Cultural Craving

One of Mexico’s oldest cities offers clients a taste of the past

By: Maribeth Mellin

Snowcapped volcanoes soar above tiled church domes in Puebla, one of Mexico’s loveliest states. Prehispanic pyramids, colonial cities and church-filled villages look as though they’ve been plopped down for landscape photographers in emerald green valleys just 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. Puebla City, the eponymous capital of the state, is so gorgeous its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with more than 2,000 protected buildings. It’s one of the oldest cities in the country and one of its most populous, with close to 2 million residents.

Yet Puebla isn’t on Mexico’s usual tourism radar and is mostly seen as a pleasant diversion from Mexico City. It takes less than two hours to drive between the two cities through forested mountains though your clients should definitely take a bus or hire a driver rather than attempt to conquer Mexico City’s abysmal traffic.

I’ve found I need several days just to explore downtown Puebla’s churches, museums, plazas and art galleries, and several nights to indulge in its outstanding cuisine. Add-on side trips to rural markets and imposing ruins, and I can easily fill a week with time to sip cervezas in plaza cafes and indulge in rainy afternoon siestas.

Any introduction to Puebla should begin in the Plaza de Armas, also called the Plaza Principal or zocalo. It’s a classic main square with elderly gentlemen getting their shoes shined beneath shade trees and children splashing around the fountain.

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Savvy tourists return to the plaza frequently to rest on a wrought-iron bench and delete digital photos, study maps or simply join Poblanos (as the state’s residents are called) striding purposefully down pathways en route to work or stopping for a bit of gossip. Cafes under sidewalk portales (archways) across the street serve tacos, chilled cervezas and strong coffee, and are perfect for sightseeing breaks.

The city’s most obvious asset is its architecture: a riotous blend of Baroque, Churrigueresque, colonial and Renaissance styles.

Convents, churches and palaces festooned with angels, arches and domes nearly overwhelm the eyes at first glance. Most buildings have at least a few tiled surfaces and brilliant blue and white tiles gleam on the domes of the Cathedral.

The Spaniards, who began establishing the city in 1531, must have been inspired by the natural beauty in their surroundings. They built some of Mexico’s most exuberant churches and taught Poblanos the art of Talavera, pottery hand-painted with intricate blue and white designs. Local painters added their familiar earth tones in swirls of yellow, red and green, creating a distinct ceramic technique.

Few visitors can resist buying tiles, platters, even complete sets of dishes in Puebla make sure your clients bring an extra suitcase and bubble wrap. Serious shoppers begin their sprees at the Museo de Arte Popular Poblano in the Convent of Santa Rosa, built in the 1740s as a Dominican nunnery.

The convent houses a collection of the state’s most gorgeous folk art and a quintessential Puebla-style kitchen with walls covered in vibrant yellow tiles. At the Barrio del Artista, potters and painters demonstrate their style and sell their works; shops in the neighborhood display less-expensive, mass-produced pottery that’s fine for souvenirs.

But anyone determined to purchase high-quality work heads for Uriarte Talavera, a pottery factory founded in 1824. The workshop’s artists follow the original techniques, using only natural dyes and hand-painting every line. The shop ships fragile purchases to the U.S. and has even started a Web site where clients can begin to understand why one single hand-painted tile costs $5 and tiled murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe start at $200.

Legend has it that the nuns of Santa Rosa whipped up the first mole poblano, the blend of bitter chocolate, chilies, and a full shelf of spices that’s become one of Mexico’s signature dishes. True mole sauce has a complex, pungent flavor that changes with every cook.

Have your clients begin experimenting with mole and other regional dishes at the casual Fonda Santa Clara near the plaza, ordering nopal (cactus) salad and mole with chicken. For more adventuresome and refined palates steer gourmands toward Las Bodegas del Molina, where they can sample chilies en nogada, another complex regional dish of poblano chilies stuffed with sweetened ground meat and covered with a white walnut sauce and red pomegranate seeds. Everyone should also sample candies and cookies at La Calle de las Dulces (the Street of Sweets), where shop after shop displays irresistible treats.

It’s easy to get into a shopping and dining trance in Puebla. There’s always one more market stall crammed with tiny clay cups and enormous ornate planters, and one more cafe you haven’t tried in the hip Callejon de los Sapos (Alley of Frogs) behind the Cathedral. But time is short no matter how long visitors stay in Puebla. They simply must check out markets in rural villages, scramble around the Gran Piramide de Tepanapa (the largest pyramid in Mesoamerica) and drive along country roads beneath Popo, Izta and Orizaba, three of Mexico’s tallest volcanoes.

Clients who crave cultural immersion will be thrilled with a weeklong Puebla itinerary that includes overnight stays in colonial mansions and days filled with incomparable explorations.