Mexico

Puebla – Pottery, Mole, and Lively Shopping Streets

Written by Mark McElroy

Despite its distance from Mexico City, with a little planning, a day in Puebla will do ya.

While in Mexico City, we jumped in a car with a friend from Journeys Beneath the Surface and headed three hours east to Puebla.

After the bustle, noise, and disarray of Mexico City’s suburbs falls away, the route to Puebla is scenic and dramatic. Highway 1500 passes through the mountainous Iztaccíhuatl – Popocatépetl National Park, home to the active Popocatépetl volcano. As you drive toward Puebla, Popocatépetl looms in the distance, a hazy blue mountain spouting jets of gray-white steam.

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In addition to the volcano, the route to Puebla also takes you right past the largest pyramid on earth — an exciting stop, particularly if you’re not too claustrophobic to wander through its narrow tunnels or too weary to climb up to the top.

Once in Puebla, you’ll be in an Easter-hued, pedestrian-friendly city. Puebla is one of Mexico’s so-called “magical cities,” or pueblos magicos — a designation indicating a town is suffused with color, colonial architecture, and charm. On weekends, paydays, and holidays, the shopping streets will be packed with happy people:

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I recommend you stroll, take your time, wander, and get a little lost. It’s the best way to enjoy Puebla. But when you’re ready for lunch, use Google Maps or directions from a local to find your way to the Hotel Colonial for their set-price lunch. Here’s why: while Puebla has a reputation for its distinctive pottery (more on that in a minute), it is also known as the home of mole (say “MOH-lay”) — the thick, savory, exotic sauce made from more than twenty different ingredients (including chilis and dark chocolate). There are as many kinds of mole as there are hungry Mexicans, but in Puebla, you must try mole poblano, the “mole of Puebla.”

Everyone in Puebla has a favorite spot for mole: La Fonda, the hotel Meson Sacristia de la Compania, the Mercado de Cholula (where you can sample many kinds of mole and buy ingredients for making your own) … the list goes on and on. But, as I mentioned, our friend took us to the Hotel Colonial, where, for less than USD $7.00, we feasted on appetizers, fresh bread, sweet desserts … and, of course, heaping plates of enchiladas drowned in mole poblano:

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Personally, I’m not a fan of mole — I’d rarely order it at restaurants in the U.S. But I do have to say that the mole poblano we had at the Hotel Colonial was the best I’ve ever eaten: rich, spicy, and aromatic. When I had gobbled down all chicken enchiladas, I sopped up every remaining drop of the mole with a hunk of freshly baked bread.

We saved the afternoon for shopping (and so should you!). Beyond its mole, Puebla is known for its pottery: particularly, the distinctive pottery known as Talavera, distinguished by a coating of pearly-while glaze. Talavera is cherished because it’s rare; an essential ingredient in that glaze comes from clay in the mountains around Puebla, so authentic Talavera pottery (while widely imitated in shops in Mexico) comes only from Puebla and a few surrounding towns.

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On the advice of a friend back home, we visited the Uriarte Talavera showroom, situated in a pleasant historic home. The selection included a bewildering number of patterns at good prices, but we left empty handed, as no one could agree on which pattern to invest in. Later, locals told us we should visit Talavera de Luz, which combines a showroom with a factory tour. It sounded a bit touristy to us, so we skipped it — but in hindsight, we should have checked it out.

A friend traveling with us had wanted to spend a night in Puebla, so we spent the evening strolling the zocalo (or town square) and touring the famous Golden Chapel (the Rosary Chapel of the Santo Domingo Church). Built in the 17th Century, the gilded chapel (egg-based stucco, layered in sheets of gold) was once promoted by the church as the eighth wonder of the world. Even today, it’s considered one of Mexico’s greatest artistic achievements:

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After a long day of touring, we headed off to our rooms at the Hotel Casona Maria. (If you must stay overnight, I recommend you do the same.) We paused in the hotel bar for a nightcap, but didn’t enjoy it much, thanks to a creepy local fellow. You know the sort: too friendly, too inquisitive, too chummy, too quick to make off-color observations and laugh too loudly about them. We weren’t threatened in any way — just annoyed that he ignored clear signals that we preferred to be left alone. (We also believe he stole the money we left to cover our tab. Lesson learned: in Mexico, hand cash directly to the server!)

But setting that unpleasantness aside, we did enjoy the hotel’s unique architecture, including the soaring three-story lobby with its angel-themed ceiling:

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And our third-floor suite offered lots of comfort at the end of the day, including a small sitting room, a massive bathroom, a sauna, a spa tub, and a bed large enough to be the site of a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) show:

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Despite the cavernous size of the room, it was a little stuffy in there, as windows on this floor seemed few and far between. Opening the one bathroom window helped, but doing so also let in the music from the street outside, which continued long into the morning. But even this was easy to cover up by setting my iPhone to play a nature-based Spotify playlist of thunderstorms and rain.

Breakfast — included with the room — was a treat. Who wouldn’t enjoy waking up to spicy chicken enchiladas? (You can get chicken and eggs, if you prefer.)

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To get back to Mexico City, we elected to take one of several “luxury busses” headed west. Luxury is a subjective term, of course. Seats were comfortable, and there were heavy curtains you could pull to protect you from the blistering sun. The air conditioning compensated fairly well for the heat outside — but not completely. Televisions throughout the vehicle displayed a series of dramatic Mexican soap operas — you know, the kind of programming you can follow without ever having to plug in your earbuds.

Because Puebla is three hours one-way from Mexico, it makes for a long day trip — but even so, I suggest you plan to spend no more than a day there. My advice: have a guide from Journeys Beneath the Surface whisk you there, stopping in Cholula to see the pyramid. Once in town, have a late lunch at the Hotel Colonial, tour the factory at Talavera de Luz, stop in to see how the Golden Chapel catches the late afternoon sunlight … and then doze happily in the van while your guide ferries you back to the Red Tree House.

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Mark McElroy

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