Enroute to Puebla - Popo and Izta

From : Mexico City
To : Puebla

Bus : ADO
Distance : 78 miles/125 kms
Time : 2 hours
Price : Mex $106

Volcanic peaks Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl
From Mexico City we headed to the city of Puebla, a city founded during colonial times and the capital of the state with the same name.

The road from Mexico City to Puebla runs through beautiful pine-forested mountains and near the twin volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, which incidentally, we had earlier seen from the air as we flew into Mexico city.

Popocatepetl (or Popo) and Iztaccihuatl (or Itza) are Mexico's second and third highest mountains and loom large on the horizon on this stretch of road.

Popocatepetl, Nahuatl for Smoking Mountain, has been spouting plumes of gas and ash off and on in recent years and has forced the evacuation of the populate in the surrounding areas. Though it is over a thousand years since Popo delivered a really big last, Mexican authorities are not allowing anyone on the mountain except scientists monitoring its activity.

Iztaccihuatl (White Woman) on the other hand is dormant and remains open to climbers.

Legend has it that Popo was a warrior who was in love with Izta, the emperor's daughter. as the story goes, Izta died of grief while Popo was away at war. Upon his return, he created the two mountains, laid her body on one and stood holding her funeral torch on the other.

Aboard the ADO GL bus from Mexico City to Puebla 

Puebla City

Click for Puebla City photos

A typical "Day of the Dead" altar
Puebla is one of few Mexican cities that has faithfully retained the Spanish imprint.

Fortunately for us we arrived there on Nov 1st, and witnessed the celebrations for Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead has its origins in pre-Hispanic times where people believed that the dead could return to their homes on one day each year to visit their loved ones. The underlying philosophy is that death does not represent the end of life, but the continuation of the same life in a parallel world.

In ancient times, this day was set a month after autumn equinox and required preparations to help the spirits find their way home and to make them welcom. An arch made of bright yellow marigodl flowers was put up in each home as a symbolic door or gateway to and from the underworld. Fruits, corn and salt were placed in front of the arch on an altar, along with containers of water (because the spirits arrived thirsty after their journey).

After the Spanish conquest, the Catholic Church suppressed some of the pre-Hispanic beliefs but allowed others to continue in new manifestations. The Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day was easily superimposed on the Day of the Dead traditions which shared some of the symbolism. Flowers for the dead, offerings of food and drink, burning candles are all now integral part of the celebration.

The occasion is observed throughout the country. In some communities, families spend a whole night at the graveyard with the visiting spirits. In others, beautiful elaborate altars are erected to honor the dead. The favorite foods and drinks, and things that were of special significance to the dead are laid out for the visiting spirit. Sugar skulls, chocolate decorations and toy skeletons are everywhere.

"Day of the Dead" in the zocalo

The zocalo, the central plaza, was filled with colorful altars, some with interesting themes.

Puebla's colonial charm is evident in the architectural style of its many museums, cathedrals and other old buildings in the historic center. Much of it might be regarded as a Mexican version of Spanish Baroque, interpreted through a great profusion of tiles and plaster decoration. One such gem is the elegant and majestic Cathedral, the second largest in the country. It appears on the 500 peso bill and occupies the block south of the zocalo.

We wandered around this friendly town walking in and out cobbled alleys and peering into buildings and roadside shops. The distinctive Templo de la Compania, with its elaborate facade, is said to be last resting place of the famous China Poblana, a 17th century Asian princess whose stature surmounts a fountain at the east side of town. Her costume of frilly blouse atop embroidered and sequined skirt has become a characteristic cliche of Mexican peasant garb.
Tiles on the city walls Puebla's main tourist market, El Parian, sells everything that is Mexican, from serapes to sombreros. After wandering around we returned to the now illuminated central plaza and saw several group perform various regional dances.

Puebla's colorful hand-painted ceramics, know as Talavera, is everywhere in Puebla. There are bowls, vases, flowerpots, jugs, sculptures and azulejos (tiles). The technique was introduced into Mexico in the 16th century by Dominican monks from Talavera de la Teyna, in Spain. The original pottery was cobalt blue and white, with strongly Moorish motifs, but the Mexican potters added their own touch in terms of design and also used greens, yellows and oranges. We walked into a store to admire the colorful displays. Keeping in mind that we were still at the beginning of our trip and would have to lug around anything we bought for the next two weeks, we left with a small but pretty memento.

Day of the Dead Montage from Puebla City

Puebla City Centre Streets Configuration

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The grid pattern of Puebla City streets is based on a very quirky scheme that is totally bewildering to an outsider. The city center is divided into 4 quadrants with Reforma-Don Juan de Palafox Y Mendoza forming the East-West axis and the 5 de Mayo-16 de Septiembre forming the North-South axis.

The N-S streets to the west of the vertical center are odd-numbered North-South streets. They are 3 Norte, 5 Norte etc. above Reforma and 3-Sur, 5-Sur etc. below Reforma. The N-S streets to the east of the vertical center are even-numbered (2-Norte, 4-Norte etc. above Don Juan and 2-Sur, 4-Sur etc. below Don Juan).

Correspondingly, the E-W streets to the north of the horizontal center are even numbered (2-Poniente, 4-Poniente to the left of 5 de Mayo, and 2-Oriente, 4-Oriente to the right of 5 de Mayo). The streets to the south of the horizontal center are odd numbered (3-Poniente, 5 Poniente etc. to the left of 16 de Septiembre and 3-Oriente, 5 Oriente etc. to the right).

Of course, Norte = North, Sur = South, Poniente = West and Oriente = East. Venkatesh is normally good at geographical orientation but this was too much to master in a couple of days.

5 de Mayo (Cinco de Mayo = 5th of May) and 16 de Septiembre (16th of September) are named to commemorate important events in Mexico's history. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the United States too and there is a misconception that it is Mexico's Independence day. It actually commemorates an initial victory of Mexican forces led by General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín over French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. 16th of September is Mexico's Independence day (from Spain, 1810) and is its most important National Holiday.


Click for Cholula photos.

The Grand Pyramid at Cholula topped by Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios
Ten kms west of Puebla, lies the town of Cholula, a major center of religious cult in pre-Hispanic times. The reason to visit Cholula these days is to see what looks like an ordinary hill with a church on the top, but is in fact the Gran Piramide, the biggest pyramid ever built in Mesoamerica.

Built over several times, by 4th century AD, it measured 350m along each side and 66m high making it larger in volume than Egypt's Pyramid of Cheops. During the final phase of its construction, the entire pyramid was covered with a thick layer of adobe.

A 20 minute colectivo ride from Puebla, we were dropped us off close to the zocalo - the central plaza. We walked towards the unmistakable landmark, a hill topped by Church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios. The hill is overgrown with shrubs and trees and it is in fact difficult to recognize it as a pyramid. And even more difficult to believe that it was built by humans.

The Zona Arqueologica comprises the excavated areas around the pyramid and the tunnels underneath. There is a small museum across the street from the ticket office that has a large model of the pyramid mound showing the various superimposed structures and is the best introduction to the site.

Several pyramids were built on top of each other in various reconstructions and several kilometers of tunnels have been dug beneath the pyramid by archaeologist to penetrate each stage.

We made our way through the tunnel system and emerged on the east side. Stone steps lead to the top of the Church atop this structure. The climb was rewarded with a panoramic view of the surrounding area, the imposing Popo and Izta from a closer viewpoint and, to our surprise, the snow-capped visage of Pico de Orizaba (aka Citlaltepetl in Nahuatl = Star Mountain) which appeared like a mirage in the sky! At 5,636m (18,490 ft.) it is the highest mountain in Mexico. It is the second most prominent volcanic peak in the world after Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro. We were about 90 miles (140 km.) away and it took a keen eye to spot it. A further 75 miles separate it from the ocean and could be seen by sailors approaching the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz.

90 miles away, Pico de Orizaba seemingly hanging in the sky behind Puebla City 

Back down the stairs, a path led to the south side of the pyramid, to the Patio de los Altares (The Courtyard of the Altars). This was the main approach to the pyramid and it is ringed by platforms and unique diagonal stairways. In places, structures and stairways in several layers are exposed to view.

We returned to the zocalo and walked around taking in several fine churches, the Templo de San Gabriel, the Arabic-style Capilla Real which dates from 1540 and has 49 domes, and Capilla de la Tercera Orden.