Twenty-Four Hours in Puebla

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 4.59.10 PMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Many people who drive from the U.S. or Canada to spend the winter in southern Mexico either bypass Puebla or stay at a hotel on the periphery of Puebla and leave the next morning. If you are one of those travelers or simply want to dip your toes into an interesting colonial city, we suggest that next time you plan to spend at least 24 hours in Puebla. Whether you’re interested in history, food, art, music, shopping, or simply strolling through picturesque streets and alleys, Puebla has it all.

Puebla is located east of Mexico City, usually less than a two-hour drive, and northwest of Oaxaca, about a five hour drive.   Whether you are in a car or a bus, the trip from either city is through breathtaking mountains. Coming from Mexico City, snow-capped volcanos announce the approach to Puebla, and the giant Popocatépetl is unmistakable on the frequent days when it puffs vapor high above its peak. Traveling northward from Huatulco, in addition to the route to Puebla through Oaxaca, there is a longer and costlier, but perhaps faster, route via high-speed toll roads – you start out by heading east from Huatulco.

Once you reach Puebla we suggest you first check into your hotel. We’ve found that hotels outside the central area are relatively less expensive, quieter and more comfortable than hotels located in the city center. Taxis to and from the center can cost just a little more than the paid parking lots downtown and, unlike Mexico City, can be safely hailed on the streets.

To help you plan your 24 hours, head first to the state and municipal tourist offices within a block of each other in the center of Puebla near the cathedral. They will have a list of music, art and other events for that day and, if you are there on a weekend or holiday, there will be many. Those sponsored by the government are often free – but plan to get to those events early since you will be competing with families who live in Puebla. We’ve attended concerts where families of three and four generations can fill an unofficial block of seats.

The tourist office can also provide maps of the city and help you locate the venues of events that are of interest. Places are easy to find in Puebla once you figure out that all the roads are numbered but divided into a grid centered on the zocalo.   Streets (calles) run north and south and change name to Norte and Sur at Avenida Reforma. Avenues (avenidas) divide into east (oriente)and west (poniente) at 16 de Septiembre. Avenues north of Reforma are even numbered; south are odd numbered. Similarly, streets east of the zocalo are even, and to the west they are odd numbered. Thus, traveling east, after Calle 6 comes Calle 8.

Once you pin down your time and place for a concert, recital or other event, here are our suggestions for filling in the rest of the time. Walk across the street to the central plaza or Zocalo and check out the cathedral. You may get distracted by the amusing antics of children, performers and other visitors to the zocalo as well as the mix of the restrained classical and more flamboyant baroque architecture of the exterior of the cathedral. But be sure to go inside.

Originally designed in the late 1500’s but not structurally completed until 1690 and decorated a century or more later, the ornate interior with its fourteen chapels may well provide the feeling that you’ve been transported over the Atlantic to Spain. At the very least, the cathedral provides an insight into the extreme wealth the Church invested in succoring the early conquerors and colonists and the burden placed on the shoulders of the native population who provided the labor for the edifice. If your passion is colonial architecture, you may want to spend the rest of the time exploring some of the more than 60 buildings of that era in the vicinity. But we suggest that you sample other Puebla delights.

No trip to Puebla is complete without exploring Talavera and perhaps buying some. It is exquisite brightly-colored hand-painted pottery. If you’re there on a weekday morning or early afternoon, head over to Uriarte (911 Avenida 4 Poniente) for a tour of their factory and drool over the magnificent items in the retail shop. If you’re in Puebla on a weekend, we suggest you head east on 4th Avenue and explore some of the Talavera shops that cluster on streets surrounding the crafts market El Parián on 6th Street North. The market itself is great for buying inexpensive gifts – yes, they will bargain – but look for the stores that display credit card signs, since they are likely to carry true Talavera, not cheap imitations. The owners are usually more than eager to explain the differences in quality.

North of the crafts market you will find a lively enclave of artists’ workshops that welcome visitors to view works in progress. The art is usually interesting and ranges from realistic to abstract; there is no pressure to buy any canvases. There are relaxing coffee shops and restaurants if you are in the mood for a substantial meal. But we suggest you wait until your main meal and be sure to have mole poblano elsewhere for comida (late lunch).

Puebla is famous for its mole (and poblano means “from Puebla”). It is unlike mole in Oaxaca or the rest of Mexico. There are two restaurants that allow you to sample a variety of moles, each more delicious than the last. They are Fonda de Santa Clara and El Mural de Los Poblanos, which as its name implies has a large colorful and amusing mural of famous people from Puebla.

Fonda de Santa Clara has two locations, one fairly near Uriarte (920 Avenida 3 Poniente) and the other closer to the zocalo (307 Avenida 3 Poniente). El Mural is also close to the zocalo (506 Avenida 16 de Septiembre). The staff at Santa Clara tend to push the specials, and we’ve found it’s best to thank them but order the mole. Although the moles at these three venues are all delicious, the atmosphere varies.

The times we’ve been there, Santa Clara near Uriarte seemed to attract relatively large families; Santa Clara near the zocalo, tourists downstairs and lively groups in the upstairs rooms where live music is played on Sunday afternoon. El Mural appears to be a business people’s favorite, quieter and a little more upscale than the Santa Claras. If you don’t want to wonder afterwards whether you chose the best mole, you can order enchiladas 3 moles. For you fans of chiles en nogada, you can also try the Puebla version.

A quick sample of Puebla’s many museums can best be achieved by a couple of hours in Museo Amparo, 708 Calle 2 Sur. We visit each time we are in Puebla, because the exhibitions change and every special exhibition we’ve seen has been engrossing. The permanent collection includes well over 1000 prize pieces of prehispanic art that are remarkably curated to give the visitor a glimpse into the culture and beliefs of the artisans. There are also exhibits of colonial and 19th century art and furnishings that make clear the opulence of the life of Poblanos for whom the cathedral was built.

Amparo functions as a cultural center, with programs for children and adults including storytelling, films, lectures and discussions (in Spanish, of course). If you are visiting on a Friday, you may have already selected an 8pm music performance on the terrace. If you have chosen another event, you might want to enjoy some wine and cheese and a view of the sunset in the cafe before you head off to the location you selected at the tourist office. Yes, you can see and do a lot in Puebla in 24 hours. But we’ll bet this will be the first of many trips to this city of angels.