Why you should visit Mexico City and Puebla, and what to eat while you are there

After 18 months of staying in the US, Chris and I decided to dip our toes into the international travel scene again for my fall break. We chose Mexico for several reasons: direct flights, cheap prices, and easy entry requirements. As of November 2021, Americans do not need a Covid test to enter Mexico- just one to re-enter the US. We booked our tickets on Volaris airline, a Mexican carrier, and we were ready to go.

Plaza Constitution: the heart of Mexico City

Leaving your car at the airport for more than a few days can be expensive, so I looked up some cheaper parking options. We went with parkingaccess.com, which wound up being $35 to park our car at a nearby hotel for the duration of our trip. Be sure to read the fine print when choosing where to leave your car- try to pick a hotel with a free airport shuttle option (otherwise you’ll up your costs by having to take an Uber the last mile), and some local options provide covered parking, while others don’t.

With a two hour flight from San Antonio airport (only an hour down I-35 from the Austin airport), we were in Mexico City by 5 pm on Saturday. We arrived on the public holiday called “Revolution Day”, which marks the start of the Mexican Revolution. With parades, light shows, military exhibits, and more, the main historic zone of the Constitution Plaza was hopping. After checking into our hotel, we went for a walk in our area and settled in for some tacos al pastor and beers, and watched the crowd. Tacos al pastor is something you will find on nearly every street in Mexico City, so it really doesn’t matter which place you go to. Just look for the huge spit-grilled pork, similar to what you’d see at any shawarma stand, but in Mexico, instead of lamb, they use pork. Served usually in sets of three, with double layers of corn tortilla, raw onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime, tacos al pastor (“shepherd-style”) should never cost more than about $2 per serving.

The Palacio de Bellas Artes

We like to orient ourselves with a walking tour, so on Sunday, our first full day in Mexico, we met up with Free Walking Tour Mexico and went on a walk around the Palacio de Bellas Artes area, ending in Constitution Plaza (also called the zócalo). Our guide pointed out buildings of interest in various architectural styles, a few places we might want to eat or drink at, as well as giving us the history of the area’s churches and neighborhoods. After the tour, we found ourselves near the Museum of the City of Mexico, and wandered through an exhibit on Teotihuacan, which we planned to visit the next day, as well as an exhibit of paintings by Wuero Ramos, titled “La Trascendencia del Libros“.

Wuero’s painting “El Misterio”

The next day, we took the yellow metro line to the Autobus del Norte station (six pesos per ride), then walked across the street to buy a bus ticket. Buses go to Teotihuacan pretty much every 15-20 minutes, so there’s not much need to book in advance, or to take a pricey tour or a private Uber. Even with our limited Spanish, it was pretty easy to make sure we were in the right place. Our bus ticket was 54 pesos (about $2.50), and we bought a return ticket at the same time- good for any time that day. An hour later, we were at the gates of the archaeological zone, purchased a ticket for the pyramids themselves (40 pesos, or $2), and walked up to the Pyramid of the Sun. Due to covid restrictions, you can no longer climb the pyramids (and the museum was closed), so really we only wound up spending 2-3 hours at the site. We walked from the Pyramid of the Sun, over to the Pyramid of the Moon, and then headed down to the other end of the complex, listening to the merchants try out their “eagle” whistles, “jaguar” whistles, and try to sell us blankets, jewelry, and small replicas of the pyramids.

Chris at Teotihaucan
Goods for sale at the pyramids

That night for dinner, we ate at Sanborn’s de los Azulejos, the original restaurant location. We both had pozole– and I have to say, speaking as someone who doesn’t care much for chicken noodle soup, eating pozole soup while in Mexico is a MUST- the delicious broth, tender chicken, and tasty hominey combination, with fresh lime and onion on top, is really great. Chris had Jalisco pozole (red), while I had Puebla pozole (green) and they were both amazing.

Pozole

The Museum of Anthropology

Of course no one visits Mexico City without a visit to their premier museum, the Museo Nacional de Antropología. They are closed Sunday and Monday, so plan accordingly. The rest of the week, they are open from 10-5. And plan to arrive early, because it takes almost a whole day to see this huge, 21 room museum. We spent at least four hours there and barely looked at the second floor, it’s just so much history and anthropology and geography. We also wanted to visit the Chapultepec Castle– one of only two royal castles in the Americas. We walked through the city park and up the hill to the castle- and what a view of the city! It doesn’t take long to tour the palace, and learn about how and why Maximilian of Austria, and his bride Charlotte of Belgium, became the short-lived king and queen of Mexico.

Deah at Chapatulpec Castle

Watching the “Flying Dancers” outside the museum

That evening, we walked through the ritzy neighborhood of Polanco, where many embassies, luxury hotels, and high-end boutiques and restaurants are located. I wanted to visit El Pendulo, a two-story cafe/bookstore (“cafebrería”) on Alexandre Dumas street. After a LOT of walking that day (my step-counter told me later that we had walked over 23,000 steps that day), a coffee pick-me-up was much needed, and the bookstore is the perfect place for a rest. Often featured in lists of “must visit bookstores around the world”, this little shop is an oasis in an otherwise crowded and busy city. Also in that neighborhood, a friend of ours had recommended a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Taquerīa El Turix. They specialize in panucho, a pulled-pork taco that has been cooked with a high amount of lime and chile, served over deep-fried corn tortillas, lined with a thin spread of refried beans. This small taco stand only has four seats inside, so it’s likely you’ll need to stand outside and eat yours standing up. Be sure to order a cold beer at the same time, because you will definitely need it to offset the spicy salsa that comes with it!

“El Pendulo” bookstore

Panucho

The next day, we took the metro to the Autobus Station de Oriente, and bought tickets to go to Puebla. Only two hours away, Puebla is a fairly large city, but has a small UNESCO World Heritage central area. Founded by the Spanish in 1532, this is the city in which the Spanish forces defeated the French in the Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862. Surrounded by volcanoes and featuring an international airport (you can fly direct from DFW or Houston, as well as other cities), a traveler would not be amiss to spend a full week in Puebla. The city is full of churches (literally; there are 288 parishes in the entire city), colonial-style buildings and hotels, and restaurants featuring the signature dish of the area, mole poblano.

The Street of Frogs in Puebla

Upon arriving, we checked in to the Hotel Gala (only $26 per night for our king-size room, with a balcony overlooking the city), and we walked one block to the main cathedral area. We had dinner on the third floor terrace of Attico 303 and had the featured dish, mole poblano. The rich, spicy, chocolate sauce takes more than three days and over 30 ingredients to make, and there are plenty of places around town where you can buy the powdered ingredients to try to make your own. I highly recommend it while you’re in town.

Holy mole-y poblano, that was good

The next day we met up for another- you guessed it- free walking tour. Our guide, Omar, was fantastic, and showed us around for over two hours. At the end he bought us all Mexican candies, and in return, each member of our group tipped him well (please remember that free walking tours are free of charge, but the guides rely on tips for their living- and they do not keep 100% of the tips. As much as 60% of the tips goes back to the company they work for. If you can’t afford to tip a tour guide, consider downloading an app such as GPSMyCity and taking your own, completely free walking tour).

Our guide Omar

After our tour, we found a small cantina featuring cemitas arabes, which are Arab-style sandwiches made with cemitas bread (a bit like a hamburger bun with sesame seeds on top), stuffed with pork and lime and chile, and shredded cheese. Ironically, this area of Mexico has a strong Arab influence to it, as evidenced by the architectural designs, the Talavera tiles, and many of the names from this region (such as Alejandro and Omar), and the spices used in cooking here, such as coriander, cumin, and clove.

The Cathedral at Puebla

Being a librarian, my favorite part of the town of Puebla is the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, a library given to the city by one of its first Bishops, in 1646. This library is considered the first public library of the Americas, and this year it celebrated its 375th anniversary. In this library you can find no less than nine incunables (books printed before 1500). After the building sustained damage in a 2017 earthquake, the World Monuments Fund help secure the books for future generations.

The Palafox Library

A free train runs between Cholula and Puebla, and visitors can take it on a quick, 8 mile journey to see the ruins of the largest pyramid in the world. Upon disembarking from the train, you can literally walk directly across the street, and hike up the hill upon which was once an Aztec temple. At the top now is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. From the terrace, you can see the volcano Popocatepetl in the distance, often belching smoke and ash into the air around it.

Chris on top of the Cholula pyramid ruins, with Popo in the background

While we waited for the train back to Puebla, Chris and I stopped in at a pulqueria, and tried pulque, a fermented drink made from the sap of the maguey plant (same plant as agave, which gives us both tequila and mezcal). This drink is one that predates even the Spanish arrival of the conquistadores, and is a bit like kombucha, only much more alcoholic. If you are going to try it, do yourself a favor and try one of the flavored batches- we had a strawberry pulque.

Deah tries pulque

On our last day in Puebla, we hopped aboard a wooden trolley and took a drive around the Barrios Antiguos- the older parts of the town, outside the main historic zone. The tour was in Spanish, but we still got a feel for the different parts of town, which included a trip up to the Loreto Fort Museum, the Monument to the Cinco de Mayo battle, and a cablecar that overlooks the city.

Monumento a la Victoria del 5 de Mayo

After one last lunch in Puebla, featuring fried quesadilla, more pozole, and molletes (kind of an open tortilla sandwich featuring melted cheese, meat, salsa, and beans), we were ready to take a bus back to Mexico City. We took a Covid antigen test ($26 each; you get a discount if you take a national airline), stayed our last night at a hotel near the airport, and the next morning spent our last pesos on some items from a panaderia. We headed to the airport and flew home, already planning our next trip to Mexico.

Have you been to Mexico City? What was your favorite thing to do in town, or your favorite food? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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