Puebla is a city full of stories and anecdotes that color the colonial houses and convents of the historic district. For historical tours of the city or a tour of the surrounding area, you might want a guide. One I can recommend is Carlos Rivero Tours (tel. 222/304-2855; www.riveros.com.mx). He speaks English, knows his city, and is very capable. For a quick sightseeing tour of the city, you can hop on one of the buses that park on the street between the zócalo and the cathedral (Calle 3 Oriente). Tours are in Spanish, depart every half-hour, and cost 40 pesos. Or you can climb on to one of the new Turibus (www.turibus.com.mx) open-air double-decker buses, with narrative in several languages. Your ticket (110 pesos) is valid for the entire day and allows you to get off at any location and board the next bus that comes along. The circuit of both buses includes a quick view of the site where the Battle of Cinco de Mayo was fought. Both also offer tours to Cholula, but just on the weekends.
If you were to stop to examine every church you pass in Puebla, you would be in for a long stay. Still, it is something I enjoy doing, even with the smaller churches. Many have simple, austere interiors that express a sweetness and humility that I like. But three churches in the Puebla's historic district require special mention.
The cathedral, completed in 1649, has the tallest bell towers in Mexico. Its dark-stone exterior and severe Herrerian (Spanish Renaissance) design lend it a lugubrious appearance that may befit a cathedral but takes a little while to warm up to. The inside is worth a peek. Near the front doors, you can usually find guides (or they'll find you) who offer a short tour.
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo, on the corner of 5 de Mayo and 4 Poniente, was originally part of a Dominican monastery completed in 1611. Lining the walls of the nave are some exquisite baroque altars. In the left transept you'll find the Capilla del Rosario, built in 1690. It is a masterpiece of gold leaf and plaster convolutes dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary. Some observers point to it as the epitome of Mexican baroque architecture. Note, too, the intricate Talavera wainscoting.
The massive church of La Compañía, built by the Jesuits, is where La China Poblana worshiped and was briefly entombed. Look to the right of the church doorway, and you'll see a curious bit of text in Talavera. It marks the date of the execution of a con man who arrived in Mexico on a boat from Spain carrying papers identifying him as a visitador (papal emissary and inspector). He was wined and dined by the bishops in the capital and in Puebla, and lived the good life for several weeks before being found out. As the text notes, he was executed, and his head was hung above the doorway. The message, I guess: It's not nice to fool the mother church.
Near Cholula are two other impressive churches: Tonantzintla and San Francisco Acatepec.
In addition to the museums listed below, a couple of smaller attractions are worth visiting: The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is an impressive colonial library, the collection of the famous 17th-century bishop who went on to become viceroy, Juan Palafox y Mendoza. The library is on the second floor of the Casa de Cultura, next to the state tourism office. The Casa de Alfeñique is a colonial mansion and a landmark known for its exterior plaster decoration, reminiscent of cake icing; the museum collection, a hodgepodge of things Poblano, is fun if you have time. It's at the intersection of calles 4 Oriente and 6 Norte. The Casa de los Muñecos, Calle 2 Norte 4, is more important for its exterior than for the museum collection inside. The large grotesques that adorn the late-18th-century facade are said to be caricatures of the town council, though this story is apocryphal.
Volcanoes & Pyramids
On the western outskirts of Puebla is the small town of Cholula, which offers a good vantage point for viewing the volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixaccihuatl. These volcanoes separate the Valley of Mexico from the Valley of Puebla. The best time for viewing them is on a clear morning in the winter or early spring, when the snowcaps would be at their largest.
In pre-Columbian times, Cholula was a large city -- the religious capital of highland Mexico. The Spanish razed the hundreds of temples that stood here, and we know little about them. But the Great Pyramid still exists, the largest pyramid in the New World. At first glimpse, it looks more like a hill crowned by a church (Nuestra Señora de los Remedios). All the surfacing of the pyramid was removed in earlier times, but you can readily make out the geometry of the stepped platform, which rises from the ground in four levels. One face of the pyramid has been partially reconstructed. Tunnels dug by archaeologists give you an idea of how the thing was built. From atop the neighboring platform (if the guards allow you to climb it), you can get a view of the volcano with the church in the foreground. The entrance fee for the Cholula pyramid is 41 pesos; the site is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm. Tour guides charge 150 pesos per person and can be located at the entrance to the main tunnel.
While you're in Cholula, you might want to walk around the town's center. A restaurant under the stone archway bordering the zócalo offers a decent, inexpensive meal. It's called Los Tulipanes.
Tonantzintla & San Francisco Acatepec
A perfect complement to this trip is a visit to the church of Tonantzintla, just to the south. Leave the town on Bulevar Miguel Alemán, which becomes the road to Tonantzintla. Less than 1.5km (1 mile) ahead, the church is within plain sight of the road. It's famous for its jewel-box interior, executed in an endearing style of Indian baroque. It has mesmerized many visitors, including R. Gordon Wasson, who saw in its manifold imagery allusions to a secret mushroom cult. If this visit hasn't quenched your appetite for visiting churches, proceed a bit farther down the road and you will imperceptibly cross into the neighboring community of San Francisco Acatepec. Its church is also along the road and stands out for its stunning tile facade.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.