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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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Top 5 Museums for a Rainy Day in Puebla

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Faces of Divinity: Mayan Green Stone Mosaics is on display at Museo Amparo through Aug. 29.You know it’s summer in Puebla when scattered showers and thunderstorms are forecast every day for what seems like an eternity. The good news is that wet weather doesn’t have to rain on anyone’s holiday parade, because the capital city offers plenty of indoor activities for avoiding the storms outside.

For starters, why not explore one of Puebla’s vast array of wonderful museums? We’ve picked five that we think you’ll enjoy even if you don’t read Spanish. These sites won’t break your budget, either, because they’re all are open to the public free of charge at least one day a week. Most also give breaks to students and visitors older than 60 (you may be asked to show a university credential or an INAPAM card). The first two on the list, Museo Amparo and Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana, are participating in the city’s “Museum Nights” program, which means they’re open free during special hours (5 to 10 p.m.) through Aug. 12.

Museo Amparo

One of the finest museums in Mexico, Museo Amparo boasts an impressive collection of Olmec, Aztec, and other pre-Hispanic artifacts, as well as religious works from the Colonial period and contemporary art. Its temporary exhibitions vary wildly in content and scope, from the recent show of tattoos by Oaxaca artist Dr Lakra to the current display of Mayan funerary masks. Much of the museum’s explanatory signage is in English and Spanish. The Amparo is in the midst of a $17 million renovation project, scheduled to be completed by May 2012, that will open up existing areas, expand the on-site library, update the auditorium, and add new rooms for children’s workshops and more.
2 Sur #708, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-6pm; closed Tuesdays. Admission is 35 pesos (free on Mondays).

Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana

An antique mirror damaged by bullets in the Serdán home, now the Museum of the Mexican Revolution.Puebla is often recognized as the site of the Battle of Cinco de Mayo against the French, but fewer people know the capital city as the place where the Mexican Revolution began. Members of the Serdán family, who lived on Sixth Street, were vocal opponents of President Porfirio Díaz—and stockpiled weapons to support their cause. On November 18, 1910, two days before the official revolt was scheduled to begin, police surrounded the Serdán home in an attempt to seize everything, and a face-off ensued. The building (still riddled with bullet holes) now serves as a memorial of their loss—and the Revolution that their cohorts ultimately won.
6 Oriente #206, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 30 pesos (free on Tuesdays).

San Pedro Museo de Arte

This former hospital, built in the 16th century, is now a top-notch exhibition space. In addition to a small permanent collection that charts the building’s medical history — including a curious re-creation of its one-time pharmacy — the site accommodates all sorts of temporary shows, from traditional women’s textiles to ultramodern photography. The museum also occasionally hosts symphony concerts by the state orchestra.
4 Norte #203, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 30 pesos (free on Tuesdays).

Centro Cultural (Ex-Convento de) Santa Rosa

Closed for renovations until 2013.

Foodies won’t want to miss a trip to the former convent of Santa Rosa de Lima, where sometime during the Colonial period mole poblano was likely invented. (See our previous post, “Holy Mole Poblano!”) Visitors can go inside its stunning traditional kitchen adorned with talavera tile from ceiling to floor and imagine stoking the fire underneath a big ceramic pot filled with thick, bubbling sauce. The rest of the building, which was restored last year, has an interesting history, too, having served not only as a cloister, but also as an insane asylum and tenement housing before evolving into a cultural center in 1973. Today the site showcases diverse arts and crafts, from folk dancing to woodwork, from the seven economic regions around the state.
3 Norte #1203, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 30 pesos (free on Tuesdays).

Museo Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos

Situated on land occupied in different eras by two lines, Ferrocarril Mexicano and Mexicano del Sur, the National Museum of Mexican Railways studies, rescues, and preserves Mexico’s freight and passenger railroad heritage (since 1850) through cultural, recreational, and educational activities. Its current exhibit, “Yo Soy Rielero: Retrato Ferrocarrilero,” features more than two dozen historical photos of railway workers, their tools, and their locomotives — inside a train car, the Express NdeM 12178. The show runs through Sept. 25. Bring an umbrella to tour the tracks and beautiful grounds.
11 Norte #1005, Centro Histórico. Open 9am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 11 pesos (free on Sundays).

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Chiles en Nogada Season Arrives in Puebla

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Chile en nogada, by Mesones de la SacritíaChiles en nogada are so important to Puebla’s gastronomy that their arrival each year draws an impressive crowd. The official 2011 season kickoff, held July 14 by the national restaurant association at Hotel Camino Real, attracted scores of restaurateurs and various dignitaries, including Mayor Eduardo Rivera Pérez, celebrity chef Patricia Quintana, and a Mexican archbishop (the dish was invented by nuns). Nineteen different restaurants served their takes on the traditional recipe, sales of which are expected to bring in 10 to 20 percent more patrons into dining rooms statewide between now and the end of September. The state secretary of tourism says Puebla is allocating 7 million pesos for the promotion of regional cuisine.

It’s been a tough year for cultivating two of the dish’s key ingredients, walnuts and Poblano chile peppers, in the state of Puebla. Bad weather (hail, frost, landslides) and competition from importers have cut supplies and driven up prices. However, purists continue to use only local products, and restaurateurs remain optimistic and anticipate diners will consume some 3 million chiles en nogada, or 25 percent more than they did in 2010.

Dignitaries at the 2011 season kickoff included the mayor and celebrity chef Patricia Quintana.Visitors to Puebla can sample chiles en nogaga at eateries all around the state and its capital city, including these official purveyors promoted by the restaurant association. Expect to pay 100 to 350 pesos per plate. In addition, at least two festivals that celebrate the nearly 200-year-old dish are scheduled to take place in the neighboring towns of San Andrés Calpan (August 12 to 14) and San Nicolás de los Ranchos (August 6 to 29). To learn more about the history and preparation of chiles en nogada, check out All About Puebla’s previous post, “Puebla’s Patriotic Dish: Chiles en Nogada.”

Sources: Intolerancia and Milenio newspapers

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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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The Centuries-Old Art of Making Talavera Pottery

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

A veteran painter puts her personal touch on a series of titles.Since its introduction by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, talavera pottery has become synonymous with Puebla. The beautifully hand-crafted ceramics, which take the form of everything from garden tiles to dinnerware, adorn building fronts in the historic center, replace china sets in Mexican households, and travel home with visitors as souvenirs. Talavera is so revered that President Calderón ordered a special bicentennial pattern last year for his Independence Day state dinner; Governor Rafael Moreno Valle buys centerpieces to give as personal gifts; and collectors worldwide seek out new and historical pieces to display as fine art.

The local tradition of making talavera started shortly after the city of Puebla was founded in 1531. “The Spanish feverishly began building churches, monasteries, and convents,” notes MexOnline.com. “To decorate these buildings, craftsman from Talavera de la Reina … were commissioned to come to the New World to produce fine tiles as well as other ceramic ware. In addition, these same craftsman were to teach the indigenous artisans their technique of Majolica pottery, in order to increase production levels.”

Orders in progress at the Uriarte Talavera Factory.Nearly 500 years later, artisans continue to produce talavera in Puebla. In fact, the capital city is home to the longest continuously operating factory in Mexico and perhaps the world: Uriarte Talavera. Uriarte is one of the oldest businesses in the country, ranking in the top 10 behind José Cuervo’s tequila distillery in Jalisco and several other well-known enterprises.

Located in Puebla’s historic city center, Uriarte Talavera has been turning out handcrafted pottery since 1824. The factory is one of seven or so certified producers in the region; its competitors include Talavera de la Reyna, Ansar Talavera, and La Concepción. Certified ceramics — which bear the mark “DO4” on the bottom — are made from a 50-50 mix of black and white clays from the Sierra Negra. They must include only mineral-based paints, have a glaze that contains a minimum amount of lead, and meet various other government standards. “Lead makes it shine,” co-owner Michael Paulhus explained during a recent visit. “Mexican authorities are stricter than their U.S. counterparts, so our lead content is below the FDA rules for food service.” (Paulhus, for the record, is Canadian; the four other partners in the business are poblanos.)

The central courtyard features the original “Coke bottle” furnace (no longer in use).The entire process is labor- and time-intensive. Depending on its size, a single piece of talavera takes weeks, if not months, to produce. The clay is shaped, dried, fired, glazed, hand-painted, and fired again before it’s finished — and then nearly a third of the pottery produced gets smashed because it doesn’t meet quality standards, Paulhus says.

Although Uriarte Talavera dabbles in new shapes and original designs — look for Mayan-themed items in 2012 — some of its licensed patterns date to 1724. Back in the day, talavera from Puebla became highly sought-after as a symbol of prestige in part due to its signature blue decoration. The vivid paint color is derived from cobalt, which comes from Africa and for a long time was difficult to acquire. “Now there’s FedEx,” Paulhus noted, “but before it came over on a ship.” About 80 percent of Uriarte’s work is made to order, but visitors can shop for sets and one-offs at the company store on-site, on its website, and in selected boutiques.

The Uriarte Talavera factory and store is located at 4 Poniente #911 in Puebla’s historic center. Tours are offered Monday through Friday, 10am to 2pm (one per hour), in English and Spanish.

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Drinking in Local History at La Pasita in Puebla

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

La Pasita sells its hand-crafted liqueurs by the glass or the bottle.La Pasita is the oldest cantina in Puebla—and, although it specializes in Mexican liquors, you won’t find the usual shots of tequila or mezcal on the menu. Instead, barkeeps pour locally made libations, such as the house’s namesake pasita, a sweet raisin liqueur that’s served with a cube of salty aged cheese and a shriveled grape on a toothpick in the glass. Other flavors include lime, pineapple, coconut, anise, almond, eggnog, and the more exotic blackberry with jamaica flower and quince with apricot. Each caballito goes for 25 pesos (about $2).

Pasita liqueur is served in a shot glass with a cube of cheese and a raisin.La Pasita opened in 1916 as a small grocery called El Gallo de Oro in the downtown area still known as Barrio de los Sapos. It was purchased 44 years later by Emilio Contreras Aycan, who sought to preserve its hand-crafted liquors. In 1960, Contreras converted the establishment into liquor store and bar, and a year later, trademarked its signature raisin-based liqueur, la pasita. Today, all of its liqueurs continue to be distilled in the same way they were at the beginning of the 20th century. The business is now run by his son, Emilio, who plans to pass La Pasita and its traditions on to future generations, starMedia’s Vive México says.

Over the years, the popular hole in the wall has been visited by artists, students, political figures, and tourists from all over Mexico and the world. More than 20 different drinks are available, divided into three categories (beginner, intermediate, and professional) based on the level of alcohol they contain. Patrons can work their way up the chain from the somewhat harmless la monjita (little nun) to the rather ominous sounding sangre de brujas (witches’ blood). As these names and the bar’s signage and retro-cool decor suggest, the owners have a wicked sense of humor.

Legend has it that La Pasita became famous for serving drinks according to the number of blocks that a patron could walk without falling down after consuming them.

The basic bar menu at La Pasita. Shots of all flavors go for 20 pesos each.According to local news site Poblanerias.com, the bar’s regulars know their limits and often order their drinks that way: “a block and a half,” “five blocks,” etc. Vive México adds that anyone who can handle 20 shots a chance to pummel an effigy of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas. Anyone who does 100 shots without passing out drinks for free, wins 100,000 pesos plus the cost of their funeral. Only one person has ever done so; the runner-up, at 98 shots, was hospitalized (and had to pay his bar bill).

Since then, the Los Sapos plaza directly in front of La Pasita has evolved into a popular antiques bazaar by day and a nightclub area by night. The Puebla City Council has reportedly considered the possibility of closing the bar—which now has a second location—but due to the site’s history and value as a tourist destination, it decided to leave it be. Let’s all drink to that. ¡Salud!

The original La Pasita, located at 5 Oriente #602 at the corner of Callejón de los Sapos, usually opens from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. Its second bar, a block from the Cathedral at 3 Sur #504, serves drinks from 2 to 9 p.m. weekdays. (Both are in the city’s historic center.)

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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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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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A Few Notable Women in Puebla’s History

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

With the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of its revolution both happening this fall, the country has been proudly honoring its national heroes, the most prominent of whom happen to be men. This prompted me to wonder about the women who helped shape Mexico throughout the course of history, especially those with particular significance in Puebla. A little research unearthed several heroines (and perhaps one anti-heroine), who made their marks long before Blanca Alcalá became the city’s first female mayor in 2007. In fact, it is here in Puebla that a revolutionary’s bold sister, a stylish slave girl, and a tastemaking group of nuns not only introduced new ways of thinking, but also started trends that ultimately became internationally recognized symbols of Mexico.

Carmen Serdán

It’s nearly impossible to visit Puebla without encountering one of the many landmarks — the airport, the baseball stadium, schools, a major thoroughfare, etc. — named after the hermanos Serdán. The four siblings were native poblanos and early, vocal proponents of the Mexican Revolution. Although each played a role in the uprising, Aquiles and Carmen Serdán get the most credit.

Aquiles worked closely with Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata to plot the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz’s government, which closely resembled a dictatorship. Carmen, who went by the male pseudonym Marcos Serrato while engaging in conspiratorial activities, supported the cause by distributing anti-reelectionist propaganda, delivering money to Texas, and helping stockpile weapons in the family’s home in Puebla. When the house was raided by police on November 18, 1910, just two days before the revolution was scheduled to begin, the Serdáns refused to surrender — even though they were outnumbered 500 to 21.

As the bullets flew, Carmen stepped out onto a balcony to harangue the crowds of onlookers.

Carmen was wounded, but unlike Aquiles and their other brother, Máximo, she survived the onslaught and was arrested. After Díaz was ousted, she was released from prison, and her activism continued. “Then came General Huerta’s counterrevolutionary putsch and the overthrow and murder of Madero,” notes Jim Tuck of MexConnect. “In the Villa-Carranza-Obregón campaign against Huerta, Carmen served in field hospitals as a nurse.”

Carmen later returned to Puebla to raise the children of her slain brothers. She also served as a nurse in different blood banks during the Constitutional struggle. She died in 1948. In 1960, the Serdán home was opened to the public as the regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution (6 Oriente #206). Bullet holes from the standoff still scar the building’s facade, and a room inside is devoted to women of the revolution.

La China Poblana

The china poblana is one of the most iconic figures in Mexico. Her unique style started a fashion craze that was adopted (and adapted) by women all over the region. A staple of folkloric dance troupes, the china poblana getup is widely regarded as the traditional attire of women throughout the republic.

Who was she? As legend has it, the china poblana (which means “the Asian woman from Puebla”) was a Mexican immigrant named Mirrha. The young girl, mostly likely from India or the Philippines, was captured by South Seas pirates in the early 17th century and brought to New Spain as a slave. Mirrha had been abducted at the request of a Spanish viceroy, but she was ultimately sold to a local merchant in Puebla. Her new owner baptized her with a Christian name, Catarina de San Juan.

Mirrha was highly regarded for her beauty and generosity, which suggests why her style was widely copied.

Mirrha refused to dress like the local women, preferring a sari-like outfit, which evolved into the china poblana ensemble. The typical pieces include: a short-sleeved white blouse with vibrant silk embroidery; a “castor” skirt decorated with sequins and beads; a white slip with lace trim that dropped below the skirt’s hemline; and a shawl woven from blue and white thread.

“For people all over Mexico and audiences throughout the world, the tradition of La China Poblana is seen on the brightly embroidered ballet folklorico dress style from Puebla, thought to be Chinese in its influence,” writes Mark Lacy of the Houston Institute of Culture’s Traditions of Mexico project.

After her owner passed away, Mirrha either married the Chinese servant of a local priest, or became a nun, or both. She apparently spent her final days in a convent, where she is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. Mirrha died in 1688. She was briefly honored as a saint, until the Inquisition barred devotion to her. Visitors to Puebla today can visit her tomb inside the sacristy of the Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (Av. Palafox y Mendoza at 4 Sur), an 18th-century Jesuit church located in the city’s historic center.

If you’re driving around town, don’t miss the gorgeous statute dedicated to her at the intersection of Heroes de 5 de Mayo and Defensores de la Republica. The 10-foot likeness, which provides the centerpiece of 200-ton fountain, was created in 1971 by poblano sculptor Jesús Corro Ferrer. Ferrer restored the talavera tiles and stonework in 2007.

Sisters of Santa Rosa

Although few people know them by name, anyone who loves Mexican food is familiar with their work. The sisters of the Santa Rosa convent in Puebla are credited with inventing mole poblano, which today rivals the taco as the national dish of Mexico. According to local legend, the nuns, eager to please a visiting archbishop, threw together some two dozen ingredients — chile peppers, fruits, chocolate, and more — to create the delicious sweet and savory sauce. They then probably served it over pieces of turkey (an indigenous bird in Mexico), much to the monsignor’s delight.

It’s said that the sisters got their recipe from an angel, but they may have borrowed from Aztec chefs.

A dish similar to mole may have been prepared for Hernán Cortés, at Montezuma’s request. “This story probably gained credibility because the word ‘mole’ comes from the Nahuatl word ‘milli,’ which means sauce or ‘concoction,’” says a writer for MexOnline. “Another connection could be that chocolate was widely used in pre-Columbian Mexico, so people jumped to that conclusion.”

No matter where their inspiration came from, the sisters of Santa Rosa undoubtedly contributed to mole poblano’s popularity in modern-day Mexican cooking. Visitors to Puebla can check out the colorful talavera kitchen where it all came together when the convent-turned-museum, currently being restored, reopens next year. The ex-Convent of Santa Rosa is located at 14 Poniente #305 (at 3 Norte).

La Malinche

She was smart, courageous, and — in the eyes of many people nowadays — a traitor of historic proportions. La Malinche is essentially the Mexican equivalent of Benedict Arnold. The Nahua woman, also known as La Malintzin and Doña Marina, was a multilingual translator from the Gulf Coast who helped Cortés communicate with indigenous peoples of Mexico. She is credited with many feats, including giving birth to Cortés’ son Martín, one of the first mestizos.

Her name is now used in Mexico to describe someone who betrays his own people: malinchista.

Although historians disagree, La Malinche’s translating may have contributed to the Cholula massacre in 1519. According to some accounts, a local woman told La Malinche that the Cholulans planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep — and advised her to escape to save herself. Instead, La Malinche told Cortés, who ordered a merciless counter-attack. With help from the neighboring Tlaxcalans, thousands of Cholulans were slaughtered, and the town was set on fire. “The Spaniards turned the tables on the Cholulans and massacred about ten percent of the city’s population,” notes M.E.X.A. at California State University, Los Angeles.

Today, La Malinche most commonly refers to the inactive volcano that rises 14,600 feet above sea level on the Puebla-Tlaxcala state line. The government established a national park there in 1938; it has since become a popular weekend destination for hikers, climbers, and campers. Some 40 cabins and a camping area (with a diner, soccer fields, basketball courts, and more) are available for recreational use by the Centro Vacacional Malintzi. On lower ground, locals often look to the mountain to predict the weather: When the view of La Malinche is obscured by dark clouds, a downpour is imminent in Cholula and the Puebla capital.

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¡Viva Puebla! Celebrating the 2010 Bicentennial

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Puebla’s city hall is decked out for the bicentennial.Mexico commemorates the 200th anniversary of its fight for independence from Spain tomorrow and Thursday, giving everyone cause to remember and reflect upon important moments in the nation’s history. The defining moment — or at least the most celebrated one today — seems to be when Father Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, rang the church bells in Dolores, Guanajuato, just before midnight on September 15, 1810, and asked the people who gathered around whether they were ready and willing to revolt. Their answer, we now know, was affirmative.

These days, Hidalgo’s legendary cry for independence, called el grito, is re-enacted every year by the president and other top officials in town squares all over Mexico. For the bicentennial, President Felipe Calderón is scheduled to do so twice, first in the zócalo of Mexico City on Wednesday night and again in the town square of Dolores Hidalgo at 7am on Thursday, Milenio newspaper reported.

City-Sponsored Events

In Puebla, el grito is usually delivered by the governor, with the mayor present, from the balcony of the Palacio Municipal. According to TodoPuebla.com, this year’s bicentennial celebration begins in the zócalo at 3:30pm Wednesday and features all sorts of entertainment, including performances by the city’s symphonic band, mariachis, folkloric dancers, and the Puebla Legendaria theater troupe. El grito happens sometime after 10pm and is followed by a rendition of the national anthem and a spectacular fireworks display in the sky above the Cathedral. Admission is free. Expect a crowd armed with silly string and eggs. Bring rain gear.

In Cholula, the 2010 festivities get under way at 6pm in the zócalo of San Pedro. The program includes music and folkloric dancers, as well as the crowning of the city’s bicentennial princess and queen. At 10:45pm, the Declaration of Independence will be read. Mayor David Cuautli Jiménez will give el grito at 11:50pm. Admission is free. Parking could be tricky, given that the city’s annual festival is still going on downtown. Bring rain gear.

Noches Mexicanas

For revelers who’d prefer to mark the occasion indoors, many restaurants, hotels, and other establishments are hosting noches mexicanas. For a fixed price, they offer music, food, door prizes, and more. Most require reservations in advance. A few options:

La Galería Arte & Vino (Alta Vista Plaza, Calzada Zavaleta #130) features entertainment by the Folkloric Ballet of Puebla, a three-course meal, a beverage, and a raffle ticket for MX$250. 9pm.

Marriott Real de Puebla (Av. Hermanos Serdán #807) offers a welcome margarita, mariachi music, appetizers, and a buffet of typical Mexican fare for MX$575 ($230 for kids). They also promise to broadcast el grito live on large-screen TVs. 8pm.

Mi Viejo Pueblito (2 Sur #112, Los Portales) downtown will serve up a three-course meal (appetizer, soup, and entrée), accompanied by live music and a lottery. Babysitting services provided for adults who prefer to dine without little ones. MX$180-330.

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