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A Crown Jewel of the Conquest in Calpan

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

The Franciscan Monastery in Calpan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.San Andrés Calpan isn’t the kind of place that most tourists would stumble upon by accident. Situated on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano, about 23 miles west of the Puebla capital, this small farming town is known mostly for producing tejocotes and other fruits, including those celebrated in the patriotic regional dish chiles en nogada. But Calpan wasn’t always off the beaten path: Back in the 16th century, it was a key stop along the Spaniards’ route from Veracruz to Mexico City.

Calpan was founded in pre-Hispanic times by Toltecs and Chichimecas but inhabited by Nahuas, who gave the city its primary name, which means “place with many houses” in Nahautl. Conquistador Hernán Cortés himself later occupied a home here, certified local tour guide Consuelo Jiménez Asomoza told us during a recent visit. After discovering that what the area lacked in gold it made up for in agricultural richness, Cortés issued his first land grants in Calpan, dividing up the acreage (and its native residents) among his senior-ranking officers as a means of paying them for their service, she explains. The site’s pyramid, a tribute to the plumed serpent-god Quezalcóatl, was then dismantled and its stones repurposed in the building of a religious complex—a monastery, church, and four standalone outdoor chapels, or capillas posas—dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle (San Andrés in Spanish). Construction dates from 1548.

If you look closely, you’ll find the recycled indigenous stones—half of ball-court ring here, irregularly sized pyramid blocks there—in the walls of the 16th-century Catholic complex.

The capillas posas feature Christian and indigenous imagery in their detail.The capillas posas feature Christian and indigenous imagery in their detail.Today a UNESCO World Heritage Center, the monastery—still used by monks for prayer services—is open to the public. Its architecture features exquisite craftsmanship that blends European and indigenous symbolism in intricate fashion. “Aside from the elegant, tall façade of the church, the most important elements at Calpan are the extraordinary capillas posas, related in style and period to those at Huejotzingo,” Mexican art expert Joseph Armstrong Baird writes in his 1962 book, The Churches of Mexico: 1530-1810. “Each posa has a different top, and the moldings and ornamental crestings are remarkably varied.” For example, one depicts the Blessed Virgin’s ascent to heaven, surrounded by angels; the wings of the four cherubs nearest to Mary are crossed in an “x,” which is a Nahua symbol for death. On another, clam shells evoke the pilgrimage of St. James the Apostle in northern Spain next to a heart that’s been divided into four chambers; inside, a sacrificial altar features a vessel for the vital organ’s offering.

In 2009, El Universal newspaper referred to Calpan’s outdoor chapels as “the most important in all of Latin America.” The site is certainly worthy of a detour off more modern, well-traveled roads through Puebla.

El Convento Franciscano del Siglo XVI is open daily, 9am-1pm and 4-7pm. Admission is free, but visitors are asked to make a small donation to support current efforts to restore the church’s interior, which in recent years was damaged by an earthquake and a fire. Calpan may be reached from downtown Puebla by private car or public transit (take the R1 bus from the “San Pablito” esplanade on 18 Poniente between 9 and 11 Norte; the hour-long ride takes you through Cholula and Huejotzingo). For more information, contact the city tourism office at (222) 114-0864.

To read about more stories about Puebla on our blog, click here.

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Murals and Pyramids in Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Mural de la BatallaWhether you recognize Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl as one of the more significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, or your interest is simply piqued by the sight of the hilltop ruins as you cruise by Huejotzingo on the Mexico-Puebla highway, these sister sites merit a closer look. Here’s why: Cacaxtla houses some of the best-preserved pre-Columbian murals in Mesoamerica, and Xochitecatl rewards anyone who climbs its pyramids with a panoramic views of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley and neighboring volcanoes.

Cacaxtla: A Confluence of Cultures

Located in the town of San Miguel del Milagro, the Cacaxtla site was initially surveyed by Spanish archaeologist Pedro Armillas in the 1940s. But its excavation didn’t begin until the 1970s, after looters dug a tunnel into its main building and found an elaborate painting of a “birdman.” They reported their discovery to local priest, who subsequently alerted Mexican authorities at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Official digging thereafter unearthed a grand platform, or gran basamento, which was built in various stages, the first as early as 300 BC. The structure appears to have been used by civic leaders for myriad activities, with distinct spaces dedicated to living, worship, and conducting business.

Gran basamento, CacaxtlaExperts at the INAH say that very little is known about Cacaxtla’s inhabitants, except that they were meticulous builders and warriors who organized their society into different social strata. The city was primarily home to the Olmeca-Xicalanca people, who prospered between 650 and 900 AD, thanks in part to their strategic location on regional trade and transit routes. It’s believed that their forebears migrated to the area from the Gulf Coast, where anthropologists suspect they came in contact with Mayans. This is due to the artistic style of, and Mayan imagery in, the Cacaxtla murals. However, writing and artifacts found at the site suggest other influences, including Mixtec, Zapotec, and Teotihuacan.

A view of Xochitecatl from CacaxtlaVisitors to Cacaxtla today can view its remarkable murals and construction first-hand by walking an interconnected series of wooden planks and stairs across the gran basamento. Eleven paintings have been found to date. The site’s focal point — and its most famous artwork — is the Mural de la batalla, or “battle mural,” which spans more than 72 feet along the base of a temple platform. The mural covers nearly 270 square feet of surface area, making it the largest ever recovered in Mexico. The painting depicts well-armed jaguar warriors defeating defenseless bird warriors, some of whom are naked and dismembered.

All of Cacaxtla’s paintings (and visitors) are shielded from the sun and rain by a 118,500-square-foot suspended metal roof, which the INAH claims is the second largest of its kind, right after the one protecting the Terracotta Warriors in China. In May 2007, a fierce hailstorm prompted the south end of the roof to collapse, forcing the INAH to close the site for nearly a year; fortunately, the ruins suffered minimal damage and the roof received steel reinforcements. During the repairs, the INAH discovered that the gran basamento — which is 656 feet long, 361 feet wide, and 82 feet high — was built, layer upon layer, in more stages (five) than they’d originally thought (three).

Restaurante CacaxtlaThe site also maintains a modest museum of artifacts and scale models, as well as a gift shop, restrooms, and a mom-and-pop restaurant. Restaurante Cacaxtla serves delightful sangria and chilaquiles and affords patrons a wonderful view. The proprietor even lent our party of four several pairs of binoculars, so we could examine the volcanoes and valley floor from our table.

Xochitécatl: Pyramids With a View

A short drive — or a long precarious walk, which is discouraged — from Cacaxtla lies the even more prominent Xochitécatl. Built around 700 BC atop an extinct volcano, Xochitécatl predates Cacaxtla by at least four centuries, if not a millenium. The site appears to have been a purely ceremonial center for the surrounding area and, for us, has several interesting characteristics, namely loads of female idols and two exceptional pyramids.

Dozens of feminine figures were discovered at the Pyramid of Flowers.With its long pathways of lava rock and sweeping valley views, Xochitécatl is a little reminiscent of Cantona, albeit far more compact and less remote. Its one-room museum contains a fine selection of the dozens of clay figurines that archaeologists recovered on the steps of the site’s main structure, the Pyramid of Flowers. (This is the pyramid you can see from the highway.) The figures represent women of all ages, many dressed in elaborate costumes, and some with babies in the womb, suggesting tributes to Xóchitl, a goddess of flowers and fertility. In addition, about a dozen stone statues representing humans and animals are on exhibit outside.

Spiral BuildingJust past the museum and to the left is the Spiral Building, a circular stepped pyramid (rare in Mexico) made up almost entirely of volcanic ash inside. A modern staircase enables visitors to go to the top without following the spiral in laps around the outside, the ancient way. According to the INAH, the building was probably a temple to a wind god named Ehécatl. In 1632, a Christian cross was erected on top; many sources say that the stone symbol has stood there for centuries, but during our visit it was notably absent. Apparently, the cross is removed for celebrations in the town of San Rafael Tenanyecac below. Marco A. Mena, the secretary of tourism in Tlaxcala, explains that this year the cross was taken down in April for a May 3 church celebration and returned to its perch on June 12.

The view of La Maliche volcano from the Pyramid of Flowers.Directly across the open plaza from the Spiral Building sits the larger, more traditional-looking Pyramid of Flowers. Built from rounded boulders, the pyramid is believed to have served as a place of ritualistic sacrifices; the bodies of nearly 30 children were found here. Perhaps the most memorable part of our visit to Xochitécatl was standing on this pyramid’s summit, from which we could enjoyed unobstructed view of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley and its Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and La Maliche. We suspect that, on a extremely clear days, Pico de Orizaba is visible in the distance, too.

Cacaxtla and Xochitécatl are located about 21 miles northwest of the Puebla capital, off the federal highway to Mexico City. (See map.) Both sites are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. General admission is 49 pesos per person Monday through Saturday and free on Sundays; if you buy a ticket to one site, you may visit the other on the same day for no additional charge. Parking in the lot outside Cacaxtla’s entrance costs 30 pesos; at Xochitécatl, it’s free. Bring water and wear sunscreen.

Post updated June 16, 2011.

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Spring Break in Atlixco, the City of Flowers

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

One of the gardens at La Aldea.Americans aren’t the only people who go on spring break in Mexico. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter — also known as semana santa — is one of the nation’s busiest travel periods. In 2010, half of the 9 million people expected to travel during the holiday period were Mexican citizens, El Economista newspaper reported. My other half, Pablo, and I knew exactly what that meant: crowded beaches, booked hotels, and clogged traffic arteries. So, in an attempt to avoid hordes of tourists and road rage, we headed inland instead of toward the coast, to nearby Atlixco.

Atlixco is a relatively tranquil town about 20 miles southwest of Puebla. It has a reputation for exceedingly good weather. In fact, the city’s official tourist brochure boasts that the Atlixco has “the best climate in the world.” The moderate temperatures enable the production of two other things Atlixco is known for: gardening supplies (some people call it the City of Flowers) and cecina (beef that’s been salted, marinated, and sun-dried). The landscaping at La Aldea Hotel & Spa, where we stayed for three nights, was indeed gorgeous — and everything was in bloom.

An image of Christ is depicted in colorful sawdust on the zócalo sidewalk.We ventured into town on Good Friday, hopeful that everything would be open, and it was. We even found the free city parking lot, located just behind the ex-convent of El Carmen, where we stumbled upon the modest Museum of Atlixco Valley Cultures. Its curators collect and identify artifacts that people have found in the area. In March 2010, they added an exhibit of marine fossils dating back some 420 million years. I’ve heard that central Mexico is one of two places on the planet that scientists suspect life on Earth originated. These ancient fossils — white coral, giant snails, sea sponges, fish heads, and more — seem to support this.

Next, we headed for the zócalo, stopping to check out the vendor stalls along the pedestrian-only alleyway of Constitution and a dazzling display of Easter-themed murals covering the ground with colored sawdust at Plaza de Armas. The tourist information booth offered us a free guided walking tour (in Spanish), so we headed up the hill to the ex-convent of San Francisco, arriving just in time for a throng to gather for a re-enactment of the crucifixion, a popular annual pastime among Catholics here.

A crowd waits for the re-enactment of the Crucifixion.We wandered around a bit more with our guide, admiring art at a couple of other churches, then decided it was just too hot to continue our stroll in the sun. So we headed to the indoor market for a cool drink and some shade. We sampled some yummy queso fresco and cecina, but felt it would be perceived as disrespectful if we ordered a huge plate of beef on Good Friday (a mistake we made two years ago at a restaurant in Oaxaca). Refreshed, we headed back to the hotel to enjoy the rest of the afternoon by the pool.

On Saturday, we took advantage of the hotel’s spa, enjoying chakra-balancing massages and spending some time in the jacuzzi before eating breakfast so late that it was really lunch. Aside from being annoyed by a drunken, half-naked couple that decided to make a complete spectacle of themselves (because, really, what spring break would be complete without spring breakers? I’m just thankful that they weren’t Americans), we enjoyed a quiet, relaxing day. We wrapped up our mini vacation that evening with a bottle of wine, music, and Yahtzee on our room’s balcony. Bliss.

To get to Atlixco from the Puebla capital, take Vía Atlixcayotl (head south of the Periférico) until it turns into a toll highway (438D). You can also take Linea Oro buses from the CAPU station.

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Celebrate Carnival With a Bang in Huejotzingo

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The annual Carnival parade in Huejotzingo, Puebla.Carnival only comes once a year, and every season since 1893, the town of Huejotzingo in Puebla has celebrated it with gusto. Thousands of locals don elaborate costumes with masks and rifles — all of which they typically make themselves, sometimes at great expense — and put on a huge parade. Some 20,000 tourists are expected to join the 2014 party, which starts Saturday (March 1) and continues through Fat Tuesday (March 4).

The roughly two-hour daily desfile commemorates three major events in local history: the first marriage of a person of Spanish descent to an indigenous Mexican; the kidnapping and rescue of the mayor’s daughter by a bandit named Agustín Lorenzo; and the famous Battle of Puebla against the French. You’re probably familiar with the latter, especially if you’ve ever celebrated Cinco de Mayo; it was the Mexicans’ brief victory here that led to the state and US holiday. To re-enact it all, various battalions—whose members represent Indians, sappers, Turks, Zacapoaxtlas, and Zouaves—parade through downtown, firing muskets loaded with gunpowder and moving to the beat of marching bands as they dance down the street. The smoke, noise, and inevitable injuries add realism to the scene. It gets so loud, many spectators wear earplugs.

“The costumes that characterize the different battalions are very luxurious and almost everyone wears a mask made of leather, with a beard and mustache of ruffled horse mane.” —Mexico Desconocido

Many parade participants wear masks and carry homemade rifles.Although Carnival is a major regional festival, last year I was among only a handful of apparent foreigners in the crowd. I went on Fat Tuesday in 2011 with eight students from the Spanish Institute of Puebla, where I studied for four months in 2007. We arrived around noon and opted to pay 15 pesos (about US$1.25) each to sit in the stands running along the main square. Aside from having to look around shade umbrellas and assorted vendors, who were selling everything from tepache (a drink made from fermented pineapple peel) to noisemakers (as if the rifles, music, and cheering weren’t sufficient), our seats were well worth the price. I even managed to dodge the assorted candy and snack cakes being thrown into the crowd during the wedding scene.

Afterward, we had dinner in a restaurant between the main square and the former monastery. Our guide, Gabriela, treated us to a bottle of the locally made hard cider, and I shared a paella with a French Canadian student named Luc. We also took a peek at the ex-Convento de San Francisco de Huejotzingo, which is perhaps the oldest in the region (built in 1525). The building is absolutely gorgeous outside, but the inside was closed to visitors during Carnaval, probably to keep gun-toting pranksters out. I’m hopeful that because Huejotzingo is close by — it’s where the Puebla airport is, about a 30-minute drive from Cholula — I’ll have a chance to go back again soon. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

Sources en español: Mexico Desconocido, Periodico Digital

Post updated on February 28, 2014

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Visiting Chipilo for a Traditional Charreada

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Charros attempt to corral an uncooperative bull from both ends.Chipilo is a small farming town located about seven miles south of the Puebla capital. It was established in 1882 by emigrants of the Veneto region in northern Italy, who relocated to central Mexico to escape poverty back home. The majority of these chipileños, as they’re known in these parts, hailed from Segusino in the Treviso province, which in 1982 became an official sister city.

Perhaps because of this close relationship — and the fact that Chipilo was relatively isolated from Puebla’s urban sprawl until the late 20th century — many locals speak a Venetian dialect. The biggest draws to outsiders are its meat and dairy products, particularly artisan cheeses, which are sought after for miles around. Nearly all of the attractions in town are located along a short stretch of road that veers off and then back onto the federal highway to Atlixco. (Turn right before the sister city sign.) Here visitors will find restaurants, shops and services, a church, a hotel, baseball and soccer fields, and the town’s lienzo charro, or rodeo ring.

Charreadas — or rodeos — have been a part of the Mexican culture since the 16th century, although being a charro used to be more of a job than a sport.

Our visit to Chipilo last Sunday took us directly to this ring, where the family of Alfonso “Poncho” García, was holding a gran charreada, or great rodeo, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death. The free event attracted hundreds of spectators and riders from Atlixco, Mexico City, and beyond, including an award-winning group of escaramuzas (women equestrians who ride side-saddle in precise, choreographed patterns) from Puebla. Our friend Elmar, who’s close to the Garcías, invited us to see the show — my first-ever rodeo — and we were honored to meet several longtime charreada fans and participants.

Charreadas have been a part of the Mexican culture since the 16th century, but being a charro was a more of a job than a sport up until the early 20th century. In 1921, the National Association of Charros formed to keep tradition alive, and in 1933 turned over country-wide organizational duties to the new National Federation of Charros. (Puebla’s affiliated state association of charros is among the oldest, dating to 1923.) A typical charreada comprises nine events for men and one for women, which are scored based on an individual’s technique. There is no time limit. Rodeo is considered an amateur sport, in that competitors usually vie for trophies, titles, and bragging rights instead of money.

The charreada in Chipilo was scheduled to start at noon, but in true Mexican fashion, it didn’t get under way until sometime thereafter. We didn’t mind. Our seats on the rickety metal bleachers were in the shade, and we bought a giant beer and snacks from various vendors. In some form or another, there was constant entertainment: Early on, one bull escaped the ring and disrupted the soccer game going on next door, as players and charros tried to get him off the field. Later, two others wouldn’t buck during the jinteo de toro, or bull riding, event; right out of the gate, they simply sat down. The announcer told jokes — some less politically correct than others — and tried to hurry the proceedings along by reminding everyone that he needed to, ahem, get to church by 6 p.m. And, at one point, the water truck managing the dust in the ring drove a little too close to the crowd.

The roping, reining, and riding skills on display, however, were well worth the occasional wait. The escaramuzas appeared to be in top form, executing intricate patterns in close proximity with speed and grace. Perhaps most impressive to me was the young charro who, on foot, repeatedly lassoed a mare that was being chased around the ring by three other competitors on horseback in the forefooting event. For his efforts, he received a standing ovation and many hats thrown into the ring.

A charro works his lasso in Chipilo, Puebla.The García family pays tribute to their son, Alfonso, on the 20th anniversary of his death.A charro rides a bucking bull in Chipilo.

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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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Finding Archaeological Treasure in Cantona

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

One of the volcanic-rock pyramids at Cantona.Cantona is one of the largest urban settlements ever discovered in Mesoamerica, sprawling across nearly five square miles of remote, arid land in northeastern Puebla. Yet the remarkable ruins are rarely visited, despite being described by people who have been there as well-preserved, mysterious, beautiful, and relatively easy to get to by car from the capital. In fact, on the afternoon that our small group toured the site, we were the only ones there (aside from a few workers). This meant we had the grounds — and the breathtaking views — to ourselves, which is not something most travelers would complain about.

Cantona was once an active commercial center in central Mexico. Experts believe that the fortified metropolis, perhaps founded by the Olmecs or the Chichimecs around A.D. 50, thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries. At its peak, some 80,000 people lived there. “Its prosperity depended to a great extent on the mining and trade of obsidian extracted from the Oyameles and Zaragoza deposits, located only [three miles] from the city,” Mexican archaeologists noted in their application to have Cantona designated as an official UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2001. “In this sense, it was competing with Teotihuacan, which mined and traded obsidian extracted from the Sierra de las Navajas, in the state of Hidalgo.” (Obsidian was used to produce arrowheads, knife blades, and other tools throughout central Mexico.)

French explorer Henri de Saussure claimed to have discovered Cantona in 1855, but the site was a secret only to outsiders; locals had known of its existence for centuries. Indeed, the name Cantona may be derived from the Nahuatl word caltonal, or “sun house,” which seems to make sense, given the site’s location on a desert-like plain near the Puebla-Veracruz border. Nonetheless, formal excavation didn’t begin until the 1990s and remains far from complete today.

“It’s difficult to decide which aspect of this old city is the most amazing: the intricate network of streets and avenues lined with sidewalls, the ingenious way it takes advantage of the topography … or the combination of volcanic rock with yucca or pine for construction.” —Mexico Desconocido

Cantona is a maze of patios, pyramids, and ball courts connected by walkways.Cantona comprises many small pyramids built from volcanic rock and features at least two dozen ball courts, the most ever recorded in ancient Mexico. Nearly half a million ceramic vessels have been found to date. The site also contains more than 100 civic and religious plazas, 2,000 patios (living spaces), and 20 different known gateways or points of access.

“Cantona possesses an extensive and complex network of communication routes, from large avenues to small alleys,” Jimena Acevedo wrote recently in the national travel magazine Mexico Desconocido. “There are around 500 streets that perfectly connect all of the points in the city and lead to its highest part, where the important structures, like temples, ball courts, and rulers’ houses stood. Some of the avenues are actually more than a kilometer long and others connect this old city with diverse towns nearby.”

The Cantona site today is located between the towns of Tepeyahualco and Coyoaco. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; admission is less than 50 pesos. To get there by car from the city of Puebla, take Highway 150 east to the Amozoc toll booth, then Highway 129 north (toward Teziutlán). When you get to Oriental, take the local road toward Tepeyahualco and then follow signs to Cantona. Public transportation is not a great option of reaching this isolated area. Hint: You’ll need take buses as far as you can, and then hire a taxi to go the distance. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) appears to be offering some expert-led tours in English; inquire ahead.

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Every Day Is Christmas in Chignahuapan

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Blown-glass ornaments in Chignahuapan, Puebla.A 19th-century Mudejar kiosk sits at the center of an otherwise traditional town square. One Catholic church celebrates a petrified mushroom that bears a sacred image of the Crucifixion, while another is anchored by an enormous plaster virgin. And the main drag — well, it looks as if someone threw up Christmas all over it. Welcome to Chignahuapan, an enigmatic little city about a 90-minute drive from the capital in Puebla’s northern mountains.

First inhabited by Chichimecs and later the Aztecs, Chignahuapan (pronounced “chig-na-WA-pon”) officially became a municipality in 1874, when Spanish missionaries began to settle in the area and built its first church, says a local tourism and commerce website. Since then, residents have erected more places of worship and earned a reputation for making artisanal goods (red earthenware pots, bovine-wool blankets, hand-carved wood) and mutton dishes, from pit-roasted barbacoa to mixiote bundles wrapped in maguey leaves. Their talents, coupled with the proximity of Lake Almoloya and thermal baths, have turned Chignahuapan into a popular day trip or weekend escape for urban dwellers from Puebla and Mexico City.

Between August and December, visitors flock to Chignahuapan to buy locally produced blown glass. Each year, more than 200 workshops turn out some 70 million Christmas-tree ornaments in every shape, size, and color imaginable. The lion’s share of these esferas navideñas are packed, distributed, and sold throughout Mexico, but the best selection and prices can be found by visiting the stores on Romero Vargas Street (also called 2 Sur behind the municipal building), just a block from the zócalo. Need a set of spiral ornaments in rainbow hues, a decorative centerpiece for the dinner table, or a pair of dainty snowman earrings to match that holiday sweater? No problem!

La Feria del Árbol y La Esfera

For the past 16 years, Chignahuapan has celebrated its seasonal craft with an annual tree and ornament festival. The 2011 event continues this week with all sorts of events, including: a fishing tournament (Oct. 30, 7 a.m., at Lake Chignahuapan), fireworks (Oct. 30, 10 p.m., at the Explanada Municipal), mariachis (Oct. 31, 8:30 p.m., Teatro del Pueblo), and a festival of light and life for Day of the Dead (Nov. 1, 6 p.m., at the Teatro de la Laguna). For the complete program, click here and then on “Programa” and the different ornaments.

Art and Architecture, Relgious Symbols, a Waterfall, and More

A 19th-century Mudejar kiosk is the centerpiece of the town square.Shopping aside, Chignahuapan offers a few other sites well worth seeing. A short walk to the main square rewards visitors with a wonderfully diverse mix of art and architecture. to The municipal building features a beautiful (and brand-new) mural depicting the area’s heritage and history in its entryway. Next door, the Parish of St. James the Apostle boasts a gorgeous facade, which blends Baroque and indigenous styles of the late 16th century. Across the street, an open, elevated Mudejar kiosk, built in 1871 to house public performances, demands attention with a Muslim-Spanish design that’s reminiscent of old-world bull-fighting rings in Madrid and Barcelona.

El Sanctuario del Sr. Honguito is dedicated to a petrified mushroom bearing an image of Christ on the cross.Back on the main drag, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a rather nondescript building on the outside, houses a towering virgin on its main altar inside. When Mass isn’t being celebrated, visitors are welcome climb a small set of stairs and lay their hands at her feet for a blessing; a small donation is requested. Just a short drive away, following the street signs toward the thermal baths, the Sanctuary of Our Lord of the Fungus pays homage to a petrified mushroom that, according to local lore, was miraculously found in 1880 and contains various images, including Christ on the cross. Señor Honguito is preserved under glass in the church’s nave for public viewing, except during Mass (Sundays at 9:30am).

Lovers of the outdoors may also want to visit the waterfall at Quetzalapan. The falls used to generate power for much of the region — in fact, according to the eco-park’s website, Chignahuapan was the first city in the area to have electricity, because people in the area built their own hydroelectric plant in 1930. It stayed in business until 1980, when it succumbed to competition. The site now operates as a recreational area, offering picnic areas with barbecue pits, secure camping facilities, and activities such as zip lines and archery.

Original post updated on Oct. 29, 2011.

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Hipster Hangout: Cholula’s Container City

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

As the name suggests, Container City is built entirely of recycled shipping containers.Recycling is not yet a big part of Mexican culture, but repurposing certainly is, and clever developers in San Andrés Cholula have taken the concept to its extreme: Gabriel Esper Caram and his partner built an entire city of salvaged shipping containers, many of which are adorned with reused materials, from bottle caps to plastic tubing.

Container City, frequently referred to as simply los containers, isn’t really a city, of course. It’s a roughly 50,000-square-foot strip mall for hipsters that houses boutique clothing stores, restaurants, bars and clubs, a dry cleaner, a tattoo parlor, and a bus depot.

“The creation of a type of Soho or Palermo or Condesa was a fundamental objective, realized with high regard for the needs of the tenants and the magnificent location [near the pyramid],” the developers, who also wanted to build something sustainable, explain on their website. “If you love all things on the vanguard, urban design, or following the latest design and style trends, you should come get to know this project.”

Like almost everything else in Cholula, Container City caters to students from the nearby university (UDLAP), which means its businesses change themes, names, and hands fairly regularly. But the overall laid-back nature of the place, enhanced by the whimsically painted shipping containers, makes it a pleasant spot for patrons of any age to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, an afternoon cup of tea, or a rock & roll nightcap.

“There’s plenty of outdoor space to sit around and hang out, and there are events and bands scheduled all the time,” Bridgette Meinhold noted earlier this year on the Inhabitat design blog.

Our favorite spot is Taxi bar, which hosts live music most evenings. Note that, if you’re enjoying a beer at Taxi and get hungry, you can order food (tacos, sushi, doner kebab) from the neighboring restaurants; look for wait staff wandering around with menus. La Martina next door serves sinfully good deep-fried cecina (salt-cured beef).

The Container City is located at the corner of 12 Oriente and 2 Norte in San Andrés Cholula. Hours vary wildly, but you’ll find most businesses open daily in the late afternoon.

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Cholula: More Than Just a Hot Sauce

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

From a distance, the Great Pyramid of Cholula looks like a grassy knoll.It’s one of the longest-inhabited sites in the Americas, home of the world’s largest pyramid, and one of Mexico’s “pueblos mágicos.” Yet more people may recognize Cholula for the popular hot sauce (made in Jalisco, not Puebla) that’s named after it than for the historically significant place it is. Even Mexicans have been known to overlook it. In a 2010 special edition about the country’s “most spectacular” archaeological zones, Dónde Ir de Viaje magazine neglected to even mention Cholula.

“Cholula is not only the oldest continuously occupied ceremonial center in the western hemisphere, but in some respects, one of the most enigmatic,” John Pohl wrote for the Foundation of Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “The Acropolis, even larger than Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun, is a confounding mass of Pre-Classic to Early Post- Classic brick and masonry that defies conventional excavation, while a Late Post-Classic city is buried beneath the ever expanding urban growth of the modern community.”

In fact, it’s quite possible to miss the massive Great Pyramid of Cholula even if you’re staring right at it. The structure, overgrown with natural vegetation for centuries, looks like a grassy knoll from a distance. Archaeologists can’t unearth the monument, which the Guinness Book of World Records calls the largest ever constructed, because Spanish conquerors built a church on top of it in 1594. Today, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is both a protected Colonial monument and a destination for Catholic pilgrims. To study the pyramid, whose Nahuatl name is Tlachihualtepetl or “artificial mountain,” archaeologists dug nearly 5 miles of tunnels. Visitors may pass through a portion of them, though anyone prone to claustrophobia should stick to the exterior grounds, which are partially exposed. The MX$30 entry fee also includes admission to the site’s museum, which features a scale model of the pyramid’s multistage construction, reproductions of the two large murals found deep inside the structure, and other artifacts. Most of the signs and descriptions are translated into English. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. To get to the museum from the ticket booth, head across the street and down the stairs to the right of the public restrooms.

You can, of course, also go up to the Church of Our Lady of the Remedies, which is a steep but relatively quick climb. On a clear day, the views of the surrounding metropolis and the volcanoes in the distance are breathtaking. If Mass is not being celebrated, visitors may pass through the sanctuary, where you’ll find a collection of dolls representing virgin saints and can peer through the unusual glass-backed altar out into the nave. (Note that flash photography is strictly forbidden.) On weekends, the area behind the pyramid is a hub of activity: Street vendors often set up arts and crafts booths, and a team of voladores regularly treats onlookers to their flying ritual. If you’re in town this weekend, May 15 and 16, don’t miss the hot-air balloon fair, Festival Globo Mágico, which takes place here from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is MX$35; balloon rides cost MX$200 (a quick lift) to MX$2,000 (hour-long tour).

The Area’s Backstory, in Brief

Experts have long disputed the timeline of Cholula’s evolution, but it’s now believed that the area has been inhabited since at least 100 A.D., possibly much earlier. Through the ages, various indigenous groups established Cholula as an important religious, economic, and political center. Between 600 and 700 A.D., the site appears to have grown from a small settlement into a regional hub. Then from 750 to 950 A.D., Cholula expanded rapidly as Olmeca-Xicalanca rulers “exploited a power vacuum created by their fallen rival, Teotihuacán,” Pohl notes. The acropolis thrived, alongside contemporary sites like El Tajín, until the Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples moved into the area and relocated the ceremonial altar around 1100 A.D. “Cholula then became, in the words of one Spanish chronicler, a New World Mecca, the largest pilgrimage center in highland Mesoamerica and the nucleus of a Nahua commercial exchange network that extended from the Basin of México to El Salvador,” Pohl explains.

Between 1150 and 1500 A.D., Cholula emerged as the region’s power center — one so important that Aztec royalty traveled there to be anointed by Cholulan priests. The area’s population had swelled to nearly 100,000, making it the second-largest city outside of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, a.k.a. Mexico City. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519, Hernán Cortés and his army (and its indigenous allies, including the Tlaxcaltecans) took over with a bloody massacre, burning much of the city and killing thousands of people.

These days, Cholula comprises three municipalities — San Andrés, San Pedro, and Santa Isabel — which some 200,000 people call home. Over the past decade, the once mostly rural area has developed into the major suburb of Puebla. And, thanks in large part to the 7,000 students from affluent families who attend the University of the Americas Puebla each semester, Cholula also has a vibrant nightlife. Restaurants, cantinas, and nightclubs abound along the main drag, which changes names several times (14 Oriente, 14 Poniente, Morelos) as it stretches from the Periferico highway to the heart of San Pedro Cholula.

In October 2012, Cholula (a zone around the pyramid that encompasses the archaeological site and the main squares of San Andrés and San Pedro) was named a “pueblo mágico” by the federal tourism board.

Post updated on December 23, 2012.

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