An afternoon bus to Puebla proved to be a much easier ride than expected. Bus terminals throughout Mexico look like miniature airports and their ADO services run basically everywhere and any route required, on a variety of service levels to cater to anyone’s budgets. We took the higher class service (but not quite the GL or Platino level) and were pleasantly surprised. Bags were locked underneath the bus and a ticket was issued for safe and secure collection, whilst the seats were incredibly comfy and very spacious. ADO was our newest Mexican friend and would probably remain so for the duration of our Mexican leg of this trip.
First impressions of Puebla showed us that it was a smaller and more colonial sister of Mexico City and online research suggested that it was the home of amazing street-style food. There were noticeably more restaurants and places to eat out and upon checking into our new hostel, we quickly educated ourselves on the local dishes to order, as night was already upon us and we were starving!
Downstairs of our hostel was a small hole-in-the-wall takeaway/basic cafeteria and lo and behold, it served the first dish we were eager to sample: tacos arabes – or tacos cooked with a distinct Middle Eastern influence, featuring juicy cumin-marinated pork in a pita bread taco. Safe to say, they truly were as delicious as they are made out to sound and we should have ordered more than just one to share! Another Pueblan (or Poblano) style dish we sampled that night was a cemita. A cemita is a torta, or sandwich, originating from the Puebla region and is literally a meat packed bread roll. As we had enjoyed the ‘pastor’, or spit-roasted style meat from the tacos only the day before, we played it safe and ordered a ‘cemita el pastor’ and were pleasantly surprised to find it came with guacamole as a bonus. A meat sandwich is literally as filling as it sounds, but sure enough; a cost-effective way to treat yourself to dinner.
Enough about our culinary adventures though, our actual sightseeing in Puebla kicked off the very next day and quite early mind you, as we had planned our entire route throughout the city outlining all the major sights, and it became pretty obvious we had a lot to get through in one day. Our first stop: ‘Alley of the Frogs’, a quaint little side-street market. On one hand, vendors were selling handicrafts and cute souvenirs – and on the other, random ‘antiques’ which featured old school coke bottles, Sydney 2000 Olympics merchandise, 100’s of Hot Wheels cars in original packaging and literally what seemed to be anything else these people could find in their houses to sell, call it a Mexican garage sale if you will! This wasn’t exactly what we had pictured for a market in Mexico and wasn’t quite a normal introduction to the local markets, but interesting to witness all the same. We had found one frog fountain and assumed that was its namesake, as there were no other obvious frog references. Frog Alley joins onto John Lennon Plaza, yet we couldn’t find any obvious namesake or reasoning behind this reference – just more market stalls, yet slightly less weird and more crafty souvenirs. I bought a painted sugar skull, yet our Spanish was not so strong, so to this day I’m still left wondering if I overpaid the small girl behind the stall!
Our wandering brought us onto the Zocalo and we were beginning to see the influence religion holds over Mexico (and Central American countries, for that matter). Every main square featured a huge cathedral and the guidebooks and online resources for each Mexican destination we researched all suggested churches as the main attractions to see. The Catholic religion is so intertwined within Mexican culture and the churches are so large and intricately decorated, you can understand why they make the lists of sights to see.
‘Candies Street’, as it is so aptly named, was next on our agenda and literally is a strip featuring traditional candy store after candy store – pretty easy to see why this made the cut of things to do! Shops selling handmade sweets, camotes by the dozen and raw or candied nuts by the kg lined either side of the street and it soon became apparent all the shops were nearly identical in what they were offering. We bought two handmade candies at one of the first shops we saw and whilst one was super delicious (pineapple and coconut), the other was sickly sweet and so overpowering (caramel and chocolate). Considering they were only 25c a piece, not a bad way to sample local sweets.
No trip to Candies Street would be complete without buying some camotes as well. A camote is a traditional Poblano sweet, made out of candied yam (or sweet potato, as it is translated in Spanish), usually fruit flavoured. After much deliberation and deciding on a fair price, we picked up a mixed fruit box and continued on our way. Before reaching our next destination, the excitement to try a camote overwhelmed us – they were literally in the shop fronts everywhere you turned, so we stopped and decided to sample a treat. We picked a safe flavour, strawberry and Blake took the first bite. Slightly screwing up his nose, he turned to me and said ‘Well, it’s interesting…’. I asked him, ‘What do you mean?’ and in reply, he passed me the half-eaten camote still in its wrapper. I hesitated and took one bite, then the artificial sickly sweet strawberry flavour hit me, followed by a weird sticky yet somehow starchy texture. Safe to say they’re not our favourite lollies, and we didn’t actually try any other flavours – our roommate Ethan did and he wasn’t sold either, commenting all the flavours tasted really artificial and all the same. To wash the bizarre sweet potato candy flavour out of our mouths we sat down for some lunch at a little side stall, just before the ‘Artist’s Quarter’ and decided to tick off the next item on the Poblano food list – molotes. Ordering one quesillo (Mexican cheese) and one carne arabe (Arab style meat), what arrived were freshly cooked corn tortillas that were crispy and deep-fried in oil, packed with the fillings we had each selected. Safe to say, they were heavy on the oil and not a very health conscious decision.
We wandered our way through the ‘Artist’s Quarter’ and found ourselves at the ‘El Parian Mercado’ or market, a large artisan market located on the cobblestone street block and every tourists dream. Blake and I really enjoy Mexican decor, so these little stores were a real delight, full of colour and cleverly handmade items for sale. It was nearly impossible not to bring back one of everything and to decorate both our entire families houses with Mexican handicrafts. It was also our first exposure to seeing (and smelling!) chapulines – or fried grasshoppers, a Mexican market treat – however we weren’t nearly brave enough to order and sample a few at this point in time.
Our day had flown by and we were nearly out of time, so we rushed to our final stop of the day – ‘Puente de Bubas’ at ‘Secrets of Puebla’. Advertised as the hidden underground history of the city, it sounded great so we lined up amongst a whole lot of Mexican tourists and eagerly awaited entry. What followed was an incredibly anticlimactic experience that lasted maybe, ten minutes maximum and was less time to experience than the time spent lining up outside. After walking through an entirely unrelated museum exhibit that was featured entirely in Spanish, we delved ‘underground’, aka; under the road, and saw an old bridge, now buried under the city that was used to transport medical supplies back in 1531 when the city was plagued with an STI called the ‘Bubas disease’. The bridge was incredibly intact and well preserved, but the hype outweighed the actual attraction.
Dinner time had come and we had decided to follow the advice of a roommate/the Lonely Planet guide and head to a well known restaurant in the city, to sample the number one dish of Mexico and most famous dish in Puebla; mole poblano. We decided to order just this meal and an appetizer in order to keep it cheap, however this restaurant was like fine-dining (without the exorbitant pricing) and we soon found ourselves with a small dish on our table, as a ‘compliments from the chef’. In our backpacking attire with thin wallets, it was laughable to think we were being served by waiters in dress shirts and bow ties with personal dishes from the chef – and the entire meal would only cost around $15. Our appetizer was incredible – we had chalupas, fried corn tortilla in a cemita bread roll, and we eagerly awaited our main course, as we had heard nothing but good things about mole and it seemed literally everyone loved it. Mole (moh-lay), not to be confused with the animal, is a rich brown sauce made from chocolate and chilies, and we had heard that Puebla does it best. The meal was generous, beautifully presented and large enough for two – but as much as we tried, and we honestly did, we could not enjoy the dish. The sauce had a faint licorice taste to me and was too rich for Blake. We did eat the entire dish, but I promised myself not to order it again and we left slightly confused as to what all the fuss was about.
Nearly six hours passed, and in the early hours of the morning I was struck with ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’. I had honestly never been so sick and was struggling to keep even water down. Miserable, sick and tired, Blake was the most incredible and comforting boyfriend and got us moved to a private bunk so we could try and sleep without disturbing our roommate, and we finally crashed out about 0330am. By the time morning came, I was feeling much better just tired and a bit sad/homesick and we decided to push our bus travel back a day and just take it easy, checking out some local street art and murals. Safe to say, I dislike mole poblano even more now and probably can’t eat it ever again, despite knowing that it was either the molotes or the adjustment to Mexico that 60% of travellers experience.
We had wanted to visit the second half of ‘Secrets of Puebla’ the day before, but had run out of time on our huge sightseeing day, so we decided to try and pop in on the way to the mural district. Not checking the day, it was Monday and we headed on over just before midday, trying to take it easy and have a bit of a chill day. Turns out that Monday’s are similar to public holidays back home, and most museums, art galleries and tourist attractions are all closed on this particular day and ‘Secrets of Puebla’ was a sight we missed out on seeing. We headed over to the Rosary Chapel, a beautifully decorated chapel within the Santo Domingo church, one of the largest churches in Puebla. The chapel is almost entirely decorated in gold leaf and adorned with gorgeous paintings, décor and saints lining the walls. The interior really is striking and truly incredible, yet was closed off to the public. Blake managed to get yelled at by a small Mexican woman shouting ‘No flash, no flash!’ the second he drew his camera out of his pocket to take a photo. The signs literally scattered throughout the entire church all held recommendations for not using flash photography, and as Blake isn’t an idiot, he had already respectfully turned off his flash. Not sure what the ladies deal was, but it wasn’t turning out to be our most successful day sightseeing.
However, Xanenetla (‘Mural City’) was truly an incredible sight to see, and even sick little me had her day turned around, enjoying the sunshine and the colourful artworks, despite the huge walk to the other side of the city. At first glance we were quite sceptical of the neighbourhood as we looked to be the only ones walking through the ghost town, whilst a police hunt seemed to be unfolding by sky and by street; but as we started to delve deeper into one of the oldest regions in Puebla, we were surprised to see that it had been completely revitalised with more than 50 murals that had been painted by young local artists, depicting the regions history. The contemporary urban artwork that surrounded us was absolutely incredible and we spent a good hour or so taking our time admiring the project and wandering the twisting alleyways and streets. The artworks are a subtle blend of both the history of the city and what meaning this had upon each individual artist, and it was so inspiring to see that Puebla had had such profound impact on shaping these people’s lives.
Puebla was a colourful mix of great food, beautiful churches, inspiring art, many a marketplace and a little bit of sickness thrown in for good measure, but all in all was an incredible place to visit and we found carried a lot more soul than Mexico City. If this was what the rest of Mexico had in store for us, seemed like the next few weeks would be entertaining and unlike any other place we had experienced and was definitely living up to our expectations.