Archive for January, 2011


Zacatlán de las Manzanas: The ‘Symbol of Sin’ City

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Pablo samples a Zacatlán apple, right off its tree.“Welcome to Zacatlán de la Manzanas, a paradise on earth where the ‘symbol of sin’ (the apple) makes for a pleasurable experience,” a tourism portal tells prospective visitors in Spanish. Perched high in the state’s northeastern sierra, Zacatlán—one of Mexico’s largest apple-growing regions—is well known for its sparkling cider, sodas, marmalade, and other apple products. The townsfolk celebrate the pomaceous fruit during a weeklong festival every August, but Zacatlán and the surrounding pine forest make for a lovely day trip or weekend getaway from Puebla’s capital year-round.

The name Zacatlán combines the Nahuatl words zacatl (straw or grass) and tlan (place) to mean “place where the grass is plentiful.” The area, frequently blanketed by fog and rain, is undeniably lush. One of the most breathtaking views can be had just a few blocks from the center of town, where El Mirador restaurant looks over the Barranca de los Jilgueros (Goldfinch Gorge). Visitors don’t need to dine there to enjoy the view outside, but those who do stay for a meal can enjoy both the scenery and the regional dishes. We sank our teeth into the tlacoyos rellenos de alberjón—pillows of corn dough filled with white beans and topped with tomatillo salsa, chopped onions, and cheese. The restaurant also has a small store that sells the wares of local chefs and artisans.

The Two-Faced Clock

The floral clock in downtown Zacatlán, PueblaFoodies will also want to check out the open-air market, which takes place on Saturdays near the town’s main square. We spied some amazing dried fish and purchased a bag of dried beans called vaquitas (named for their black-and-white spotted husk), which were delicious but I’ve only been able to find since used as jewelry beads. Other attractions downtown include the floral clock—believed to be the only one in the world with two faces (each 16 feet in diameter) run by one mechanism—and the recently restored parish of St. Peter and St. Paul, whose Baroque-indigenous façade and main altar feature the craftsmanship of the townspeople themselves.

Mysterious Rock Formations

A short drive away, the 1.5-square-mile valley of Piedras Encimadas (Stacked Rocks) is home to an impressive array of gigantic rock formations, some of which seem to defy gravity. Although local legends abound, mineralogical studies indicate that the stones’ phenomenon is a natural one: The formations occurred during the Tertiary period up to 65 million years ago and were shaped over time by volcanic activity and environmental conditions (rain, wind, and humidity). Visitors may tour the park on foot, bicycle or horseback. If you speak Spanish, you can hire a guide at the entrance, who will lead you around the park and explain how certain piedras look like human figures, animals, and assorted other objects. The day we visited, the fog rolled in about halfway through our tour, giving the site a beautifully ethereal atmosphere.

Zacatlán is located about 75 miles north of Puebla’s capital city. To get there by car, take federal highway 121 toward Apiazco, then 119 toward Chignahuapan and Zacatlán. It’s about a 2.5-hour drive, depending on traffic. We stayed overnight in Atexca at a wonderful family-run eco-lodge, El Refugio, which recently changed owners. For other options, click here.

A vendor sells her wares at the open-air market in Zacatlán.Tlacoyos rellenos de alberjón at El Mirador.A rock formation at Piedras Encimadas park in Puebla.

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The Monday Night Fights: Las Luchas in Puebla

Monday, January 17th, 2011

A luchador flexes his biceps for the crowd gathered at Arena Puebla.It’s 10 o’clock on a Monday night, and we’re sitting on concrete bleachers inside the Puebla Arena. Through a chain-link barrier that prevents spectators from hurling objects into the ring, we watch in awe as a muscly, shirtless wrestler leaps over the ropes and rushes up an aisle to our left, cursing at someone in the stands. The obscenities, complete with hand gestures, are flying. ¡Chinga tu madre! ¡La tuya en vinagre! ¡Puto! Several rounds of insults later, I stand up to see who’s causing all the commotion. Turns out, the foul-mouthed fan is a petite indigenous woman who looks old enough to be my grandmother.

This scene is typical of what transpires at the weekly matches held in Puebla by the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL). Based in Mexico City, the organization — perhaps the oldest professional wrestling outfit in existence — holds events in Puebla every Monday featuring virtually the same cadre of athlete-performers. Teams of two to three wrestlers square off in a series of bouts that start around 9 p.m. with lesser-known acts and culminate with superstars like Místico, Máscara Dorada, and Mephisto. The fights typically pit rudos (rule-breaking rude boys) against técnicos (the technically proficient good guys). Many wear masks, a practice that dates to the 1930s and pays homage to Mexican history as old as the Aztecs: Each colorful design evokes an animal, god, or ancient hero that the wrestler assumes during his performance. For more details about the sport in English, including rules and weight classes, click here.

A luchador at the crowd’s feet after being thrown from the ring.The matches sometimes feature women athletes, too, but that’s about the only politically correct aspect of las luchas. (One difference between Puebla and Mexico City is the absence of bikini-clad female escorts here, although you may see dwarfs dressed as furry animals…) Expect moments of utter pandemonium and, if you sit in the front rows, be prepared to become part of the show. Also of note is the somewhat bewildering array of treats and potential projectiles available from vendors — beer and soda, cotton candy, boiled shrimp, slinky toys, Blow-Pops, cemitas, devil horns that light up — which helps explain the chain-link barrier. Outside the arena, vendors sell even more wares, including full-size souvenir masks that run about 300 pesos each ($25).

The Puebla Arena is located in the city’s historic center at 13 Oriente #402. Tickets generally cost 50 to 120 pesos each and are available at Mega supermarkets, Gandhi bookstores, Ticketmaster outlets, and the arena box office. The lineup is often posted on the CMLL Puebla page the Thursday prior to the match, but lately the webmaster seems to be a bit behind. Ticketmaster says that in tonight’s headline fight Máscara Dorada, La Máscara, and La Sombra face off against Mephisto, Volador Jr., and Averno.

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Dance Troupe Preserves, Promotes Puebla’s Culture

Monday, January 10th, 2011

La Compañía de Danza Regional de Puebla performs at the cultural center.Dance has been an important part of Mexican culture for centuries, from rituals performed by early indigenous peoples to the ballroom dancing brought to fiestas by Europeans in more modern times. Like other folkloric troupes around the world, Puebla’s regional dance company strives to preserve these traditional forms of artistic expression in its performances. For the past decade, the group has performed a free show most Saturday nights — called Las Noches Poblanas — at the cultural center downtown. The next round of performances gets under way Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. and is scheduled to continue through February.

The free show is highly recommended for poblanos and people who visit Puebla.

The 90-minute presentation celebrates pre-Hispanic, revolutionary, and other important periods in Puebla’s history through dance, theater, and music. The dancers perform on the central patio of the Casa de la Cultura (5 Oriente #5), surrounded by the audience seated on folding chairs. If you arrive early, it’s usually fairly easy to find a spot, and those in the front row should be prepared for anything, from being asked to dance or getting splashed with rainwater should it cover the floor (as it did the night we attended). A local favorite is this lively rendition of “Que Chula es Puebla” in which the women are dressed china poblana-style.

Sergio Alamilla of Veracruz, who saw the show with his parents, recalls: “Suddenly, a man came out onstage, with background music and monologue representing the customs and idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants of the valley of Puebla at the time. …In the next act, a group of dancers dressed in elaborate costumes surprised everyone, not only for their ability, but for their exquisite sense of artistry.”

“I have to confess that I’ve never really liked folklore,” Alamilla added, “but … these people knew what they were doing, and they did it magnificently.”

Director Jorge Armando Castañeda founded the regional dance company 25 years ago, bringing together 150 dancers to showcase the artistic qualities of Puebla. The Noches Poblanas program, which is sponsored by the state government, has enjoyed a 10-year run. To date, the troupe has performed many other shows in Mexico and traveled internationally to share Puebla’s culture throughout the Americas and in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The building’s history dates back much further, to 1595, when it began as the College of St. John. Students were taught subjects such as philosophy and morality. When the Catholic bishop Juan de Palafox arrived in Puebla in the mid-1600s, he integrated St. John’s with two other schools to form the Tridentine Seminary and opened the first public library in the New World. Since 1974, the site has housed the cultural center and its diverse events, from folkloric dances and art exhibits to films, workshops, and conferences.


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Eat Like a King, Donate Toys for Epiphany

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

The navitity scene in the zócalo of San Pedro Cholula.While most folks north of the border are packing up Christmas decorations and kicking dried-up trees to the curb, many Mexican families — three in every four of which are Catholic — are preparing to celebrate Epiphany this week. The holiday, known as el día de reyes (day of kings), commemorates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem on January 6, twelve days after the birth of Jesus. Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthasar essentially follow in Santa’s footsteps, bringing gifts to children who’ve behaved themselves the previous year.

Waiting for the Wise Men

Pablo, my other half, recalls his childhood experiences fondly. “The night before, we put one shoe — usually the ones we wore to school — under the tree with a note for the three kings asking for toys,” he explains. “Sometimes, if we’d recently lost a tooth, we put it there, too. My brothers would leave a cookie for the kings, too, but I never did.”

While he and his brothers slept, los reyes left unwrapped toys next to each one’s shoes to be discovered on January 6. “I remember being so happy and excited, waking up in the morning and running for the tree to see what they’d brought me. One year, I got an Atari, and my dad and I stayed up playing it all night.” The family’s tradition continued every year until Pablo was about 12, he says, when he realized that his parents were the Magi.

Cutting the Cake

A king’s cake decorated with dried fruits.As part of the festivities, Mexicans typically also share a rosca de reyes and a beverage, such as hot chocolate or atole. Americans who live in the southeast (or have been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans) are probably familiar with king’s cake, a large crown-shaped pastry decorated with colored sugar that’s eaten throughout the season of Carnival, from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. In Puebla, you can find various types of roscas, including a light brioche-like cake and a denser one with nuts and a frangipane-like filling. Both are often topped with strips of dried fruit. It’s customary for the baker to hide a tiny plastic baby inside, which represents Christ.

Whoever ends up with the figurine is charged with hosting the next fiesta: a tamale dinner on Feb. 2, or Candlemas, the church festival commemorating the presentation of Christ in the temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary.

Locals and visitors alike can take part in public cake-cutting events on Jan. 5 at Angelopolis mall and on Jan. 6 at the BUAP Cultural Complex. If you’d rather buy your own rosca de reyes, La Flor de Puebla (3 Sur #104, Centro Histórico) and Panificadora Roldán (8 Norte #1005, San Pedro Cholula) sell among the best in town. If you’d prefer to make your own, offers this poblana recipe. ¡Buen provecho!

Spreading the Joy

Antonio Prado and the good folks at the Spanish Institute of Puebla are collecting toys for the less fortunate kids in Puebla. You can help! Drop off donations of new or slightly used toys at the school (11 Oriente #10, Centro Histórico), from January 3 to 7 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The toys will be delivered on Sunday, January 9, by adults dressed up as the Three Wise Men.

“We go to the outskirts of Puebla, where there is no running water or electricity, and when the poor kids see us dressed as the Three Wise Men, they call their friends and normally within twenty minutes we will have about fifty young kids there,” Antonio says. “Once we give them toys we will drive another mile or so in the dirt road and do it again until we run out of toys. What has always amazed us is that once the kids see us instead of asking for toys they go running away to call their friends. …It is amazing the happiness these kids have from receiving these very simple gifts.”

Tríangulo las Animas is also collecting toys for charity as part of a city-sponsored campaign called Divertón. In addition, the mall will give children an opportunity to send their wishes to the Three Wise Men on Jan. 5 by tying cards to helium balloons.

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