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Mexico Travel - The Trip To Puebla
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
A STRAIGHT ROAD LEADS FROM MEXICO CITY ACROSS A pleasant valley toward a hill, now defaced by a huge sign advertising a product called "Euzkadi." It is the only blot on the landscape.
Once past the sign, the road is extremely beautiful. At kilometer 34 you get your first view of Ixtaccihuatl, and between kilometers 43 and 44, a superb view of the valley of Mexico. Ixtaccihuatl will be in view at intervals for some distance.
At kilometer 55 you will cross the great continental divide, where theoretically, if a drop of water fell, it would split, one half of it flowing into the Atlantic, the other half flowing into the Pacific. Scenically, the great divide is of scant interest; its popularity as a sight is based mainly on sentimental reasons.
A short distance beyond the great divide you will pass the little town of RIO FRIO, which was a stopping place in the old stagecoach days. At kilometer 69 you will have your finest view of Ixtaccihuatl, and at kilometer 73, your nearest view. At this point it is just twentyfive miles to the top of the mountain. Here you can get good views of the SAN MARTIN VALLEY, although further on the views are even better.
After passing another old inn, the road crosses the EMPEROR'S BRIDGE, built by Maximilian. Keep your eyes open at about kilometer 76, for here you have, not only a superb view of the San Martin Valley and Ixtaccihuatl, but for the first time, Popocatepetl. At kilometer 86 you will get a glimpse of the old HACIENDA OF SAN DANDIAN. The towers on the corner of the fortlike structure were built in the old days as a defense against bandits.
Soon after you will enter the village of SAN MARTIN TEXMELUCAN. This little town of about 5,000 people has no attractions whatever, and unless you are going to be there on Tuesday, market day, it is not worth while to stop. The market is an interesting sight. The town is famous for its STRAW HATS, but there are many other things worth buying-SARAPES, POTTERY, and little FIGURINES MADE OF CORN, and TABLECLOTHS.
If you want t0 visit the COOKED FOOD SECTION OF THE MARKET, you will have to break away from your guide and visit it alone, for I am certain he will not take you there. You will see them cooking over open fires in pots and pans gobbets of every conceivable kind of food.If you have time, visit the herb stand and the livestock section. You may not be interested in making any purchases at either one of these places, but you should certainly see them. These women sell every kind of herb used in cooking, and it is said, too, that the herbs are sometimes used by the Indians to make spells and magic potions.
After leaving San Martin, you will get fine views of the Volcano of Malintzin.
At HUEJOTZINGO, there is an old FRANCISCAN MONASTERY, founded in 1534, that you should visit if your schedule isn't too heavy.
All sorts of colorful touches of native life can be seen along the road. If you happen to be around this section of the country during harvest time, you will have an opportunity to see the ancient method of threshing wheat still being practiced, with the cattle walking around and around on the threshing floor separating the seed from the chaff.
It is not very far from Huejotzingo to Cholula, and like the whole drive from Mexico City to Puebla, the road is pretty every inch of the way. Cholula is one of the oldest Indian settlements in America, said to have been settled by the Urmecs about 100 B.C. The Urmecs were a race of giant men, perhaps a link between the Peruvian and the Mexican. Years later, the Toltecs came to Cholula and absorbed the Urmecs, and in the end the two became one nation.
Cholula was sacred to the Indians as the home of the great god Quetzalcoatl, who is supposed to have lived there for twenty years, during which time he instructed the natives in agriculture and in the various arts. The nation of which Cholula was the head was part of the Aztec empire, but was never entirely subjugated by them. It was at Cholula that Gortes and his allies staged the great massacre of the Indians, in which some seven thousand persons are said to have been killed.
There were over four hundred temples in the old town, and as the Christian missionaries had a habit of building a church on the site of every temple, it has been said that in Cholula there is a Christian church for every day in the year. Whether or not you can prove this statement probably depends upon how far you go from the center of town or how big a circle you draw. At present, according to the best information I can garner, there are some forty-nine churches within a radius of five miles. Fortunately for you, it is not in the least necessary to visit over two or three of these, for most of them are extremely uninteresting.
Probably you will go first t0 the CHURCH OF THE VIRGIN OF LOS REMEDIOS. The church itself is of no interest whatsoever, except for the tiny IMAGE OF THE VIRGIN which stands on the altar and is much revered by the Indians. The reason you will go there is that the church crowns the great pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. This pyramid is almost completely covered and at first glance might be mistaken for a hill. Although it is only a few feet lower than the great pyramid to the sun god at Teotihuacan, it covers more area. It is gradually being excavated. From the summit there is a good view of Cholula and the surrounding country, and halfway up, they have uncovered an extremely interesting tomb, with the skeletons visible in the original positions. The caretaker makes no bones about showing them to you.
The largest temples in the town were razed, and most of the statues and great stones were worked into the Christian churches erected in place of the temples. There are only two that I really think it is necessary for you to visit, and fortunately they are side by side. The FRANCISCAN CHURCH OF SAN GABRIEL 1S the first one you should stop and see. The doors and the nave in the inside are unusually interesting. Be sure to see the church from the outside and observe the enormous buttresses.
From the Franciscan church you can proceed to the CAPILLA REAL, an enormous structure built to take care of the overflow from the main church, and dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Inside, it looks more like a forest than a church, with its enormous domes, supported by many pillars. According to one of the best guidebooks, there are 64 columns forming 7 naves and supporting 47 domes. According to my guide, there are 69 columns and 49 domes. I refuse to count them. The church has not been used for years and it is a haunt for small birds, which fly around and around the columns, with delightful effect. There are some interesting antique benches in the church, on which visitors are permitted to sit. While you are resting, you can count the columns and domes, but as the birds have flown around here for some time, I advise you to look before you sit.
There are, of course, many other churches in Cholula, but as I have said before, I do not think it is worth your while to go inside. Content yourself with a view from the outside of the exquisite majolica tile with which most of the walls and domes are covered. Then, if you must have some more churches, concentrate on the two I mention below. Up the main road between Cholula and Puebla is the church of SAN FRANCISCO ECATEPEC, which dates from the seventeenth century. The facade is of tile and majolica, with interesting majolica serpents winding around the towers. The interior is extremely ornate, weighty with gold leaf.
The other church, very near San Francisco, is the church Of SANTA MARIA TONANZTINTLA. This church 1S interesting on account of its elaborate interior, which was painted by the Indians in the most amazing and vivid colors.
If you decide to pass up the churches mentioned above, you can then drive straight into Puebla. On your left at kilometer 127, you will pass the remains of an old aqueduct. I mention this simply for the sake of the record, so that when you ask what it is, you will know the answer.
At kilometer 129, where the road turns off to Tlaxcala, there is a fine old colonial bridge, and at kilometer 130 are the FORTS OF GUADELUPE AND LORETO, where the Mexicans defeated the French in the battle of Cinco de Mayo. The forts themselves are of no special interest, but you should certainly not leave Puebla without going to one of them to get the view of the city and the surrounding country.
The city of Puebla, or more correctly, Puebla de los Angeles, is the fourth largest city in the republic and one of the loveliest places in the country. Although it is usually visited as a one-day excursion from Mexico City, the time allotted is really not sufficient to get even a moderate idea of the beauty of the place. If you can spare the time, I advise you to stay overnight in Puebla and devote two days to the town.
As in every Mexican city, the churches are the sights to see. The CATHEDRAL OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION is a little smaller than the Cathedral in Mexico City, but equally as interesting. It is an old church, begun in 1552, but not completed until 1664. The design in general is the same as that of the Cathedral in Mexico City. Perhaps the main difference is in the size. As in the Cathedral in Mexico City, the placing of the choir and the altar appears to cut down the length of the church.
The choir is considered to be one of the finest examples of wood carving that you will see anywhere in the world. The name of the artist, Pedro Munoz, should certainly be noted and remembered.
Another beautiful sight in the Cathedral is the KING'S ALTAR, which is in Puebla onyx, gray in color, and is the work of Manuel Tolsa. The paintings in the church are superb. The fourteen STATIONS OF THE CROSS, believed to be the work of Cabrera, are splendid works of art. I say "supposed to be by Cabrera" because very often the old artists did not sign the works which were intended to be placed in the churches. The SACRISTY is exquisitely decorated in gold leaf and contains some fine paintings. In the SALA CAPITULAR hang several unique Flemish tapestries, designed by Rubens, and presented to the church by Charles V of Spain. Since they represent profane and not sacred subjects, they are not hung in the main room of the church but are kept in a side room.
As you leave the church, notice particularly the carving on the doors, the facade of the Cathedral, and the towers. The BISHOP'S PALACE, built of tile and brick, stands nearby and is interesting chiefly from the exterior.
Opposite the Cathedral is the Palacio Municipal, a modern building not generally visited by the tourist. Of great interest, however, 1S the TEMPLO DE SANTO DOMINGO. Your guide will take you through the imposing entrance t0 the CAPILLA DEL ROSARIO, without question one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. Not a segment of the chapel is free from decoration, whether it be plaster convolutions, plaster reliefs of saints, or gold leaf. The Virgin standing in the chapel altar is an elaborately dressed and bejeweled figure. The whole effect of the chapel is one of extreme ornateness, rather than of beauty.
The state COLLEGE OF LA COMPANIA is outstanding chiefly for its handsome patio. It is still in use as a school, but except for this patio, is not important as a sight.
There is a church next door which is interesting only because there is a plaque here announcing that in this church the China Poblana was buried.
The China Poblana
The little Chinese princess, or the "China Poblana," as she was later called, is celebrated as one of the Florence Nightingales of Mexican history. In the old days when Acapulco was the greatest trading center with the Orient, she was brought over to Mexico on one of the heavy-laden galleons which frequently came from China bearing precious cargoes. Captured by some pirates, she had been sold as a slave to a pious Spanish sailor, who took her back with him to Puebla, where he placed her in the care of an equally pious Mexican couple. Her guardians instructed her in the Christian faith, and she was baptized under the name of Catarina de San Juan. In fact, her conversion was so complete that she followed the biblical injunction "sell all that thou hast and give to the poor" as her guiding pattern of life. She gave away all her silks and jewels and devoted herself to the care of the old and needy, becoming known to them and beloved by them under the name of the "Puebla China Girl," or the "China Poblana."
And as she went around the town on her errands of mercy, the simple costume that she had made for herself became a familiar sight in the city. The skirt was red and flowing, with a green stripe, and with this she wore a white-embroidered blouse of the kind that the Indian women made for themselves. And overall, as a touch of coquetry she could not resist (for after all, she had been a princess), she wore a smartly draped Mexican shawl.
When the little princess passed away, she was buried in the church of La Compania. But her costume lives on and is still called the "China Poblana," and the dress of the Chinese princess is the basis of the Mexican women's national costume of today. The original is still preserved in the museum at Puebla.
Other churches in Puebla worth looking at are NUESTRA SENORA DE LA LUZ, with its tiled dome and fa~ade, and the SAN FRANCISCO CHURCH, which has a fine tower, and still contains the little image of Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios, which Cortes carried in all his battles. These are the sights to be seen if you have plenty of time.
The STATE MUSEUM IS housed in the CASA DEL ALFENIQUE. The place is interesting, not only because of the collection it houses, but because of the structure itself. Some of the pieces now in the museum were in the original building, such as the water spouts in. the patio and the household chapel, done in the churrigueresque style. There is a good archaeological collection on the ground floor, the original dress of the China Poblana, articles representing the revolutionary history of Puebla, and on the top floor a fascinating reproduction of a colonial house with furnishings of the period:
One of the most interesting things in all Puebla is the SECRET CONVENT OF SANTA MONICA. When the reform laws of 1857 abolished monasteries and nunneries in Mexico, some of the sisters refused to leave either the nunneries or Mexico. A secret convent was founded, which did not come to light until 1935, although there were nuns living in it all the time.
The entrance to the convent looks exactly like the entrance to any apartment house. You walk up the stairs and go into an extremely commonplace apartment. On one side, against the wall, is a set of shelves, built as a plate rack, and when a button is pressed, these shelves move out into the room and show the concealed entrance to the mother superior's office. This room and the one next to it are the only rooms that have remained exactly as they were when the convent was founded. The other rooms contains collections of relics from other convents which were discovered at the same time. The Convent of Santa Monica housed on an average of forty nuns, but when it was discovered, there were only twenty nuns there, all over sixty years of age.
You will be permitted to go through the various rooms of the convent, including the pitch-black room in which the nuns changed their clothes to avoid the sin of looking at their own bodies, and another dark room with skull and paintings of human torture where the nuns meditated on death. The convent has two attractive patios with tiled walls and luxuriant trees and flowers.
The chapel of the convent can be reached by another secret passage, this time through the bathroom. This secret door is so low that you have to go through on your hands and knees. The church was next door to the convent, and here the nuns would listen to the services from a concealed choir. From the chapel there is a secret passage leading to the church, concealed on the chapel side by shelves, and, on the church side, by a religious painting. How the secret of this convent was kept for so many years is a puzzle. Many conflicting stories have been told of how the convent was finally discovered, but it is difficult to decide which is the most plausible.
One of the most charming things I saw in Puebla was the all-tile KITCHEN OF THE SANTA ROSA CONVENT. This is a perfect example of the old Mexican kitchen. It is a most artistic piece of work, and one of the things in Puebla which must not be missed.
A half hour's drive from Puebla will take you to the sulphur SPRINGS OF AGUA AZUL, with its Olympic-size swimming pool, said to be the finest in Mexico.
Also near Puebla, with a road leading to it either from Puebla or Cholula, is ATLIxco, situated on the slopes of the great volcano Popocatepetl. Its name means "Place Above the Water," and there is no better description of the town. Although it is important as a textile center, its chief claim to fame is its exceptional beauty. From the CERRO DE SAN MIGUEL beside the town you can get a magnificent view of the valley of Atlixco. The climate of the town is very much like that of Cuernavacaslightly warmer than Puebla, without actually being hot. In addition to the view from the Cerro, you should see the MEDIEVAL FOUNTAIN in front of the hotel.
Further away is TEPEACA, famous for its attractive plaza, which has a Moorish tower in one corner and some excellent examples of ancient sculpture in the form of two stone Toltec dogs. There is also a Franciscan church and monastery here. A little further away from Tepeaca, at ACATZINGO, you can get one of the most magnificent views in Mexico of the Pico de Orizaba.
What to Do and Where to Stay in Puebla
I think the best hotel in town is the Colonial. It is modern, and has excellent food and good service. Running a close second is the Arronte, which is not so new a hotel but has an excellent reputation in Puebla. These are the two hotels probably most suitable for the average American tourist.
The Royalty Restaurant is well recommended, and here one can get some of the local dishes for which Puebla is particularly famous.
Puebla has a fine reputation for good food. One of its great specialties is the Mole de Gaujolote, about which I have already spoken in the section on "Food and Drink," on page 24. Mole is a delicious dish of turkey, made in a most extraordinary sauce. With this you might try some of the local candied sweet potatoes called Comotes. A rare delicacy is Chalupas, a boat-shaped dish made of maize and filled with meat and fried potatoes.
What to Buy in Puebla
Puebla is the place for ONYX. The Puebla Curio Shop or some of the other little shops around the Plaza Mayor carry an excellent assortment of articles made of this stone, particularly ash trays and necklaces.
Another famous product of Puebla is the MEXICAN TALAVERA POTTERY. The Talavera pottery is named after the town in Spain where it was originally made, and the art was later transferred to Puebla. Probably the best place to buy this is at the factories of Guervara Brothers and of Isauro Irriarte. Among the more interesting of the pottery designs is the highly glazed black pottery with raised ornamentation and fluted edges. This is made according to the formula brought over from Spain, but it is pre-Spanish in its inspiration and design.
In the line of pottery Puebla is celebrated for its TILES. Single ones costing a peso or less make a very acceptable small present and can be used as stands for flowerpots, teapots, or hot dishes. You can also buy POTTERY BOWLS of excellent design at a very low cost and use them for ash trays.
The MARKET is open daily, and here you can buy some very good, multi-colored straw mats, called PETATES. They come in almost all sizes.