The World’s Nicest Zocalo

Zocalo of Puebla is surrounded by colonial buildings
Beautiful colonial architecture around the Zocalo

Upon first impression, Puebla, Mexico, looks drab, uninspired and not prosperous. But don’t be fooled. There is a lot to see and do here. Puebla’s historic district is the focus of activity, built around a plaza that is said to be the nicest colonial Zocalo in the world. Puebla was built by Spanish conquistadores as a city for Spanish people at the logical stopping place on the transportation route from the port at Veracruz to Mexico City.

Puebla’s old town area is filled with richly decorated mansions, great museums, restaurants, colonial buildings and monuments so that you can feast your eyes for hours. That explains why the entire city of Puebla has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Zocalo’s must-see main attraction is one of the world’s great cathedrals, tallest in Latin America. Puebla also is the site of the oldest library in North America. Puebla is home to several kid-friendly attractions, including one of the world’s largest urban observation Ferris wheels offering great views of the city, a great open, drive-through safari park with animals from the Amazon and Australia, and a cable car ride.

Puebla is easy to get to and easy on the budget. Although it is the fourth largest city in Mexico, Puebla is one of the safest places in the country. As a big city, it can’t be said to have the lowest prices in the country, but, for a city, it is among the cheapest places to visit. American hotel brands are about one-half the price they would be in the U.S. There is a significant German community there because of a huge Volkswagen plant in town. There are also several universities.

To reach Puebla, you can catch a connecting flight into its relatively new airport from Mexico City’s international airport. The flight to Mexico City is two hours from Dallas and is frequently on sale for $200 round-trip. The best way to get to Puebla from Mexico City’s airport, however, is to catch a “luxury” bus (around $20 and a 2½-hour ride) from the airport to Puebla. The bus will show a movie, has a restroom and reserved seats. (I found the bus to be less than luxurious, with a seat that was permanently reclined, limited rack space, WiFi and USB chargers not working.) The bus terminal at the international terminal at the airport is next to the airport Marriott Courtyard and is operated by the private Estrella Roja (Red Star) bus company, which has two bus terminals in Puebla. So, if you choose your hotel in advance, buy your ticket to the terminal closest to your hotel.

Volcanoes surround Puebla
One of the Puebla volcanoes at dusk

On a clear day, you can observe that Puebla is surrounded by volcanoes. They are among the highest peaks in Mexico with several with glaciers, attracting hikers. Even in the hot summer months, it is very cold in the mountains. Although January and February are the low season, it is a great time to visit without crowds, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and unlikely chances of rain.

Mexican armed forces defeated the French on May 5, 1862, in the Battle of Puebla. The event is little noticed around Mexico, except in Puebla, where there is a big festival to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. The event is still not as big a deal as in Texas.

Around Mexico, Puebla has the reputation of being a very religious and conservative city, said to have more than 365 churches, one for each day of the year. The commentary in the hop-on/hop-off (in season) “Turibus” claims there are greater than 2000 churches in the historical area alone. Whatever the truth is, there are a lot of churches, many magnificently adorned with so much gold the locals make a twist of a familiar saying: “All that glitters is gold.”

In the historic area, there are many fine restaurants catering to tourists. For more fine restaurants mixed with more moderate fare, head to Avenue Juarez, a beautiful palm tree-lined restaurant and bar district.

Finally, getting around Puebla is a breeze using Uber for transportation. The service is  very popular and very cheap there. The app interface is in English. Rides are around $1 to $3, and you avoid the need to change your dollars to pesos. Just link your credit card in the app and it’s all automatic. Make sure the credit card you use does not assess a foreign transaction fee when the peso charge is converted to dollars. Pay for your hotel in advance, use Uber for transportation and you’ll be able to visit without ever changing any money into pesos as most restaurants and museums accept credit cards, making this an exceptionally easy place for a weekend visit.