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History Runs Deep in and Around Cuauhtinchán

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Cuauhtinchán may be the most important indigenous and religious site in Mexico you’ve never heard of.

Granted, the small agrarian town, located about 20 miles southeast of the Puebla capital, isn’t much to look at, particularly at the end of the dry season. Even its most remarkable building, the monolithic Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista, is strikingly staid: The two Tuscan columns that flank the main entrance provide its only notable detail, save for the left bell tower, which upon being hit by lightning some years ago partially collapsed into the courtyard. The resulting pile of rubble still sits where it fell.

Yet the former monastery — built between 1569 and 1593, with guidance from renown Spanish architect Francisco Becerra — offers an enduring and classic example of the sober Renaissance aesthetic brought to Mexico by Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century.

The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista from a distance.The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista.The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista.








The complex’s interior is a sharp contrast to the stark exterior. Its almost-whimsical flourishes provide a glimpse of how the Franciscans worked to convert their predecessors to Christianity. For example, the archways of the central patio feature numerous “notable sayings” in Spanish that convey conventional or moral wisdom as the monks saw it. (The patio now houses the site’s small museum, which not only describes the arrival of Hernán Cortés, but also chronicles Cuauhtinchán’s pre-Hispanic and prehistoric past. A display case contains mastodon bones found in the area.)

The painted walls of the church, which were obscured by a coat of quicklime in the early 1800s and later uncovered, are surprisingly colorful, too. For us, the nave stands out as the real must-see here . . . unless you happen to get lucky, as we did, and get to climb the winding, multistory staircase of the right bell tower with the site’s devoted caretaker. Don Pedro typically rings the bells for Mass and for afternoon visitors, as he did for us at 3 p.m. on a recent Thursday, thanks to our friend Scott, who organized this trip. From the top, the views of the surrounding countryside are breathtaking; the chimes of the enormous bells, one of which bears the scars of Revolutionary bullets, are ear-splitting yet intoxicating.

Bell tower at ex-Convento de San Juan BautistaAAP-Cuauhtinchan6AAP-Cuauhtinchan4








Back down at ground level, the church’s layout and orientation connect “mystical aspects of indigenous and European cultures” and have “cosmic significance,” according to official signage. On the equinox, a ray of sunlight enters the lower choir and illuminates an image of the Immaculate Conception at the center of the massive altarpiece. This masterpiece, made of polychromed and gilded wood, is the oldest in Mexico and one of the best preserved in Latin America. Its imagery depicts many other Biblical scenes — the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Blessed Virgin, the Adoration of the Magi — and provides an “open book to the teaching of the Christian faith.”

AAP-Cuauhtinchan2Detail of restored paint jobAAP-cuautinchan








Christianity mixed with indigenous symbolism, that is, much like elsewhere in Mexico. Cuauhtinchán precedes the Spanish by more than two millennia. The earliest pre-Hispanic settlement here may date as far back as 1200 B.C., when small groups of warriors and farmers formed villages in the area. But an archaeological site on the edge of town, which is said to contain a 52-foot pyramid, other ceremonial structures, and living quarters, remains unexcavated (and largely unrecognizable to the uninitiated) puts the first settlement closer to 8 A.D. The recovery of various indigenous codices and maps of the area have allowed archaeologists and historians to piece together some of its history, which is predominantly Chichimeca.

The Chichimecas spoke Nahuatl. The name Cuauhtinchán — also spelled Cuautinchán and pronounced “kuhwow-teen-CHAN” — means “eagles’ nest.” It’s unclear when the majestic birds must have lived here, but artistic representations of eagles and nests can be found both at the ex-convento and elsewhere around town, such as the fountain in the main square. The same goes for jaguars, which are equally important in local iconography. That works for us. If we have to face down creatures with functional fangs and talons, we’d rather do it at nearby Africam than in the wild.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista is located on Calle Hidalgo (between Gonzalo Bautista and 2 Poniente) in Cuautinchán, Puebla. The best way get there is by car or taxi via the cities of Puebla or Tepeaca. Visitors are welcome most days between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.; try to avoid holidays and Mass, unless you wish to attend. Town officials recommend that you call ahead to schedule a tour: +52 (224) 271-7170.

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See Puebla’s Sights in 3-D in This New Short Film

Friday, March 15th, 2013

PUEBLA 3D Invitation to Premiere
A new short film produced by the city’s tourism office and the European company D4D aims to attract more visitors to Puebla, particularly foreigners who don’t speak Spanish.

“With this video we want everyone outside of Mexico who’s never heard of Puebla or confuses its name … to hear the word [and think] ‘I want to go there,’” municipal tourism director Alejandro Cañedo told the audience at yesterday’s premiere of Puebla 3D. To that end, the 8-minute film offers a slick, purely “visual documentary” of Mexico’s fourth-largest city in three dimensions, no translation or subtitles required.

The story is told, somewhat Cinderella-style, through the eyes of a modern-day China Poblana. She visits at least 25 different sites around town, from the most famous (former convent kitchens where mole poblano and chiles en nogada were invented) to the lesser-known (Colectivo Tomate’s mural project in Barrio Xanenetla). The 3-D adds engaging flourishes, such as angels descending from the dome of the Capilla del Rosario and an elephant’s trunk reaching out of its Africam habitat.

D4D, based in Spain, has produced similar videos for the cities of Barcelona, Paris, and Rome.

Want to see the film? Puebla 3D will be screened publicly on March 20, from 3 to 6 p.m. in a dome next to the Planetarium, Calzada Ejercito de Oriente y Cazadores de Morelia, Zona de los Fuertes, Unidad Civica 5 de Mayo, and again on March 30 and 31, from noon to 10 p.m., in the city’s zócalo, Calle 16 de Septiembre at 3 Oriente, Centro Histórico. Admission is free.

Additional screenings of the film, in Puebla and elsewhere, are in the works, tourism officials say. In the meantime, you can watch the 2-D version of it online.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Photo credit: Puebla Tourism Office

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New Birdwatching Book Touts Puebla’s Diversity

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did you start birdwatching?

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

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

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

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

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

What are your favorite places to go birdwatching in Puebla?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “End of the World” as We Knew It

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Sunrise on December 21, 2012, as seen from atop the Cholula pyramid.Today held so much promise in the minds of so many people. December 21, 2012 — the date the Mayan calendar was set to roll over — spelled everything from doomsday to the dawn of a new era, the first day of winter to the last Friday before Christmas, depending on whose opinion you asked. All the hubbub compelled us to do something we’d been meaning to do for quite some time: watch the sun rise from atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula. No matter what happened, we figured we would at least enjoy nature’s spectacular display, take a few photos, and pay our respects to the millions of people who (like us) have helped to continuously inhabit this place over the past 2,000+ years. And that’s exactly what we did. Here’s our favorite shot of dawn breaking over the city of Puebla. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Holiday Lights and Family Fun in Atlixco

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Holiday lights in the main square of Atlixco.My first Christmas in Puebla, I had the pleasure of meeting my future husband’s entire extended family. My Spanish was far from perfect, and at times I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sheer enormousness of it all. No matter which group of kin we were visiting, the gathering always involved at least two dozen people, as well as food, drink, and hustle-bustle of epic proportions.

On Dec. 24, we gathered at his maternal grandmother’s house to share a late dinner — Basque-style salt cod, Poblano chiles stuffed with cheese, refried beans — and exchange “white elephant” gifts. With everyone crowded around the table, talking over one another and the festive background music, it was tough for me to follow (or contribute to) the conversations. So, I endeared myself to everyone by defying most gringo stereotypes and gleefully devouring several jalapeños too spicy for my other half. Charming, right?

As I sipped on a glass of cider during a reprieve, one of his cousins presented me with a beautifully wrapped box. For me? How thoughtful, thank you. We’d only just met. I proceeded to open it, with my beloved and his dad at my sides, as the chatter around me reached a new crescendo. Imagine my surprise to find a pair of red lace panties inside. I blushed, confused and embarrassed, and quickly put the lid back on the box. Only later did I come to find out that it’s customary to wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve in Mexico, for good luck, particularly in love. It works, too: Four years later, Pablo and I are married.

La Villa Iluminada

Holiday figures (three wise men) in the main square of Atlixco.The importance of family — not just mine, but everyone’s — in Mexican culture is evident around the holidays. People typically gather for traditional posadas in the days before Christmas and then continue the festivities through New Year’s Eve and Epiphany, which here is known as Día de Reyes. We kicked off our celebrations last year on Saturday with a dinner for 40 at La Aldea Hotel & Spa in nearby Atlixco, about 30 minutes by car from the Puebla capital. It was a spirited, all-night affair that included joke-telling, an indie rock concert by a trio of cousins, and an impromptu caravan into the city to see La Villa Iluminada (The City of Lights).

La Villa Iluminada is a 1.5-kilometer pedestrian route decorated with holiday lights that winds through the streets of downtown, from the main square to Insurgentes Boulevard, a major thoroughfare to the east. Millions colorful LEDs illuminate historic buildings, lampposts, and temporary fixtures. “For 45 days, the streets will form a circuit of light and color dressed up with figures, Christmas scenes, traditions, and the city’s identity,” officials said in 2011 on the city’s website.

The 2012 Villa Iluminada happens nightly, starting at 7 p.m., through Jan. 7, 2013.

We started our trek in the main square, where everything from city hall to the Italian Coffee shop is decked out in lights. After posing for photos with the three wise men and the giant Christmas tree, we strolled under a canopy of lights, listening to accordion music and savoring the smell of tejocotes, boiling away in freshly made ponche, that permeated the air. Street vendors offered all sorts of wares, from holiday handicrafts to flowers and pine trees. We passed through Atlixco’s oldest archway to reach the boulevard, where folk dancers performed on an elevated stage. The entire street, including the old train depot, glowed with multicolored flowers, stars, angels, and even avocados and pots of mole. It’s quite a sight — and well worth a visit.

A street vendor sells ponche (hot fruit punch) in Atlixco.Holiday lights decorate the oldest archway in Atlixco.Angels herald the holidays in the streets of Atlixco.Holiday lights in the streets of Atlixco.







The city of Atlixco reportedly invested more than 7 million pesos (US $550,000) in the expansive display, which is expected to attract 200,000 visitors during its run. Special attractions include carnival rides, various concerts through Dec. 23 and fiestas de reyes on Jan. 4, 5 and 6. For more information (in Spanish), click here. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

To get to Atlixco by car from the Puebla capital, take Vía Atlixcáyotl (head south/west from the Periférico) until it turns into a toll highway (438D). When the highway ends in a split, veer left onto the Puebla-Matamoros Highway. Turn right onto E. Zapata, which ultimately turns into Insurgentes, where you’ll run into the festival. For those traveling by bus, Linea Oro offers service to Atlixco from the CAPU station.

Post updated on December 14, 2012

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A Botero Sculpture in Our Own Backyard

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Botero's sculpture "The Horse" is on display indefinitely at El Triangulo in Col. Las Animas.Fernando Botero is one of the most important artists in Latin America, perhaps best recognized for his bronze sculptures and painting of plump people, animals, and other figures. To celebrate his 80th birthday this spring, the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City held a major exhibition of 177 pieces representing various periods of his career. In June, shortly after the close of the show, one of its large-scale sculptures, “The Horse,” was installed in the city of Puebla. It’s on display indefinitely at El Triangulo mall at the corner of Circuito Juan Pablo II and Boulevard Atlixco in Colonia Las Animas.

A sculptor, painter, muralist, and illustrator, Botero was born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1932 and has been part of the world art scene for more than 45 years. Botero typically represents universal themes in a figurative way: His work is widely recognized by its exaggerated and disproportionate volumes. Just as Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens idealized female beauty as a full-figured woman during the Baroque period, which gave rise to the term “Rubenesque,” the women known as “Las Gordas de Botero” (Botero’s Fat Ladies), as they are affectionately called in Spanish, are the maximum expression of “Boterismo.”

“Boterismo” is tough to classify, but it’s generally considered to be part of the Naïve movement, due to the artist’s simple technique and the use of many colors (in his paintings). However, one of the characteristics of Naïve Art — the impression of simplicity — cannot be applied to Botero, because some of his works deal with contemporary or painful issues, such as politics, death, and personal vices, albeit in a satirical and ironic way. For a long time, the Naïve style was considered childish and was not recognized as art, but more recently artists like Botero, Henri Rousseau, Grandma Moses, and Alfred Wallis have become appreciated for their refreshing worldviews.

Today, Fernando Botero has a major influence and presence in Mexico. In addition to “The Horse” sculpture on display in Puebla, other works can be seen at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City and the Esplanade of Heroes in Monterrey.

This is not the first time a large public art sculpture has toured Puebla: A dozen larger-than-life works by beloved and celebrated Mexican artist Juan Soriano, adorned the zócalo as part of a national tour of his work in 2006; he died that same year. Meanwhile, permanent monumental sculptures include “El Hombre Azul,” by Bolivian artist (and Puebla resident) José Miguel Bayro in Paseo de San Francisco, and “The Guardian Angel,” by Mexican artist Sebastián, which since its installation in 2003 has become a landmark of the city.

—Vica Amuchastegui

El Triangulo, located at 35 Poniente #3515 in Colonia Las Animas, is open from seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. To get there from downtown, take bus route 72-A on Boulevard 5 de Mayo (from the Cathedral side of the street, or opposite the Convention Center).

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Gold Décor Gives Puebla Chapel a Heavenly Glow

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Templo de Sto. DomingoOn April 16, 1690, hundreds of people thronged the flower-strewn streets of downtown Puebla to inaugurate the Capilla del Rosario, or the Chapel of the Rosary. The celebration in and around the chapel lasted a full 10 days. Although the drawn-out festivities may seem somewhat extravagant now, when you consider that the ornate chapel — a shining example of Mexican Baroque architecture — at the time was regarded as the “8th wonder of the world,” the celebration was more than fitting. Today the architectural jewel, resplendent in gilded stucco, is a must-see for any visitor to this UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

The Capilla del Rosario and the larger temple in which it resides, Santo Domingo, were actually built at different times. The construction of the main church began in 1571, and the majority was completed by 1611; the final touches were worked out in 1659. In 1650, friar Juan de Cuenca conceived the chapel to demonstrate the Dominican order’s devotion to the Virgin of the Rosary and to help convert the masses to Catholicism. To achieve this goal, he made sure that the chapel would outshine any other people had seen before. Thus, its use of gold leaf, onyx stone, and talavera tile is, in a word, stunning.

Visitors only need to spend a few moments inside the chapel to realize the master craftsmanship involved in creating it.

Oil paintings also decorate the space. A transplant from Mexico City, José Rodriguez Carnero, painted many of the canvases. His images depict scenes from the birth of Christ, the mysterious joys of the rosary, and the coronation of Mary, in somber tones that neatly contrast the gilded plaster.

The dome of the Capilla del RosarioThe ceiling of the chapel nave features gilded stucco.Artist José Rodriguez Carnero painted many of the canvases in the chapel.The centerpiece of the sanctuary is the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who almost appears to float in midair. The gold canopy surrounding her came from the hands of Lucas Pinto, an Iberian artisan, and the columns were carved of stone from nearby Tecali de Herrera. Multiple saints adorn the walls surrounding the altar: At left are Mary’s husband, St. Joseph, and her cousin St. Elizabeth, who was the mother of St. John the Baptist. At right are her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. On the next tier up, you’ll note 16 virgin martyrs, each holding the instrument of her death.

While surveying the grandeur of this chapel, I’ve often pondered how a society that grappled with poverty could invest so much in a house of worship. Yet donations from rich and poor alike paid for the realization of the Capilla del Rosario: People of lesser economic means gave what they could to garner the protection of Mary, while the rich were promised burials within the chapel. (It is unclear how many, if any, are indeed buried here.) In more recent history, thanks to a donation from the Mary Street Jenkins Foundation, a team of restorers rejuvenated the noblest characteristics of the chapel between 1967 and 1971.

During any visit, be sure to examine the chapel carefully, slowly, from front to back, ceiling to floor. Try to gaze at the walls from every angle, from various directions, to see how many details you notice. The best time to visit is in the late afternoon: When the sun comes down through the windows, the gold leaf shines brighter than usual and fills the space with a heavenly glow. It’s a sight you simply should not miss.

—Laura McKelvie

The Templo de Santo Domingo and Capilla del Rosario are located at the corner of 4 Poniente and Calle 5 de Mayo, a short walk from the city’s main square. Hours: 8 a.m.-1 p.m. (2 p.m. on Sundays) and 4-8:30 p.m. daily.

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7 Free Things to See and Do in Puebla

Monday, June 18th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Murals Revitalize One of Puebla’s Oldest Barrios

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Photograph courtesy of Puebla Ciudad MuralColectivo Tomate — a group of young creatives who seek to “generate social projects that benefit the city of Puebla using art as their flag” — last year began working to revitalize Xanenetla by painting murals that vividly depicted the neighborhood’s identity. In the first two stages of the project, dubbed Puebla Ciudad Mural, some 30 artists produced more than two dozen paintings celebrating the barrio’s history, its lost traditions (and a few that remain), its storied former residents, and the hopes and fears of its current inhabitants. In the third and final stage of the project, which is currently under way, Colectivo Tomate and its volunteers plan to paint even more murals, bringing the total count to 55.

“This project was created by citizens and for citizens,” organizers say. “Puebla Ciudad Mural is an example of people working together for their city, bringing together hearts, minds, hands, and efforts for their neighbors.”

The murals are divided into three themes: Who We Were, Who We Are, and Who We Want to Be.

The history of Xanenetla dates back to end of the 17th century, when it was founded by Tlaxcaltecas who relocated to Puebla to work in construction. The site, which was the last indigenous settlement along the San Francisco River, was chosen for its location: a hillside from which people could extract the mud needed to make bricks. The Tlaxcaltecas called this mud xalnene, from which Xanenetla gets its name. The settlement gradually stretched across the river and later became part of the city of Puebla. In the 1970s, the San Francisco River was diverted into an underground tube (to make way for Boulevard 5 de Mayo) and later the Calzada Zaragoza thoroughfare was built, leaving the emblematic neighborhood relatively isolated from the rest of Puebla’s urban core.

Photograph courtesy of Puebla Ciudad MuralAccording to local lore, the barrio played a role in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. When Napoleon III’s troops tried to flee the fighting through Xanenetla, they got lost in its alleys — and were captured. Mexico’s initial victory in Puebla, which was ultimately occupied by the French for five years (1862–67), is considered to be one of the more significant moments in North American war history, in part because Mexico’s unexpected triumph in Puebla likely prevented the French from reinforcing the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo.

In 1987, UNESCO declared 600 blocks of Puebla’s historic city center — including Xanenetla — as a World Heritage Centre. The Xanenetla barrio today is visually unique, mixing 16th- and 17th-century architecture with the contemporary urban art of Puebla Ciudad Mural.

Photograph courtesy of Puebla Ciudad MuralEach muralist — some local, some from other parts of the world — is carefully chosen an assigned a facade. The artist gets to know the neighborhood and the family who lives or works in that particular building and then creates a design that speaks about both, a process that engages everyone in the project. The larger goals are to unite the community and to instill a renewed sense of pride in the neighborhood, a desire to beautify the area, and a new appreciation for its history. Over the long term, Puebla Ciudad Mural aims to reactivate the economy and rebuild the neighborhood through its public spaces.

If you’d like to help paint the latest murals, Colectivo Tomate and its volunteers will be working alongside local residents April 7 to 14 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. All you need to do is show up. The inauguration of the new artwork is set for April 15 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (Update: For more photographs of the murals and images from the event, click here.)

You may also visit Xanenetla to see the murals anytime. Start your walking tour at the corner of 4 Norte and Boulevard 5 de Mayo. From there, let the murals guide you along four blocks filled with history and color. Or download this map.

—Vica Amuchastegui and Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Porfirian Architecture: A Bit of Paris in Puebla

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Stained-glass dome at El Mercado La VictoriaWhen Spanish settlers founded Puebla in 1531, they set out to design the “perfect” city — one that would serve, among other things, as a key transportation hub for New Spain. Located in the fertile valley of Cuetlaxcoapan, Puebla offered the newcomers ample natural resources and a strategic stop along the route from Veracruz to Mexico City.

Puebla grew quickly during Colonial times and soon emerged as one of the most important cities in Mexico. President Porfirio Díaz — who’d made his name as a general in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 — held Puebla and other cities up as examples of what he envisioned Mexico to be: a modern country on par with first-world nations like France, Great Britain, and the United States. During his presidency (1876-1880 and 1884-1911), Díaz improved the country’s railroads and telegraphs and commissioned statues and buildings. The latter blended various styles to create an aesthetic so distinct that is has its own name, arquitectura porfirista, or Porfirian architecture. Many of the public and private buildings constructed during this period took cues from European architecture, particularly the Art Nouveau and Neoclassical movements in France.

In the book Arquitectura porfirista, author Elena Segurajauregui Álvarez writes that Porfirian architecture “not only followed guidelines established by European and North American schools, but, in order to effectively apply them, in many cases the architects as well as the projects and materials [Italian marble, European granite, bronze, stained glass] were imported.” In addition, Mexican architects studied in Paris and Madrid to gain the proper perspective and skills necessary to help realize Díaz’s vision.

Edificio de la Ciudad de MéxicoAround the turn of the 20th century, Puebla’s architecture and development took on the Porfirian style. Although the city’s urban plan remained intact, new gardens and plazas were created. Many Colonial buildings — stores, homes, convents — were demolished to make way for new mansions that imitated French ones. The most representative building of the time is arguably the Edificio de la Ciudad de México (2 Norte #6, Centro Histórico; pictured above). Its iron frame differs so greatly from those typical of Puebla that it inevitably catches the eye of passersby: Rather than brick and ceramic tile, it features metal, stone, and glass. The building could easily belong on a Parisian street, but thankfully it is in Puebla for visitors and locals to enjoy!

According to the UDLAP’s Capilla del Arte website, the ironwork was imported from France by the firm Schwartz & Meurer for the Lions Hermanos Company, with the intention of emulating the design of La Samaritaine, a popular department store in Paris. Since its inauguration in 1910 as an upscale department store called La Ciudad de México, the building has served as a symbol of modernism in Puebla. Today the building houses a Vips restaurant (downstairs) and an exhibition space (upstairs).

The plaque at El Mercado La Victoria is a popular spot for taking photos of feet.Another notable Porfirian building is the former Mercado La Victoria (5 de Mayo, between 4 and 8 Poniente). Its construction, directed by architect Julián de Saracíbar, began in 1856 in what was once the Santo Domingo convent’s garden. The market was inaugurated in 1913, and for decades served as the city’s main food distribution center. In 1999, its tenants were relocated and the market reopened a commercial shopping center. The site’s best-known feature is its stained-glass dome (pictured above), below which visitors will find a plaque on the floor that notes the latitude and altitude of Puebla. This is a common spot to take feet photos (like ours, at right).

Visitors can also observe Porfirian elements in the Palacio Municipal (Portal Hidalgo 14, Centro Histórico). English architect Charles J. Hall redesigned Puebla’s City Hall at the end of the 19th century in the Neoclassical and Renaissance styles, with beveled glass, vegetable motifs, and the use of iron in the handrails and window balustrades. Meanwhile, various private residences were constructed during the Porfirian era. Two of the most stunning are the Casa Presno (Avenida Juan de Palafox #208) and the affectionately named Casa de los Enanos, or House of Dwarves (Avenida Juárez at 17 Sur). Both homes appear very French, with metal, glass, stained glass, natural-shaped ornaments, domes, and iron rails. The Presno House is now part of the BUAP University and may be visited on weekdays, but the Casa de los Enanos is a private home that may be admired only from the sidewalk. —Vica Amuchastegui

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