Cholula and Puebla
It was mutually decided that we needed to escape Mexico city before we became permanent residents there. After breakfast Santiago brought us to a café for some quick internet research before taking us to the Eastern bus terminal called TAPO. En route we encountered a road block through the main artery Paseo de la Reforma caused by a massive protest. After getting lost we eventually found the bus station and parted ways with the hope that we will meet up during Semana Santa.
The ride to Cholula brought us through many small villages that really gave us another glimpse of the other side of Mexico. Remnants of buildings bunched together appeared to be either half-built or half decayed, forming small networks of communities between the vast open spaces of farmlands and the folded, crumpled mountainous terrain. There seemed to be an endless stream of used tire shops, mechanics, and food stands planted along the main road with the purveyors sitting outside watching the traffic pass. Men tending fields in the distance looked like tiny figures kicking dust around while their horses and goats surveyed the scene with the tired wisdom only nature possesses. It’s times like these where a sense of guilt stirs within thinking about the difference in situations between us riding through on a bus looking into their lives and them fixated in their little corner of the world watching us roll into and out of their reality. Passing through these beaten down pueblas conjures up feelings that bring me back to childhood memories of looking through an old viewmaster 3-D plastic toy, seeing a scene that feels both real and out of reach at the same time. Traveling is eye opening.
The bus dropped us off in the parking lot of an auto parts store on the outer perimeter of town. This version of a bus stop is turning out to be quite typical in Mexico between smaller cities. We wandered into the historic center and found our very first hotel together ever. It was joined with a bar bearing the same name and appeared to be part of a compound that housed the owners. 220 Pesos bought us a room without a key (you had to buzz when you wanted to get in) and the most basic version of a bathroom a hotel could possess. When you start at the bottom, the only way to go is up.
We came to Cholula particularily to see Container City, a small complex comprised of steel shipping cargo boxes made into a small network of stackable bars, stores, and public spaces geared towards the local college crowd. We snapped some pictures and explored around the brightly colored boxes before heading back for some food and libations. Our hotel/bar was decorated with vintage pictures of Marilyn Monroe amongst Mexican beer ads of yesteryear and happened to serve some great ice-cold Micheladas. Two old men chatted over a newspaper at the bar while we drank our beer with cacahuates. We took a stroll later on throughout the plaza during a soft rainstorm (a pleasant treat from the endless sunny, dry days) surrounded by beautifully lit cathedrals and restaurants. Cholula has the largest pyramid base in Mexico (by volume) and it was a short walk away from our accomodations. In the morning we found out that the ancient tunnels were permanently closed and had collapsed recently. As a concession we settled on some fresh fruit with yogurt before taking a very authentic bus ride to Puebla. I can honestly say I’ve been off-roading on a public bus now.
We were advised by many to take an afternoon for Puebla, get some food, and hit the road. Upon arrival our low expectations were melted and a pool of wonder appeared at the tips of our eager feet with the beautiful reflection of Puebla ahead of us. Our hostel was situated in a part of the town that had the look and feel of a finely tuned Chinatown, equipped with wall to wall craft vendors, random anything-you-could-imagine stores, eateries, fish markets, fruit and sandwich shops. We walked through an atrium-like mall and found ourselves buried in the picturesque historic center. Although we have been in the thick of Mexican history for almost a month now Puebla offered fresh perspectives and attractive structures to get absorbed in. Kids playing soccer with an empty water bottle at a church older than all of their living generations made my feet stop working and my eyes stop blinking. Moments where time seems to pause clears out the inner brain chatter and make me truly feel like we are connected to each other as humans by the purest and simplest form of all; joy. Moments in life like this truly let you know you are alive and part of a bigger scene than just the one you are directing.
The Zocalo was an amazing mix of old architecture with modern art and was a very lively place to people watch on a Wednesday afternoon. Hordes of school children playing in the fountains were amidst city visitors, vendors, and restaurants galore. The Cathedral was cavernous and housed the biggest organ I will probably ever see in my lifetime. It’s two gigantic towers house larger-than-life church bells and are immortalized on the 500 peso bill. I can almost hear them ring whenever I see one.
We decided to skip out on most of the museums in Puebla, having seen an exorbitant amount of culture and history already, and headed for the train museum for some large-scale interactive fun. We played around the old trains of yesterday’s past in what used to be the city’s train station. Several dozen old boxcars of all shapes and sizes were here with some open to the public to walk around and play in. We saw just about everything and crossed the street into the second part of the museum where a guard opened up some trains that are presently used for educational purposes. One held a public library packed to the gills with books, while the other was used for kindergarten classes. Four thumbs up for the train museum.
Since we were in Puebla it was absolutely necessary for mole to be consumed. Mole was dreamt up in Puebla but it’s origin remains a mystery. A museum at a nunnery claims it was first made in it’s kitchen and grew in popularity from there. Regardless, we went out and had some damn good mole poblano one night in an open air style restaurant. Ironically they had some 80’s classic rock bands playing their classics way past their expiration dates. It was classic watching Billy Idol belt one out while cabelleros tapped their feet and a toddler learned how to dance. Plus this gave us an extra chance to walk through the zocalo one last time at night to savor the visual.
The ingredients used to create Puebla craft a beautiful dish in my eyes. It has the perfect amount of grittiness, the right amount of historic preservation, and a tolerable amount of new-age shopping and city necessities. What is really appealing aesthetically is that all of the shops, restaurants, and hotels are housed within old buildings and have to make due with the space that is available for the storefronts. We passed by a movie theatre that literally had a drive in parking lot that was within the other half of the ancient structure. Some little food shops set up their goods at the front ten percent of the store while the rest was completely empty. You can never be sure what is beyond the open doors in these buildings and will probably be surprised at what they possess.
We left Puebla in a mad dash to try and figure out accommodations for Semana Santa, which is referred to as traveling hell. The big complication was that we are headed for the beaches the same time that everyone in Mexico would be. I would have liked another day in this comfortable walking city but it wasn’t in the cards. We’ve got a 5 hour bus ride to Oaxaca ahead of us accompanied by another 7 hour excursion to finally reach the Pacific.