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Cheering for Puebla FC, City’s Pro Soccer Team

Monday, January 7th, 2013

A vendor sells "camote" dolls.AAP-PueblaFC3AAP-PueblaFC2AAP-PueblaFC1¡Vamos, Puebla! That wasn’t the most popular refrain shouted in support of the home team at its season opener Jan. 6, but it is among the few I’ll repeat out of context and in mixed company. I did belt out a few other choice words yesterday as I watched La Franja play well but ultimately lose to the Xolos of Tijuana, the reigning Liga MX champs, at Cuauhtémoc Stadium.

Nonetheless, I had an absolute blast yesterday, thanks to friends who are longtime fans and who gave me an extra ticket. Like so many spectator sports, sitting in the stands during a soccer match is a completely different experience from watching the action on TV. Vendors roam the aisles hawking everything from cold beer and souvenirs to the obligatory and quintessentially poblana cemita sandwiches. Fans shout, sing, dance, beat drums, blow horns, and occasionally throw food at supporters of the visiting team when it scores. Best way to avoid the latter: Wear blue, Puebla FC’s primary color.

Some 23,000 Camoteros turned out for yesterday’s inaugural match, the first of 17 regular games in Clausura 2013. Want to go to one? Home games are scheduled to be played roughly every two weeks; tickets are available at the stadium’s box office and Superboletos outlets.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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New Birdwatching Book Touts Puebla’s Diversity

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

Mexico ranks fifth among the world’s nations in biological diversity, with nearly 29,000 plant and animal species living in its deserts, rainforests, mangroves, and mountains. The state of Puebla, known for its mild climate and varied ecosystems, is home to large percentages of this flora and fauna — including more than half of the country’s 1,100 different species of birds. A new e-book in English, The Birdwatching Hotspots of the State of Puebla, Mexico, provides a free field guide for novices and experts alike.

Common Yellowthroat, ValsequilloHerons and Egrets, ValsequilloRed Warbler, La MalincheCooper's Hawk, Valsequillo

All About Puebla asked author Jajean Rose-Burney, a Peace Corps volunteer from New York who recently finished a two-year assignment here, how he got started as a birdwatcher, why he decided to write the book, what he’d like readers to get out of it, and where he likes to go birdwatching in Puebla. Here’s what he had to say.

AAP: How did you end up studying birds in Puebla?

Rose-Burney: My wife and I joined Peace Corps, a program of the U.S. federal government that has volunteers all around the world. We are both urban planners and were looking for a little break. During training in Queretaro, we were told that our assignment would be SEMARNAT, Mexico’s federal environmental agency, in the city of Puebla. I was devastated. I didn’t want to live in a big city, and I didn’t want to work in a big government planning office.

Fortunately, I got everything that I didn’t want — and am incredibly lucky. During the past two years, I’ve worked on some great conservation projects, including the establishment of a new natural protected area at the Valsequillo Reservoir. I’ve met and worked with great people. I had the opportunity to travel throughout the state and most of southern Mexico. And I have been able to turn my love of birdwatching into my work.

When did you start birdwatching?

I have been birdwatching as a hobby since before I started walking. My parents worked at nature reserves and ran a summer camp when I was little, so I grew up around the outdoors. I always brought my binoculars on family camping and hiking trips. Before coming to Mexico, I had never done birdwatching for work. It was always just a hobby. I have actually done more birdwatching while in Puebla than at any other time in my life. When we travel, whether it be to Cholula or to Tulum, we go birdwatching.

I helped start and was a guide for a recreational bird club, called the Club de Observadores de Aves de Puebla, which goes on monthly field trips to parks and nature reserves in the city and throughout the state. To sign up for the tours, you can contact the club.

What prompted you to write the book and, more specifically, focus on Puebla?

Many other places in Mexico are well-known for birdwatching. Although there are a few dedicated birdwatchers in Puebla, the state has been practically ignored by the outside world. Fortunately for me, Puebla is an awesome state to go birdwatching in.

As you will see in the book, Puebla is one of the most diverse states in Mexico, and trails only Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca in total bird species. Puebla has many migratory species, those that nest in the U.S. and Canada and winter in Mexico, Central America, and South America, like the ducks and herons in Valsequillo. Puebla has numerous endemic species — species that only exist in Mexico — like the Red Warbler in La Malinche and the Paso de Cortes. Puebla also has many really beautiful and attention-grabbing species, like the Blue-crowned Motmot in Cuetzalan.

What are your favorite places to go birdwatching in Puebla?

The Valsequillo Reservoir is my favorite place to go birdwatching within city limits. The large reservoir attracts thousands of ducks, grebes, herons, and other birds. On any given day, especially during the winter migration, you can cross the reservoir on the ferry boat (known locally as la panga) in San Baltazar Tetela and see at least 60 species of birds. Ease of access, diversity of birds, and beautiful views of the reservoir and surrounding volcanoes makes Valsequillo a must-see.

Picking a favorite place to go birdwatching in the surrounding state of Puebla is difficult. Rather than chose one site, I would say that the entire Mixteca region in southern Puebla is the most fascinating. Tropical deciduous forests and cactus forests — both more colorful in the dry season — reach as far you can see, while the river canyons are lined with majestic ahuehuetes, or Mexican cypress, a tall evergreen that is also Mexico’s national tree.

The Mixteca is home to numerous species that are endemic not only to Mexico, but also to the Mixteca itself, meaning that they exist nowhere else in the world. These include the Dusky Hummingbird, Grey-Breasted Woodpecker, Boucard’s Wren, and Bridled Sparrow, among others. There are also many emblematic species, like the ruby, emerald, and white Elegant Trogon, or the large, rufous-colored Squirrel Cuckoo, or the sparrow-sized Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. And then there are the beautiful people, the food, the languages, and the history…

What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?

I am a conservationist at heart, and everything that I do is aimed at promoting the conservation of nature. Low-impact, sustainable ecotourism — like birdwatching — can have positive impacts on conservation. When tourists visit a place, pay for a hotel, or a guide, or even just lunch, they demonstrate to a community that protecting natural resources can have greater benefits for them than using them up.

I want this book to inspire people to love nature, the outdoors, and birdwatching the way that I do. And I think that in order to love nature, you have to experience it, to touch it, to smell it and see it. When someone reads my book, whether a novice or a seasoned birdwatcher, I hope that they get the urge to visit some of these places and experience them for themselves. The places and birds that I describe in this book are so spectacular, so beautiful, and so unique, that anyone lucky enough to see them will have no choice but to fall head over heels for them.

To download the free book, which includes maps and other helpful information, click here.

Text by Rebecca Smith Hurd / Photographs by Ana Hernández Balzac (homepage) and Jajean Rose-Burney

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Puebla Marks 25 Years as a UNESCO Heritage Site

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Sunset over the city of Puebla's main cathedral, © 2012 Rebecca Smith Hurd“What do you tell people who have never been to Mexico?” the hosts of yesterday’s #MexChat, a monthly travel discussion on Twitter, asked participants. My reply: “I tell people … that they’re missing one of most culturally rich, delicious destinations on planet.” I was, as always, largely referring to the city of Puebla, which today celebrates its 25th anniversary as UNESCO World Heritage Site. On this day in 1987, the U.N. added the city’s historic downtown to its prestigious World Heritage List. The list today comprises 962 sites worldwide (about 30 in Mexico) that form part of the cultural and natural heritage UNESCO “considers as having outstanding universal value.”

The powers-that-be cited Puebla’s abundance—more than 2,600 Colonial-era buildings—of “new aesthetic concepts” that resulted from the blending of European, Arabic, and American architectural styles in the 16th and 17th centuries. UNESCO also praised the preservation of “great religious structures” and “fine buildings like the old archbishop’s palace, as well as a host of houses with walls covered in tiles.”

To commemorate this auspicious occasion, the city plans to release a new guide chronicling important religious sites in Puebla, such as the Puebla Cathedral (pictured), ex-Convento de Santa Mónica, La Capilla del Rosario, and Casa del Deán (of which this site donated a photograph). Look for the booklet in the tourism office in the near future. In the meantime, ¡Felicidades, Puebla!

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Learning to Make Amate Paper in San Pablito

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

A stencil for an Otomí god (who we know is a benevolent spirit because his toes are exposed).The Otomí community of San Pablito has been making papel amate for centuries. Residents of the village, located in a fairly remote region of Puebla’s northwestern mountains, believe that this traditional paper has mystical powers. Their shamans make dolls, or dahi, from it to represent and control spiritual forces, as well as to conduct healings, cleansings, and other ritual ceremonies to protect people. San Pablito is one of the few places in Mexico that continued to make amate paper after the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, and thus its craftspeople have turned the trade to an art. Today their finished works, which often feature intricately woven fibers and detailed paintings, are highly sought-after by connoisseurs of Mexican folk art and artisanal wares.

An elder in the Santos Rojas family wears traditional regional garb and speaks only Otomí.Amate comes from the Nahuatl word amatl, which means “paper,” and it was used by the Aztecs to record the culture’s codices and to decorate shrines, sacred places, and burial sites. The paper is produced from the bark of several trees — wild fig (a ficus), nettle, and mulberry — as well as an aquatic plant (which we suspect is a type of water lily, but the specifics got lost in translation). The different species allow craftspeople to produce varying shades of white and brown papers.

During our visit to San Pablito, members of the Santos Rojas family explained the materials they use, walked us through how to prepare the bark, and then taught us how to make our own amate paper. After squeezing the excess water out of a giant ball of processed bark, we pulled strands of the fibrous white material and laid them in a crosshatch pattern across our own individual squares of plywood. (See photos below.)

We pounded this pulp flat with a pumice-like volcanic stone until it formed a solid sheet. We then squared the edges, tore off any excess bark, and smoothed the paper with the oily side of an orange peel. With stencils and other tools, we added imprints and strips of darker bark (and pounded it into the white background) to achieve the textures and figures of our choosing. After about 24 hours of drying, we had our own finished papel amate designs! —Rebecca Smith Hurd

Soaking tree bark to make amate paperStrands of soaked bark on plywood ready to be pounded into paper.Finishing the edges of a blank canvasMaru and Scott show off their finished artworks.
San Pablito is located about 7 miles from Pahuatlán (when reached via back roads). We recommend that you go with a local Spanish-speaking guide, such as those provided by the tourism office in Pahuatlán. We paid 30 pesos per person for our two-hour tour, and an additional 10 pesos each for the paper workshop. If you need an English-speaking guide, contact Carlos Rivero Tours (and tell him All About Puebla sent you); he can arrange excursions from the Puebla capital.

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Cholula Town Fair Mixes Old and New Traditions

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

A vendor sells freshly baked goods at the Feria de San Pedro Cholula (2010)It all started hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years ago in Cholula, as a means to pay homage to the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Then Spanish settlers arrived—and turned the Cholullans’ sacred day into a virgin’s feast day (Sept. 8), in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the ancient and colonial beliefs have fused into a single, glorious celebration.

For the past six decades, San Pedro Cholula has commemorated the occasion with a nearly three-week annual fair that fêtes the region’s trade and cultural heritage, from pre-Hispanic practices to modern-day customs. This year, the 62nd Feria de Cholula kicks off Aug. 30, with a massive inaugural dance and the crowning of a festival queen in the town’s main square. Other special events include everything from a traditional trueque—at which some 3,000 vendors are expected to trade goods—on Sept. 8 to a re-enactment of Hidalgo’s cry for independence on Sept. 15. Expect to find live entertainment, street food, sales of artisanal wares, and carnival rides, too.

“Come with your family to enjoy the most colorful and folkloric traditions of San Pedro Cholula. Music, dance, and gastronomy envelope the city for a party that’s full of magic and happiness,” officials say. “It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”

All performances and ceremonies at the Feria de Cholula are free and open to the public.

Officials expect 100,000 visitors between Aug. 30 and Sept. 16. New this year: A 4,000-square-meter dome has been erected in the main square to shelter fair attendees and its 500 vendors and artisans from the elements, rain or shine. In addition, in response to the protests of animal activists, no bullfights or cockfights will be held.

To coincide with the fair, the tunnels that allow people to pass through the Great Pyramid are scheduled to reopen after nearly three years of restoration work; admission will remain free for the duration of the festival.

Schedule of Events

Here’s an overview of the fair’s various events and performances, all of which are free and open to the public.

August 30
Inaugural Dance with performances by Aarón y su Grupo Ilusión, Colmillo Norteño, Sexy Cumbia, and Junior Klan, among others, Plaza de la Concordia (main square), 3 p.m.

August 31
Lantern Procession, Convento de San Gabriel, 2 Norte #4, Colonia Centro, 10 p.m

September 1
La Sonora Dinamita and comedian Ottmar de la Rosa, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 6 p.m.

September 2
La Perla Colombiana and Banda MB, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 6 p.m.

September 8
Trueque, Plaza de la Concordia (main square), Calle Morelos at Calle Miguel Aleman, starting at 8 a.m.
Quema de Panzón, Iglesia de los Remedios, atop the Great Pyramid, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur, 1 p.m.
Los Terricolas and comedian Jhonatan Casanova, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 6 p.m.

September 9
Orquesta la Típica (de Maelo Ruiz) and Orquesta Salsabor, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 5:30 p.m.

September 15
Cry of Independence (“El Grito”), Plaza de la Concordia (main square), Calle Morelos at Calle Miguel Aleman, starting at 8 p.m.

September 16
Independence Day Parade, downtown San Pedro Cholula, Calle Morelos at Calle Miguel Aleman, starting at 10 a.m.
Yaguarú and Banda los Angeles, Teatro de la Ciudad, Recinto Ferial Xelhua, 14 Poniente at 6 Sur (the plaza that’s on the exit side of the pyramid), 6 p.m.

Many taxis and intercity buses offer regular service between Puebla and Cholula, as does the Tranvía. It’s about a 30-minute ride, depending on traffic. After you arrive, you may find this tourist map helpful.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Additional sources: PueblaNoticias.com.mx, EstrellaDeBelem.com.mx

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A Walk in the Park at Ecoparque Metropolitano

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I never had the occasion to visit Valle Fantástico, the now-defunct amusement park next to the Tec de Monterrey campus on Vía Atlixcayotl, but from what I can tell, there really wasn’t anything all that fantastic about it. Among the park’s lingering remnants is a bizarre structure the shape of a blonde girl lying face-down, blue jean-clad buttocks aimed skyward, a door at her feet. I imagine that the building once served as some sort of “fun house,” though I shutter to think of what awaited visitors inside the horrifyingly huge güerota. (I’ll admit that this may sound absolutely fantastic to some readers, but for me craptastic is far more apt.) Fortunately, the state government recently began transforming Valle Fantástico into an ecological park.

The orchid garden at Ecoparque MetropolitanoEcoparque Metropolitano permits pets on a leash.A water filtration system at Ecoparque MetropolitanoEcoparque MetropolitanoOne of the water filtration systems at Ecoparque MetropolitanoSculpture at Ecoparque Metropolitano

Ecoparque Metropolitano, which was inaugurated in May amid the festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo, is—as Mexico President Felipe Calderón put it during his visit—“truly a fantastic park.” The green space currently occupies 32 of the 47 acres of land once allotted to Valle Fantástico; the other 15 acres remain the subject of a legal dispute waged by its former operator.

Although Ecoparque Metropolitano is still a work in progress, it’s open now for the public to enjoy. Visitors are welcome to stroll through its various gardens (orchids, cactus, bamboo, regional plants) to admire the diverse flowers and greenery as well as a dozen art sculptures and several natural water-filtration systems. The park also provides access to a cushy new 5.2-kilometer jogging path, made from recycled tires, that runs alongside the Atoyac River between boulevards Niño Poblano and De Las Torres. What’s more, the site is bicycle and dog-friendly (for people who keep their pooches on a leash and pick up after their pets); special park access points are under way.

The ecological park was conceived as part of a plan to rescue the Atoyac River, which for years has been contaminated by illegal dumping. Workers and volunteers removed nearly 9,000 cubic feet of garbage, planted 5,000 trees and 300,000 plants, and hauled in 8,000 tons of compost in order to revitalize the area. Amy Camacho, the state’s environmental secretary, in May told Milenio news that the effort has prompted the return of wildlife, including butterflies, hummingbirds, turtles and other reptiles, and even a pair of hawks. Camacho noted that while the area is safe to visit, people should avoid contact with the water (because environmental remediation takes time).
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Ecoparque Metropolitano is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The main entrance is located on Vía Atlixcáyotl next to the Tec de Monterrey campus; ample parking provided. Alternate access behind Cabo San Lucas restaurant near Plaza Palmas (follow the blue MIRAtoyac signs); Paseo del Río is on the other side of the river. Admission is free, but parking costs $10 MXP per vehicle.

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Why Poblano Cuisine Is So Divine: Nuns

Monday, July 9th, 2012

The Santa Monica Convent's kitchen, where chiles en nogada were created.Locals often joke that there’s a church in Puebla for every Poblano, and a quick scan of the city’s skyline reveals why: The missionaries who arrived here from Spain in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries claimed considerable real estate, upon which they built myriad temples — churches, chapels, monasteries, and convents — for practicing and proselytizing their Christian beliefs. Given the number of pious people populating Puebla at the time, and their commitment to convincing others to join them in faith, it’s hardly a surprise that the Catholic church heavily influenced the city’s development.

“The Cathedral’s bells marked the rhythm of the day and, as in the rest of the Christian world, the liturgical calendar governed the year and set a festive tone for the devout life,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) notes at the newly refurbished Museo de Arte Religioso (Religious Art Museum). “The church was also responsible for schools, hospitals, orphanages, and the theater, as well as registering marriage, births, and deaths.”

And then, of course, there was its food. Whether by accident, design, or divine intervention, the Catholic church contributed greatly to Puebla’s gastronomy. According to legend and official records, some of the region’s most iconic dishes were created by nuns at one of nearly a dozen conventos (of varied religious orders) in the city center. The sisters mixed European techniques and ingredients with pre-Hispanic ones to produce delicious results, from elaborate entrees like mole poblano and chiles en nogada to sweets like camotes and tortitas de Santa Clara. All of these delicacies remain popular in Puebla today.

Chiles en Nogada: The 2012 Season Begins

The first chile en nogada of the 2012 season at Meson Sacristía.The arrival of the chile en nogada, a seasonal dish prepared from mid-July to early October, is hotly anticipated by Poblanos every year. The 2012 season starts this weekend. The elaborate dish calls for a Poblano chile pepper that’s roasted and stuffed with a picadillo (ground or chopped meat with seasonal fruits such as apples, peaches, and pears), dunked in egg batter and fried, and then topped with a creamy walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds, and parsley leaves. It was originally cooked up by Augustinian Recollect nuns at the Santa Monica Convent to honor Agustín de Iturbide; each plate bore the red, white, and green colors of the new national flag. Iturbide, you may recall, co-wrote the 1821 peace treaties with Spain and later served as Mexico’s emperor; curiously, the fact that the revolutionist and the order of the nuns share the same name is serendipity.

The Santa Monica Convent now houses the Religious Art Museum, and the kitchen that gave birth to the chile en nogada is located just off the main courtyard. Although its decor isn’t as exquisite as that of the Santa Rosa Convent (a.k.a., the birthplace of mole poblano, which is currently closed to the public), the Santa Monica kitchen features a traditional wood-fired stove decorated with Talavera tiles, a wide variety of ceramic jugs and pots typical of the region, and an adjoining pantry that hints at some of their uses. Whether you’re a foodie, a history buff, an art lover, or a fan of anthropology or religious studies, this site is well worth a visit.

The Convent’s History: From Refuge to Museum

According to the INAH’s museum signage, the Santa Monica site began in 1606 as a refuge for married women who’d been widowed or abandoned, but the concept quickly failed. Three years later, authorities decided to instead use the home for the forced confinement of prostitutes. In 1682, the building was converted into a high school for “virgin girls.” Shortly thereafter, the decision was made to turn it into a convent, which, by lottery, was named after St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. Five years later, the convent had the approval of both the king of Spain and the pope and, subsequently, the local powers-that-be found another place, just up the street, to hold those non-virgins.

The residence-like facade of the ex-Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla.For nearly 200 years, the Augustinian Recollect nuns in Puebla practiced austerity and asceticism. They engaged in strict self-denial as a measure of personal and spiritual discipline, often wearing cilices to create discomfort and abstaining from food or drink until they hallucinated. “These visions were considered to be mystical or supernatural experiences, so only the nuns chosen by God were capable of having them,” the INAH notes.

During the War of Reform (1857-61), the nuns were exclaustrated, or sent back into the outside world. A plan was hatched to build a facade that made the building look more like a private residence. From the 1860s to the 1930s, the Augustinian Recollect and other nuns in Mexico were subject to changing laws that forced them out of their convents and eventually allowed them to return only to force them out again. They led much of their lives in hiding until 1934, when new reform laws ended the vicious cycle. In 1935, the former Convent of Santa Monica became the Religious Art Museum and, in 1940, was among the first to join the INAH network.

“The Religious Art Museum at the ex-Convent of Santa Monica is one of the greatest examples of the monastic life of women in Mexico and only one in the state of Puebla,” the INAH says on its website. “It’s archive of sacred art from the 16th to 19th centuries primarily consists of collections from four old convents in the city of Puebla: Santa Mónica (Augustinian Recollects), Santa Catalina (Dominicans), Señor San Joaquín y Santa Ana (Capuchins), and La Soledad (Discalced Carmelites).”
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Museo de Arte Religioso del Ex-Convento de Santa Mónica is located at 18 Poniente #103, between Calle 5 de Mayo and 3 Norte, in the city’s historic center. Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is 35 pesos.

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The Cider ‘Crush’ at Copa de Oro in Cholula

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Sampling cider from an oak barrel at Copa de Oro in Cholula.The Spanish influence in San Pedro Cholula isn’t always quite as evident as it is in the nearby Colonial city of Puebla. Despite an abundance of Catholic churches, including one that crowns the world’s largest pre-Hispanic pyramid, the town maintains its older, distinctly indigenous vibe. However, just a few blocks from the archaeological site, inside a nondescript industrial building, the Castillo-Blanca family is working to preserve a centuries-old tradition from Asturias, Spain, and make it a bona fide Mexican one.

For three generations, its Copa de Oro distillery has produced sidra, or hard cider, from apples cultivated in the state of Puebla. The business began in 1936, when Ramón Blanca Amador started fermenting the regional red fruit into an aguardiente de manzana. He called the drink sidra actiopa, a nod to the Nahautl words atl (water) and teopa (temple) and a suggestion that his liquor was nothing short of divine. Today Copa de Oro produces several varieties of sidra gasificada, or carbonated hard cider, plus non-alcoholic sparkling cider, cider “coolers,” vinegar, applesauce, and more. The company turns out three grades of cider—Palencia, Copa de Oro, and Renetta—which are differentiated by their labels and the amount of time each cider is aged in an oak barrel (up to one, two, or three years, respectively).

Unlike many wines, hard cider doesn’t improve with age: After about two years, it’s properties change and it evolves into vinegar.

“The national palate is sweet,” sales director Mario García Roche explains to me after a tour of the factory. To cater to that taste, most of Copa de Oro’s ciders are on the sugary side, with one important exception: Renetta Reserva Especial, which the company produced for its 75th anniversary last year. “It’s the only cider made in Mexico that’s semi-dry,” García Roche boasts.

Copa de Oro Renetta is “the best cider” my Poblano hubby has ever had.His bragging is justified. The Renetta is, in a word, exquisite. “Wow! It’s the best cider I’ve ever had,” my husband declares after taking a sip of the ice-cold bubbly. Like many Poblanos, he’s accustomed to drinking the sweeter stuff, and mostly at family dinners around Christmastime or New Year’s. It’s said that hard cider became popular in Mexico as a festive yet less expensive alternative to Champagne and sparkling wines like Cava. And, comparatively, it’s a bargain. At 101 pesos (about US $7) per bottle, the Renetta semi-seco is Copa de Oro’s priciest product.

Copa de Oro expects to produce some 800,000 cases of cider in 2012.Copa de Oro is looking for ways to broaden cider’s national appeal by developing new products, such as cider “coolers” in single-serving bottles that come in different flavors and include rum, García Roche says. But its core product remains its amber and rosé ciders (the latter of which is 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile). In 2012, the company expects to produce some 800,000 cases of cider, he notes, all of which is made from 100 percent fruit that’s cultivated in Puebla. Most of that will be consumed nationally, but Copa de Oro is working to export more products to the U.S., Colombia, Cuba, and Spain.

The “crush” typically begins in July and lasts for about six months, as tons of apples — of the winter banana, perón, ripio, or panochera variety — arrive from orchards, most of which are located on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano or near the Puebla-Veracruz state line in Santa María Coatepec and San Salvador El Seco, García Roche explains. After the apples arrive, they are washed and pressed into juice, which is then fermented, filtered, pasteurized, carbonated, and bottled. Copa de Oro can process up to 30,000 bottles per day (5,000 cases) when operating at full capacity, García Roche says.

Copa de Oro plans to kick off the 2012 season with a “blessing of the apples” and a parade on Saturday, July 21, from 10 to 11 a.m., García Roche says. The route starts and ends at the distillery (3 Sur #904, Col. Centro), passing through downtown San Pedro Cholula. A tasting and cider pairing will follow at Copa de Oro, which also operates a tasting room and “living museum” called La Barrica. The public is invited; expect to pay about 120 pesos per person for the food and drink.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Free tours of the distillery (in Spanish only) are offered year-round, by reservation only, to groups of 10 people or more. Call +52 (222) 247-1989 for more information.

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7 Free Things to See and Do in Puebla

Monday, June 18th, 2012

As the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis, Puebla isn’t exactly the cheapest place to pass time in Mexico. However, visitors and locals can experience much of what the city has to offer on an extremely modest budget. In fact, you don’t need to spend a single peso (bus or cab fare notwithstanding) to enjoy various sights, sounds, and activities around town. Here are seven free things to see and do in Puebla, year-round.

1. Visit a museum. Museo Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos is open for free on Sundays.As in most major cities, Puebla’s art galleries and history museums tend to charge general admission, but at least one day a week and one night per month, you can get in free. Most sites here are closed on Mondays and waive ticket requirements on either Sundays or Tuesdays; one important exception is Museo Amparo, which is free on Mondays and closed on Tuesdays. Free on Sundays: Casa del Deán, Museo Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos, Ex-Convento de Santa Mónica, and Museo de Antropología e Historia, among others. Free on Tuesdays: Museo de la Revolución Mexicana, Biblioteca Palafoxiana, and San Pedro Museo de Arte Virreynal, among others. (Note: Sometimes the INAH-run museums will require you to show proof of Mexico residency to waive the ticket price, but they usually don’t.) Meanwhile, the city’s tourism office organizes Noches de Museos (Museum Nights), during which anyone can visit participating sites between 5 and 9 p.m. without paying. The remaining dates in 2012 are July 21, Aug. 10, Sept. 14, Oct. 12, Nov. 1-2, Nov. 17-18, and Dec. 28; participating sites include Museo Amparo, Casa de Alfeñique, Museo Taller Erasto Cortés Juárez, Museo José Luis Bello y González, Museo del Tecnológico de Monterrey, Galería del Palacio, and Museo Viviente, among others.

The murals in Barrio Xanenetla depict the neighborhood’s cultural identity. 2. Check out the murals in Barrio Xanenetla. Colectivo Tomate—a group of creatives working to beautify the city through a project called Puebla Ciudad Mural—spent more than a year collaborating with residents and volunteers to revitalize Xanenetla, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. The result of their efforts: 55 thought-provoking murals that depict the barrio’s cultural identity. The paintings celebrate its history, its traditions, its storied former residents, and its current inhabitants’ hopes and fears. Start your walking tour at the corner of Boulevard Heroés del 5 de Mayo and 4 Norte and then follow 4 Norte until you reach Plaza Santa Inés. (Click here to download a map of the murals’ locations.)

Couples turn a covered walkway in the zócalo into a dancefloor.3. People-watch in Paseo Bravo or the zócalo. Whether it’s a trova concert, a Mexican wrestling match, a clown performance, a kid chasing pigeons, a flash mob, or a bunch of guys breakdancing, there’s almost always something happening in these two popular city squares. Paseo Bravo (13 Sur between Avenida Reforma and 11 Poniente) has undergone many transformations through the years, serving as the site of a gallows to a military practice field. The public park that exists today took root sometime after 1850, when a statute of its namesake soldier and statesman Nicolás Bravo was erected. The zócalo, or main square (3 Oriente at 2 Sur), was the first city block built by the city’s Spanish settlers and remains the heart of the historic center. It’s a place where people gather for social outings, political protests, and cultural events; you’ll frequently encounter a stage or vendor stalls set up on the Cathedral side of the square. Looking for a quieter experience? Head for the beautifully landscaped park in Paseo San Francisco (10 Norte, next to the Purificadora hotel), which features art sculptures and the archaeological ruins of mills and tanneries that once operated there. The people-watching opportunities abound: The site, which once served as a set for Mexico’s Next Top Model, is so lovely that brides and quinceañeras like to have formal photos taken there.

Part of a Day of the Dead altar at the Casa de Cultura.4. See what’s on at the Casa de Cultura. Puebla’s cultural center (5 Oriente #5) houses several small art galleries, the Palafox library and museum (see above), and the Cinemateca Luis Buñuel, which regularly shows art films. It also frequently hosts musical performances on its central patio and, in late October, a Day of the Dead altar-building competition. Admission to nearly everything is free, and the current schedule of events is posted at the security/reception desk near the front door. Tip: Las Noches Poblanas, the folkloric dance presentations that used to happen here every Saturday at 7 p.m., now take place at the Instituto Cultural Poblano, Sala Francisco Xavier Clavijero (Avenida Reforma #1305) near Paseo Bravo.

On weekends, Los Sapos hosts an antiques bazaar and flea market.5. Browse the open-air markets. Every weekend, you’ll find tianguis, or street vendors, set up outdoors in Los Sapos plaza and in the Analco neighborhood a few blocks away. Start your browsing at the corner of 3 Oriente and 4 Sur, making sure to pass through the pedestrian area between Edificio Carolino and the BUAP’s psychology building, where artists often display hand-crafted jewelry. When you reach Callejon de los Sapos, turn right. Wander a block down the street to Plazuela de los Sapos, where on Saturdays and Sundays, you’ll find an antiques bazaar and flea market. When you’ve finished checking out the woodwork, coins, books, and other curiosities, head west on 5 Oriente, crossing Héroes del 5 de Mayo, to Analco. At the Analco Market (8 Sur at 5 Oriente), you’ll find vendors of artisanal goods, street food, plants, household wares, and a host of other items. Want to see more? El Parian (6 Norte between 2 and 4 Oriente), houses scores of vendors who stock every kind of souvenir imaginable, from traditional candies and (mostly imitation) talavera pottery to post cards, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets.

TThe 10 a.m. mass on Sundays gives you a glimpse of the Cathedral in its full splendor.6. Celebrate the archbishop’s mass at the Cathedral. Even if you’re not Catholic (and don’t speak Spanish or Latin), attending mass inside this majestic church—built between 1536 and 1768—is worth an hour of your life. The 10 a.m. service on Sundays, usually presided over by Monsignor Víctor Sánchez Espinosa, gives you a glimpse of the Cathedral in its full splendor, with a procession, lighted candles, and music from the monumental pipe organ. The experience is almost like being transported back in time—and, given that 83 percent of Mexico’s population is Catholic, may shed some light on local customs and belief systems. Note that tourism is prohibited during services; if you want to wander around (versus attend mass), you’ll need to visit during the designated hours, which are Mondays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., and Sundays from 2 to 4:45 p.m., unless otherwise posted. All visits, of course, are free.

7. Run, walk, or bike the streets downtown. Most Sundays from 8 a.m. to noon, city officials close certain avenues to vehicle traffic and welcome residents and visitors to enjoy the streets of the historic center on foot or on human-powered wheels. This Gran Vía ReCorre Puebla leads participants from the Fuente de los Frailes (Avenida Juárez at Blvd. Atlixco) to the Teatro Principal (6 Norte at 8 Oriente). See link for complete 2012 schedule and route map. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a place to exercise outdoors the rest of the week, here are a few options.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

What’s your favorite free activity in Puebla? Share your suggestions and recommendations with us by replying below.

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¿No hablas español? Study Spanish in Puebla

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Photograph courtesy of Livit Immersion CenterWhen people ask me how I ended up in Puebla, I tell them that I arrived in 2007 to study Spanish, fell in love with the place and a Poblano, and decided to stay. That’s the short answer, anyway. The longer version is that, as a professional writer and editor — a bona fide word nerd — and a veteran traveler, I’d started to feel downright embarrassed that I wasn’t bilingual. How could I be an expert in English, my native tongue, yet functionally illiterate any other language? Wasn’t this the era of globalism?

“Spanish is spoken by more than 500 million people worldwide, which is reason enough to learn the language,” according to the University of Illinois at Springfield’s continuing education department. “But it’s even more compelling when you realize that about half of the population in the Western Hemisphere speaks Spanish, making it the primary language for as many people as English in this region of the world.” That includes at least one out of every 10 people who live in the United States.

If my previous and failed attempts at French and German were any indication, I knew that I wouldn’t master Spanish in a typical California classroom. So, my plan was to complete the summer intensive program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and then study abroad in a full immersion program. “You can’t really learn a language unless you live it,” argued my MIIS instructor, a Cuban emigrant who’d taught Spanish in Colombia. I agreed and weighed immersion programs in Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. I ultimately chose the Spanish Institute of Puebla, because it was relatively close to home, surprisingly affordable, and highly recommended by the eight former students I’d contacted (including a dean at Stanford University). I’m glad I did. The experience proved life-changing, and after six months of hard work I’d built a solid foundation for my ongoing Spanish journey.

Do you ever wish you could speak Spanish or simply want to brush up on what you already know?

Puebla is an ideal place to study Spanish. I’ve had ample opportunity to use the language, and you will, too. Although many locals understand English, relatively few speak it with confidence: Unlike the typical salesmen who work Mexico’s beaches and stereotype tourists by their appearance (quoting prices accordingly), Poblanos rarely switch to English when they see a visitor approaching or hear a foreign accent. If your vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation aren’t perfect, that’s just fine. Any attempts to habla español will be appreciated.

Here are three reputable private schools in the Colonial capital for students who are serious about acquiring the language. All offer short- and long-term courses taught by native speakers. For more information, click on the links in each description.

Spanish Institute of Puebla

Calle 11 Oriente, Centro Histórico

Founded in 1984, the Spanish Institute of Puebla is the longest-running program of its kind in the city. Its standard three-week sessions incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing components, with heavy emphasis on conversational skills. A short placement exam can help to determine the appropriate course level, and students can earn university credits for their coursework. New classes start every three weeks.

In the standard program, students attend group classes — two to six people, max — at the school’s modern, three-story facility from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and then engage in one-on-one activities with a native speaker from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. The latter can include visiting the many museums, churches, and historic sites downtown; playing bingo or pool; drinking coffee on the main square; or even having your tarot cards read (in Spanish, of course.) The program also includes meals, lodging with local host families, and excursions to Cholula and Teotihuacan. Private classes are also available.

“The idea of living in Mexico … was a little intimidating before I arrived. The structure of the Institute made everything a breeze,” says Keith Larson, an attorney from Houston, Texas. “I concentrated on Spanish and learned a ton. I know I am not a fast learner of languages, and now I can easily communicate in Spanish.”

Livit Immersion Center

Calle Nuevo León, Colonia El Carmen

The Livit Immersion Center’s program is based on the premise that students learn best when they live in Spanish 24/7. The school, located inside a Colonial-era home (where its directors reside), devotes half of each day to instruction and the other half to practice and cultural discovery through activities and excursions. Students may substitute profession-specific tasks, such as shadowing a resident in a hospital or visiting an orphanage, for the latter.

The standard program runs 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, with no more than four students per class. It includes all course materials, trips to nearby towns and attractions, daily meals, and accommodations with local families. (A student or couple who prefers privacy may also arrange to rent the on-site efficiency apartment.) Courses begin every Monday, and special group packages are available for up to 20 students.

“I have made two separate trips to Puebla to study with Livit Immersion Center, during which my ability to speak, converse, read, and write has improved dramatically,” says Richard Johnson, a law student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “I attribute my progress to three things. First, I credit the school’s fun, practical, and efficient curriculum, intimate classes, and attentive professors. Second, I credit the accommodations. Throughout both of my stays in Puebla, I felt at home, enjoyed every amenity I desired, and ate delicious meals. Finally, Puebla is a beautiful, entertaining, and manageable city with a rich array of cultures, cuisine, and history.”

Spanish Awakenings

Calle Tepeyahualco, Colonia La Paz

Spanish Awakenings places equal emphasis on building language skills and cultural understanding. The language-training and home-stay program, run by a bilingual (Spanish-English) couple in their home, caters to families, small groups, and young adults. It offers two hours of daily classroom study, outings five days per week, and informal gatherings in the evenings to watch movies, play games, or talk about the day’s events.

The minimum stay is one week, but program directors Lucia and Richard Stone recommend four weeks for maximum benefit, particularly for beginners. The program includes on-site lodging, meals, snacks, an orientation tour of the city, a trip to the Cholula pyramid, and pickup and drop-off at the Puebla airport.

“I came to Mexico with some understanding of Spanish but I really was not able to speak, read and write in the language,” notes Ben Auton, managing partner of a video-game repair service in St. Louis, Missouri. “After a month at Spanish Awakenings, my ability to understand, read, and write the language has grown faster than I ever could have expected. I can understand a native speaker on the street, I can read a newspaper or book, and I can write a journal about what I did during the day.”

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Photograph courtesy of Livit Immersion Center

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