Mexico, a country I was buzzing to visit for years – not only because of its famous hot cuisine.
The main reason for this trip was the wedding of two very good friends of mine, Sandra and Stefano, a Mexican/Italian couple who decided to get married in Atlixco, a “Pueblo Magico” on the slopes of the Popocatépetl, or just short “Popo”, an actual active volcano.
For a long time it looked like I would not be able to go at all, as I had just started a new job last October and during probation I am employed by one of those rip-off employment agencies that make you “accrue” your holidays before being able to take them, which basically means that I would not be paid for any longer holiday periods earlier in the year and very likely end up having some days paid out in the end of December and most of them eaten by the taxman. Therefore going more than 5 days seemed impossible and I decided to book from the 13th until the 19th of April. Due to my wife having the same agency-related problem, I would be travelling alone this time – the only real advantage of that would be that I would get to practice my Spanish.. big time!
Since I am not really attracted to anything the US stand for, I booked with Iberia from Dublin to Mexico City via Madrid Barajas, rather than the slightly cheaper option with United. The European flights to and from Madrid were operated by Iberia Express and Air Nostrum on the way back. Whilst Express was a very pleasant experience, Air Nostrum pretty much reminded me of Ryanair with their constant need for commercials.
I arrived in Mexico City at 5 am and got rather lucky with the immigration queue. Right after my flight, several other planes must have landed and the queues got pretty heavy behind me. After waiting an estimated 40 minutes in the queue, I finally got my stamp and was able to proceed to baggage reclaim, where the first negative surprise was expecting me. My suitcase had been completely destroyed. It almost looked like it had been burned. Since the last thing I could be bothered with at 5:45 am after 15 hours in airplanes would be having a heated discussion in Spanish, I quickly checked the insides and seeing that only 2 shirts had been destroyed, I decided to let it go.
Sandra had told me beforehand that there was supposed to be a bus terminal right inside the airport where I would be able to catch a coach to Puebla for less than 300 MXN (Less than 15 Euros). I had switched to Spanish mode long before, when I watched Family Guy and American Dad in Spanish on the plane and so I asked the first guy that seemed approachable where I could find that bus terminal. He told me it was a “bit far away” – about 20 minutes by car. As tired as I was, I still could think rather clearly and if my Mexican friend tells me that there is a bus terminal inside the airport, I tend to believe her more than any random Mexican guy I would meet. I thanked the guy and said I would return, which I obviously would not. When I walked away, I noticed the letters “TAXI” on his polo shirt and suddenly realised why he would have an interest in driving me around town for 20 minutes just to drop me at the same place again. Tourist trap number 1 avoided!
I then quickly exchanged my last 35 euros cash for some pesos, bought a bottle of water and asked the two women at the till where I could find said terminal. “Arriba” was the only word I could get out of them and that as well did not sound too friendly. I took the next escalator upstairs and after another minutes walk, I found the ticket desk and bought my ticket to Puebla with Estrella Roja Autobuses.
The security measures to board the bus were the same as boarding a plane. My “hand luggage” had been x-rayed and the bottle of wine I had bought in Madrid had to go into my destroyed suitcase so I would not have access to it during the bus ride. Before the journey would commence, however, they took a digital picture of every passenger and this was when I started getting slightly scared. I found all that very much over the top at first, because I was not used to it but realised later that they probably do have their reasons for such practice.
The coach was very comfortable and the ride pleasant and entertaining. Estrella Roja offer free WiFi on all their coaches and even have their own streaming app that can be gotten in the Play Store beforehand.
After exactly 2 hours I found myself at the “4 Poniente” terminal in Puebla, where Andrea, my Airbnb host and her boyfriend Cesar were picking me up. It was 9 am and already warm enough to walk in shirt and shorts. The ride to Atlixco took a surprisingly long 40 minutes – it turned out that Puebla was a much bigger city than I had anticipated.
Most other European wedding guests were staying at the Holiday Inn in Puebla, but I am not a big fan of hotels and prefer using Airbnb so my money goes to local people rather than big, heartless hotel chains. Also since the wedding would be in Altixco, I decided to stay closer to the venue rather than the city centre, which later would turn out to come in very handy.
The first place they brought me to before going to the house was a street food market, where I had my first real Mexican food experience. Tortillas with some amazing grilled meat, jalapeños, fresh cheese and aguacate. For some reason the portion was too huge for me, though, and I only ended up finishing the meat and the chillies. Who’d thought that…
The “Quinta los Grillos” was exactly as described on the Airbnb listing – an oasis of pure calm. Stepping out of my room, there was a little stream I could easily hear from inside, which was perfect to relax after a journey like that.
In the mornings I woke up to the calming sound of said stream and the songs of a variety of birds, before stepping outside to tank some vitamin D in the morning sun, which I am so badly missing in Ireland.
Even though Puebla and Atlixco are known as very touristic places, having been there off season I was the only guest during the week, which gave my hosts the opportunity to offer an even more personalised service than usual and so I availed of their taxi service for pretty much every journey I had to make. In the end my bill for only the taxi rides was about 2500 MXN, roughly 130 euros – that included the transfers to and from the bus terminal in Puebla and another 4 rides that took at least 40 minutes.
On the first evening I did manage to meet with the soon-to-be-married couple, and some other guests that I know from their time in Ireland, however, the jetlag and probably the altitude of 2500 meters were messing with me and I fell into an absolute coma after dinner. On the way back to the Quinta, I have been chatting with the taxi driver and noticed for the first time Mexico’s love for the word “chingar” outside of a Molotov song.
On Friday, the day before the wedding I went to the centre of Puebla to meet with Pau, a good friend I know from Ireland. She returned to Mexico about 1.5 years ago and we had a lot of catching up to do. For any Spanish speakers, here is her BLOG.
The first thing we did was having lunch. Tacos árabes – comparable with kebap, a speciality of Puebla:
The taco árabe, or “Arab-style taco,” is perhaps the most popular fast food in Puebla. Introduced in 1933, the Middle Eastern take on the tortilla-as-delivery system features sliced, spit-roasted pork wrapped in pita-style flatbread. Diners then typically add salt, lime juice, and salsa to taste.
For someone like me who loves spicy food, Mexico is a paradise, as in every place you usually find 2 varieties of hot sauce – a red, lime-based salsa and a green one made with coriander and green tomatoes. However, they are all rather mild and add just the right amount of heat to the dish and actually focus on taste, quite contrary to popular stereotypes.
In the preparation for this trip I had downloaded an app called TraveLibro and found an absolute secret tip. Barrio de Xanenetla, the youngest neighbourhood of Puebla dating back to approximately 1551. It has its name from a type of rock, present in the hillside, known as “Xalnene”, a volcanic sandstone that was mainly used for construction.
Most walls in Xanenetla have been painted by their owners as a means of expression and a bond between the communities. It did not seem to be hugely popular amongst tourists nor locals and it took us a while to find it after asking several locals that all sent us in different directions. However, it was absolutely worth it!
The sun was pretty strong that day and for once I was glad that I was only able to get 50+ sun protection. We then spent the rest of the afternoon in an exclusive sky bar, overlooking the Zócalo of Puebla, drinking Clamato – a new favourite of mine.
The word “Clamato” is a portmanteau of “clam” and “tomato” after it’s ingredients. It mostly functions as a mix for alcoholic drinks, in this case beer. The edge of the glass is then covered in salt as we know it from a margarita and in some cases with a mild chilli powder of which I drank 5 because it was just too delicious to stop!
When it was time to go home, we walked around the Zócalo again – a very vibrant place on a Friday night that also happens to be payday. Due to the Volkswagen plant in Puebla, the Poblanos are already well-used to European faces and no one was looking at me in a weird way or giving me the feeling that I did not belong there.
On Saturday morning, the day of the wedding I was served another delicious breakfast at the Quinta after which Cesar drove me to the dry cleaners to pick up my suit, I had left there the day I arrived. Unfortunately the place was still shut at shortly past 11 am and the wedding ceremony was supposed to start at 1pm.
After waiting for almost an hour and asking neighbouring shopkeepers when the dry cleaners would open, I was scared that they may not open at all that day. A couple of minutes to noon an elderly man appeared and saw us waiting. He started ranting about Mexicans never being on time and especially the people from this shop never being on time nor having a sense of business. Thankfully he had their mobile number and we could call them, to be informed that they were “already” on their way. At 12:20 I finally had my suit, went back to the Quinta, got ready in record speed and arrived at the venue at 12:57 like a proper German.
After the ceremony everyone moved on to the venue called “Ex-Hacienda La Alfonsina”. It was one of the most stunning places I had ever seen. Unfortunately the combination of 30C, a black suit and being sat right underneath a ceiling fan earned me a nasty cold.
Since Sandra and Stefano are fond of my chili sauces and had not only attended but also met at one of my spicy food parties, I saw it as my obligation to supply the wedding with my sauces. I had 12 bottles with me that have been spread between all tables and I did not take a single one back home. I suppose it is a huge compliment for a hot sauce maker if Mexicans love your sauces 🙂
The party was amazing and in the end I experienced more Mexican hospitality when a random guy paid me a taxi home because in all the hurry with the dry cleaners in the morning, I managed to forget my passport and wallet at home. After taking pictures and filming all day long, I also had no battery left to communicate with the hosts who were already on the way to pick me up, but La Alfonsina was closing its gates and the last thing I was up to, was standing on a dark Mexican road at 2 am in a 500 euro-suit, drunk, with no money or phone.
The Sunday I used entirely to relax and sober up in the tranquility of the Quinta.
On Monday morning I noticed an unusually grey sky and a lower temperature than the last few days. During breakfast I was informed that the “Popo” had been spitting ashes during the night. I did avail of another taxi ride in order to visit the “Grand Pyramid of Cholula”, another TraveLibro suggestion.
Most parts of Cholula were covered in volcanic ashes, looking like it had been snowing. People were wearing Michael Jackson style masks not to breathe in the ashes.
For dinner I was invited to join my hosts for their BBQ. Andrea’s dad, Carlos, seemed to love the samples of my sauces I had given him and he basically finished most of the bottle alone within a short period of time. We had long conversations about cuisine and chillies and I had to promise Carlos that I would be sending some of my favourite seeds and some more sauce.
The last culinary experience I had were memelas, a fried speciality from Oaxaca made of dough, topped with different fresh ingredients. This will be the first dish I am going to reproduce at home.
All in all it was a great trip and I would not have missed it for anything. I have seen many great things, improved my Spanish, got inspired for new recipes and seen friends I had not seen in a while.
Unfortunately it was far too short to see and eat everything I had planned but at least I got a reason to go back!