Why Puebla in Mexico is the best place to go for culture

Puebla, the capital of the state of the same name, is a city of contrasts. It is both colonial and modern, with remains of pre-Hispanic civilization, making it the finest spot to visit if you want to learn about the culture.

Why Puebla in Mexico is the best place to go for culture
A cultural itinerary that must include a visit to Puebla, Mexico. Photo by carlos aranda / Unsplash

Puebla, the capital of the same-named state, is a city of contrasts. It is both colonial and modern, with traces of pre-Hispanic culture, making it the best place to go for culture. Every self-respecting city has in myths and legends a good part of the history of the origin of its foundation, and Puebla could not be the exception, in such a way that its design, according to some versions, would have been "inspired by the angels themselves".

Puebla is now one of the country's largest and most important cities, with a population of 3 million and 250 thousand inhabitants, including its metropolitan zone. Of great industrial and commercial activity, it stands out for its textile and automotive branches, the latter for housing the headquarters of the German automotive plant, Volkswagen; and it also excels in ceramics, particularly Talavera, glassware, tiles, and processed foods.

Puebla has a wide range of educational offerings, from preschool to university, public and private; technological and cultural training centers; and music and art academies. It has the largest number of universities after Mexico City.

It is also known for its food, with dishes like chiles en nogada and mole poblano as standards. It has also given the country a unique cultural symbol in the form of the China Poblana, a traditional costume thought to have been worn by a young woman from the Philippines. It is a mix of elements from both the Philippines and Mexico. Puebla pays homage to her with a monumental fountain made of quarry stone and Talavera tiles.

The city of Puebla, 120 kilometers from Mexico City and close to the state of Tlaxcala, is located in an extensive valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes of the Neovolcanic Transversal Axis, 40 kilometers to the east of the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes; The Malinche is located to the north and the Pico de Orizaba to the east, while the Atoyac river runs from north to south, to flow into the Valsequillo dam, and the Alseseca and San Francisco rivers cross it.

Officially named Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza, the city is well connected to the rest of the country by a system of federal roads and highways and has an international airport that connects it with some cities in the United States. The climate is temperate to cold due to the altitude of the city, with an average of only three days with temperatures above 29 °C; the rainy season is from May to October, and the dry season is from November to April.

Where snakes change their skin

Founded in 1531 by the Spaniards as "Puebla de los Ángeles", after Fray Toribio de Benavente "Motolinía", commissioned by the Crown, found a suitable site for the creation of the new city in what was formerly called Cuetlaxcoapan, a word of Nahuatl origin that in modern Spanish could be translated as "Where the snakes change their skin", and the following year received the title of Ciudad de los Ángeles, by order of Queen Isabella of Portugal.

Puebla is one of the five most important colonial cities in Mexico and is considered the "cradle of Mexican Baroque", both in architecture and decorative arts. Its historic center has more than 5,000 buildings in styles like baroque, renaissance, and classical, as well as a few examples of French architecture. In 1987, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site because of its historical and cultural value.

After the Independence of Mexico (1821), Puebla became an important cultural center. In September 1862, by decree of President Benito Juarez, it received the title of Puebla de Zaragoza, in honor of General Ignacio Zaragoza, hero of the Battle of May 5th of that year, in which he defeated the army of Napoleon III in the hills of Loreto and Guadalupe.

During the Porfiriato, the city maintained its prestige and social level, becoming a place of recreation, leisure, and studies, as well as an important center of commercial development, while the government of Porfirio Diaz promoted European immigration, with the arrival in Puebla of numerous contingents, mainly from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Lebanon, which were joined by Germans and Jews. At the beginning of the 20th century, the textile industry flourished.

The Zocalo is still the cultural, political, and religious center of the city, and until the end of the 18th century, it was the city's main market. It is a tree-lined square with many sculptures, surrounded by notable buildings such as the Municipal Palace, the Casa de los Muñecos, and the Cathedral.

Most of the city's streets are named with numbers and cardinal points, for example, 1 Norte, and 2 Oriente, in a numbering system that is centered on the northwest corner of the Zócalo.

Puebla, World Heritage Site

Among the places to visit in the historic center are neighborhoods, churches, and museums. Of all the colonial buildings, the most impressive is the Cathedral Basilica of Puebla, which took 300 years to be completed. It is in the Herrerian, neoclassical, and baroque styles and consists of five naves with a high altar and 14 chapels in various styles with numerous artistic works. Its bell towers, 70 meters high, are the tallest in Mexico. It also has an important archive and is thought to be one of the most important museums of post-Hispanic art.

The Paseo de San Francisco, which used to be called Colonia Industrial and Tivoli del Estanque de Pescaditos, is a commercial center built on land that was a tannery and a textile factory at the end of the 19th century. The modern architectural details of these buildings were used to build the current space, which is next to the Convention Center and the temple of San Francisco de Asis.

The Church of Santo Domingo and its Chapel of the Rosary are examples of Mexican Baroque architecture. So are the Church and old Monastery of San Francisco, where the mummified body of Blessed Sebastian de Aparicio is kept, and the Parish of Santa Anita and Senor de la Salud.

Another place not to be missed on the tour is El Parian, a market of arts and crafts, a short distance from the zocalo, with permanent stalls where Talavera stands out, mainly.

Among the old neighborhoods that have become tourist attractions are Analco, dating from 1531; the Barrio del Artista, La Plazuela del Torno, with workshops of painters and artists working in full view of the public; and La Libertad, famous for its volcano Cuexcomate, the smallest in the world at only 13 meters high and 23 meters in diameter; it is inactive and you can descend to the crater itself by a spiral staircase.

The Xanenetla neighborhood, founded around 1551, was considered one of the most dangerous places in the city. Among its attractions is the Plazuela de Texcoco.

Angelópolis, a modern financial, residential, and commercial district located between the city and San Andrés Cholula, is the most modern and largest area of the city; it is considered one of the most luxurious in the country and stands out for its skyscrapers, residences, and cultural and commercial centers.

Museums in the city of Puebla

The city is rich in museums, including the Amparo Museum, a former hospital with 14 exhibition halls, of the Revolution, Viceroyalty Art, and the Mexican Railroads, as well as famous sites such as the Main Theater of Puebla and the Palafoxiana Library, the first library in the Americas, established in 1646, with more than 42 thousand books, five thousand manuscripts, and other objects, dating from 1473 to 1910, named a Historical Monument of Mexico, and UNESCO made it part of the Memory of the World.

The Casa de Alfeñique, with a facade of intricate designs, was the first public museum in the city and contains a collection of more than 1,500 historical pieces. Alfeñique is a type of sugar and almond candy.

Other cultural areas include the Casa del Dean and the Santa Rosa Cultural Center, which is in a building from the 1600s that used to be the home of Dominican nuns and was later turned into a convent called Santa Rosa de Lima. This is where the famous mole poblano is made.

In 1869, it ceased to be a convent to become a psychiatric hospital. In the 20th century, the Museum of Ceramics was founded in the kitchen of the building; in 1973 it was renamed the Museum of Cultural Art of Puebla, and in 2000 it changed its name to the current one.

Another historical and tourist attraction is the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. Both were decisive in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The chapel of the fort of Loreto contains an old chapel, which is now the Museum of the Non-Intervention. The Museo de Guerra de Fuerte de Loreto y Guadalupe is located in this fortress as well. Separately, the main fort is that of Loreto, which is the Fort of Guadalupe where the battle began.