Yet another one of Mexico’s hidden gems, Puebla is an absolute treat for the inquisitive tourist. Countless modern museums, perfectly maintained cathedrals, distinctively tiled houses and a nightlife powered by the city’s university population – historic Puebla is a charming place to visit.
By shifting back our Bogota-Mexico City flight, we bought ourselves three extra nights to squeeze in Puebla, just a two-hour ride bus from Mexico City. Despite spending most of its existence in the shadow of the capital, Puebla is an impressive city in its own right and has plenty to brag about – the slogan plastered everywhere denotes it ‘the city of progress’.
Arriving in the evening, we took an Uber to our brand-new Suites 201 hotel (£20 a night for a private room with view of the cathedral) and set about planning our two full days with military precision. We took another Uber (only £1!) into the main plaza for dinner, and found a traditional restaurant courtesy of Trip Advisor: Oriental Taqueria. Falling somewhere between a Mexican taco and a doner kebab, the ‘taco Arab’ (23 pesos/£1) provided more than enough sustenance. Walking through the beautifully lit Zocalo, we spied a roof terrace above the Royal Hotel, directly overlooking the main cathedral. Thinking it would be rude not to, we toasted our arrival in Puebla with a bottle of wine and a stunning view.
The next day, Museum Amparo was our first destination as it was only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. A modern exhibition centre, it contains a rotating art gallery, a few permanent pieces and an enormous rooftop breakfast bar. No time for breakfast though; with too much sight-seeing to do, we took a few photos from the terrace and moved on.
Passing through the Zocalo by daylight and noticing some of the distinctive architecture, we reached the Capilla del Rosario, a chapel inside the Church of Santa Domingo. The 17th century chapel was said to be the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ once constructed, and it is easy to see why. With traditional Catholic symbols adorning the 23-carat gold-leaf painted walls, the light from the dome makes the whole interior shine.
Adjacent to Church of Santa Domingo is the famous Calle de Los Dulces. A real feat of town planning, this is a street full of shops selling artisanal confectionery and is right in the centre of the city. Sweets in classic shapes of guitars, sombreros and skulls are piled high on shelves and the shops run for three-blocks long.
Carrying on down the street, we reached Plaza San Francisco, which contained yet another fantastic cathedral and a series of beautiful landscaped gardens (Jardins). There were several boutique hotels in this area and we were welcomed into each and shown around if we showed even the slightest interest by leaning in to look or take a photo.
Another of Puebla’s charms is located here, the Secret Tunnels. Believed to be merely a myth, this set of 500-year-old tunnels were recently discovered and excavated. Originally linking the city of Puebla to a nearby fort and used for underground travel, the tunnel system dates back to 1531, but was only opened to the public in 2016. Amazingly, it is free to enter, so we decided to explore and found they were colourfully lit inside.
Perhaps the highlight of Puebla (but then, it is impossible to pick just one!) was the Bibliotheca Palafoxiana – an ancient library that would not have been out of place in Hogwarts. Gifted to the city by Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, the Bishop of Puebla, some 45,000 books were donated for general reading by all citizens and not just nobility – which was unheard of at the time. Founded in 1646, the library is the oldest in South America. There are books that date back as far as the 15th century, with many of them hand-written. The place was so impressive, with the timber carvings, sliding ladders and three tiers of books stacked to the ceiling. Another Puebla bargain at 20 pesos (or around 90p each), the library is listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.
Before lunch, there was time to visit the Catedral de Puebla in the city’s Zocalo, which dominates the main plaza. Again, the interior is as imperious and impressive as the other cathedrals in Puebla. Construction began on the Roman Catholic church in 1575 and it was completed in 1690.
Hungry for some excellent Mexican cuisine, we stopped off in Casona 703, a small restaurant set within a leafy courtyard, for some traditional tacos. The more Mexican food we eat, the more we love it and the salsa verde in this place was exceptional. Our meal came to around £5 for both of us and that even included a cocktail each. Kate nabbed the recipe for the salsa verde from the chef and then took tips on the best chilies!!
We had just enough time to check out the Museum of Baroque Architecture, which is situated about 15 minutes from the centre by taxi and is near to the ultra modern university. The museum pays homage to the excellent cathedrals and buildings which make up this historic city. It is another incredibly modern museum, with our favourite exhibit the huge scale model of Puebla which you can walk around as it lights up. Another feature of the museum is the impressive whirlpool within the central courtyard. Unfortunately, whilst looking like a swimming pool, the guard informed me that no swimming is allowed and it is for viewing only.
In the evening, we decided to take the City Tour Bus after dark – giving us a chance to rest some tired legs. There are about three different companies offering this tour, at a staggeringly good value of £4 per person. We opted for the latest bus, which would take us to some of the further flung sites around Puebla that were not as easy to reach by foot. In a city with countless cathedrals, it obviously appreciates the importance of good lighting. So many of the buildings are brilliantly lit up by night. This is something that is so often overlooked back in the UK – modern street lighting and retrospectively installing lighting to improve the appearance of older, historic buildings. At one of the drop-off points, we hopped off to take photos of one of the many (maybe 5 or 6?) colourful Puebla signs that was lit above a viewpoint. This was set above a pretty lake and park-museum that we unfortunately didn’t have time to return to.
On the tour bus we met a lovely couple from America: Ron and Kathleen, who we got talking to about the sorry state of British and American politics. They were very anti-Trump – so much so that when the result was announced, Ron could barely talk for a week! Following the bus tour, we joined them in a local restaurant for more local Mexican food and deliberated the political issues on both sides of the pond.
For our second day in Puebla, we were taking a trip to Cholula, a town within Puebla which has an incredible 365 churches – one for each day of the year. Stopping first in Tonazila, we climbed the steep stepped Great Pyramid of Cholula in the baking Mexican sun to see a cathedral that rises above the whole of Puebla. Although appearing to be a natural hill, it is actually the largest archaeological site of a pyramid (temple) in the world and inside are over five miles of tunnels excavated by archeologists. In total, it is 450m wide and 66m tall. From the top, there were excellent views across the city, whilst back at the base there was a great local market which sold clothes and smaller trinkets for low prices. Kate bought a knitted jumper for about £8.
Stopping at two more baroque cathedrals, each laced with gold leaf paint, we saw some of the most extravagant displays of wealth by the conquering Spanish when they were built in 16th century. The Temple of San Francisco Acatepec has an incredibly colourful external façade and gold-laden altar inside. Whilst we are not normally too enthused with churches and cathedrals, you cannot fail to be impressed by the artistry of these. There is also another, more modern side to Cholula that we did not get to see as we were on the historical tour. The student area is said to be full of cool bars and restaurants, with a great nightlife. This sounds like a good enough reason for us to return to Cholula and Puebla one day soon…
Jumping forward a few hundred years, the tour then took us to the Estrella de Puebla Ferris Wheel, which was covered in a full LED glow as we arrived in the evening. We decided against going on it, as we spotted an enormous shopping centre across the dual carriageway. Breaking from our tour group, we decided to check out the mall instead. It was so huge it shocked us. Brand new and with shops ranging from H&M to Cartier, we thought it knocked the socks off of the Westfields back in London. After wandering the shops for half an hour, it was time for the tour bus to drop us back at the Zocalo.
Catching another £1 Uber, we headed to a smaller but equally modern shopping complex that we had spotted earlier. With a range of cool bars to choose from, we decided to have a drink in Frida’s (named after the hugely popular artist Frida Khalo) as there was live music playing. It was just the one though, as above the shops and bars was a brand-new Cineplex – at least the third modern cinema complex we had seen in Puebla. Again, we were surprised how modern the place was! For a complete bargain of £2 a ticket (we’d unfortunately missed the 2-4-1 Tuesday deal!), Kate had somehow persuaded me to see the remake of Beauty & The Beast. No, it wasn’t Bond, Bourne, a comedy or a thriller – but against my expectations it actually wasn’t too bad. So there, I said it!
With the film finishing around midnight and the rest of the cinema closed, the curtain was also coming down on our time in Puebla. We both loved Puebla, a city of progress indeed. In fact, to call it ‘progress’ felt very modest – for us it has already achieved, so what else is it aiming for? It is safe, very affordable, friendly and packed with culture and activities. Throw in the year-round great weather and the fact it has dramatically less traffic and pollution than the capital, then Puebla has ‘progress’ in abundance. Mexico really is the gift that keeps on giving.