With Mexico’s pristine, world-renowned beaches and mystic Mayan ruins gaining all the attention, visitors often overlook some of the country’s most breathtaking cities. Located far from its shores and nestled in the heart of the country, travelers will find impressive modern metropolises steeped in history and culture.
Cities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Queretaro are not only worth a visit, but critical to any traveler wishing to gain a full understanding of Mexico’s vibrant past. While these cities will prove to have a lot in common, each one has its own story to tell. There is one city, however, that truly mesmerizes visitors with its uniquely rich history and present day style – the city of Puebla, Mexico.
While today the city is extremely modern and ranks as Mexico’s fourth largest metropolis, it hasn’t always been a booming business hub. Prior to the arrival of European explorers, native peoples inhabited the lands that now make up the present Mexican state of Puebla. Due to the region’s rich volcanic soils and strategic location, ancient civilizations, such as the Aztec Empire, once settled here. However, with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, that all changed – and quickly.
Founded April 16, 1531, Puebla was the first city built to accommodate a purely Spanish population. This was uncommon during a time in which most cities were built atop ancient ruins conquered during the Spanish invasion of the Americas throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. With most Mexican cities deriving from the piecing together of past and present structures, cultures, and traditions, the city of Puebla was built from scratch along the banks of the Atoyac and San Francisco rivers, making it the first Spanish-built city in central Mexico not founded on the ruins of a conquered settlement.
Although the Spanish were strategic in their development of the city, many ancient monumental ruins can still be found nearby city limits and throughout the state. The combination of indigenous and colonial structures and cultures has created a truly fascinating destination.
While there may be no ancient ruins within city limits, just outside of its borders, approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) to the northeast, visitors will find the truly fascinating, ancient archeological site of Cholula. Considered the most important settlement of ancient Puebla, Cholula is considered to be the oldest, continuously inhabited city in Mexico. Unfortunately, many of the ancient city’s structures were uprooted by the Spanish and replaced with churches. Today, the site is still home to many Aztec ruins including Mexico’s largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Built to honor the God of Rain, Chiconahui Quiahuitl, this magnificent structure captures the attention of all who witness this ancient city’s mystical charm. When visiting the area, witnessing this mesmerizing ancient metropolis is a must, as it is one of the most popular day trips from Puebla.
The city of Puebla itself, however, is also home to a richly diverse history. Having been inhabited by Spanish, French, and Mexican populations, a walk through its streets is like a walk through time. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the city of Puebla features 2,619 monuments, including the Palafoxiana Library – the oldest library in all of the Americas. One of the best methods to learn about the city’s past is to study its architecture.
Said to be home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of Baroque architecture laid out on a Cartesian grid, the city of Puebla offers both history and architecture buffs a truly remarkable experience. A style that pervaded nearly all artistic disciplines and aspects of trans-Atlantic culture, the Baroque style consists of elements such as drama, exaggerated emotion, theatrics, and sensuality, all of which took on a local dimension in Mexico, the Philippines, and Italy.
Capturing a moment when Western Europe was beginning to grapple with shifts, including the conquest of the Americas and the Protestant Reformation, Baroque architecture can be seen not just throughout the city of Puebla, but all of Latin America. One such feature that this unique architectural style brought to Latin American is that of intimidation, as can be observed in many of Puebla’s small churches and impressive cathedrals. Such sites as the Iglesia de Santo Domingo (Church of Santo Domingo) and the intricately tiled Casa de Alfeñique (House of Alfeñique) show how the style was used to spark awe in their guests. Even in nearby Cholula, the attention grabbing Church of Santa María Tonantzintla features cherubs with distinctly indigenous figures, carved into every last inch of the church’s stucco interior. One thing is for certain – once you visit Puebla you will gain a new appreciation for the stories that local structures tell through their unique and historic design.
In addition to the Baroque architecture style seen across the city’s landmarks, the city’s houses are often clad in shimmering azulejos – tin-glazed ceramic tiles that fuse European and American aesthetics. If that doesn’t catch your eye, be on the lookout for the nearly 1,920 streetlights throughout the city’s historic downtown area. Often referred to as the “City of Street Lights”, Puebla exhibits unique lights originally crafted by the French, who played a significant role in Mexico’s complex history during the 16th and 17th centuries. The French influence can also be seen in the city’s elaborate, wrought iron balconies and fine, crystal chandeliers that hang in many of the city’s most historic buildings.
Other famous sites include the Catedral Basilica de Puebla (Basilica Cathedral of Puebla) located in the city’s main square and home to Mexico’s highest cathedral towers, and the Templo San Francisco (Temple San Francisco), both built during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Additional and unique sites are those that were created by the many foreign militaries that populated the region throughout the years, including the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, both erected on a hill to provide strategic overview of the city.
As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to bring in new immigrants from all over Europe, including Italy, France, and Germany, their influence has played a significant role in the city’s development. With nearly 60 technological institutes, 110 universities, prestigious hospitals, and home to numerous European manufacturing companies such as Volkswagen, Puebla has mastered the fusion of rich history and modern day technology, becoming a truly world-class destination.
Now, when considering places to visit in Mexico, you’ll remember to consider some of the country’s more hidden gems – its centrally located, majestic cities. When walking their streets, the numerous buildings, fountains, and monuments will tell a story – one that will expose you to the country’s deep-rooted history and Mexican culture. Whether simply exploring on your own or participating in a Puebla city tour, you are sure to be impressed by the city’s unique and dazzling beauty.