Mexico City: Fascinating day-trips for History, Mole and Pyramids
By NR Venkatesh
One can think of many reasons to visit Mexico City. One that may not be obvious is the fact that one can conveniently make day-trips to many of Mexico’s attractive destinations, using Mexico City as the base.
We decided to use the services of a local guide on our trip for two reasons – to assist with trip planning and to better appreciate the places we visited.
Given ongoing security concerns in Mexico, hiring a tour guide and riding in his/her car is not a simple matter. Because you are literally entrusting your life in his/her hands.
We identified our tour guide Jorge Mendoza (firstname.lastname@example.org or on + 52 55 3660 8182) on Trip Advisor and, in hindsight, that was a good call.
We did four day-trips with Jorge, two of which are covered in this story.
We paid Jorge 4,000 pesos (USD 210) for each of the two 10-hour day-trips from Mexico City – one to visit Puebla and Cholula and the other to Cuernavaca and Taxco.
A Mexican Encyclopedia
Knowledgeable and reliable, Jorge steered his 2012 silver Honda Accord with consummate skill and care, keeping us safe. An unexpected bonus was the fact that Jorge is a veritable encyclopedia of all things Mexican.
He let us know that despite being a mestizo (a person of mixed race, especially the offspring of a Spaniard and an American Indian), his heart and soul belonged to his Indian roots.
Thanks to his intimate local knowledge, Jorge was able to take us to the best (value-for-money) local restaurants for lunch at the places that we visited with him. It would be wise to budget USD 20 per person for a decent sit-down meal.
One day we visited Puebla and Cholula.
It was love at first sight with Puebla, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its stunning colors, baroque architecture, Spanish and French influences, Talavera pottery, churches built by Franciscan monks and Barrio Del Artista, the street housing local artists, Puebla is a wonderful destination.
Puebla was established by the Spaniards in 1531 purposely beside the indigenous city of Cholula, ostensibly to ensure free indigenous labor, a feature common to other sister cities and towns in Mexico.
While the residents of Puebla are largely mestizo, the residents of Cholula are mainly indigenous. Puebla was intended to serve as the town connecting Mexico City to Vera Cruz, the port on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, facilitating shipments to and from Spain. Today Vera Cruz is spelled Veracruz.
Puebla has been immortalized all over Mexico because of ‘Mole Poblano’, the famous sauce believed to have originated there. It is a culinary symbol synthesizing Mexico’s indigenous and Spanish heritage.
We were served the brown-black colored sauce with many of our meals, and to be honest, we did not like it very much. Somehow, the sauce’s different ingredients seemed to negate one another instead of accentuating the flavors.
Knowing that we were from India, Jorge, our tour guide, could barely contain himself as he told us about “China Poblana”. Set in the 1600s, legend has it that Meera was a woman from South India who was kidnapped by the Portuguese and sold into slavery.
Baptized Catarina de San Juan and after changing hands several times, she ended up in Puebla, in New Spain, clad in East Indian attire.
Upon release from slavery after the death of her master, she dedicated herself to serving the needy and after her death in 1688, she was revered as a saint. Researching “China Poblana”, I came across this blog that I found very interesting, link.
We had the most memorable meal of our trip to Mexico at Hotel Colonial de la Puebla, a six-course delight that set us back by USD 54 (for four).
Located cheek-by-jowl in Puebla is Cholula, founded around 500 B.C., home to the largest pyramid in the world (by volume), the Great Pyramid of Tepanapa, built over 2,00 years ago.
It is larger than even the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, they mistook the pyramid for a hill because it was covered with soil and overrun by shrubs and brush.
In fact, they proceeded to build a church, La Iglesia de los Remedios, on top of this hill, where it sits today, atop the largest pyramid in the world. Unbelievable, yet true.
We wanted to walk up to the church, but it was closed because of damage caused by the recent massive earthquake, whose epicenter was just 55km south of Puebla city.
Even as we stood disappointed outside the gated entrance to the church, we witnessed a procession up close, with indigenous Mexicans carrying figurines of various saints on ‘litters’ on their shoulders, chanting religious hymns, burning incense, strewing flower petals along the way and gamely flashing us the victory sign as we focused our cameras at them.
A policeman informed our guide that these figurines had been removed from the damaged churches in Cholula and were being relocated to safety, pending repairs to the churches.
Another day we visited Cuernavaca and Taxco.
Cuernavaca, reportedly established 3,200 years ago, boasts the 16th-century Palace of Cortés, home of Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, now a museum. More importantly, Cuernavaca is a favorite R&R destination for Mexicans, given the city’s salubrious climate. It was once also home to many American and Canadian retirees.
However, things appear to have changed. A recent story drives home the importance of not letting your guard down in Mexico.
After spending less than an hour in Cuernavaca, we drove to Taxco. It is arguably one of the prettiest cities in Mexico, very picture postcard like, precariously perched atop high rugged mountains surrounded by undulating valleys and cliffs. Once a major silver mining town, tourism is the city’s mainstay today.
Taxco’s dwindling fortunes were revived when William Spratling, an American artist and silver designer relocated there and set up workshops to export silver jewelry to America.
We noticed references to Spratling, paying homage to his legacy, in jewelry shops around Taxco (there’s even a museum in his honor). And we were persuaded by Ricardo, the owner of Linda de Taxco (01 762 622 3172) to purchase a dainty silver bracelet.
The charm in Taxco lies in its colonial architecture, narrow and winding cobbled streets, unhurried pace and watching locals gathered at the city square Plaza Borda (also referred to as the Zocalo), chit-chatting at leisure.
Not to forget the sweeping panoramic views that we enjoyed having a nice rooftop lunch at Restaurant del Angel Inn (cost USD 64 for four).
The highways connecting Mexico City to the various places that we visited on our day-trips were well-maintained and comparable with highways in USA or Canada.
However, we don’t recall seeing service stops nor did we see many tractor trailers. And as with any large city, peak hour traffic exiting or entering Mexico City took some time.
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NR Venkatesh was a top film journalist in Bollywood, India and a travel and creative writer in the Middle East, his wife Nirmala has worked with leading English dailies in the Middle East. And son Arjun, who both writes and takes pictures, is also the spark behind the family’s collective efforts at sharing their travel experiences with the world. Incidentally, Venkatesh is a Certified Public Accountant from the US, Nirmala an international banking professional and Arjun, a software engineer based in San Francisco.