Path to Puebla
Disappointment whilst traveling is almost guaranteed — inevitably, something doesn’t work out just the way it should. Usually, however, everything else in the scenario seems to temper that feeling — maybe you’ve ended up somewhere better, or discovered something you hadn’t intended to, or learned something new. But sometimes, it’s harder to find a bright spot when you’re in the moment — and all of your frustrations pile up and begin to magnify each other.
We had breakfast steps from our hotel room — chilaquiles (naturally — it’s basically chips and salsa, my lifeblood), coffee, fresh orange juice, papaya unlike any I’d ever tasted, Mexican cheeses. After we ate, we went back to the room to pack — a little mournfully, to be honest. We loved our dark little hideaway, and were sad to leave it. Then a quick wander around the hotel shops — nothing of note — and a trip down the block to a high-end liquor store. I was hunting for a very particular bottle of mezcal (obviously), but we were out of luck — they had three bottles in the entire chain, one in each of three different stores across the city. Oh well — we needed to get on our way anyway.
We’d decided to take a bus to Puebla, after my research determined that (a) renting a car in Mexico City wasn’t particularly easy and (b) the traffic is mostly a nightmare, and difficult to manage for a newbie. So we got into our Uber at Downtown México after checking out, and headed towards the central bus station, TAPO.
As we rode through traffic, my anxiety set in as per usual. I can count the number of times I’ve ridden on a bus on two hands — spoiled and naïve, I know — so the layers of unknowns piled up. “How the hell will we know where to go?” “Hopefully there are still tickets…” “Is my shitty Spanish going to work at all?” As we pulled up to the protected drop-off point, the anxious thoughts ebbed a bit as I realized how organized and official the whole process was — a teenage girl with a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage stood around, waiting for her Uber while looking at her phone. We unloaded our bags, swerved past the luggage attendants and descended under the giant dome of the TAPO.
We quickly found our way to the Estrella Roja desk — where a handful of miscellaneous, unorganized pesos and a lot of rudimentary Spanish later, we found ourselves in the possession of two first-class bus tickets to Puebla — a whopping $196MXN each ($10.25USD). We turned the corner from the desk, bought two gigantic bottles of water, and wandered into the first-class lounge — separated from the rest of the bus gates by a polished wood slat wall and a metal detector. We sat in the very first row, completely unclear as to how the boarding process would happen. We must have looked like frightened children, the whites around our eyes popping against our fake-tanned faces. The gate attendant smiled at us, and began to announce something into the speaker system — it was 95% static and then the rest was Spanish with a very specific set of vocabulary words that we did not know, so we just got up and stood in line, full of hope. Luckily, we’d done the right thing and wandered out with our fellow passengers to our waiting bus. We shoved our bags (meticulously labeled and checked by staff repeatedly against our claim tickets) in the hold and ambled up, heaving into our seats (#11 and #12). I plugged my phone into the waiting USB charging port as if it was a reflex, and settled back for the journey.
As soon as we started to pull out of TAPO, the TV at the front of the bus sprang to life. After some ads for different Estrella Roja destination, a movie began to play… Of course, it was “La La Land.” It was dubbed into Spanish, obviously — and as with many dubbed programs, any on-screen English is verbally translated. So when the title screen appeared, a very brusque and formal male narrator barked:
“LAH LAH LAHND.”
You could hear the period at the end of his narration. I almost burst out laughing — why bother translating if you’re just going to say exactly what’s on the screen? And with such a voice — so clipped, so loud, so official?
It became incredibly surreal and strange as we made our way out of the city, past food stalls and traffic snarls — the trials and tribulations of two boring white people, dubbed in Spanish with the original English soundtrack, on a crackly TV on a bus in the middle of Mexico. I was desperately turning the volume up on my phone, trying to drown it out to no avail. Our neighbors also ate multiple bags of chicharrones throughout the trip — so the sensory overload was fairly intense. Emma Stone wailing, vague wafts of fried pork skin, crackling plastic bags, shrieking street vendors — all on top of the din of traffic.
The drive was breathtakingly beautiful — it reminded me a little of driving through the Rocky Mountains. Dense pine forests and hills gave way to flat grasslands, dotted with farms — the ever-present volcanos looming in the distance through the haze.
It took almost three hours to reach Puebla — an 80-mile trip. As we crawled into the city limits, the driver decided to avoid a traffic jam by getting off of the highway — leading us on a twisting journey through the industrial district on the western edges of the city, the bus violently shaking back and forth on tiny unpaved roads. We passed vast warehouses and empty lots, and tiny cyclones of dust swirled next to the windows. We reached the Puebla bus station (CAPU) and disembarked into the bowels of station with not a single clue of how to get to our hotel. We had originally thought we could just Uber — but with no real way to get to a sidewalk (and no guarantee of an actual sidewalk), we decided to use the CAPU’s very official secure taxi service. The steps, as we did them, are as follows:
Look at a giant, mid-1980s map of Puebla with hand-drawn concentric circles radiating out from the location of the station. Figure out (read: guess) where you’re headed and note the zone number. We were going to Zona 3 — the historic center of town.
Stand in line to pre-pay for your fare with a handful of cash. Apologize for your Spanish and repeat “Zona tres, hotel La Purificadora” as many times as possible.
Wander outside to the taxi stand, and wait in line again. When you reach the box, proffer your small piece of paper. The attendant will smile and tell you to hang on a minute.
The attendant will then wave at another attendant, who is standing next to the line of waiting taxis. He’ll grab a giant laminated numbered card from a taxi driver and hand it to the lady in the box, who will then note the number of the taxi (ours was #182) and the destination zone into her ancient Dell. She’ll then hand you the card, and you’ll be ushered to the curb.
The taxi driver will toss your bags into the trunk and after you’ve gotten into the back, you’ll hand over both the card and your bits of paper. He’ll take the card, toss it onto his dash and squint at the bit of paper — and quick as a flash, you’re on your way into town. He will also ask you where you’re going, and you’ll pray he understands you so you don’t have to offer directions in 7th-grade Spanish.
As much as I poke fun at the process, it was actually really safe and effective — I can imagine what a mess the tiny bus station would have been with masses of Ubers, taxis and minibuses all competing for the same 25 feet of curb.
Within about fifteen minutes, we had arrived at La Purificadora.
La Purificadora had attained a bit of a mythical status in my mind over the years — I’d stumbled across images of the hotel while doing research on Ricardo Legorreta (the designer of the hotel, and a very famous Mexican architect) in school and had been dreaming of a visit ever since. It felt totally unattainable — why would I ever be in Puebla? How would I ever get there? When would I ever be able to take such a trip? Naturally, with this heavy mantle of expectation, I was a little emotional when we arrived — but hopefully no-one noticed. It felt like such a huge, huge deal that I had finally made it to this place — to see this hotel, to actually stay there.
As we checked in, we were offered a blue cocktail that I downed in one gulp. I filled out the paperwork next to another man, who clutched his Benz keys in his hand and kept answering the phone in angry Spanish — much to the annoyance of the check-in ladies. At one point, an American guy about our age came though the lobby, dressed only in a terry-cloth robe, in search of a pair of scissors. He was carrying a horribly gaudy tropical-print shirt, tags still on — a sign of the night to come, but we didn’t see it at the time. The sassy-as-hell bellboy, decked out in hotel-issue head-to-toe white, took us up to our room via the gigantic black lava stone stairs in the lobby. As we walked past the room next door, the guy with the tropical shirt was getting dressed — with several others in the room, and with the door open. Mark and I looked at each other quizzically — again, another sign of the night to come. The bellboy unlocked our room, and proceeded to explain every single item in the room, taking care to point out that every item had a price on a sheet next to the phone — should we want to purchase a ten-year-old acrylic key tray, or the laundry bag. He left and we sighed with relief, collapsing onto the bed in a heap.
We wandered around the hotel for a bit after getting ourselves together — and a little disappointment set in. The transparent glass pool? Pockmarked and hazed. The reclaimed wood tile floors in the lobby? Popping and sliding around like Scrabble tiles. The onyx shower walls in our room? Streaked with lime deposits and ten years of shampoo — which for a hotel is more like twenty-five years, it turns out. That built-up expectation I had created over the years quickly dissipated — we’d missed it, really. It had been in its prime a long time ago, and we were seeing the after-effects of its popularity. We kept running into photographers as we explored each new space — they always seemed to be around the corner, taking a picture where we needed to pass through. More signs, but we had no idea…
Then we ventured out into the city to get our bearings. We wandered through the alleyways around the hotel next to the massive convention center and crossed the street into the historic district. Puebla is incredibly beautiful — the entirety of the centro is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can see why. Stunning tile-covered façades, superbly detailed carved stone, vibrant colors… It’s lovely just to wander around and stare at the buildings. There had been some earthquake damage, and almost every block had a victim — huge reinforcement structures were everywhere, holding the crumbling ancient façades together and off of the streets below.
Our first goal was food — we hadn’t eaten since 09:00. I had read that Puebla has historically had a very large Lebanese community, and that one of the most famous Poblano foods to come out of this immigrant community are tacos árabes (Arab tacos) — and that the very best place in town was just a short walk from the hotel. It’s called Las Ranas, and it was truly extraordinary — but it looks absolutely ordinary. There’s a huge comal, with a cook frantically flipping tiny, perfect panes árabes, clusters of nondescript tables, TVs with fútbol blaring… But the tacos are incredible. A server came over with a sheet of paper for us to fill out, not unlike a sushi bar. Four tacos árabes and two Coca-Colas = $120MXN, $6USD. They were perfect. Spit-roasted marinated pork, wrapped in tiny, fat pillows of flatbread. We inhaled them. Had it not been 15:00 already, we’d have ordered six more — but alas, we had more eating to do.
We walked through Mercado El Parian on the way back to the hotel — a three-block open-air craft market of sorts. I had been excited about it for weeks, as I needed to buy some souvenirs for Christmas presents — and what a perfect place to do so! I was dreaming of Oaxacan black pottery, talavera tiles from Puebla, Otomí embroidery… but what we found were lots of the same things we’d seen everywhere else. Simple cotton dresses, talavera ashtrays, Star Wars figurines painted like sugar skulls, Spongebob piñatas, “México” shot glasses… It was little depressing. Everything seemed to be mass-produced or dumbed down to meet the needs of less-than-discerning tourists. We made a few passes and found nothing worth haggling over — except one thing.
We’d passed a tiny, frail woman huddled on a park bench with a basket of chocolate, offering free tastes from her little hands. I had smiled and walked past, and we hadn’t made it quite a block before I hurried back. I handed her 50 pesos for a stack of hand-made chocolate tablets, and she offered change but I couldn’t take it — that 5 pesos was much more important to her than it was to me. I still think about her, and I wish I had bought the entire basketful. We walked back to La Purificadora, and I clutched the plastic bag to my face as we crossed the street — the aroma was completely intoxicating.
We arrived back at the hotel to find out that there was to be a wedding in the lobby until midnight — which explained the annoying American guy in his tacky shirt, the squadron of photographers, the open-door group dressing rooms… It turns out that a group of Americans had taken over the whole hotel for the wedding — and didn’t seem to care that other people were staying there, too. They treated everything as if it was theirs and theirs alone — the stairway, the restaurant, the lobby, the elevators, the staff. It was really frustrating — so we decided to freshen up and get back out ASAP to head to dinner. As we locked our door to leave, we turned around to see that the ceremony was happening right then — on the giant staircase down to the exit. We turned the corner to take the elevator instead and nearly tripped over the bride’s gown, as they were using the elevator area as the staging zone for the procession. We were absolutely trapped, so we headed back to the room to call the front desk to ask how exactly we should solve this problem. Our bellboy came up and ushered us past the ceremony and into the service elevator. “Just pretend you’re a rockstar,” he said with a smirk. We got off the tiny elevator and walked through the kitchen, past several mystified employees — and out into the wedding. We ran past the band, past the communal table and out the front door onto the street. As we escaped, we heard a horrific snippet of the best man’s speech:
“…they’ve had a ton of problems in their relationship, but by being here today, they’ve decided to press on forward…”
We were absolutely fuming as we walked to dinner, a full two hours earlier than we’d planned. “I mean, what kind of asshole decides to block all means of exit and entry to the entire hotel for a damn wedding?!” Mark smirked and replied, “I mean, it’s a bunch of Americans at a wedding — what do you expect?” We turned the corner and walked into El Mural de los Poblanos, still grumpy and ready for a drink and a dark place to toss it back.
The restaurant was beautiful — we sat in what used to be a courtyard, complete with massive tropical plants and the gallery above. Stunning pointillist murals of famous Poblanos covered the walls, and the lighting was perfectly dim. We were almost the only people in the place as it was off-season and chilly, but that made it even more perfect in my eyes. We sat down and relaxed for a bit, and then I took my pent-up frustration out on the menu — more tacos árabes, a cactus salad, enchiladas de mole poblano / pipián verde / adobo, a gigantic watermelon margarita, arroz con leech, cafe de olla… We were trying to stay at that table as long as possible, to avoid the certain shitshow awaiting us back at the hotel.
But it was inevitable that we’d have to leave — so after the bill came, we ambled back onto the street and meandered around the zócalo. The cathedral was hosting a Christmas chorale on the front steps, so we lingered to watch for a bit. We peeked through the iron fence, and a man in front of us smiled and shuffled to the side so we could see more clearly. We watched the balloon sellers make cartoon characters for the kids running around from tree to tree, their parents watching from the edge of the fountain in the center of the square. It was so beautiful — the lights of the cathedral cast a glowing sheen over everything in the zócalo, making it feel like a scene out of a movie. Life was happening here as it always had and we felt lucky to be a part of it, even for just a fleeting moment.
We made our way back to the hotel, past the convention center — it was hosting a young engineer’s conference, and snappily-dressed young people flooded the alleys around the exits. As we opened the front door to La Purificadora, we knew it was going to be a long night. It was dinnertime for the wedding guests, in the middle of the lobby. A singer warbled and danced from a stage next to the elevators, and a flower-strewn table loitered in the middle of the staircase, a relic of the ceremony earlier. “…What the fuck.” I was over it. I just walked up the stairs, right thought the middle of everything — and Mark followed behind, as the entire wedding party stared at our backs retreating up towards our room.
Many more expletives followed once we reached the room, followed by long, hot showers — and a spot of “Los Simpson” in an effort to chill out. As we settled into bed, we cranked the fan up as high as it would go to hopefully mask the sharp echoes from the wedding below — it was a fairly successful endeavour, until about midnight when the cheering began. It sounded like the entire wedding party was right outside our door, taking turns to shriek into the keyhole.
“Why did we even come here? It isn’t anything like I thought it would be. This wedding is a mess, everything in the hotel is worn out… Why didn’t we just stay in Mexico City?” I was on the verge of tears, huddled against Mark under the duvet. I was letting the exhaustion and frustration and anxiety of the day win the battle in my head. “It’ll be ok,” Mark whispered. “Just let yourself fall asleep.”
And that I did, eventually. I dreamt of Mexico City, of Pujol and Downtown México — wishing that we were still there, still in our little hideaway in the palace.