History, culture makes Puebla worth a visit

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Ask the average traveler to name the largest cities in Mexico, and they likely will skip right over Puebla. But this city, Mexico's fourth-largest with 5.1 million residents, has plenty to offer, such as historical sites, beautiful architecture, excellent dining and stylish boutique hotels.

The city and state of Puebla is famous for the Cinco de Mayo festival, the chocolate-based sauce called mole poblano and Talavera pottery and tiles.

The city is also known for the production of the Volkswagen Beetle. Although production of the vehicle in Puebla ceased in 2003, the car remains a common sight on Mexico's streets.

Situated in a region originally populated by indigenous groups such as the Toltecs, Chichimecs and eventually the Aztecs, the city of Puebla was founded in 1531 by the Spaniards. Its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a large zocalo, or town square, and more than 70 ornate churches, including a cathedral that appears on Mexico's 500-peso bill and has the tallest spires in the country.

Other attractions include Fuerte de Loreto, used as a fort during an attack in 1862 by French forces that ended with a victory by the army of newly independent Mexico, an event that gave birth to the Cinco de Mayo celebration. The chapel inside the fort is now a museum.

Also popular is antique shopping in the Los Sapos district, where visitors can pick up decorative Talavera pottery and tiles as well as antiques and artwork.

Travelers looking for an easy way to get around can use Turibus, a bus system that stops at major tourism sites and is priced at about $13 per day.

Just a few miles from the city of Puebla is Cholula, a town that is best known for its gigantic Tenapa pyramid, which dates to 400 B.C.

At first glance, it may not appear to be anything more than a large hill; most of the pyramid has yet to be uncovered, and a Catholic church was built atop it in 1666.

But upon closer inspection, it's apparent that this is an intricate series of structures so massive that it is four times larger than the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.

A nearby museum houses a scale-model replica of what the structure originally looked like. It also houses artifacts and artistic reproductions from Tenapa.

Birthplace of Cinco de Mayo

In the U.S., many people think that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day, but it's actually a holiday commemorating the young nation's victory over invading forces from France.

On May 5, 1862, Mexico's president, Benito Juarez, commanded Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza to block the advance of French soldiers who were seeking to take over Mexico. With only 2,000 men, most of them local Zacapoaxtla Indians, the Mexicans defeated a French army of 6,000.

That victory was short-lived: France soon conquered Puebla and the rest of Mexico, and ruled until 1887.

But it was a momentous enough occasion that Puebla's Cinco de Mayo celebration remains a spectacular affair to this day.

Every May 5, a huge parade with about 500,000 military and student participants takes place, and nearly 2 million spectators line the streets to witness the festivities as well as a battle re-enactment.

For more information about Puebla, visit the secretary of tourism's official site at www.sectur.pue.gob.mx, or contact the Mexico Tourism Board at (800) 44-MEXICO (800-446-3942) or www.visitmexico.com.

To contact reporter Mark Chesnut, send e-mail [email protected].

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For more on the hotel scene in Puebla, see "Small hotels have big impact on Puebla tourist trade."

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