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Touring Two of Cholula’s Magnificent Churches

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Fans of religious architecture shouldn’t miss a visit to San Andrés Cholula, where two churches — Santa María Tonantzintla and San Francisco Acatepec — provide magnificent examples of local craftsmanship and the region’s blended Spanish-indigenous influence. Each structure is special and important in its own way, with one displaying its splendor on the inside and the other on the outside.

Tonantzintla's relatively plain facade gives visitors no indication of the splendor inside.Santa María Tonantzintla could be one of the most enchanting places of worship ever constructed in Mexico. Located just six miles from downtown Puebla in San Andrés Cholula, the 17th-century church uniquely fuses European and native designs, a style of architecture known today as indigenous baroque. Inspired by the stunning Capilla del Rosario in the nearby city of Puebla, Tonantzintla’s architects tried to give their church a more local, realistic feel. Tonantzintla is adorned mostly with colorful plaster in place of gilded stucco.

The name Tonantzintla, which means “place of our little mother” in Nahuatl, comes from the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the earth mother who became the equivalent of the Virgin Mary when the Spaniards conquered the pre-Hispanic world. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much: Crude figures of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary greet visitors from their perch atop an austere facade (see photo, at right above). But its magnificence quickly becomes apparent inside. The walls are completely covered with ornate plaster molds and models, which are colorfully painted or coated with gold. It’s an explosion of shapes, symbols, and meanings. And, although the figures and faces are rough, childlike, and less elegant than those typically found in other Baroque churches in México, they are equally breathtaking.

Tonantzintla's walls are covered with plaster molds and models, either colorfully painted or coated with gold.“The church of Santa María Tonantzintla is a required visit for anyone who wants to enjoy a spiritual atmosphere that’s ‘out of this world,’” notes architect Ignacio Cabral in his book, Religious Architecture in San Andrés Cholula, Puebla. “The fruits, flowers, children, faces, masks, birds, figures of saints and more together form an extraordinary mosaic — a frank ‘horror vacui,’ or fear of empty space — that is so typical of the Baroque style and here is interpreted in an indigenous fashion.”

What merits the most attention, Cabral continues, is Tonantzintla’s dome, which is like no other in Mexico. “It’s a ‘celestial vision’ of the indigenous world as they imagined it and captured it with their own hands … a magnificent example of the union of Mexican and European [cultures] and of the syncretism between Christianity and the indigenous worldview.”

The church operates autonomously from the Archdiocese of Puebla and is supported and promoted by the community. Signs in the church forbid tourists from taking any photographs inside, with or without flash, to preserve the paint’s colors (they make exceptions during weddings, which is how we got our shots). Post cards may be purchased at the entrance; the money collected goes toward maintenance efforts.

San Francisco Acatepec offers one of the finest examples of the Baroque talavera style in Mexico.Less than a mile from Tonantzintla, San Francisco Acatepec offers one of the finest examples of viceregal architecture and Baroque talavera in Mexico. Upon arrival at Acatepec, the first thing visitors notice is its beautiful facade, which is entirely covered by locally produced ceramic tiles. The handcrafted pieces are so intricately painted that they appear to change colors with the weather: When the sun shines, the reddish hues catch fire; when it’s cloudy, the cobalt blue tones seem to complement the gray sky. The vivid details and ornamentation are characteristic of Puebla’s trademark pottery, a centuries-old traditional art that continues today. “The magnificence of the façade is such that it looks like a porcelain temple, worth being kept under glass,” renowned Colonial art historian Don Manuel Toussaint once noted.

The church — built during the same era Tonantzintla — is named after its original village, Acatepec, which means “hill of reeds” in Nahuatl, and the patron saint of the new church, St. Francis. Sadly, on December 31, 1939, a fire destroyed its original interior, which featured carved cedar altars and gold-covered stucco details.

Some 15 years before the disaster, an engineer named Alberto Pani made a series of books called Churches of Mexico, which depicted 17th- and 18th-century churches to demonstrate the architectural richness of the country. To present them in the best way possible, he worked with one of the nation’s top photographers, Guillermo Kahlo. (If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because he was Frida’s father. Yes, that Frida!) Based on these pictures, the interior of San Francisco Acatepec was largely reconstructed in 1941, and, although it is nowhere as complete as the original, it’s still stunning — and well worth checking out. —Vica Amuchastegui

Both churches are accessible by taxi and bus, including the Cholula Tranvia, which departs from the zócalo of Puebla at 11 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday. (Adult tickets: 100 pesos.) The churches are open to the public every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Post updated November 6, 2013.

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10 Reasons Travelers Should Visit Puebla

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

The fountain in Puebla’s main square, or zócalo.Puebla is perhaps the most overlooked, underrated urban travel destination in Mexico. It’s profile is so low that many English speakers confuse the name Puebla with the Spanish word pueblo, mistaking the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis (and a state capital) for any small village in Latin America. With more than 1.5 million inhabitants and a long history of shaping the country’s cultural identity, Puebla is everything but.

Whether you’re into shopping for hand-crafted artisanal wares or hurling insults at a wrestling match, sampling world-class cuisine in a restaurant or savoring sinfully greasy appetizers on the street, climbing the world’s largest pyramid or descending into its smallest volcano, sipping local liqueurs at a century-old cantina or dancing until dawn at a trendy new nightclub, you’ll find it all here. What’s more, Puebla is a safe destination in Mexico that leads visitors, slightly and gently, off the usual, well-trod tourist path.

Here are 10 reasons every traveler should visit the city of Puebla, inspired by a similar list posted in Spanish at the tourism office downtown:

1. It’s a “perfect” Colonial city. Founded on April 16, 1531, Puebla was the first city in Mexico built entirely from scratch by Spanish settlers. No indigenous structures were dismantled or repurposed. Situated along the banks of the Atoyac and San Francisco rivers, Puebla followed developers’ ideal street plan — a basic grid pattern determined by compass points (north, south, east, west) with the main square, or zócalo, at its center. This system made Puebla’s downtown core easy to navigate, then and now.

The Capilla del Rosario in Santo Domingo church2. It’s chockfull of historic monuments. Puebla, declared a World Heritage Centre by UNESCO in 1987, preserves more than 2,600 monuments in nearly 400 city blocks. They include the city’s Cathedral, which is said to have some of the tallest towers of any church on the continent. “In an untouched urban network, the historic center of Puebla comprises major religious buildings, such as the Santo Domingo church, as well as superb palaces [like] the host of old houses whose walls are covered in gaily colored tiles,” UNESCO notes. “Although 19th-century transformations resulting from the Reform Laws (1857) modified the urban landscape through the closing of many convents, they made it possible for Puebla to be endowed with high-quality public and private architecture.”

3. It’s the reason anyone celebrates Cinco de Mayo. Frequently mistaken for Independence Day, May 5 is the anniversary of a somewhat miraculous military maneuver in Puebla. In May 1862, some 6,000 French troops descended upon the city, looking to collect on Mexico’s foreign debt with a land grab. They were met with unexpected resistance from a scrappy band of 4,000 Mexican soldiers, many of whom were farmhands armed with mere machetes. They fended off the French for several days, stopping four attempts to take the city. In 2012, Puebla celebrated the 150th anniversary of the battle with a military parade, a nighttime spectacular, and other fanfare.

4. It’s where the Mexican Revolution began. The capital city is not only the place where Mexico’s famous victory over the French took place, but also the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It was here, in a Colonial mansion downtown, that Aquiles Serdán and his family stockpiled weapons for the fight against President Porfirio Díaz. On November 18, two days before the revolt was officially scheduled to begin, authorities learned of the stash and surrounded the building. A bloody stand-off ensued. The house, still riddled with bullet holes, today houses the Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana. Its relatively small but important collection (including a room dedicated to women’s contributions) helps tell the story of a few lesser-known national heroes.

The Casa de los Muñecos5. It preserves and cultivates public art. Talavera pottery is among the few Mexican products with protected status (DO4), which means its production must meet established quality standards. The sought-after ceramics have been made in Puebla for more than 400 years and used to adorn buildings all over town. One of the more notable examples is the Casa de los Muñecos (2 Norte #2), which gets its name from the grotesque human figures that decorate its facade. Legend has it that the tiles ridicule city council members who in 1792 tried to stop the building’s owner from erecting a mansion taller than City Hall. Visitors who’d rather see more contemporary public art should check out the amazing murals in the Xanenetla neighborhood.

6. It’s next to the world’s largest pyramid. Puebla’s only major suburb, Cholula, is the longest continuously occupied ceremonial center in the Americas—and one of the most enigmatic. In fact, it’s quite possible to miss the massive Great Pyramid of Cholula even if you’re staring right at it. The structure, overgrown with natural vegetation for centuries, looks like a grassy knoll from a distance. Archaeologists can’t unearth the pyramid, which the Guinness Book of World Records calls the largest ever constructed, because Spanish conquerors built a church on top of it in 1594. Today, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is both a protected Colonial monument and a destination for Catholic pilgrims. To study the structure, whose Nahuatl name is Tlachihualtepetl or “artificial mountain,” archaeologists dug nearly 5 miles of tunnels, some of which are open to the public (as of September 2012).

7. It’s where you’ll find the world’s small volcano. Located in the Libertad neighborhood in northwest Puebla, the Cuexcomate volcano was once the only landmark in the area. It’s believed to be a secondary crater or extinguished geyser created by bursts of magma and sulfuric water from nearby Popocátepetl during its last violent eruption in 1064. The little limestone cone measures a mere 43 feet high and 76 feet in diameter. Legend has it that Cuexcomate once served as a site for human sacrifices to indigenous gods and later a depository for citizens who committed suicide, because “they didn’t merit being honorably mourned or buried in sacred ground.” Visitors today who aren’t creeped out by that can descend a spiral staircase to the bottom of the cone.

Mole poblano8. It’s where mole poblano, chalupas, and chiles en nogada were invented. The gastronomy of Puebla is among the most varied and exquisite in Mexico. “A good meal should be prepared carefully and, in Puebla, they’re true experts in this area,” write the authors of Mexican Cooking for Newlyweds. “For example, take mole poblano, which simply through the act of preparing it, becomes a cause for celebration.” Beyond mole, Puebla’s restaurateurs serve up a impressive array of delicious dishes, from classics like tinga (a chipotle-laced beef or chicken stew) to exotic seasonal specialties like escamoles (ant eggs). Looking for recommendations about where to eat? Check out our picks for the top five places to dine like a Poblano.

9. It’s where the first public library in the New World was founded—and still exists. The Biblioteca Palafoxiana was started in 1646 inside what was once the seminary of St. John’s College (now home to Puebla’s cultural center). The library today preserves 45,058 volumes dating from just before until just after the Colonial era. Many of its works are of global importance, from an original copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), which charts human history according to the Bible in words and more than 2,000 illustrations, to books printed in Mexico before 1600, like Vocabulary in Castilian and Mexican, which was essentially the earliest New World dictionary. Visitors can’t manhandle the books, but they can admire the room’s gorgeous altar and finely carved wood shelves.

A white tiger at Africam10. It’s home to one of the most reputable animal preserves in the Hemisphere. Africam Safari was the first zoo in Latin America to receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, due largely to its conservation efforts and high standards of animal care. With partners in Mexico and around the globe, Africam works to recover wild populations (such as the golden eagle) and to preserve ecosystems and soil. The park itself protects scores of endangered species and indigenous flora and fauna and strives to teach the public about them. In a single trip, it’s possible to watch a hippo bathe, a tiger wake up from its nap, an antelope toss around a fallen tree branch, and a joey emerge from mama kangaroo’s pouch.
—Rebecca Smith Hurd

Post updated on Sept. 14, 2012.

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Botanical Garden Fosters Native Plants of Puebla

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

The garden is divided into ten sections, including a quercetum (oak plantation) near the main building.Few nations on the planet boast greater biodiversity than Mexico, which ranks fifth worldwide in total number of species and first in cacti and pines. The state of Puebla alone is home to an impressive array of flora, both wild and cultivated, according to a new book in Spanish co-authored by the experts who run the BUAP Botanical Garden.

Plants of Economic Importance in the State of Puebla describes more than 850 edible, medicinal, and ornamental species, providing their common and scientific names, where to find them, and how they’re typically used. The book is designed, like the botanical garden, to provide an accessible means of appreciating and learning more about some of Puebla’s most valuable natural resources.

Agriculture is so economically and historically vital to Puebla that the state’s coat of arms includes a hand holding a plant with farmland in the background. The industry today accounts for 8 percent of the state economy. Indeed, one cannot help but notice the abundance of cornfields flanking the rural stretches of highway that lead visitors from both the Puebla and Mexico City airports to the center of Angelopolis. However, due to rapid growth in and around the capital over the past two decades, urban green space is increasingly hard to find. The botancial garden, which occupies 25 acres of land on the BUAP’s University City campus in the San Manuel neighborhood, doubles as one of the largest public parks in the city.

Did you know that tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) can be used not only to make delicious salsas, but also to treat tonsillitis, cough, and bladder infections?

A large lake at the BUAP Botanical Garden attracts various species of birds.Founded in 1987, the botanical garden features hundreds of species — trees, grasses, succulents, wildflowers, and more — from areas around the state. Its overall mission includes the study, conservation, and promotion of native and new varieties of plants that have horticultural and economic-development potential. To this end, the garden is divided into ten distinct sections, from a semi-arid zone to a seasonal wetland, each based on the geography, ecology, taxonomy, and use of the species growing therein. The site also features a small butterfly garden and a sizable lake, which attracts some 90 species of birds throughout the year.

All visitors are welcome to take a leisurely self-guided tour by following the paths that wind through the garden. Groups of 10 to 40 people can book docent-led tours (in English or Spanish), during which they’ll learn about the site, the scientific and common names of myriad flowers, plants, and trees, and their significance as food, medicine and potions, crafts and dyes, and religious symbols.

The Jardín Botánico Universario is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. Tours and workshops offered to groups for a fee. The garden is located on the BUAP’s CU campus in Colonia San Manuel near the 24 Sur entrance. For more information, call (222) 229-5500, ext. 7032 or 7030.

Copies of the book Plantas de importancia económica en el estado de Puebla, by Maricela Rodríguez Acosta, Allen Coombes, and Alberto Jiménez Merino, are available for purchase (350 pesos each) at the garden and Gandhi bookstores in limited quantities. All proceeds support continued work in the field.

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Why Cinco de Mayo Matters in Mexico, U.S.

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Guadalupe Fort and the hill where the Battle of Puebla took placeAmericans may be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo as they know it — a huge fiesta with mariachis and margaritas — originated in the United States, not Mexico. The first celebrations actually took place in California in 1863.

“Most celebrants are vaguely aware that it has something to do with a nineteenth-century victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla, but they are not at all clear on why it should be such an important holiday … especially since it is barely celebrated in Mexico itself,” notes David E. Hayes-Bautista, director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, in a research paper published by Southern California Quarterly. “Virtually no one is aware that the holiday’s true origins in California date back to the early days of statehood, to the waning days of the gold rush, and to the beginning of the American Civil War.”

Frequently mistaken for Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo commemorates a somewhat miraculous military maneuver. Mexico, which was cash-strapped after its war with the United States, stopped paying its foreign debts. France’s ruler Napoleon III decided to collect with a land grab. In May 1862, some 6,000 French troops descended upon Puebla, only to be met with unexpected resistance from forces led by General Ignacio Zaragoza. The Texas-born Mexican assembled a scrappy band of 4,000 soldiers, many of whom were farmhands armed with machetes — and presumably no match for their better-equipped rivals. Yet, from the well-positioned hilltop forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, they fended off the French for several days, stopping four attempts to take the city.

“At 6:00 on that eventful evening [May 5], the unthinkable happened: The French army, which had not been defeated since Waterloo fifty years earlier, was now unwilling to engage the aggressive Mexican army … and it ignominiously withdrew from the field, leaving the Mexican army in possession of Puebla,” Hayes-Bautista writes.

As news of the victory spread, via telegraph and Spanish-language newspapers, its impact in Mexico and California was profound.

“Up and down the state, Latinos savored the details of the gritty, gutsy Mexican soldiers who had stood their ground and (for the time being) saved the republic,” Hayes-Bautista explains. “Some writers feel that this one battle did more to foster a sense of Mexican nationalism than had independence in 1821 or the Constitution in 1857. Yet it was no less significant for the tens of thousands of Latinos living in far-away California, now part of another country.”

Zaragoza’s victory, unfortunately, was short-lived: The French returned with more troops and artillery and occupied the country a year later. Maximilian I ruled for five years before Mexican forces regained control and the emperor was executed under the orders of then-President Benito Juarez. Puebla and the rest of Mexico soon shifted its celebratory focus to Independence Day (Sept. 16). But the city — which the state renamed Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza in 1950 — still hosts an annual military parade. Cinco de Mayo’s significance has had a far more lasting impact in the United States, where for many people the holiday has evolved into a symbol of Latin American pride.

The 2011 Parade in Puebla

Some 26,000 students and teachers from 62 public and private schools are expected to march alongside 5,000 military troops and 60 decorative floats in the Puebla capital’s official Cinco de Mayo parade, which begins at 11 a.m. Thursday, according to local news outlets. The route essentially follows 5 de Mayo Boulevard from Plaza Dorada/Juarez Park to the Loreto and Guadalupe forts. President Felipe Calderón is expected attend. Arrive early to join the crowd; the 2010 parade ended prematurely due to the president’s early departure.

Photos of the 2011 parade are posted on All About Puebla’s Facebook page.

Originally posted May 4, 2010. Updated May 5, 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 “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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Every Day Is Christmas in Chignahuapan

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

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

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

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

La Feria del Árbol y La Esfera

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

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

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

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

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

Original post updated on Oct. 29, 2011.

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Cholula: More Than Just a Hot Sauce

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

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

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

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

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

The Area’s Backstory, in Brief

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

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

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

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

Post updated on December 23, 2012.

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Living Portraits of Puebla’s Past

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Painters work in and around their small studios in the Artists Quarter.The gorgeous recent weather in Puebla gives visitors and residents alike a perfect excuse to stroll through the city’s Artists Quarter, or barrio del artista. This one-block area of 6 Norte street, once part of a bustling Colonial-era market, today houses painters’ studios, exhibition halls, and cafes.

The idea for converting the old marketplace into an artsy neighborhood came about in the mid-20th century. Maestro José Márquez Figueroa, while teaching an open-air class at the site, asked his graduating students where they planned to paint in the future. When they couldn’t say, he told them the answer was right in front of them — and challenged them to ask the government for permission to use the old marketplace. “Your homework,” the maestro reportedly said, “is to convince the authorities to give you these spaces to create a Bohemian neighborhood like in other big cities.”

After some persistence, the group — now known as the Unión de Artes Plásticas — scored a meeting with the governor, who liked the concept so much that he convinced the city’s mayor to get onboard, too. The first barrio art show was held in 1941. Nearly 15 years later, the government turned the neighborhood over to the union, which made more improvements. In 1962, a new upstairs gallery opened with an exhibition of major Mexican painters, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo.

Dozens of artists now paint in the barrio del artista, where visitors can observe masters and their students at work and, of course, buy finished pieces.

Maestro Maglorio Moreno Hernandez — who the union describes as “the master of masters in the Artistic Quarter” — works in studios 14 and 15. His colorful oil paintings celebrate Puebla’s history, each one capturing an actual place and often a lost moment in time, such as the view of the Popocatepétl volcano from a nearby garden before the Convention Center was built. “It’s a romantic way of preserving the past,” he said recently, while showing a few of them off.

Beyond painting, the union hosts music, poetry, folk dancing, theater, and other cultural events, mostly in the plaza in front of Café del Artista. This is where writer and director José Recek Saade once staged theatrical productions; he is honored, alongside poet María Sánchez Robredo and barrio founder/painter Márquez, with a bronze bust. A commemorative plaque recognizes musicians Rafael Hernandez Marín and Bernardo San Cristóbal, who penned the beloved and well-covered anthem “Qué chula es Puebla,” which translates to “How Pretty Is Puebla?” To find the answer, all you have to do is look around.

Barrio del Artista, 6 Norte street (between 4 and 6 Oriente), Colonia Centro.

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