Posted by: Alex MacGregor | February 13, 2014

Poblanos y Cholula

In my ongoing work/play tour of Mexico’s heartland, I headed over the volcanoes west of Mexico City to the city of Puebla, one of the original major Spanish settlements in Mexico.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about lovely but troubled Morelia, the capital of cartel-ridden Michoacán. I raved about the area’s wonders, which sadly are going unnoticed due to the deplorable state of security in the region.

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Not to discourage visitors from Morelia, but Puebla is also a fantastic (and much safer) option, with a vibrant, grand center and lots of interesting stuff in the area. It’s significantly larger–the fourth largest city in Mexico, and with a massive historic district befitting its colonial past–but still retains its approachability. There are also probably a couple orders of magnitude more foreign tourists here than in Morelia (but still not too many).

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Like so many cities in Mexico, the cathedral is its centerpiece, and Puebla’s does not disappoint. Its facade graces Mexican currency, but the interior is what really impressed me.

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It helps that the lighting was perfect, but rarely have I ever been so taken by the beauty of a cathedral.

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The patterned domes reminisce Istanbul.

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The building is richly detailed throughout.

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I eventually peeled myself away (not before losing a lot of sunlight), and began to explore the town.

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The central park–with even more street clowns than Morelia’s! I had to carefully plan my path to avoid them, remembering a scarring experience being the butt of their jokes in Mexico City years ago.

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Avenida Cinco de Mayo is the city’s main pedestrian street. The Cinco de Mayo is actually the celebration of Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla, way back in 1862. Apart from the United States, Puebla is one of the only places where it’s really a big deal these days.

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Puebla is famous for tiled building facades.

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I visited on a Sunday, and the city was definitely alive. Markets selling everything from food to crafts to fine art were everywhere.

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Since I had set off from Atlanta that morning, I missed out on most of this. This market east of town was being broken down into various old minivans and VW buses when I got there.

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I thought this was awesome: a wood-fired barbeque on wheels! I had to sneak a picture.

Karma quickly punished me. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with me taking the picture or not, but right as I was passing by, the horn thing on the side of the contraption went off. It was probably the most basic, animal terror I’ve felt in a long time. This thing was LOUD–so loud that everybody all around stopped and looked to see what was going on–and, as you can see, it was passing by just a few feet from it, and hemmed in by a wall. Just this awful, piercing, sickening blare that gave my left ear with a sharp ring. I couldn’t even tell where it was coming from until it was over.

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Puebla is famous for its food–especially mole (thick sauce made with chocolate and peppers). The term for someone from Puebla is Poblano, which ought to give an indication.

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Thanks to a massive Volkswagen plant (which also happens to be why I was in the city), modern Puebla has a large German community. Some locals have even bothered to learn the language, and other German companies set up shop in the city to take advantage of that momentum. Note the translation on this sign in the bus station.

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I knew I was cutting my time in Puebla short (it would definitely be worth a couple nights on any itinerary in this part of Mexico, in my opinion), but I took the time to make a day trip to another place whose name evokes a spicy food: Cholula–namesake of the hot sauce brand.

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Although Puebla offers a bunch of day trips to the surrounding areas, Cholula is the obligatory one: it’s one of the longest-inhabited places in Mexico, and is home to an interesting architectural site.

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Cholula is famous for having a whole bunch of churches, all built in fervent hope of converting the indigenous population that occupied the pre-Columbian city.

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I might well have been missing something, but the town itself didn’t seem especially spectacular. I mean, you can plop me down in any random Mexican city and I’ll have a great time exploring it, but I didn’t have a particularly easy time finding many of the churches, and the intense sun made prolonged exploration a bit trying (although far better than the ice storm Atlanta was getting pummeled by at the time!).

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But that’s no matter: Cholula’s trump card is that it has, by some measures, the biggest pyramid in the world.

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No, it’s not what you probably think of when you hear the word “pyramid”, but variety is the spice of life, right?

When the Spanish rolled through, this probably was so overgrown that they just thought it was a hill (and therefore in dire need of a church on top).

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One thing that’s cool about this pyramid that I didn’t get to do in either Egypt or Teotihuacan was go inside the tunnels. In those places, going inside the pyramids is either difficult or impossible; here, it’s part of the basic trip.

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Although you only get to go on one set route, the tunnels appear to form something of a labyrinth. Stairways lead to different levels, and the tunnels branch regularly.

It was right out of an old-school role-playing video game, like Final Fantasy. Which made me realize that wandering around in one of those labyrinths, in the dark, without knowing where to go, and fighting monsters intermittently would be freaking terrifying!

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Only a small portion of the ruins have been excavated. Although it’s nothing on the scale of Teotihuacan, it’s surprisingly cohesive and you can see a lot of elements from the old city–streets, alleys, and drainage features.

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And, of course, carvings!

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The church on top. There was some sort of ceremony going on, so I didn’t go inside or take many pictures…

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…except of the amazing view! Popocatépetl smoking in the distance, 17,000 feet high.

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The view back towards Puebla, which sprawls nearly to Cholula these days.

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And, lastly, the view of Cholula itself!

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