An October 2004 trip
to Puebla by gorboduc
Quote: Puebla, Mexico, lies an easy two-hour trip from Mexico City. It's Boston to the DF's Manhattan -- manageable, historic, full of culture, and home to numerous universities. If you've read Rough Guide's unenthusiastic report and decided not to visit Puebla, read this journal and think again.
The impressive cathedral forms one side of the lively zocalo, or town square. The zocalo's a good spot for people-watching, and its edges contain useful spots like the tourist office and an ATM.
Be sure to check out the Museo Amparo, located two blocks from the zocalo -- it has a well-chosen collection of pre-Columbian and Colonial art, housed in an 18th-century hospital. Kiosks provide multi-language explanations of the artifacts, and entry is free on Mondays.
I myself didn't drink enough water on the way there and woke up the following morning dehydrated enough that I felt badly hung-over. An hour or two and four bottles of water were enough to make me fine again, but take it from me -- you don't want to be dehydrated.
Once you've arrived, gotten your bags, and cleared customs, follow the green signs with the graphic of the bus on them to find the bus station -- it's located right in the airport.
A round-trip, first-class bus ticket to Puebla (two hours each way) costs 130 pesos each way (about ). The bus is lovely -- it has movies, radio, a bathroom, and a bus stewardess who passes out headphones, snacks, and drinks (all included in the cost of the bus ticket).
Ask for a ticket to the centro, AKA 4 Poniente -- it's closer to the historic part of Puebla than the CAPU bus station. Once you arrive at 4 Poniente, a taxi to the historic area takes about 20 minutes and costs 40 pesos (about .75).
Puebla's historic center is easily walkable. For trips further afield -- say, to the great pyramid at Cholula -- use a taxi. They're very cheap (by US standards) -- a 20 to 25-minute trip to Cholula costs 70 pesos, or about .50.
Hotel | "Mesones Sacristia de La Compania"
The hotel's common areas are decorated in bright Mexican style -- the exterior is electric blue, the interior courtyard restaurant Orange Crush orange -- and furnished with antiques. Cool green plants contrast with the bright glassed-in courtyard, and 18th-century religious artwork, colorful local Talavera pottery, wrought iron gateways, and carved and gilded doorframes make stepping into la Compania like stepping into a rainbow-colored museum.
The rooms themselves are more tranquil. I stayed in room 6, Pila Bautismal. It is large, though not palatial, with a vestibule, a balcony facing the quaint Callejon de Los Sapos, and 20-foot-high beamed cielings. The stucco walls are painted teal, with contrasting colors of warm peach and fuschia, and as with the common areas, the furnishings are antiques. Since the owners are antiques dealers in addition to hoteliers, you can buy nearly any piece in the hotel that takes your fancy.
The bathroom (shower only) is tiled with local tiles and contains everything you'll need for your stay -- slippers, toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, mouthwash, etc.
None of this, however, touches upon the real reason to stay at la Compania -- the staff. From the moment we arrived, they bent over backwards to help us, carrying bags, arranging for taxis, getting tickets to local museums, making dinner reservations, and providing suggestions about places to see. Those who spoke only Spanish were unfailingly patient with my minimal command of the language, and there are staff members who speak fluent English and French in addition to Spanish.
The rates are not cheap -- $150 US per night, breakfast included -- but are a good value for the quality of service you receive. To make staying at la Compania (or it's sister hotel, las Capuchinas) a real bargain, reserve a package, which includes many extras, including guided tours, dinner, classes (either cooking or pottery), and a welcome drink for $200 per night.
NB -- if you are a really light sleeper, you may want to bring earplugs, as the pedestrian mall off of the Callejon de los Sapos and (on the weekends) the musicians in the hotel courtyard can make for a festive, if noisy, evening. I brought earplugs with me and slept like a baby during my whole stay.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 9, 2004
Meson Sacristia De La Compania
6 sur 304 Callejón de los Sapos
Puebla, Mexico 72000
The romantic dining areas take up much of the hotel's first floor. You can opt to eat in the lovely courtyard, decorated with religious painting and lit by candles, or in one of two cosy rooms off the bar. They are decorated with antique furniture and Talavera pottery and festooned with colorful streamers of papel picado -- tissue paper with lacy cutout designs.
The restaurant's chef, Alonzo, turns out delicious, subtly spiced dishes that are unlike any Mexican food available in the US. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and is open from 8am to 11pm. The breakfast menu includes traditional Mexican favorites such as chocolate caliente, enchiladas, chilaquiles (corn tortilla chips and shredded chicken in either red or green sauce, garnished with onion, fresh cheese, avocado, and creme fraiche), and molletes naturales (refried black beans with fresh cheese and crusty rolls). You can also have American dishes, like pancakes and waffles or scrambled eggs with ham.
For lunch or dinner, the menu's standouts include perejil frito, an appetizer of crispy, deep-fried parsley garnishing bacon and shrimp, served with a chipotle cream cheese -- it's really delicious and one of the chef's family recipes. If you like soup, be sure to try the sopa sacristia, a brothy soup with chiles, chicken, tortilla strips, and avocado, served with cubes of fresh cheese (not unlike Indian paneer) and crispy, fried pork rinds (chicharrones) for garnish. Also don't miss the Carne Franciscana, tender marinated skirt steak garnished with rajas (grilled poblano peppers and onions) and fresh guacamole, traditional Pueblan pipian verde, an herb sauce that's thickened with toasted pumpkin seeds and served over poached chicken breast, or Alonzo's own Cazuela Poblana, a dish of flank steak cooked in red sauce with black beans and cilantro.
If you have a sweet tooth like me, try the crepas de cajeta for dessert -- crepes covered in goat's milk caramel and served with vanilla ice cream. You can also opt for a plate of sweets that are Pueblan specialties, including the famous camotes -- fruit-flavored candies that are made with sweet potato. The restaurant also has a full bar (the Sacristia cocktail is particularly tasty) and good espresso and cappuccino.
The service is excellent -- attentive without being intrusive -- and the food so universally great that, though we tried several other area restaurants, Sacristia was our hands-down favorite. Also, the restaurants at Mesones Sacristia de la Compania and its sister hotel are two of the few in Puebla to have obtained a special certification for cleanliness. Having cooked with Alonzo, I can attest to the rigorous standards there. All water and ice is purified -- in short, if you're worried about eating and drinking in Mexico, don't worry about it here -- I felt safer than I do eating in many restaurants in the US.
Mesones Sacristia de la Compania
304 Callejon de Los Sapos
Las Bodegas is clearly one of the fanciest places in town; the service is attentive, the restaurant has a good wine cellar, and the building itself is splendid, but ultimately, we did not find the food as good as the meals we had at the Mesones Sacristia and La Quinta Luna.
Part of this wasn't entirely due to Las Bodegas itself -- we ate here on one of the evenings of the Day of the Dead celebrations, and the place was EMPTY. It was kind of creepy, really -- my friend Tammy and I were the only customers there, sitting in a picturesque, glassed-in arcade that, on a normal night, would have held roughly 60 customers. Somewhere behind us, in one of the restaurant's many, many dining rooms, a pianist played, which increased the sensation of weird solitude.
After adjusting to the Twilight Zone atmosphere, we perused the menu and chose our dishes. The waitstaff, for their part, took having to work on a holdiay in stride, and were cheerful and patient with my minimal Spanish.
Tammy started off with Las Bodegas' special mushroom soup (about 35 pesos), with lots of portobellos in a rich chili-spiced broth. It was something like French Onion soup, only with mushrooms in place of the onions.
Along with the soup came a basket of dry wholegrain rolls and cute pats of butter wrapped in cornusks, so that they looked like tiny tamales--one of those presentations where the sheer amount of labor that went into it makes you feel slightly guilty about acually eating the food.
We considered ordering the salt-baked red snapper, a house specialty (350 pesos for two), but found the prospect of waiting 35 minutes in the empty restaurant for it to be prepared a bit daunting. In the end, we both chose another house specialty, thin sliced steak topped with sauteed mushrooms and cheese, garnished with a small serving of refried black beans.
The steak was tender and the mushrooms fine, but Tammy and I found the thick blanket of melted cheese that covered the steak a bit too much. The quarter inch layer of salty cheese (Oxacan string cheese perhaps? It tasted a little like store bought block mozerella.) overwhelmed the taste of the mushrooms and thin slices of steak. (100 pesos).
Once we had finished eating our entrees, I ordered espresso, which was quite good. Note that an espresso in Puebla seems to be about four times the size of an American espresso, so prepare yourself for the caffine buzz.
Coffee consumed, we gladly headed through Las Bodegas admittedly charming central courtyard and back to our taxi--and civilization.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on November 12, 2004
Las Bodegas Del Molino
Calzada del Bosque 12
I enlisted an interested friend to come with me, and we placed our bid for the package and won it at the reserve price -- $1005 for both of us, land only. It wasn't much work to score cheap airfare to Mexico City, and within a week of placing our bid, we had made all of the initial arrangements for our trip to Puebla, at a cost of about $870 per person.
On arriving in Mexico City, we headed for the airport's bus station (follow the green bus signs upstairs to the bus depot), where we bought bus tickets to Puebla on the Estrella Roja line. The cost was 260 pesos per person, round-trip (about US$23) for a first-class bus.
The bus was REALLY nice, with movies, a radio, a bathroom, and a bus stewardess who passed out snacks and drinks. We arrived at Puebla's 4 Poniente bus station and took a taxi (about 20 min and 40 pesos) to the Mesones Sacristia de la Compania. The hotel was lovely -- situated on a quaint street in the historic district, it had lovely, airy rooms decorated with antiques and a great courtyard restaurant (more about that in other entries).
The highlight of the stay, however, were the cooking classes, held at the sister hotel, Mesones Sacristia de los Capuchinas. Each morning after breakfast in Sacristia's courtyard, we walked the few blocks to Capuchinas to begin our lessons. The cooking lessons were nearly private -- there is a maximum of six people in each class (our class had four people in it). They run each morning from 10am to 1pm, and you then have a full, sit-down lunch of the dishes you've prepared. Everybody gets an apron to wear during class (you can keep it when you're done), and each group gets a binder containing the recipes you'll make during the course of the week. For English speakers like myself, the classes are translated by one of the hotel's staff, usually Audrey or Mariana.
One of the best parts of the class is the trip to the local market. Here, you can pick up some of the things that you've been using in class--griddles called comals that are used for roasting vegetables, as well as dried chiles, spices, and chocolate.
The chef/instructor, Alonzo, is AMAZING. The food that he teaches you to cook is nothing like the Tex-Mex that you get here in the US. It is largely Pueblan cuisine, which is subtle and sophisticated in its use of herbs and spices and not unlike Indian food in its use of layers of flavors.
Most dishes are light –- roasted, rather than fried in lots of oil -- and full of the bright taste of fresh herbs and the smoky richness of grilled vegetables and chilis.
Among the dishes that we learned how to make were salsa rojo and verde (which are to Mexican cuisine what the mother sauces are to French cooking), Pipian, an amazing sauce of herbs and chicken broth, thickened with toasted pumpkin seeds, Coconut Flan, and the famous Mole Poblano. Each day, we made three courses -- appetizer, entree, and dessert, plus a beverage.
By the end of the week, we all had a grounding in some of the basic dishes of Pueblan cuisine -- and a burning desire to return to Puebla for Mesones Sacristia's proposed advanced cooking course.
All over the city of Puebla, the shops displayed sweets made of white sugar or amaranth seed, molded into the shapes of skulls and decorated with shiny foil and brightly colored icing. Merchants in the Parian, the local craft market, sold whimsical clay and paper-mache dioramas of skeletons doing daily tasks -- walking skeledogs, typing at the computer, and teaching classes of child skeletons.
The graves in the graveyards were nearly hidden by banks of deep orange marigolds (the flower of the dead) and fuchsia coxcomb and were outlined with votive candles. Many shops, restaurants, and public areas had altars standing in them -- altars to the dead, festooned with lacy tissue paper cutouts of skulls and bones, decorated with more marigolds and candles, and piled high with pan de muerto (the bread of the dead, an egg-based sweet bread, like panettone without the fruit), sugar skulls, fruits, religious art, and the deceased person's favorite foods and beverages. Sometimes the altars commemorated a concept -- we found a political altar for the death of justice -- or a celebrity, as my friend found a touching altar dedicated to Christopher Reeve.
On November 2, our translators, Audrey and Mariana, and the other members of our cooking class, the Peels, set off with a local guide to the rural town of Huacachoula, famous throughout Puebla state for its elaborate altars. The tradition in Huacachoula is to display an altar to the public for the first year after a loved one has passed away, and subsequent commemorations are for family only.
The altars were stunning. Rising to the top of the 20-foot-high ceilings of local houses, they were swathed in white satin and decorated with statues and lithographs of angels and lacy white paper cuts. Though the altars could have as many as five levels (in ascending size, giving the overall impression of a wedding cake), each altar is really divided into three symbolic levels. The first level contains the departed person's favorite foods and drinks; the second an image of the departed person himself (often reflected by a mirror, as that helps the soul to return to earth); and the third is full of angels, crucifixes, and other religious art. Paths of marigold petals lead towards the altars, helping the souls of the dead to find their way home.
Though it may seem a bit strange to Americans and Europeans (it did to me, at any rate), the Day of the Dead is a happy occasion, when families go to the graves of their loved ones, decorate them with flowers and candles, and feast on the departed person's favorite dishes. The center of Huacachoula was turned into a carnival, with rides and vendors selling trinkets and sweets. The Day of the Dead is also a time for hospitality -- you are supposed to bring a small gift, like a candle or a few coins, to each altar that you visit. At the last altar that we saw, the family invited the whole group of us in for pork ribs cooked in mole sauce.
Cholula is a small town that has become a suburb of Puebla. Its main claim to fame is the great pyramid -- a pyramid with a larger volume than the great pyramid at Giza. From the front, the pyramid looks like a regular old hill, albeit one with a very attractive lemon yellow church at the summit, Nuestros Senora de los Remedios. Driving up to the base of the "hill", however, you see the tunnels that archaeologists laboriously cut through the heart of the pyramid. For an entrance fee of 33 pesos (about $3), you can explore the tunnels and the excavated portions of the pyramid that lie on the back side of the hill.
Walking the cool, dim tunnels of the pyramid, we were very glad that Carlos was with us -- there are dioramas scattered throughout offshoots of the main tunnels that chart the pyramid's development over the centuries, but no explanation of what you see. Carlos explained to us that the pyramid we see today is not one pyramid, but a series of them, each built atop the previous culture's construction like Russian nesting dolls.
At the end of the tunnel, across a path leading to the church at the pyramid's summit, is the backside of the archaeological site where various layers of pyramid have been excavated. Here again, we were happy to have Carlos, since the placards that explain various areas of the site have about three times the information on them in Spanish than they do in English. He told us that the pyramid had been a temple to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of pre-Columbian times. We went to the fascinating Plaza of the Altars, with acoustics that make clapping hands echo back like the cries of eagles.
When we had finished exploring the ruins, we walked up to the church at the top of the pyramid and had a beautiful view of Cholula and the surrounding area. In pre-Columbian times, the great pyramid was not the only one in Cholula -- the town was, in fact, a great religious center -- the Vatican of the native Mexicans. When Cortez came upon it as he explored Mexico, he pronounced Cholula the most beautiful city outside of Spain -- and then proceeded to massacre its inhabitants.
Why was this the loveliest city outside Spain? Because the pyramids at Cholula had an interesting feature -- towers, upon which the priests build bonfires so that the city gleamed in the darkness and was easily seen from far away. But the Spaniards wanted to subdue the populous and convert them to Christianity, so they pulled down most of the temples and used the stones to build the many churches that you see in Cholula today.
We climbed back down the hill and headed for two famous churches that are in small towns close to Cholula -- Tonantzintla and Acatapec. The church in Tonanzintla is justly famed for its carved stucco interior, a riot of fruits, flowers, vines, children, saints, and angels with wings of fire. The brightly colored carvings are gilded at the edges to stunning effect. Nearby in Acatapec, the church's facade is famous for being entirely covered with beautiful Talavera tiles. Inside, there is a more restrained version of the intricate stucco decoration at Tonanzintla, its restoration just completed following a devastating fire in the 1940s.
We also toured the Talavera de la Reina factory with Carlos. This beautiful factory is decorated from top to bottom with Talavera tiles and shards of broken dishes. Carlos explained the whole process of making Talavera (which is done wholly by hand). It takes six months to produce a single item, from digging the local clay to firing, glazing to finally selling. We got to watch the artists work at the potter’s wheel and see the men and women who paint on the lovely designs (many in freehand!).
At the end of the day, Carlos dropped us off at our restaurant, located in the charming La Quinta Luna hotel, and showed us some of the hotel's modern, luxurious suites and romantic candle-lit courtyard -- a wonderful ending to a lovely day.
We started at the zocalo, Puebla's main square. It was full of people enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon. Merchants selling balloons and trinkets set up shop under the trees, carts sold lime ices in cups ringed with chile powder and big bags of chicharrones, ready to be slathered with hot sauce, and families strolled under the arcades which surround the Zocalo in three of its four sides.
After explaining a bit about the zocalo's function as a communal gathering spot, Carlos led us around the corner to see the famous Casa de Los Munecos, or House of the Puppets. It's a 17th-century mansion that's covered in Talavera tiles -- but these tiles aren't the typical flowers or delft-like patterns. They're murals of grotesque figures, all dancing strange little jigs. Apparently, the home's original owner was a wealthy general and he wished to add a third story to his house. City regulations didn't allow this, so the incensed general went over the heads of the town council by requesting permission to build from the King of Spain. The king allowed the general to build the third story, and as a way of thumbing his nose at the local government, the general covered the house's front facade with panels depicting the town councilmen dancing to his tune.
Not far from the Casa de Los Munecos is El Parian, the local craft market. Originally, it was where traders from the Phillipines and the far east set up to trade their wares. Today, El Parian consists of two long buildings that run parallel to one another, with a wide pedestrian avenue between them. Each building is divided into tiny stalls, each shaded by a curving tile overhang, where craftsmen sell pottery, clothing, metalwork, and (during the Day of the Dead), tiny clay skeletons dressed as working people who perform their daily activities, apparently unimpeded by the inconvenience of being dead.
At the far end of the market, across a broad avenue, lies the Teatro Municipal. Dating from the 18th century, it is supposed to be the oldest theater in the Western Hemisphere that's still in operation. Unlike European playhouses from the same period, the Teatro is very simple. This is due to the fact that it began life as a bull ring -- you enter the ground-level seats where the bulls entered the ring. The theater has a modern mural on its ceiling depicting the valley of Puebla and the three volcanos which surround the city.
Across the street from the theater is the church of San Francisco, notable for its stunning facade of Talavera tiles, this time in murals of vases stuffed with stylized flowers. In the church's forecourt, we saw a friar blessing people's cars (though judging by the number of breakdowns we saw on the way to Puebla, this isn't an effective form of maintenance). Nearby is a picturesque church that was the backdrop for a scene in the movie Frida (and a bakery which sent the delicious smell of hot bread into the afteroon air).
Heading back towards the zocalo, we walked down the Calle de los Dulces, or Candy Street. Here, confectioners turn out Puebla's famous sweets, including camotes (candies made of sweet potato) and rompope (Mexican eggnog). The street is also studded with convents. The nuns who lived in them were the inventors of most of the confections, the recipes for which slowly seeped out to the general populous and were the impetus for the candy-making district.
At the far end of the street is the Museum of the Mexican Revolution, located in the home of the brothers Serdan. The Serdans were reformers in the early part of the 20th century and were killed by government troops for plotting the downfall of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Bullet holes from the firefight still scar the outside of the house.
Closer still to the zocalo, on the pedestrian Boulevard Cinco de Mayo, is the Church of Santo Domingo. From the outside, it looks like a typical colonial curch, and inside, the nave's decoration is positively restrained (especially comapred with some of the baroque decor of the other local churches). But to the left of the apse stands the stunning Capilla del Rosario, considered by many to be the most beautiful chapel in Mexico. It's certainly the most amazing, with talavera wainscotting, huge oils of the life of the Virgin (they must be at least 20 by 30 feet high) that decorate the chapel's nave, and a ceiling of carved and gilded plaster which must be seen to be believed. This link gives you a pale idea of what it's like, but nothing's like being there.
After seeing the Capilla del Rosario, visiting the cathedral (which forms the fourth side of the zocalo) seemed almost anti-climactic. But the cathedral has delights of its own -- stunning floors of local marble, glorious 17th- and 18th-century altarpieces, and an amazing classical high altar designed by Manuel Tolsa. You can see a scale model of this altar in the Museo Amparo, a few blocks away.