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Getting a Closer Look at Mexico’s Active Volcano

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

The active Popocatépetl volcanoFew natural wonders are as awe-inspiring as an active volcano, and Popocatépetl rarely disappoints. On a typical day, the second highest peak in Mexico—which rises 17,802 feet above sea level—spews a plume of ash, gas, and steam that can stretch for miles, its trajectory determined by which way the wind happens to be blowing.

For nearly seven years now, I’ve admired this powerful force of nature from a comfortable distance, often perched on the rooftop of our apartment building in San Andrés Cholula, Puebla, some 25 miles away. Countless times I’ve snapped share-worthy photos, swept volcanic debris from our back patio, and watched the evening sun dip behind Popo and neighboring (and dormant) Iztaccíhuatl as it sets to the west. Nature’s majesty never, ever gets old.

I finally had a closer encounter with Popocatépetl—or “Don Goyo,” as the volcano is colloquially known (“Goyo” is short for San Gregorio, its patron saint)—this spring, when friends of ours organized an overnight trip to a town in the folds of Iztaccíhuatl. Our first stop was El Paso de Cortés, the mountain pass through which Spanish soldiers are said to have marched in the 16th century to reach the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City.

The Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley at duskPicnic at El Paso de CortésView of Iztaccíhuatl from El Paso de Cortés

Natural Wonder

This gap between the volcanoes today affords visitors access to Parque Nacional Izta-Popo, as well as spectacular views of the mountains and the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley whenever the weather cooperates. So, one fine Saturday in March, we packed a lunch and our overnight bags and headed up the long, winding dirt road from Cholula to El Paso de Cortés. It was a truly glorious day, and our party of six arrived at the pass with plenty of time to check out the small museum in the visitor’s center, take pictures, and enjoy a leisurely picnic beneath the pine trees before the afternoon clouds moved in.

Later, a few miles south of the national park, we settled into our digs at Villa Buenavista Turistíca, a rustic “resort” with a hotel and cabins, a restaurant, and a tiny lake for fishing. Although the fireplace was tempting—it can be quite chilly at high altitudes—rather than linger in our cabin nestled deep in the woods, we headed uphill to a private home on a ridge overlooking the valley. We got slightly lost en route and couldn’t get a cell phone signal, so we parked and hitched a ride with a local resident. Not only did he know the way, but his 4×4 deftly handled the street’s unpaved switchbacks, two of which required backing up to make their extremely sharp turns. At the house, we were treated to a lovely view at dusk, followed by rain showers.

A couple of hours later, however, the clouds parted and Popocatépetl—which loomed in the moonlight—was gloriously dusted with snow. A soft red glow, presumably coming from the molten lava inside, rimmed its crater. Whoa. I’m fairly certain that the word “breathtaking” comes from sights like these. One thing’s for sure: No photo my iPhone could take would ever do it justice. I felt fortunate to be standing there among friends, appreciating the scene, knowing that such moments rarely occur more than once in a lifetime.

The next morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Buenavista restaurant, then decided to get a glimpse of La Ermita del Silencio and the other “resort” in the area. The hillside hermitage, founded by a Buddhist monk, offers a quiet retreat for individuals and groups seeking a beautiful place to meditate. The facility is open to the public only on weekends when it’s vacant—but the grounds outside are gorgeous, with waterfalls and views of Popocatépetl. Meanwhile, Villa Ecoturistica La Venta provides an alternate eatery, plus hiking, fishing, and zip-lining opportunities. (For those interested in camping on Izta, this is perhaps the safest place to do so.)

Inside Buenavista’s restaurantLa Ermita del SilencioWaterfall at Villa Ecoturistica La Venta

Local Legends

Poblanos tell a lot of stories about the volcanoes that surround Puebla. Perhaps the most familiar is the legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

Many slight variations of this tale exist, but here is my translation of the official version that’s posted on the wall inside the national park’s museum:

In Aztec mythology, Izta was a beautiful princess who fell in love with the handsome and brave warrior Popo. Her father sent Popo into battle, promising him her hand in marriage if he brought back the enemy’s head. Before Popo left, he and Izta swore their undying devotion to each other. But while Popo was away, a Tlaxcalteca who had eyes for Izta told her that Popo had been killed in battle and convinced her to marry him instead.

Some time later, Popo returned victorious, and Izta—having already offered herself to another man—committed suicide, because she couldn’t be with her true love. A heart-broken Popo subsequently died of sadness. That night, the Aztecs watched as two massive mountains emerged from the valley floor: one shaped like a woman in repose and the other like a man kneeling before her. The gods had turned Izta and Popo into volcanoes to forever remind people of their ill-fated romance. As for the Tlaxcalteca, he became Citlaltépetl (aka Pico de Orizaba), who watches the pair he could never really separate from a distance.

To this day, Popo (a personification of Tlaloc, an Aztec god of water and fertility) and Izta continue to be revered by some Mexicans as deities. Residents of the area around the active volcano today are known to deliver offerings—music, food, liquor—to appease him.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Travel tips: Before heading to El Paso de Cortés, it’s a good idea to check the weather, the latest activity report for the volcano, and the condition of your vehicle. Access to Popocatépetl is strictly prohibited. Permits are required to hike, bike, or climb Iztaccíhuatl; download and fill out the form, pay 28 pesos per person at the visitor center, and then wear the wristband you’re given. For additional information, please refer to the various links in the post above.

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Museo San Pedro Flaunts Neo-Mexican Artwork

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Works by three artists who represent the neo-Mexican movement are on display in “Éxtasis y Abundancia” (Ecstasy and Abundance”), an exhibit that’s part of the 2014 International Cinco de Mayo Festival in Puebla. Now through June 29, visitors may enjoy this feast for the eyes at the San Pedro Museo de Arte just two blocks from the zócalo.

All three featured artists—Antonio Álvarez, Lilliana Amezcua, and Arturo Elizondo—studied at the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla; Álvarez is now an UDLAP professor. Although each artist has a distinct style, observers can find similarities among their pieces. A description of the exhibit speaks of their “figurative large-format painting on stylized themes related to Mexican culture, creating an innovative sense of post-revolutionary nationalism.” This nationalistic spirit is one which delights in re-creating past history and reflecting a mix of Spanish and indigenous elements while also poking fun at religious and social traditions.

"Portrait of Sister Patti Smith," by Antonio Álvarez MoranPerhaps the most prominent painting on display is the detailed mural by Antonio Álvarez dedicated to Cinco de Mayo, on loan from El Mural de los Poblanos restaurant, where it usually hangs in the lobby. The mural depicts various people with historical significance to the Battle of Puebla, including Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza. (A reference map in Spanish identifies those represented.)

Also by Álvarez are riffs on el santo niño, the Christ child figures that are dressed up yearly for Candlemass (Día de la Candelaria, Feb. 2). One is a mason whose clothing is spattered with cement, and another is a tourist with sunglasses who’s gone sight-seeing all over Mexico and has snapshots to show for it! Another unusual series by Álvarez, created for the 100th anniversary of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” reinterprets the cubist painting by superimposing images of Mexican showgirls on those of the original canvas.

Meanwhile, Álvarez’s series of portraits of nuns from centuries past was inspired by the fact that these women rejected the prevailing female role of housewife in their times. In contrast is a tongue-in-cheek painting of punk rocker Patti Smith as a nun, founder of the “Order of Barefoot Punkettes” (pictured at right). Her huge metallic medallion has, instead of saints, images of artists and others who inspired her, including Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Having spent a number of years living in the United States, Álvarez describes his recent style as “Gringuismo mágico” (“Magic Gringoism”), in which he elevates the commonalities of American life to a spiritual level.

Lilliana Amezcua, on the other hand, likes to call her style “punk Baroque.” Her series “Patrones” (“Patrons”) involves collages combining recycled items like Barbie shoes and clippings from decades-old women’s magazines with her own painting or embroidery. She provides social commentary on “the perfect homemaker” of the past by mocking the pills and potions advertised for bigger breasts and whiter skin.

Another favorite genre of Amezcua’s is the self-portrait—a la Frida Kahlo—and she sometimes dresses herself as a grande dame while, at the same time, insinuating that she is no such thing. “Dama con Perrito” (“Lady with Doggie,” pictured below) is one fine example of this.

"Dama Con Perrito," by Lilliana AmezcuaAmezcua links past and present as she seeks to continue with the perfume factory and shop her Spanish grandfather started, following the original formulas for soaps, oils, and scents with ingredients like rosemary, coconut, grapes, and garlic; many of her works in “Éxtasis y Abundancia” reveal her family’s history, and one shows her surrounded by the tools and recipes of her trade as if they were a halo.

The project “Anónimo” (“Anonymous”) by the third artist, Arturo Elizondo, stands out for its interactiveness, involving the community and relating to written media as well. He asked volunteers of all ages from different parts of the city of Puebla to read excerpts of literature by Mexican author Juan Rulfo and to draw a picture of a scene. Elizondo then painted the readers with their creations. In addition to the “common man,” celebrities like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo also appear in his paintings.

The exhibit is well-named, as its riot of color, textures, and images is indeed remarkable for its “ecstatic abundance.” Saints and devils, the profane and the prosaic, politics and history, humor and social comment intersect and delight. —Margie Hord de Méndez

San Pedro Museo de Arte (4 Norte #203, Col. Centro), is open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is 30 pesos (free on Sundays). “Ecstasy and Abundance” runs through June 29.

Images used with permission from their respective artists.

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Tastiest Dish in Latin America: Mole Poblano

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Grinding mole ingredients on a metate at La Casita PoblanaAll About Puebla features more than a few posts about Poblano food and, perhaps because of that, the upstart company Chowzter last summer asked our founder, Rebecca Smith Hurd, to serve as its chief culinary correspondent for the city of Puebla. As such, she wrote about her top regional dishes and her favorite places to eat them around town.

One of her picks, the mole poblano at La Casita Poblana in Col. Huexotitla, was nominated in Chowzter’s second annual Fast Feasts Awards as the tastiest dish in Latin America—and it took home top honors. Hurd accepted the prize on behalf of the restaurant in London on Sunday and plans to present it to owner Angélica Bravo Gutierrez and her kitchen staff, including Doña Ramona (who’s pictured here grinding mole ingredients on a metate), on May 6. Stay tuned for photos; we’ll update this post next week.

Want more in the meantime? Check out this short video shown during the awards presentation. Or better yet, visit the restaurant and try its mole poblano! Tip: It’s a tad spicy and a tad sweet—our favorite combo—and most traditionally served over chicken breast or thigh. We often order mole with chicken enchiladas too.

LaCasitaPoblana-moleCongratulations to everyone at La Casita Poblana for cooking up such a delicious version of the iconic and traditional dish! Elsewhere in Mexico, Teotitlán del Valle’s Carina Santiago was nominated in a different category for her mole coloradito. For a complete list of 2014 winners, click here.

Chowzter is a free website and mobile app (Android and iOS), that provides reviews of the “tastiest fast feasts” in scores of cities worldwide, chosen by foodies familiar with the area. The fare, which must be authentic and locally sourced, is typically offered by market stalls, street food vendors, and casual restaurants. The idea is to provide residents and visitors with insight into where to find seriously good eats at affordable prices wherever they may go.

If you’ve found a particularly tasty spot in Puebla you think we should try, let us know by leaving a reply below.

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A Sunday Drive From Puebla to Atlimeyaya

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

San Baltazar AtlimeyayaThis guest post was written by Margie Hord de Méndez, a Canadian expat who grew up in Honduras and has lived in Mexico for the past 40 years. She lives and works, as a teacher and a translator, in Puebla.

I’ve never seen San Baltazar Atlimeyaya mentioned in a tourist guidebook, which is unfortunate, because this sleepy mountain town makes for an easy, lovely day trip from the Puebla capital. Although one can pass through the city of Atlixco to get there, by trial and error we found it was faster to take the Cuautla turnoff (Siglo XXI) from Highway 190, which avoids quite a few twists and turns on small roads. If you’re lucky, you can catch some great views of the majestic Popocatépetl volcano as you grow closer and closer in proximity.

The next town to look for—about 5 km from Atlixco—is Metepec. Its Centro Vacacional y de Convenciones is a government-owned recreational center with a hotel, camping areas, sport fishing, swimming pools, and quadricycles for rent. Previously a hacienda that produced textiles, its late 19th-century architecture reflects its interesting history; guided tours of its Industrial Worker Museum are available in Spanish. From there, the same narrow main road, or camino vecinal, winds up into the hills toward Atlimeyaya. Lost? Head for the fake, graffiti-covered UFO on one little hill.

Entering Atlimeyaya, follow the signs to the giant ahuehuete tree, an ancient specimen of the conifer (the water-loving Montezuma cypress), which you can pay a small fee (10 or 15 MXP) to visit, just a minute’s walk from the entrance. Nearby, you’ll find springs of delicious cold water, which comes from the snow melting on the volcano. A sign declares that a chemist has declared the water very pure, but if you decide to drink from it, do so at your own risk—and before it reaches the troughs where donkeys and horses quench their thirst. Love horses? You can ride for half an hour or longer around the main roads, with a guide helping you if you wish. The dirt road continues into the foothills, but if you head further up the volcano, be aware that herds of goats and sheep frequently occupy the road, making progress slow.

Just before the ahuehuete, a road to the right that leads to a corridor of restaurants, which allow both indoor and—most popular—outdoor eating options. Choose one, such as La Cascada, near a flowing stream that splashes along in a canal. If you’re young or young at heart, you may enjoy swinging like Tarzan on the ropes over the stream or sticking your feet into the icy water. Keep a close eye on anyone who doesn’t swim. Most restaurants also have dry playgrounds for children.

View of Popocatépetl from the Puebla-Altixco highwayXouilin Trout FarmLa Cascada RestaurantTopping the list of favorite dishes in the area is responsibly farmed local trout. You can fish for your own nearby and pay to have it cleaned and prepared. Or you can simply order the day’s catch from the menu, either fried or empapelado (steamed in aluminum foil), with tempting flavors such as garlic, almond, or chile. Handmade tortillas help to round out an excellent meal. The fish comes from the adjacent Xouilin trout farm, where you can visit the raceways of royal, rainbow, and salmon trout in various stages of development as they splash around in the 13 degrees Celsius runoff from the volcano. An information center periodically offers videos that educate both children and adults. Admission is 15 pesos for adults and 5 pesos for kids. You can also purchase and take home extremely fresh fish (100 to 120 MXP per kilo); bring an ice chest if you plan to do so.

When you go, don’t be fooled by the fact that everyone will tell you Atlixco is always “a few degrees warmer” than the city of Puebla. Atlimeyaya is situated at a higher elevation (nearly 2,200 meters above sea level) and tends to be cooler, so bring a jacket or a wrap just in case. Mosquito repellent is a good idea, too. —Margie Hord de Méndez

To get to San Baltazar Atlimeyaya, 43 kilometers from the city of Puebla, head in the direction of Atlixco on the Atlixcáyotl toll road. You’ll find a Google map here.

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Tonantzintla Shop Sells Cholula-Style ‘Talavera’

Monday, March 17th, 2014

AAP-TalaveraTonantzintla2014dThe tiny town of Santa María Tonantzintla, which lies just south of Cholula off the old federal highway to Atlixco, is probably best known to outsiders for its magnificent church. The architectural gem is said to be the rural community’s version of the ostentatious Capilla del Rosario in Puebla, which centuries ago was heralded as the eighth wonder of the world.

Tonantzintla’s 17th-century edifice beckons parishioners and tourists alike with dueling tower bells and intricately laid white and cobalt blue talavera tiles on its facade. Inside, the nave is literally plastered from floor to ceiling with colorful religious symbols, both European and indigenous, that seem to bring the walls to life. It is, in a word, spectacular.

Visitors may not take pictures of the church’s interior without special permission (or a wedding invitation), but they may purchase locally made talavera at a nearby shop. In fact, one of our favorite producers in the entire region is Talavera Tonantzintla. Although its wares aren’t certified by the government, in part because its pottery is lead- and cadmium-free, the craftsmanship of the artists who painstakingly throw and paint every piece by hand is, at its best, exquisite.

Yet the real treasures turned out by this family-run operation are made of cotto, a type of pottery named after the “baked” porcelain and ceramic tiles of Italy. (We suspect that neighboring Chipilo may have had some influence here.) The pieces produced by Talavera Tonantzintla celebrate the area’s pre-Hispanic culture by flaunting one or more of 55 designs from a Cholultecan codex [PDF]. The images, such as the native turkey (pictured below, far right) are chronicled alongside many others in the book Diseño Gráfico en Cerámica Prehispanica Cholulteca. Their reproduction is approved by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

AAP-TalaveraTonantzintla2014aAAP-TalaveraTonantzintla2014cAAP-TalaveraTonantzintla2014bShoppers may visit the small factory, which is located inside an unassuming, graffiti-covered building near kilometer 11.5 on the highway. It’s open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays until 3 p.m. However, according to the owners, the best selection of the shop’s work can be found at Tonantzin, Avenida Hidalgo #33 (at Iturbide), in Santa María Tonantzintla. The store is open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Gone Fishing: Catching Trout in Metepec-Atlixco

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Catch-and-release licenses are available at Amatzcalli.Fly-fishing probably isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when you think of Mexico, and even if it is, you’re most likely to imagine catching saltwater species such as bonefish or tarpon or snook off the shores of Quintana Roo. But anglers who prefer cooler climes and freshwater catches can find several attractive options here in the state of Puebla. AAP-Amaztcalli-Metepec3x5

I know this not because am a fly-fishing expert — I’m merely a Pisces — but because my husband, Pablo, is a longtime enthusiast who has spent many, many hours casting and retrieving in regional lakes and streams. He even ties his own flies. The places he typically goes are so lovely that I sometimes tag along just to enjoy the scenery, often packing a camera, a book or a magazine, a picnic breakfast or lunch, and a blanket or a camping chair to sit on.

Pablo’s favorite spot is Amatzcalli, a recreational area that’s nestled behind the vacation and convention center in Metepec-Atlixco. On a clear, sunny day like those we’ve been enjoying lately, the views are stunning (all photos, this page). The small, privately run park offers both spinning and fly-fishing, as well as camping, picnic areas, and a playground for kids. A bait and tackle shop sells and rents gear and day permits for its man-made lake, which is stocked mostly with farm-raised brown and rainbow trout and sometimes black bass, bluegill, and white crappie. The on-site convenience store and restaurant sell beer, snacks, and sundries (or you may bring your own).Amatzcalli sports and camping center in Metepec-Atlixco, Puebla

The park entrance fee is 55 pesos per person, with discounts for kids and seniors. Fishing permits are either 30 pesos plus 95 pesos per kilo (2.2 pounds) of fish caught or 285 pesos for catch and release (fly-fishing only). Gear rental and fish gutting/cleaning cost extra. The trout is locally and organically farmed up the road at Xouilin, which offers recipes on its website, in case you end up with more fish than you bargained for! To get to Amatzcalli from Puebla, take the toll road to Atlixco and, just before you get there, exit at Autopista Siglo XXI as if you’re heading to Cuernavaca; here’s a map.

A fly-fisherman's bait

A bit further afield, the Ex-Hacienda de Chautla and Arco Iris Sport Fishing are ideal spots for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

When we have more time (which isn’t as often as we’d like), or when there’s a fishing tournament, we head farther out of town, although both of these destinations are also close enough to the state capital for day trips.

The Ex-Hacienda de Chautla, located near San Martín Texmelucan, occupies the grounds of a former estate and offers two large, glassy lakes for trout and bass fishing. Companions who don’t fish can rent a canoe, go zip-lining or mountain biking, or simply take a stroll around the lush grounds and visit the old hacienda and castle. Tents are available for camping, too. (For a list of services and prices, click here.)

Arco Iris Sport Fishing, located near the Mexico state line and on the edge of the volcanoes national park, is one of the few places in Puebla where river fishing is safe and legal. (It also has a well-stocked lake surrounded by forest.) Although Arco Iris caters to anglers, the site hosts a variety of other outdoor activities for the family, such as hiking, horseback riding, paintball, and miniature golf. Cabins that sleep up to six adults and two kids are available for overnight stays, and two restaurants and a spa with a temezcal help to “pamper” guests who aren’t big on cookouts and camping. (For more info and prices, click here.)

Need supplies? All three spots sell and rent gear on-site, but if you’d prefer to bring your own, Pablo recommends stocking up at Jamboree Hunting and Fishing (spinning) or Torreblanca/Narak Sport (fly-fishing). —Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Where to Buy Handmade Artisanal Goods in Puebla

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

“Typical Mexican flea market.” “Mostly touristy merchandise.” “The same stuff over and over.” The average reviews of El Parián on TripAdvisor are fairly apt. Although it’s possible to find lovely, regionally made artisanal goods at the popular open-air market, cheap knick-knacks abound. Some of its 112 “local” vendors even sell products from countries other than Mexico. “It’s a pretty place, but you have to be observant because there are Chinese wares mixed in and it’s easy to get confused.”

So, where can visitors buy authentic, high-quality artisanías in the city’s center? Below is a list of our favorite craftspeople. At their workshops and stores, you can find clay pots and talavera, glass and silver, and textiles and cigars — all lovingly made in Puebla.

Mix colors and paint each piece by hand in Talavera Armando's workshop.Hand-sculpted mole pots in the making.Glasswares

Certified Talavera

You can hardly walk a block in the city’s historic center without seeing a building façade adorned with talavera tiles. The art of making the now-signature ceramics was introduced to Puebla in the 16th century by emigrants from Talavera de la Reina, Spain. Many colorful dishes, decorations, and fixtures are still made the old-fashioned way by a handful of certified producers in town, including Talavera Armando and Uriarte Talavera. (Tip: To know whether a piece is certified, look for “D04” painted on the bottom.) Both sites offer tours in Spanish of their factory floors, where visitors can learn more about talavera and see how the process of making it unfolds.
Talavera Armando, 6 Norte #402, Col. Centro (222-232-6468). Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Tour fee: 25 MXP per person.
Talavera Uriarte, 4 Poniente #911, Col. Centro (222-232-1598). Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday; closes at 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tours: weekdays only, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 50 MXP per person.

Clay Pots

The Centro Alfarero del Barrio de la Luz is the only traditional factory still operating in what was once a neighorhood overflowing with pottery makers. Its collective today comprises 15 families, including the Lopez-García clan, which has been working clay into pots, jugs, candlesticks, and other items on the premises for seven generations. People come here from around the state to buy handmade cazuelas for mole — the largest, a campana entera, holds enough to feed 800 people — and other wares made daily from barro. Visitors may also get a glimpse of the giant brick oven in back, where many of the pots are still fired. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza #1403, Barrio de la Luz (222-294-2752). Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday; closes at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Handblown Glass

Antigua Fábrica de Vidrio “La Luz” is a retail store and museum dedicated to hand-blown and molded glass. The business was founded in 1935 by Victor Martínez Filoteo, an apprentice of Camilo Ávalos Razo, the Poblano who was once considered to be the master of the craft in Mexico. Although it isn’t the site of the original factory, which was located a few blocks away, it is a wonderful place to learn the history of the trade in Mexico — and to buy glasswares, including traditional items made of vidrio verde colonial, or “Colonial green glass.” 3 Oriente #1018, Barrio de Analco (222-242-5338). Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Tuesday to Friday; closes at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

SilversmithTextiles at IquitiHand-rolled cigars

Hand-Rolled Cigars

Although its tobacco and cigar-makers hail from the neighboring state of Veracruz, the smokes churned out by Fábrica de Puros Legendaria are assembled in Puebla. You can watch its artisans in action at its tiny store, located in front of Villa Rosa restaurant. Choose from three types of cigars — regular, Cuban seeds cultivated in Tuxtla, or rum-soaked — in varying lengths and widths. The house recommends the torpedo-sized mulato maduro. 5 Oriente #207, Col. Centro (222-232-5067). Hours: 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Silver Jewelry

Manos de la Tierra houses the workshop and flagship store of Giovanni Rangel, a Puebla native who makes jewelry from silver, talavera, fossils, and semiprecious stones like amber, jade, turquoise, and obsidian. His exquisite rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and cuff links are all one-of-a-kind pieces, which he carefully sketches out on paper before forging them in different grades of Mexican silver (925, 950 or 999). Gift purchases are wrapped in colored tissue paper and a cloth bag with literature about the artist and his materials. 6 Sur #4, Col. Centro (222-213-7052), with a second location inside the Presidente Intercontinental Hotel. Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.


Weaving has played an important role in Puebla’s history since the city’s earliest days. Although many of handmade items now come from other parts of the state, such as the Sierra Norte and the Mixteca regions, you’ll often find for sale here in the state capital. We recently purchased a beautiful wool shawl decorated with intricate woven patterns at Iquiti, a small boutique that also sells pillows, table runners, dolls, and clothing made by indigenous women and girls from Puebla and elsewhere in Mexico. It’s located next door to a cute café (owned by the same family) that brews Oaxacan coffee.
Iquiti, 5 Sur at 7 Poniente, Col. Centro (222-232-0275). Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

Of course, the city of Puebla offers many other places to buy artisanal wares. For arts and crafts, visit the pedestrian area next to the Carolino building (3 Oriente between 4 and 6 Sur). For antiques and flea market items, try Los Sapos plaza (6 Sur at 5 Oriente). For household wares, check out the tianguis in Analco park (5 Oriente between 8 and 10 Sur). Do you have a favorite place to share? Leave a reply with your tips below!

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Going Off the Beaten Path in La Mixteca of Puebla

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Puente de DiosThis is a guest post by Margie Hord de Méndez, a Canadian expat who grew up in Honduras and has lived in Mexico for the past 40 years. She lives and works, as a teacher and a translator, in Puebla.

La Mixteca is a mostly arid zone in the southern part of the state of Puebla, where many communities still speak Mixtec, although Popoloca and Nahuatl are also prevalent. It’s not the kind of place I’d choose to live, because it’s known for scorpions, and at certain times of the year the dry heat can be oppressive. However, my husband’s family is from La Mixteca, and the region — which stretches into Oaxaca and Guerrero — has its own kind of surprising beauty, like the bright pink blossoms of the árboles de cabello (ginkgo biloba trees), with their hanging tresses, in winter. Near the rivers, some of which only have water part of the time, one can find the treasures of mango and other fruit trees.

One seldom sees international tourists in La Mixteca, but there are numerous sites of interest. Acatlán de Osorio is well-known for its pottery, especially figures of the sun and the moon and “trees of life” that represent Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Near Tehuacán, the biosphere reserve offers a wealth of ecological diversity; it includes the Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollis, a fascinating garden where one can wander around and learn about the surprising variety of cacti and other desert flora and their medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. There is even a huge, ancient elephant’s foot tree (some 2,500 years old!). The species is considered sacred in Japan, and a Japanese prince is said to have had his ashes deposited here.

In Tepexi de Rodríguez, the Museo Regional Mixteco-Tlayúa displays fossils found in a nearby marble quarry, including marine animals, providing evidence that there was once an ocean in this desert. Previously, the site was known as pie de vaca (cow’s foot) museum, because of preserved footprints similar to those of cows, but experts now know they were left by now-extinct mammals related to camels. Though small and unassuming, this museum is important because of its fish and reptile fossils from the Mesozoic period.

Another sign of long-gone oceans is Zapotitlán Salinas, located in the biosphere, where salt water springs. The water is left to pool until it evaporates and the salt can be harvested. In a shop on the federal highway (125 from Tehuacán), we found artisanal bags of salt with different herbs or flavors, like garlic, added. The store also offered burnished pottery from nearby Los Reyes Metzontla, which is crafted by the Popoloca community using pre-Colombian techniques and has a unique, unadorned style.

ChigmecatitlánOn the way south, along the Puebla-Tepeaca highway (federal 150), is a turn-off that leads to the town of Molcaxac. A few kilometers beyond the town, it’s easy to miss the dilapidated signs indicating the way to the Cola de Caballo (Horsetail) waterfall and the Puente de Dios (God’s Bridge, pictured above), further down the Atoyac River. At the latter, visitors may park and, on foot, begin the long descent down hundreds of steps to the river below. Gradually, the climate seems to change and the heat dissipates, especially once you reach on the banks that flank the chilly currents. Large boulders strewn about make the path rather daunting, but they’re worth navigating to reach the Puente de Dios, a combination of huge arch, cave, and a sort of tunnel through which the river runs. Noisy birds swoop down into the canyon, adding to the magical feeling of a beautiful oasis of icy water in an otherwise arid area.

We also visited the nearby town of Huatlatlauca, where we understood there were still Nahuatl speakers. We came across a very old church, closed up except for the bell tower. It had the simple facade of an earlier Colonial church, but one could see vestiges of painted flowers that seem to have covered it at one point. Our son and his wife ventured up into the bell tower, a great place for photos, and she dared to pull on the bell rope. Ding! Fortunately, there were no repercussions, even though church bells can be used to sound an alarm, and outsiders’ meddling with them is generally unwelcome. This was on a dirt backroad, and we spoke to a middle-aged woman as she passed us. She said that the church was built by Augustinian monks. We asked whether there was a crafts shop in the town. No, people just keep their handicrafts at home and transport them to other towns to sell on special occasions. After we told her we were interested in her family’s creations, she escorted us to her home, where la abuelita (the grandmother, who spoke Nahuatl) worked away at weaving palm fronds into tiny figures.

Miniature figures made by weavers in La MixtecaIn the past, we learned, artisans would go down into holes in the ground to weave, where there was more moisture, as the palm needs to be damp to be worked well. The old woman can no longer sit on the floor to weave petates (mats), as she used to. I purchased a lovely mat that was more beautiful than most because of the special designs in variegated colors that she’d woven into it. They told us that this particular small mat is called petate de chocolate, but they did not know why. Perhaps those mats are used for grinding cocoa in some regions; however, La Mixteca does not offer the tropical climate where cocoa plants flourish.

The Mixtecs are better known for their woven work than the Nahuas. It is a fascinating sight as they trudge along, weaving hats as they walk, hardly glancing down as their hands fly at work. In cities around Mexico, it is easy to identify Mixtecs, as they usually sell all sorts of woven items, now mostly made from colorful artificial fibers, in the streets. Each town seems to have a specialty. Chigmecatitlán has a museum in its main square, where one can appreciate samples of their miniature animals, nativity figures, and jewelry. We were impressed by a large sign made for the patron saint’s festival; upon coming closer, the letters turned out to be made of tiny woven figures. My father-in-law, from a different town, used to weave miniature palm objects such as scorpions, a wonder to behold.

On the way back from Puente de Dios, we pulled over to the roadside to see if we might buy some of the local fruit we saw for sale at little stands. There was no need to leave the car, as immediately—boom!—several women crowded around the windows offering samples of their fruit (chicozapotes, anonas, mamey, granadas chinas). The latter, literally a “Chinese pomegranate,” is an elongated orangey fruit with a sweet, slimy pulp and many seeds that look almost like frog eggs and slide down the throat easily.

This area is not frequented by many tourists, as its attractions are more subtle than elsewhere. Yet, for me, that adds to its appeal: What you see is what you get. There are no facades put up to look quaint or typical or old or native. Traditional markets are more common than craft shops. If you are looking for what’s genuine, not put on for show, you’ll find it in La Mixteca. —Margie Hord de Méndez

Photographs courtesy Esteban Méndez (Puente de Dios) and Refugio Méndez (church, woven figures)

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The Mexican Revolution Was Started By a Poblana

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Bullet holes mark the facade of the Serdán House“Ask your friends if they know where the first shot of the Mexican Revolution was fired,” a docent at the Puebla museum that’s dedicated to this historical event instructs me in Spanish. “Go ahead.”

We’re standing on the central patio of what, on November 18, 1910, was the Serdán family’s home on Calle Santa Clara (6 Oriente). I’d just given Greta and Erin, who were visiting from California last week, a quick tour of the site. The museum is open for free on Sundays, so we’d popped in to see its traditional tile kitchen and the mirror cracked by bullets that hangs in the front room (pictured below). We were kind of in a hurry, because my friends had to check out of their hotel in 30 minutes. But I was intrigued by the docent’s question, so I repeated it in English. We all shrugged.

A large mirror in the front sitting room also bear bullet holes from the shootout..“It was Carmen Serdán,” he explains proudly, gesturing toward the staircase to our right. “She was standing there on the steps when Miguel Cabrera, the chief of police, entered the house through that small wooden door over there. Her brothers, Aquiles and Máximo, were busy distributing guns to their compatriots. Carmen told Cabrera not to take another step — or she’d shoot. But, perhaps because she was a woman, he didn’t take her seriously, and he continued walking to right about where you’re standing. She fired.” He paused for a moment while I translated.

Carmen was carrying a very powerful rifle, which knocked her backward when it went off. She missed the police chief, and it hit here,” he says, pointing to a bullet hole in a supporting column. “Cabrera fired back, but he missed, too, because his bullet hit the railing of the staircase.” Greta quickly spots the massive ding — and notes that it seems to have hit one of the stone steps, too.

“Aquiles rushed out,” the docent continues, “and killed the chief of police.” The Revolution had begun, its first shot fired by a Poblana.

A mural at the Serdán house depicts the siblings defending their beliefs (and where each was shot).Why the Serdán house? The family had been publishing propaganda and stockpiling weapons for reformist Francisco Madero, who planned to stage a rebellion against the newly (and unfairly) re-elected government of President Porfirio Díaz. Two days before the uprising was slated to begin, authorities learned of their arsenal. Some 400 soldiers and 100 police officers surrounded the house and, after Cabrera fell, a shootout ensued.

The maderists in the house, three women and 18 men, were grossly outnumbered, but they put up one heck of a fight. In the end, Aquiles and Máximo became among the first Mexicans to sacrifice their lives for the Revolution, which ultimately ended Díaz’s decades-long “dictatorship” (1877-1880, 1884-1911). Carmen survived the onslaught and was arrested. After serving time in La Merced jail, she worked as a nurse in various hospitals and cared for her nieces and nephews. She died in Puebla in 1948. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana, 6 Oriente #206, is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is 25 pesos (free on Sundays).

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2013 Fall Festivals: Our Favorite Week of the Year

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Given how often food gets featured on this site, you may find it hard to imagine us setting aside that heaping bowl of mole de caderas — available from only mid-October to mid-November — to write this post. But we were inspired by the recent Mexico chat on Twitter to share two of our (other) favorite fall festivals in Puebla before it’s too late to enjoy them. Both are happening this week, or Oct. 26 to Nov. 3.

We’ve written about Day of the Dead and the National Christmas Tree and Ornament Fair before, but this post contains updated information for 2013. Enjoy!

Day of the Dead

A chalk Catrina decorates Puebla's main square for Day of the Dead.Few traditions in Mexico rival Día de los muertos in their mixing of ancient and modern beliefs. The national holiday, which is celebrated around the state of Puebla from Oct. 28 to Nov. 2, honors lost loved ones by paying tribute to — and praying for — their spirits. Its origins can be traced to pre-Hispanic times, when the Aztecs held a monthlong ritual for the goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. Nowadays, families set up altars in their homes or businesses to remember people who’ve passed away (often during the past year). The notion is that, by doing so, they welcome, nourish, guide, and otherwise assist the souls in their journey after death.

Looking for ofrendas, calaveritas, and the like? The IMACP plans to show off the semifinalists in its annual altar-building contest at the Galería del Palacio Municipal (Portal Hidalgo #12, Col. Centro) on Oct. 31 from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 1, 2 and 3 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Its elaborate entries, which last year ranged from miniature to life-size, are made of paper and cardboard; admission is free.

Visitors to the city of Puebla who want to take part in the 2013 festivities should head for the historic center.

Next door, in the lobby of the Teatro de la Ciudad, artisans will display and sell their handcrafted wares Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 from noon to 6 p.m.; the theater is also set to host two “catwalk shows” of Catrina costumes on Nov. 2 at 6 and 8 p.m. Elsewhere on the block, the municipal government puts together a monumental altar every year that fills its entire lobby of the Palacio Municipal — which visitors may view from Oct. 28 to Nov. 6 — and offers a free marionette show for kids of all ages, Llegó a Puebla la Catrina, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Each year, the city of Puebla erects a monumental altar inside the Palacio Municipal.Just across the zócalo, on the opposite side of the Puebla Cathedral, the Casa de Cultura (5 Oriente #5) hosts its own colorful altar-building competition, as well artists selling Day of the Dead jewelry, figurines, and snacks (hello, sugar skulls). It’s open for free to the public Nov. 1 to 3 from roughly 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; prepare to stand in line.

Other Day of the Dead events in the Puebla capital include a nighttime parade on Nov. 1, which gets under way at 6 p.m. on Avenida Juárez (at 19 Sur) and winds through the city streets to the main square, and a Gran Fandango de Calaveritas at Museo Amparo (2 Sur #708) on Nov. 1 and 2, featuring Poblano folk group Reyes Son, at 8 p.m.

If you have wheels and want to head farther afield this week, the towns of Atlixco and Huaquechula are also colorful places to celebrate Day of the Dead. Atlixco is mounting its sixth giant floral carpet in the main square and a Catrina exposition on the patio of the Palacio Municipal, and Huaquechula invites visitors into 21 local homes to view traditional altars. (See links for additional details.)

National Xmas Tree and Ornament Fair

The town of Chignahuapan aims to sell tens of millions of Christmas ornaments this year during its annual Feria Nacional del Árbol y la Esfera.

Blown-glass ornaments in Chignahuapan, Puebla.The event, which showcases the work of some 3,000 artisans, takes place from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3. The hand-painted, blown-glass ornaments range from quirky to exquisite, and shoppers will find items in varying sizes and prices. (One year, we bought a bunch of holiday earrings to take to the U.S. as gifts.) The ornaments are produced in six major factories and some 200 family workshops, according to local news reports, and primarily sold by vendors on the main drag.

The fair comprises all sorts of events, from a midnight rodeo and Mexican wrestling to a candlelight procession and a massive launch of globos de cantoya. The festivities take place in the Teatro del Pueblo and other locations in and around town; admission prices vary. Click here for the complete schedule [PDF], which is a bit hard to read (but the only one we could find, thanks to Chignahuapan Entertainment’s Facebook page).

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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