all was well, but a good reminder that the onus to stay alive on the roads, streets and sidewalks of Mexico is on us.

Once we had mentally switched gears, we were able to notice the beauty of the area. It is one of the oldest parts of the city, and we were interested to see that this new construction was being built to preserve the original facade.


We had lunch at El Mayor - a wonderful rooftop restaurant with great food and even better views.


We visited our first museum - the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso to see the exhibit of Javier Marin's sculptures, called Corpus. The oversized pieces are of resin, bronze and wood and they have such a sense of unrest and unease to them.




The final installation was an interactive site where you could stand on the feet on the floor and sensors on your movements would activate similar movements with the figure on the screen. After watching a little boy have fun with it, I decided to try.


And so, our introduction to this great city has begun. Talk to you again in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 19:09 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

Tepoztlan: chakras, crystals and Carnavale

sunny 23 °C


Oh yes, Tepoztlan is a Pueblo Magico - how could it not be? Tepoztlan is reputed to have mystical powers; drawing deep from its origins 1200 years ago as the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec serpent god. Although it is just 80 km. from Mexico City, this small town exudes an other-worldliness. Climbing up steep hills and surrounded by jagged mountain peaks, Tepoztlan possesses a physical autonomy that has allowed it to retain its strong Nahuatl culture. That energy and mysticism has also attracted a New Age crowd that has brought with it vegetarian restaurants and health food stores, crystals, tarot and yoga. The combination of the two creates an intriguing mix.

Some of our first impressions of that magic:

Many doors (and even a few car grilles) have these crosses - remnants of their September 28th ritual. Small flowers called perote are fashioned into crosses to ward off death and bad luck. On the night of the 28th, the devil is thought to be free to roam, looking for victims. Crosses are hung to protect inhabitants from an unwelcome visit; by midnight September 29th, the threat is over, but the flowers remain ... just in case.


Temazcal is traditionally a sweat lodge, or steam bath - this main-street spa is one of many in town offering various massages and treatments. It would be tempting, but for the Zamfir-ish pan flute music wafting from most of them. Also, rather comically, in a country where cash prevails, these temples of serenity are happy to accept Visa and MasterCard.


Welcome to your new addiction! So says the Psychedelic Art Studio, where you can add an Aztec serpent to your tattoo collection.


Om Sweet Om - zen bread and pastries


We checked into the sweet Posada Sarita - a welcoming small inn with spacious rooms with balconies overlooking the pool and gardens. It is located on the edge of town, which provides us with several blocks of cardio-blasting hills to walk up into the centre, and blessed relief from the noise of the Carnavale (more on that later).


One of the dominant features of Tepoztlan is the Piramide Tepzteco - a 10-metre pyramid that is completely unremarkable, but for the fact that is it perched high above the town, at the very top of a sheer cliff about 400 metres above the town. As is the case with so many other archaeological sites in Mexico, the wonder lies in the fact that it was built at all. By the time we climbed up, we were tuckered out. The idea that as pyramid-builders, we would then have to spend the rest of the day hauling boulders, and piling rocks was unfathomable. How did they do it?


To access this pyramid, you must climb a very steep path, some of it stairs, but much of it rock, and most of it mercifully in shade. It is a 2.5 km. climb, which the sign warned would be "strenuous". It started off easily enough - the two of us pointing out various things to one another and stopping for water and bird-watching. The path then turned vertical, and our shared adventure turned into individual struggles of aching legs, bursting lungs and sheer will-power to get to the top. Not to make this sound like the Ironman, but it felt like an achievement and I was very gratified to see young people gasping for breath as well. Still, we were passed on the way up by a trim and energetic woman in her 50s who assured us we were just 10 minutes from the top (we weren't - it was another half-hour). We still hadn't reached the summit as she waved on her way down.


This was the view we climbed up for - just stunning. It still took us an hour to climb down again, but it was a much easier go.


Tepoztlan is divided into eight barrios, each one signified by their chapel or church. Our barrio, San Jose, has a modest white chapel, and a marker at the main intersection. This was our touchstone each night to let us know we were almost home.


Two more Tepoztlan churches


La Parroquia de la Navidad - the main cathedral off the zocalo, with an ex-convent and museum attached. Unfortunately,
because of Carnevale, they were closed for the weekend.


The entranceway gate to this cathedral is quite magnificent - complex designs of significant symbols - each one a mosaic done in seeds and beans.


I got a huge kick watching this little girl administer the holy water. At first she dabbed a little on her forehead, and then once her father had his back turned to help her grandmother, she started splashing great gobs of water on her face.


Just outside the cathedral a bizarre scene was taking place. A couple of tables had been set up, with gross banners showing the insides of people's ears, and all the ugliness that goes on in there. Participants were invited to rest their heads on pillows, and have a tin tray with a burning candle arranged over their ear - for free! I'm not sure how it works, but I guess a tiny drop of melted wax would drip into the ear canal. I wasn't comfortable taking a photo, so I'll leave it to you to imagine that scene.

As we walked back out, Stephen spied this crew having a good gab safely outside the church gates.


People-watching and blink-and-you-miss-them moments are such a big part of Mexico. Sunday is a day of rest for many and
friends and families have time to visit.


Just outside our lunch table window, this little boy was having a grand time killing off the enemy, incognito.


A big part of opening up businesses in the morning involves sweeping and washing the sidewalk and pavement, in a valiant effort to banish
dust, garbage, and bio deposits.


Feeding the tortilla habit. There are grills in every market where fresh tortilla dough is pounded, shaped and cooked, but I had never seen such an impressive pile of dough before and asked these shy young women for permission to take a photo.


TripAdvisor is usually a reliable source for recommending sites to visit, but they missed by a mile with this one. The Centro Cultural Pedro Lopez Elias
was listed as #4 of 11 Things to Do - the photos looked beautiful and the time required for a visit was 2-3 hours. I could not find this listed anywhere else, and it was not on our little guidebook, but off we went, in search of more cultura. It was supposed to be a half hour walk on the outskirts of town, but we gave up after 20 minutes and grabbed a taxi. The Centro Cultural Pedro Lopez Elias is an outstanding building on beautiful grounds, but it's main function is a library and event centre, so unless we sat down to read, our visit time wouldn't last more than 15 minutes.


Still, it gave us the chance to walk back to town through countryside and past some of Tepoztlan's finer homes. We think they were finer because they had gorgeous doorways,luscious landscaping and tantalizing little peeks into what might lie behind their 10-foot walls.




Once we saw the narrow streets, adobe construction and colourful banners, we knew we were close.


Carnavale! We had no idea we would be arriving during Mexico's version of Mardi Gras; an event that is huge in Veracruz, Mazatlan and...Tepoztlan! For the five days leading up to Fat Tuesday the zocalo and surrounding main streets are taken over with tents, carnival rides, music, parades, fireworks, and vendors selling every imaginable thing from hair clips to hot dogs wrapped in bacon to pony rides. It is absolute madness for the first three days and then Monday and Tuesday becomes a little more sedate - featuring native dances - which we will unfortunately miss.



Help us out - is this an ox, a steer? We're not sure, but he was positioned in front of the church for photo ops. Obviously he could not ride safely through the throngs, but for a price, you could have your photo taken sitting astride this beast, which was way more exciting for this father than it was for his little toddler.


It would appear that many locals are giving up alcohol for Lent, given the amount consumed the past few days - stores piled to the rafters with beer boxes, bars offering 2x1 mojitos, and the streets packed with celebrants carrying portable beverages. We were touched by a display on the side of a municipal building - several drawings by kids voicing their desire for an alcohol-free Carnavale.


No visit to Tepoztlan is complete without a visit to Tepoznieves - an ice cream emporium with over 200 flavours - including such esoteric flavours as carrot with chile, rose water, and tamarind. The ice cream was pure heaven - and the decor was half the fun.


Finalmente! We will leave you with a memorable image of Carnavale and of Tepoztlan - a performance by Batala - Tepoz' own percussion/dance band. We were having our lunch in a restaurant, when the group around us began applying makeup, hauling out their drums and readying themselves for their performance.


Perfect timing - we finished our lunch just as they began their show.


Thanks for working your way through this looong post - I worked on this while Stephen watched the Super Bowl and I just kept going. Tepoztlan is a place we could have stayed much longer. Must be something in the air.

We're off to Mexico City tomorrow for at least a week, maybe longer - so much to see and do there. Talk to you soon!

Posted by millerburr 16:46 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

The long and winding road to Cuetzalan: well worth the trip

overcast 18 °C

I think we could get lost in a crowd of three. Leaving Puebla was supposed to be easy, but somehow we missed a sign and found ourselves on the road to Tlaxcala, which was about a 2-hour detour to our ultimate destination, and not a scenic one at that. No matter - we shrug off such inconveniences as being "adventures." Little did we know that the mountain road to Cuetzalan was the real adventure. High up into the Sierra Madre Orientals we went. The road twisted and bucked and climbed and swooped down again - with great numbers of potholes thrown in for good measure.


Some of the mountain roads aren't great, but they're a real experience to drive. You have to pay attention, but they are exhilarating. We couldn't capture the many layers of the mountains as we drove around hairpin turns - no place to pull over to take photos, and no safe place to simply stop. These remote roads turn up some remarkable sights and elicit many questions - most of them unanswerable, such as: " Who lives up here?" "Are there schools? " (We see women and children walking on the road.)


After we had driven for an hour or so, and passed through a number of small settlements with ragged dogs, tin shacks and roadside chickens, we came upon this remarkable sight. To whom did this handsome car belong? A lovingly customized VW in the middle of nowhere - it seems as unlikely as a spaceship.


We arrived in Cuetzalan, and once again were set upon by a small army of young boys determined to "guide" us to our hotel. Perhaps we looked like we could use the help. We hadn't booked ahead, and eventually, after driving slowly up and down steep one-way streets, we stopped at Meson Yohualichan. Cuetzalan is a Pueblo Magico (a designation that is handed out like candy it seems, but is intended to suggest that a town has particular cultural, artistic, architectural, historical or geographical significance). In this case, it certainly fits -it is a photogenic town that is frozen in time.

Steep, twisting streets are paved in broad, shiny stone.


Most of the population is indigenous, with 70% speaking Nahuatl. While many women dress in traditional garb - white blouses and
skirts with colourful sashes, most residents are in more modern dress - and cellphones have found their way to this remote town. As we arrived, the market in the zocalo was wrapping up, but a few vendors still remained.


Two staples of every plaza - young lovers and old men


The other staples of every zocalo - the cathedral and the municipal office. Cuetzalan's town centre is picture - postcard perfect - stone steps leading to the square in the middle and two sides ringed with shops, cafes and flower stalls. Every Sunday this area is filled with market vendors from neighbouring villages, which unfortunately we will miss.


In such a traditional town, we were surprised to discover Cafe Epocha D'oro - a combination restaurant/museum with a young clientele. The food was great and the beer was cold, and we started to settle in to the feel of the place.


Dozens of birds chirped away outside, flitting from tree to tree in the zocalo and this was the view from our table-side window.


The next day, we drove out to Las Brisas, a waterfall that is one of a series of falls in the area - about a 20-minute drive away. The Cuetzalan region is geared to outdoor activities: we could have rappelled waterfalls, zip-lined, ridden horseback, or climbed down into caves, but we stuck to a more sedate pursuit - hiking. Once we left the "main" road, the signs for Las Brisas pointed us down a road so narrow, we thought there must be a mistake. We had missed a sign again! But no, we were on the right track, although our small car barely squeezed through.


We arrived and began our descent - down hundreds of steps to the bottom.


As waterfalls go, this one was underwhelming, but we waded in the cold water and admired the view. Those large hanging things that look like long cactus are actually petrified water formations.


We discovered this information from the very charming family that arrived shortly after us, along with their young son and triplet daughters. Steve could not resist taking their photo in black and white - they struck us as being so old-fashioned, with their identical side-parted bobs. I know I had a little coat like that as a child. Once again, we remarked on how well-behaved their kids were - which is almost always the case with Mexican children out in public. The parents and proud nonna kept a watchful eye, but chatted among themselves, and let them be.


On the way back, before we hit the stairs, we stopped for a break by the creek.


Another gorgeous shot from Cuetzalan's rooftops. Apparently this region gets one of the biggest rainfall amounts on Earth and tons of fog, so we were very lucky to get the weather we did. As you can see from the folds of mountain ranges, Cuetzalan is quite isolated.


Because of that isolation, many of the prehispanic traditions remain unchanged, including language, clothing and dance. The two most famous dances are practiced here on special holidays. These paintings by local artist Gregorio Mendoz Nava capture their costumes. The Dance of Quetzales is related to the stars and the moon, and dancers wear the penoche - the magnificent headdresses made of bamboo, metallic papers and feathers.


The Dance of the Voladores originated in this region, but it is performed in many areas of Mexico - many of you may have seen it. Dancers climb a very tall pole, attach rope to themselves, and begin their descent upside down, spinning in complicated patterns. There are so many rituals and beliefs attached to this dance, it has been deemed to have "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO.


Cuetzalan is a major coffee-growing region, and there is a local cooperative that supplies most of the town's beans. We tried to go to a nearby coffee plantation, but it was not clear if visits were permitted, so we contented ourselves with chatting with this gentleman, who was grinding beans the old-fashioned way.


Today we visited the Jardin Botanico, in nearby Xoxoctic. We were guided through by the knowledgeable and friendly Raoul, who is a Nahuatl native, and very proud of his work with the plants. He went to school for his training, but as he said to us, "I learned most of what I know right here." The garden is huge, and its specialities are orchids, bromeliads, coffee and spices - impossible to take it all in - it took us about an hour to get through.

Ginny and Stephen on the trail, with Cuetzalan in the background.


Raoul in front of a stand of bamboo - they typically grow about 100 feet a year.


A bromeliad and some unusual plants - I've forgotten the names, but I've never seen them in Canadian nurseries.


Coffee beans and flower - the scent of the flower is intoxicating. The next plant is vanilla - the pods will mature in spring.


Raoul demonstrating how cinnamon is carved off its stalk, and then dried to the pieces of whole cinnamon we are familiar with back home.


The all-important Mexican meliposa bees - we walked through a swarm of them without incident - they do not sting.


Whew! Such a vibrant mountain life in Cuetzalan - a compelling example of an area and culture in Mexico that has managed to preserve its way of life from the past to present. We leave tomorrow for Tepotzlan, a town just south of Mexico City. After such a whirlwind visit, it's time for a siesta.


Posted by millerburr 14:38 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

Paying attention in Puebla

sunny 23 °C


My Uncle Jim used to say the "G" was for gullible, not Ginny. I was born without the skeptic gene and over the years have only developed it to a slight degree. So when I saw a man tie his two huskies to a window grill, and encourage people to come over and pat them, I thought nothing of it. When he kindly offered to use my camera to take a photo of me with the pooches - still no bells went off. It was only after I was hit up for money for the "photo op" that I realized it was all a cynical ploy. I told him I had no cambio (change), and walked away feeling vaguely foolish, and mightily annoyed.

Still, for a big city, Puebla feels safe and friendly and requires only the usual safeguards. This is an immensely walkable city, with an easy grid layout, which makes aimless wandering a pleasure. One nondescript block turns into a cozy pocket park, which unfolds into a pedestrian walkway. We crossed a busy highway, strolled for a while behind some newly renovated buildings (including the spectacular convention centre) and came upon this park:



This whole area, which includes the convention centre, an old church, a stunning luxury hotel and a spiffy new shopping plaza, appears to have undergone a fairly recent renaissance. Workmen are still on site, and a number of small businesses are not open yet. Original crumbling walls have been incorporated with modern design details, flowing paths and structural landscaping to create an unexpected oasis. One of the intact buildings, a 19th century water purifying factory, now houses La Purifacadora, a showpiece hotel and restaurant, designed by a big-deal design firm out of Mexico City.


They have mixed up old and new to great effect, with a broad black marble staircase leading upstairs, single-species plantings, columns encased in rough wood, and most interestingly, this floor, which is made of hundreds of square cut, removable wood blocks. (I'm trying to imagine the cleaning, but what a grand idea for a small foyer or sunroom back home). Travelling through Mexico is like shuffling through one big Pinterest board - DIY inspiration everywhere. Now if only I had the required talent, patience and generationally-honed craftsmanship.


Other little eye-catchers along the way - colour, sculpture, street art, history, and serendipity






One thing we have noticed in Puebla are the special-interest shops and services grouped together on one or two blocks. Our street is home to trophies and sports clothing - store after store catering to those who have moved beyond "participation". We walked down a bridal street - possibly dozens of stores selling almost identical gowns and accessories. Then there is the optician block - same thing - one small shop after another, selling frames, sunglasses, cases, and eye exams. For anyone in the market for cowboy gear - hats, shirts and boots, we have just the spot for you - hand-tooled leather boots for $60.


On a more high-brow note, Puebla has almost 40 museums - everything from
the Museum of Miniatures to the soaring Museo Amparo.


The Amparo is Puebla's must-see museum, if only to admire the modern structure, and the rooftop cafe.
More design ideas - would these tiled planters survive a west coast winter?


The Amparo has a little of everything - from pre-hispanic artifacts to contemporary art. We found this three-dimensional timeline fascinating and very helpful. Beginning with 2400 b.c. and following along to 1500 a.d., it contrasts major man-made achievements occurring during similar periods on six continents.


Artifacts from the Valle de Mexico


Fanciful bronze bench


Pantone is a paint colour-matching system - arranged in a fan of coordinating colours on thin colour chips. In recent years, Pantone has decreed the "Colour of the Year" to reflect current trends. Presumably this installation is meant to suggest that when it comes to people, there is no such thing as "Colour of the Year".


Absolutely no idea - I'm open to all suggestions. Is the red cloud a metaphor for something? Is the artist playing with us? I find it both hilarious and repellent.


There is always something happening in the streets. The zocalo is a natural for street performers, musicians - impromptu entertainment all for the price of a small propina (tip). Today, the zocalo was filled with cartoon characters, Stormtroopers, The Hulk and Edward Scissorhands. After watching several excited little ninos posing beside their favourite characters, I got my chance.

[b][center]Snuggling up to Edward Scissorhands - the closest I'll ever get to Johnny Depp


A decent Michael Jackson impersonator


When we stopped for a beer, these old gents were just two tables away from us, beating the daylights out of a xylophone. When I wondered how long they had played together, Oscar observed, "not long enough to get any better."


Naturally, food was a focal point - we often met up with Joy and Oscar for dinner or snacks. We had a great time at this restaurant, La Fonda Mexicana. The food was good, and the service was great. Our charming server (the improbably-named Joshua) spoke English very well, and we discovered he was finishing a degree in Communications, and was in a band.


Today was our 35th anniversary, but we chose to celebrate last night, as a lot of restaurants are closed on Sundays. We went to a restaurant that had decent reviews, an interesting menu, and two pretty rooms; one of them out in the open courtyard. Since last night was quite chilly, we initially chose the inside room, but after listening to a large group loudly chatting (and allowing their kid to plunk listlessly on the piano), we moved out to the courtyard. Our food was good, but the service was so inept, we went from being annoyed to hysterical. The Fawlty Towers waiters lurched and ran about wildly; at one point, flinging my dirty cutlery from my plate to my placemat (rather than sedately changing between courses).

On top of that, the entertainment for the evening, a singer and guitar player, set up on the staircase in front of us, and when the singer began to loudly emote, we just about lost it.


We decided our "date night" was a perfect metaphor for our 35 years of marriage. Things often do not go as planned, but there is usually something to laugh about. At the very least - there's a story.

And so, our time in Puebla has come to an end. Next stop - Cuetzalan - about 3 1/2 hours of mountain driving to arrive in the land of waterfalls, coffee plantations and birds. See you in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 18:04 Archived in Mexico Comments (11)

Warming up to Puebla

overcast 20 °C

Some places grab you the minute you arrive - Oaxaca was like that. Puebla was the city we almost missed, and we might not have even considered it but for the fact that our friends Joy and Oscar are staying here for five weeks, and we wanted to visit them. Before our research for the trip, Puebla struck us as being a large industrial city (which it is - over 1.5 million people), with not a whole lot for tourists to see and do. We knew there would be a major cathedral and zocalo.


It took further reading as well as enthusiastic responses from fellow travellers to convince us to stay for a full week. We drove into Puebla without getting lost, which we took as a good sign. We had booked a room at the Hotel del Capitan de Puebla - and the outside looked as unassuming as do many Mexican exteriors, but the hotel is charming - 8 rooms spread out on two floors. Our room is lovely - bright, 20-foot ceilings, recently renovated, and spotlessly clean.


Once we had parked our car and unpacked, we headed out to explore a bit. Our hotel is about a 15-minute walk to the centre, and a couple of streets away from a bit of a 'hood. We were told to walk down the street for two blocks and turn onto a pedestrian walkway that would take us straight to the zocalo. As we walked along, I didn't feel nervous, but I didn't feel comfortable either. So much traffic, so much noise, so many people - we had traded the calm and beauty of Oaxaca for a big, full-on city, and it was a bit of culture shock. We turned the corner to the pedestrian-only walkway, and stepped into a Mexican sideshow - carnies, colour, smells and noise.


There are not a lot of foreign tourists in Puebla this time of year, and we felt quite conspicuous. Music blared from all corners, food odours mixed with sewer gas and men's cologne, and small packs of young men moved through the crowds. It felt very jarring, and my heart was sinking. My first impressions were quite conflicted. Stephen maintained a "wait-and-see" approach, and he was right. Puebla is a city that you need to work at. We walked around the zocalo, which is every Mexican city's "third place." We saw some reassuring sights - beautiful old buildings, fountains, respectable people sitting on benches and strolling about, enjoying the early evening.



And then we stopped to have a bite to eat at Las Ranas - billed as being "a local institution that is cheap, cheerful, and worth the wait". Their specialty is el pastor ( marinated pork slowly cooked on the rotisserie), but with a poblano twist - served as tacos arabe (or Arabic) - this meat is piled onto warm pitas, instead of tortillas. So delicious. By the time we had walked back to our hotel, I was feeling much better, although very COLD. Puebla is at high altitude and winter months have chilly evenings - a coat would not be unwelcome. Most days do not get above 20 degrees. There are very few foreign tourists here - many wait for the warmer months.


We needn't have worried about having enough to do - Puebla has a very large centro historico, with dozens of churches, museums and hundreds of buildings that are covered in the local Talavera tile, embellished with decorative brick and carved ornamentation and in many cases, high wooden windows and small wrought-iron balconies - sometimes all on the same building. The words baroque and rococo come to mind.




We met up with Joy and Oscar the next day, taking in a broad and varied range of Puebla experiences - religion, music and art. First up, the Templo de Santo Domingo, with the Rosario, built in the mid-late 17th century, and literally every square inch covered in gilt. It's beyond. As Joy observed, if even one church was stripped of its gold and that wealth redistributed, how many poor Mexicans would then have enough to eat?


We popped in to an airy glass-covered galleria to listen to a free afternoon concert. Like dutiful gringos, we showed up a half hour early for a 2:00 performance, and were the only audience for at least a half-hour after they began.


Back in the zocalo, we watched a telenovela being filmed. A young actor and actress emoted at a cafe table, while the crew attempted to control pedestrian traffic through the set. At one point, this man came over to encourage young Mexicans to become extras, but they were all too shy. We started to talk to him, and he told us he is an actor and crew for this television production company, out of Mexico City. He too, has lived in the U.S. and would like to return.

Our new friend, Abraham


On to see World Press 15, showing incredible examples of award-winning international photojournalism.

I've added the artist's descriptions of the photos - they depict such suffering and degradation that it's hard to look at them. Most of the photos in the exhibition have very difficult subject matter - refugees, war, animal abuse, drug and alcohol abuse - these are the hardest, and most dangerous photos to obtain.



The next day, we drove out to Cholula, a magical small town that is almost a suburb of Puebla. Cholula has a pyramid, underground tunnels and 39 churches to visit, but it is also an excellent spot to see the twin volcanoes, the active and currently spewing Popocatepetl (known as Popo), and his sleeping woman, Iztaccihuatl (dormant, and snow-covered). While Popo is always active and smoking, he has been more annoyed than usual lately, and the airport at Puebla was closed for a few hours on Friday this week due to the ash. Therefore, we were quite pleased to have decent views of the volcanoes on the day we went.





To grab these photos, we climbed up to the top of the Tepanapa pyramid - the widest pyramid ever built. This is not immediately obvious, as it is more like a gigantic hill than a pyramid. You wind yourself climbing the steep steps; worth it for the view and access to the photogenic church.


The next part of this adventure was to climb back down and visit the small museum, then walk through 800 metres of tunnels that were just narrow and short enough to make us all happy to see daylight again.


Cholula provides an interesting contrast between the ancient and modern life. It has a young university population, and is a town that is easy to walk around - colourful and full of shops, cafes and restaurants.


We stopped for lunch in the square, and chatted with our English-speaking server - he had spent 10 years in San Francisco, illegally, and then, as he said, "I did a stupid thing." He came home to see his family, and now cannot safely return to the U.S. If he flies, he could be caught and put in jail. If he crosses the border by bus, the cartels might catch him and force him to work for them. He mourns what is going on in his country - a very common and heartbreaking story.

We spoke with another Mexican man in Cholula - the beautifully-named Celestino. We met up with him as we were leaving the pyramid, and he was so interested in hearing about our travels, and impressions.

It is frustrating to be so limited in our encounters with Mexicans. We try very hard with our Spanish, but unless our new friends speak English, our conversations can only go so far. All the more reason to keep practising this language.


Yesterday, we took a double-decker tourist bus to get an overview of the city. Puebla's downtown core is very walkable - on a grid and easy to navigate, if somewhat unimaginatively named. North and south streets are numerical, intersected by east and west, also numerical. Sitting on the top deck of the bus for an hour and 20 minutes was extremely enjoyable, informative and entertaining, and gave us a great overview of the city. Just before our departure time, a large street protest was making its way down Reforma Avenue - our intended starting point. Undaunted, our driver backed up the bus for a full block, and with the help of his assistant on the street, executed a perfect 3-point turn, then headed down another street, with overhead wires and street lamps mere inches above us.

Colourful walls and flowerpots



A typical old building - variation of hundreds found in Puebla's centre.


Not every centro building is restored and scrubbed up. There are a large number of buildings that are derelict - often with nothing but the facades showing to the street - the interior has been gutted. No idea if there is a plan (or money) to save these historic treasures.


Our bus headed up a hill to the Parque Pereferico - a gorgeous park that runs along the top of Puebla, and houses a regional museum, a cable car, and a planetarium, all in acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, with stunning view of the city and volcanoes.



We finished our tour with a drive along the stately Juarez Avenue, home to fountains, palm trees, mansions,
snazzy restaurants, and, of course - churches.




So, after a few days here, have our impressions changed? Absolutely! There are still lots of Puebla stories to
share - more to come in a couple of days.

Posted by millerburr 20:06 Archived in Mexico Comments (8)

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