East of Mexico City is the region’s second largest city, the thriving and ultra-colonial Puebla. This city not only warrants a couple of days of your time in its own right, but makes an excellent base for forays north to more tranquil Tlaxcala, and west to Cholula with its enormous ruined pyramid. Both were important tributary states of the Aztecs when Cortés marched this way from the coast to pillage and conquer in the name of European civilization. Puebla and Cholula also offer excellent views of central Mexico’s twin volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, both currently off-limits due to the continuing threat of eruption, though you can visit the national park which surrounds them.Read More
Tlaxcala and around
Tlaxcala and around
Allied to Cortés in his struggle against the Aztecs, as well as with colonial Spain in the War of Independence, Tlaxcala, the capital of a tiny state of the same name, has become a byword for treachery. Because of its alliance with Cortés, the town suffered a very different fate from that of nearby Cholula, which aligned itself with the Aztecs, and in the long run this has led to an even more total disappearance of its ancient culture. The Spaniards founded a colonial town here – now restored and very beautiful in much of its original colonial glory, but whether because of its traitorous reputation or simply its isolation, development in Tlaxcala has been limited.
The town lies 131km west of Mexico City and 30km north of Puebla in the middle of a fertile, prosperous-looking upland plain surrounded by rather bare mountains. It’s an exceptionally pretty and much rehabilitated colonial town, comfortable enough but also fairly dull. Most of the interest lies very close to the zócalo, with its central bandstand, where the terracotta and ochre tones of the buildings lend the city its tag of “Ciudad Roja”, the Red City. Its appearance, slow pace and proximity to the nation’s capital have drawn a small expat community, though the latter’s impact on daily life is minimal.
The entire north side of the zócalo is taken up by the Palacio de Gobierno, whose patterned brick facade is broken by ornate windows and doorways. The building incorporates parts of a much earlier structure, erected soon after the Conquest, and inside boasts a series of brilliantly coloured murals by a local, Desiderio Hernandez Xochitiotzin, that took nearly fifty years to complete. The panels depict the history of the Tlaxcalan people from their migration from the north to their alliance with Cortés. The two most spectacular are one on the stairs depicting the Spanish Conquest and another at the bottom showing the Great Market.
To the west of the Palacio de Gobierno, and dominating a small square off the side of the zócalo, stands the tiled facade of the Parroquia de San José. It’s an attractive building, but except for two fonts beside the door depicting Camaxtli, the Tlaxcalan god of hunting and war, the inside is a disappointment. Note the seventeenth-century painting beside the altar that depicts the baptism of a Tlaxcalan chief, as overseen by Cortés and his mistress, La Malinche.
At the opposite corner of the zócalo, the smaller Plaza Xicohténcatl holds the Museo de la Memoria, a modern museum devoted to the cultural history of the region. Its imaginative displays (some interactive) – illustrating pre-Hispanic tianguis (markets), Franciscan life under the Spaniards and the ruling hierarchy in Tlaxcala before and after Cortés – make up for the fact that it’s light on artefacts.
At the southeastern corner of Plaza Xicohténcatl, a broad, tree-lined path leads up to a triple set of arches. Beyond them, an open area overlooking the city’s pretty nineteenth-century bullring is flanked on one side by the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, started in 1537. Wrapped around the convent’s cloister, the Museo Regional de Tlaxcala (daily 10am–6pm; M$37) covers local life from prehistoric times to the present day – an unexceptional collection but well displayed in a series of whitewashed rooms. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción next door is also relatively plain, though it has a beautiful vaulted wooden ceiling decorated in Mudéjar style, the design elements harking back to the Moorish style then common in southern Spain. The Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492, and though their influence continued for some decades, this is only apparent in Mexican churches started immediately after the Conquest. One large chapel, more richly decorated than the rest, contains the font in which Xicohténcatl and other Tlaxcalan leaders were baptized in the presence of Cortés in 1520. Opposite, the lower walls of another chapel bear traces of ancient frescoes.
East of the capital, the road to Puebla climbs steeply, with glorious views of the snowy heights of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl along the way. Little more than an hour on the bus from Mexico City, Puebla is the republic’s fifth largest city (after Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Tijuana). The centre has a remarkable concentration of sights – a fabulous cathedral, a “hidden” convent, museums and colonial mansions – while the mountainous surrounding country is in places startlingly beautiful. Nevertheless, Puebla is unlikely to tempt you into staying particularly long and in a couple of leisurely days (or one packed day) you can see the best of the city and nearby Cholula.
The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1531, preferring it to the ancient sites of Cholula and Tlaxcala possibly because the memories of indigenous power there remained too strong. It rapidly assumed great importance as a staging point on the journey from the capital to the port at Veracruz and for the shipment of goods from Spain’s Far Eastern colonies, which were delivered to Acapulco and transported across Mexico from there. Wealth was brought, too, by the reputation of Puebla’s ceramics, particularly its tiles. This industry – still very much in evidence – was helped by an abundance of good clays in the region, and by settlers from Talavera in Spain, who brought traditional ceramic skills with them. The city did well out of colonial rule, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it took the wrong side in the War of Independence. As a result, it preserves a reputation for conservatism and traditional values, not dispelled even by the fact that the start of the Revolution is generally dated from the assassination of Aquiles Serdán in his Puebla home.
Military defeat seems to play a larger part in Puebla’s history than it does in most of Mexico – the city fell to the Americans in 1847 and to the French in 1863 – but it isn’t what’s remembered. Rather, it’s the greatest victory in the country’s history – here, a force of some two thousand Mexicans defeated a French army three times its size in 1862. To this day, Puebla commemorates May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) with a massive fiesta, and there’s a public holiday throughout the country.
Cholula and around
Cholula and around
Puebla’s expansion in recent years has made Cholula, 15km to the west, virtually a suburb. Nonetheless, it retains its small-town charm and has one abiding reason to visit: the ruins of Cholula. A rival of Teotihuacán at its height, and the most powerful city in the country between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of Tula, Cholula was at the time of the Conquest a vast city of some four hundred temples, famed as a shrine to Quetzalcoatl and for the excellence of its pottery (a trade dominated by immigrant Mixtecs). But it paid dearly for an attempt, inspired by its Aztec allies, to ambush Cortés on his march to Tenochtitlán: the chieftains were slaughtered, their temples destroyed and churches built in their place. The Spaniards claimed to have constructed 365 churches here, one for each day of the year. Although there are a lot of churches, the true figure certainly doesn’t live up to the claim. There may well be 365 chapels within the churches, though, which is already a few hundred more than the village population could reasonably need.
One side of Cholula’s large zócalo – the Plaza de la Concordia – is taken up by the ecclesiastical buildings of the Convento de San Gabriel, built from 1529 on the site of the temple of Quetzalcoatl. The Gothic main church is of little interest, but behind it is the great mustard-yellow Capilla Real (Mon–Sat 9am–1pm & 4.30–6pm), topped by 49 tiled cupolas. Moorish in conception, the interior comes with a forest of columns supporting semicircular arches and immediately recalls the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain.
Arriving in Cholula you can’t miss the Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, picturesquely sited atop a hill with Popocatépetl in the background. If you climb up to it, up, you can buy snacks such as chapulines (fried grasshoppers) on the way. What’s not immediately apparent is that the hill is in fact the remains of the Great Pyramid of Cholula – the Pirámide Tepanapa – the largest pyramid ever constructed, though now it’s ruined, overgrown and really not much to look at. At 66m, it is lower than the largest of the Egyptian pyramids but with each side measuring 350m it is also squatter and bulkier. As at other sites, the outer shell was built over a series of nested pyramids, constructed between 200 BC and 800 AD, something amply illustrated in the site museum. You can find detailed printed guides at the bookshop next to the museum, which can be useful if you have a deep interest in these ancient structures.
Cross the road to reach the archeological site, accessed through a 400-metre-long series of tunnels dug by archeologists, just a fraction of the 8km of exploratory tunnels which honeycomb the pyramid. They’re well lit and capacious enough for most people to walk upright, but there’s still a palpable sense of adventure as you spur off down side tunnels, which reveal elements of earlier temples and steep ceremonial stairways that appear to go on forever into the gloom. Emerging at the end of one tunnel you’ll find an area of open-air excavations, where part of the great pyramid has been exposed alongside various lesser shrines with explanations in English of their importance. Though undoubtedly fascinating, the ruins are a good deal less impressive than some of the more famed sites around the Valley of México. The ring of superimposed structures around the Patio de los Altares are certainly worth a look and there are some fine murals, but these can be better appreciated in the site museum where replicas are kept.