This year in Mexico marks the 150th anniversary of the defeat of invading French troops in Mexico, spurring a holiday known around the world as Cinco de Mayo (fifth of May). Although the holiday isn’t much observed outside of Puebla, the central Mexican city where the battle took place and of course in bars and Mexican restaurants across the United States, I thought this special anniversary was the perfect opportunity to showcase Puebla’s many unique and interesting offerings. And contrary to many Americans’ misbeliefs, due in large part to the advertising efforts by liquor distributors, Cinco de Mayo is not when Mexico became independent from Spain; that’s in September.
Puebla is one of the five most important Spanish colonial cities. Founded in 1531 along the main route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, it’s located approximately 90 minutes from the capital of Mexico City. The city is surrounded by volcanoes and snow capped peaks. Popocatepetl is one of the country’s most active volcanoes and its name combines the Nahuatl words for “smoking mountain.” Besides its designation as one of Mexico’s prime colonial cities, it’s also known worldwide for its cuisine (specifically mole poblano) and its ceramics (specifically Talavera). In Mexican Spanish, the word mole is used to describe a generic sauce, but mole poblano is considered to be the national dish of Mexico and is thought to have been created in the state of Puebla. (Puebla is the name of both the city and the state.) The sauce contains 20 ingredients including chili peppers and chocolate (the latter works to counteract the heat of the chili peppers and also helps to give the sauce its dark color). The dish has become a culinary symbol of Mexico’s mestizaje or mixed heritage (indigenous and European) both for the types of ingredients it contains as well as the legends surrounding its origin. It’s most often served over meat and usually at celebrations such as weddings, baptisms, and birthdays. Restaurant La Compania and Fonda de Santa Clara are only two of Puebla’s many restaurants where one can experience its local cuisine.
Shortly after its founding, Puebla became known for its fine ceramics, which was largely attributed to the plethora of quality clay in the region. Between 1550 and 1570, a Spanish potter from Talavera de la Reina in Spain came to Puebla to teach the locals European methods of using the potter’s wheel and tin-glazing. The European methods were mixed with native designs to make way for what became known as Poblano Talavera. The glazing techniques that were first used centuries ago can still be seen on tiles that decorate many of the city’s colonial era buildings.
A worthwhile stop in Puebla to learn more about Talavera is a tour of the Uriarte Talavera factory. It is the largest producer of Talavera in Latin America and has been making pottery since the 1820s. Although one can find Talavera pottery in other areas of the country, it is only in Puebla and surrounding communities that the official Talavera is produced. (The Mexican goverment has designated and protected the Talavera that is produced in certain workshops in Puebla; these sites must adhere to a rigid production process and can only use clay from a small number of approved places.)
Were I to visit Puebla, I should love to stay at the Camino Real, a Mexican hotel chain whose hotels are often located in historic buildings, including its Puebla site. A former convent more than 400 years old was transformed into the luxurious hotel it is today. Between the vibrant color schemes, the stunning Spanish colonial era architecture, and the incredibly low rates considering the deluxe property it is, it looks like it would be a spectacular place to stay.
Many Americans are fearful of traveling to Mexico due to the negative publicity the country is constantly receiving from the drug cartels. And yet the states and areas where violence is taking place are typically not on the radar for most tourists. Mexico City’s reputation as a dark and dangerous place long precedes the country’s more current negative publicity. In 2007 I visited Mexico City on two separate occasions and traversed all over the city via the subway and on foot with never a worry to my safety or well being. I felt and acted as I would in any large city, whether it be New York, London or Seoul. In my opinion, the more touristy areas of Mexico, the capital and Puebla, are as they have always been and if I had more vacation time, a visit to Puebla is one I would love to make. To me what makes a seasoned traveler is being well-informed one; not generalizing about a country especially one that is extremely large and diverse, is key. Mi Mexico lindo, soy una de tus admiradores mayores y espero que a verte otra vez muy pronto.