By Karlie Marrazzo
Puebla is not a name that often crosses travelers’ lips. The medium-sized city of 1.5 million people is a treasure trove of colonial architecture and has earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is one of the great culinary capitals of Mexico, home to many classic Mexican dishes such as the ubiquitous mole poblano, a dark, rich sauce of 20 ingredients including chili peppers and chocolate. Despite the beauty of the historic centre, the endless opportunities for delicious meals, the proximity to Mexico City and Popocatépetl volcano, the second highest peak in Mexico, looming nearby, foreign tourists often overlook Puebla.
Whenever I visit a new country I like to try to visit at least two places to get more of a feel for the country or region. My dreams of visiting a Mexican beach were quickly dashed by the realization that they were all at least six hours away. After a fair bit of research into cities or towns within a few hours bus ride of Mexico City, I chose Puebla. I booked the ADO bus in advance, complete with seat reservations, for only 785 pesos (about $54CAD) round trip. My Airbnb host awaited me at the bus station and drove meinto the heart of the historic centre, depositing me at the most gorgeous vacation rental I’ve stayed in to date.
I walked through our courtyard, past our temporary feline neighbours and straight into the historic centre. Low-slung colonial buildings lined either side of the street in vivid hues and delicate pastel shades. The laid-back pace of life on the streets in Puebla was a welcome one after experiencing the bustle of Mexico City. I felt a more comfortable, cozy vibe in those narrow cobblestone streets. The zocalo was the true beating heart of the city, bursting with the sounds of children screeching with delight as they ran through refreshing water fountains under the hot sun. Teenagers canoodled on the tall wall surrounding the cathedral, and old folks sat on benches chatting the day away.
Continuing on our quest to eat as many tacos as humanly possible, my travel partner and I stopped into Taquería Las Ranas. A spit of marinating meat was front and centre at the entrance to the cavernous restaurant. The waiter dropped an order slip on the table and left us to our own devices. We devoured plates of tacos arabes, a Pueblan dish of spit-roasted pork seasoned with cumin and oregano and wrapped in pita, tortas and tacos chorizo con queso. The cherry on top of our Pueblano food adventure for the day was a trip to Calle 6 Oriente, one long street that is nothing but one dulcería after another, offering traditional Mexican candies and sweets for every taste. Most of them were indistinguishable from each other, aside from La Gran Fama, an elegant shop that has been open since the 19th century.
Our Airbnb host Jessy had given us a ton of recommendations for the city, including trying to catch a glimpse of Popocatépetl from the rooftop of the Amparo Museum. I hadn’t read anything about the museum and it turned out to be a great surprise. Since we had to pay admission to gain access to the rooftop anyways, we decided to breeze through the museum, which turned out to be impossible. The main lobby is a showpiece in itself. Spacious and light, it was occupied at the time by a huge sculpture in the centre. The exhibits are spread over three large floors. There is an impressive collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts, and there was an excellent display of the works of Mathias Goeritz, who is clearly inspired by my favourite painter, Joan Miró, along with other artists of a similar style. The layout of the museum was a bit confusing to navigate and we kept getting turned around. There were only a small handful of other visitors – shocking in a museum of such high quality but keeping with the overall lack of tourists in Puebla – and we were outnumbered by museum staff, who would giggle and smile at us and help point us in the right direction.
I love a good rooftop and theirs was among my favourite in the world. Spacious with minimalist white tables and chairs, blue and white tile, pale wood, green plants, a cafe and a sublime view over the rooftops of the historic centre, it was idyllic. I fantasized about having such a patio all to myself at all times.
Pulque is a traditional Mexican treat of a different kind. The alcoholic drink is made from the fermented sap of agave plants. Our search for the milky beverage brought us to a small, insignificant looking, blink-and-you-miss-it bar. I parted the wooden beads hanging in place of a door and stepped into a different world. The small bar was full at 2pm and every seat in the house was occupied by a man, save for one lone female. As soon as I walked in, a wall of the sour smell of booze hit me. For just a couple of pesos, we received close to a litre of the distinct drink in a Styrofoam cup. I took one sniff and it was enough to put me off, and my friend only managed to make it about half of the way through before tossing it.
As we walked by the zocalo that evening, in search of a bad American fast food that shall not be named to break up the constant stream of tacos, we came across something wonderful. The sounds of classical music touched our ears and we found La Banda Sinfónica Municipal de Puebla (The Municipal Symphonic Band of Puebla) playing a free concert in the centre of la zocalo to an adoring and happy crowd. The sun slowly dropped in the sky behind the Puebla Cathedral as the band played and the water in the central fountain gurgled. In those moments, I forgot everything else and experienced pure joy. It is these simple serendipitous experiences that make traveling, and life, beautiful, and ended my time in Puebla on a high note.