THROUGH MY TAXI WINDOW, Puebla’s pastel-colored Colonial buildings appear in avocado green, lemon yellow, and Virgin Mary blue, blurring with church towers and walls of traditional tile. Our cabdriver expertly cuts his way through the bustling crowds on narrow cobblestone streets, as a good portion of the city’s 1.5 million residents go about their typical day. But nothing about it is typical for us.
My friend Deirdre and I have arrived for the first time in this Central Mexican metropolis after a five-hour flight from New York and two-hour bus ride east from Mexico City.
Deirdre, who planned this trip, sits by my side in the taxi, reenergized, like me, our heads poking out the back seat windows into the humid air to take it all in. Back in our 20s, before husbands and kids, Deirdre and I were travel buddies, road tripping around the United States and visiting Mexico City twice. Deirdre, a lover of Mexico City’s white and blue wall tiles, had always wanted to visit Puebla because she read its buildings are covered with those famous tiles — made locally and called Talavera.
Our kids are grown. We have a few days off. So here we are on the road again.
Our taxi pulls up to the 17th-century manor house Casona de la China Poblana (casonadelachinapoblana.mx), a boutique hotel just a couple of blocks from the zócalo, the main square. Legend has it that the namesake of the hotel — a woman named Catarina de San Juan, who came to be known as the China Poblana — was a 17th-century princess from India kidnapped by pirates, sold to Spaniards, and brought here to Puebla. I feel a little bit like her myself, kidnapped by Deirdre and brought to this strange and beautiful city.
The China Poblana’s exotic clothing, with her embroidered white blouse, beads, and flowing skirts, inspired the eponymous fashion trend here in the 1600s and became the traditional dress throughout Mexico in the 1800s. This manor house is where she once lived. Now, she’s immortalized in a larger-than-life statue in its courtyard.
Our rooms, individually named and decorated, are fit for a princess. Mine is the Catarina de San Juan and features ornate plasterwork, exposed woodbeams, and a sparkling chandelier. Like seemingly everything in Puebla, the place is a bargain during our stay— just $100 a night. And, with the antiques and charm also comes Wi-Fi and air conditioning. The weather in Puebla in the winter is warm, but not oppressive. A communal balcony with comfortable couches and chairs offers a view of the courtyard.
Though part of me would like to luxuriate in my four-poster bed, we hit the town running. Puebla, I will learn over the next few days, is like the Boston to Mexico City’s New York — with an equally vibrant, but less intimidating urban center. Its 2,500 preserved Colonial-era buildings and its many Baroque churches, gloriously lit by spotlights each night, give the city a smaller, safer feel than Mexico City. But it’s no suburb. Puebla encompasses about 80 square miles, with so many museums and gourmet restaurants we aren’t sure which way to run exactly.
Tourists here tend to be from Mexico and Latin America. Whenever locals ask me where I’m from, they seem shocked and amused that I’ve come so far for vacation. The main square is filled with Mexican families on holiday, laughing children running on the grass and buying balloons from street vendors, and couples sipping coffee from portico -covered cafes, serenaded by buskers. Looming over us all is the immense Catedral de Puebla, its lights just going on as the sun begins to set.
Another local legend has it that after the cathedral was completed in 1690, its architects puzzled over how to lift the more than 8-ton bell into its tower. But then one morning, it suddenly appeared in place, giving the city its original name, Puebla de los Ángeles.
We explore the cathedral as well as several other churches, including Santo Domingo, famous for its over-the-top Capilla del Rosario, a Baroque explosion of angels and cherubs encrusted in gold. Dating back to 1690, the ornate chapel was considered in its time to be the eighth wonder of the world, and looking at it now, I can see why. There is not an inch of wall or ceiling space left uncovered by lavish decoration or bling, including 60 angels around the dome and main vault, oil paintings of Jesus and Mary’s life, and Talavera tiles made into a giant rosary, all gleaming in natural light from the cupola windows. The ornamentation is made from stucco and covered in shining 24-karat gold sheets, all in honor of the Virgin Mary standing in a bright orange carved canopy on the altar. I briefly consider putting on my sunglasses.
DINNER OUR FIRST NIGHT is just a few blocks away at El Mural de los Poblanos (en.elmuraldelospoblanos.com), known as much for its food as for its mural depicting famous characters from the city’s history — politicians, artists, and intellectuals. Surrounded by burnt orange arches rising from columns that surround us, I eat upscale tacos — only $4 each — filled with lamb, jocoque (cultured buttermilk), and chipotle sauce.
After a late-night walk around the still-buzzing center of town, we retire to our rooms. But the next morning it’s right back to the zócalo for another joyful history lesson.
We hit the Biblioteca Palafoxiana (palafoxiana.com/biblioteca), the oldest library in Latin America, which has a collection of 45,000 books and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century. It was founded in the 1600s by Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, the bishop of Puebla — a lover of books, he also oversaw the completion of the Catedral de Puebla and is responsible for the nascent city being laid out on a grid — and is still open for research for anyone who wants to use it. The library is a nearly 150-foot vaulted hall lined with three levels of ornate cases filled with oversized books. A well-worn ceramic floor is studded by a grid of gorgeous blue and white Talavera tiles, while a golden altar dedicated to the Virgin of Trapana sits at one end.
Included in its stunning collection are the letters of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the proto-feminist 17th-century poet nun, who remains one of Mexico’s most beloved writers. Sor Juana, as she’s known, is the subject of a popular Mexican-produced Netflix series, Juana Inés.
Over the next few days, we keep running into her memory, most notably at the Museo Internacional del Barroco (mib.puebla.gob.mx/en) on the outskirts of town. She was not only brilliant and well read at a time when women were discouraged from being either, but she was also a knockout; her beautiful likeness is on display on a panel at the museum.
Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito, the newly opened museum is a must-see when visiting Puebla. Its exterior is a jarring and thoroughly modern contrast to the Baroque pieces inside, built of undulating white walls that resemble curved pieces of paper. In a spacious courtyard, a large amoeba-shaped fountain provides a calming contrast to the collection of ornate arches, moldings, costumes, and statuary inside.
While I’ve never been a huge fan of the Baroque’s excess, the museum’s sprawling, open feel and interactive exhibits teach me lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn. For instance, that the Baroque style was the Catholic Church’s response to the austerity of Martin Luther’s Protestant movement. Or that Spain’s trade with China had a direct effect on Western ornamentation in everything from architecture to the use of blue and white glazes in pottery. Chinese ceramics with curved dragons and ornate swirls are on display, making that artistic connection abundantly clear.
Back at the hotel the next morning, we have a delicious plate of chilaquiles, lightly fried pieces of corn tortillas cooked in green salsa and covered in cheese and chicken. But our favorite breakfast spot turns out to be the Stieglitz Café (facebook.com/stieglitz.cafe), just around the corner from our hotel, which has pastries and an open skylight rimmed by overflowing plants and iron balconies. You can sit there for hours if you like, though Deirdre won’t allow it.
She’s planned a day trip to Cholula, a city a half-hour train ride west from Puebla. Cholula is one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in the Americas and is known for its great pyramid — Tlachihualtepetl, an ancient temple dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl — topped by a Spanish church. Some say the Spanish built the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios in 1594, thinking the pyramid was just a hill.
Many of the day trippers we see that day are lining up to walk through the pyramid’s narrow tunnels, dug by archeologists back in the 1930s. Back in my 20s on a trip to Cairo, I walked fearlessly into the depths of one of the pyramids at Giza. But middle age has left me slightly claustrophobic. Instead of in, we go up.
In about 20 minutes, we’re at the summit. On a clear day, the snow-covered Popocatépetl volcano can be seen looming in the distance. But it’s not a clear day.
There are angels, though — tall statues of them — and a big conquering cross and a spectacular view of the city and countryside below. Back at the bottom is the Museo Regional de Cholula (museospuebla.puebla.gob.mx), opened in 2017 in a former psychiatric hospital, no doubt located there because of the gorgeous, therapeutic view. I sit on a bench for a few minutes to rest my feet and take it all in. The museum houses an exhibit on the surrounding volcanoes as well as pre-Columbian objects and Mexican folk art, including some snarling, colorfully painted imaginary animals.
While waiting for the train back to Puebla, we pass by hawkers selling dried insects (I tried them years ago in Mexico City, thank you very much). Hungry from our climb, we grab lunch at a two-story food court near the station. We slurp down hearty bowls of pozole, a hominy and chicken soup. I foolishly dress mine with the raw lettuce, cilantro, radishes, and onions provided in small ceramic dishes.
The next day, as we’re ready for a tour of Uriarte Talavera (uriartetalavera.com.mx), the maker of the iconic pottery in the heart of Puebla, my stomach starts to rumble. Drinking tap water or anything that’s been washed in it (like those fresh, raw veggies) is generally not a good idea when traveling in Mexico. I’m forced to spend the day in and very near my four-poster bed, something I was secretly yearning to do — but not like this. I spend the day binge watching Juana Inés as a consolation.
Miraculously, I rally within 24 hours. Meanwhile, Deirdre has her beautiful blue and white Pueblan pottery and I have my day of rest.
To celebrate, we take a short stroll from our hotel to Puebla’s Calle de los Dulces, “the street of sweets,” lined with 40 dulcerías, or candy shops, to purchase souvenirs for our grown kids back home. There are rooster-shaped sweets, and heart-shaped sweets, lime flavored and coconut covered, many made from sweet potato, tamarind, and other savory ingredients mixed with sugar. The sweet making in Puebla is said to have been started by 17th-century nuns, and the place we choose, La Gran Fama (lagranfama.com), uses original recipes from the sisters. The woman at the counter carefully wraps each jelly, cookie, and jamoncillo de leche (the Mexican version of fudge) in colored tissue paper and places them in a box with a bow.
We spend most of the day shopping, with me buying some of the pottery I missed on the tour, including a blue and white flowered bowl for the center of my dining room table. We hit el Callejón de los Sapos — the Alley of Frogs — an adorable street just a 10-minute walk from the zócalo that’s filled with brightly painted antiques shops and souvenir stores. The street gets its name from Colonial times when the San Francisco River would flood the barrio and leave frogs in its wake. Now it’s a favorite of tourists, like me, who buy carved wooden jewelry boxes and hand-woven table runners and shawls.
The day ends with dinner at Augurio (augurio.mx), one of Puebla’s most acclaimed restaurants, known for its moles and long list of tequilas and mezcals. Mole was invented in Puebla — in a convent, where else? But the man behind this mole is another angel — Ángel Vázquez, my new favorite chef.
Deirdre has saved the best for last. Because of my sensitive stomach, I gingerly tuck into my deep, dark mole and hesitantly sip a mezcal recommended by our waiter. But all is well. I thank the angels. And the nuns. And Deirdre.Helene Stapinski is a journalist and the author of three memoirs including “Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy.” Send comments to [email protected].
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the credit for the photo of a worker crafting ceramics. The photo was taken by Lisa Bauso.