From the air, the terrain of Mexico resembles a papier-mâché map, sliced down the center by the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental—towering mountain ranges rising to higher than 18,000 feet that run parallel to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. It's two days after Christmas, and my husband, Tom, and I are on our way to Mexico's central highlands. Our plan, to explore the country's fabled colonial cities, was born of circling conversations and books read (including eccentric memoirs—stories written by aged conquistadors, tough-minded British freethinkers, and ambassadors' wives) as well as our dedication to visual culture, architectural history, and finding good things to eat.
The colonial era of Mexico, when it was called New Spain, stretched on for 300 years, from the 16th century into the 19th. With the exception of Oaxaca, which is 325 miles southeast of Mexico City, the great colonial towns are all located in the heartland of Mexico. We decided to skip the expat enclave of San Miguel de Allende and focus on Puebla, Querétaro, Morelia, Guanajuato, and Cuernavaca—each a short day-trip from the capital. History in colonial cities accumulates layer by layer: diverse cultures mix and hybridize. We are eager to encounter this past, especially in the towns' historic centers, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In Mexico, we are looking for what a friend had described as "the New World's Old World."
"The streets of Puebla are clean and regular, the houses large, the cathedral magnificent, and the plaza spacious and handsome," wrote Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of Spain's first ambassador to the new republic, in 1840. Calderón de la Barca's voluminous collection of letters was published in 1966 and contains a memorable description of a costume worn by local women: a full embroidered skirt, white petticoat and blouse, a vividly colored rebozo (long scarf), and multiple bracelets and necklaces made of coral and pearls. According to legend, the costume was originally worn by the China Poblana (Chinese Woman of Puebla), an Asian princess captured by pirates and sold into Mexican slavery in 1650. A convert to Christianity, she spent her life caring for the city's sick and poor. After her death, many native poblanas adopted her bold uniform—a showy blend of Occidental, Oriental, and indigenous styles—and wore it in her honor.
The city of Puebla was established in 1532; unlike other colonial cities, it wasn't built atop an existing town. Nestled among volcanoes along the inland route connecting the port cities of Acapulco and Veracruz, it was a stopping point for traders traveling between Europe and Asia. Puebla's deservedly famous Talavera tiles adorn edifices and interiors throughout the city; tabletops are set with exquisite ceramics. Decorated in glazes of intense cobalt blues and radiant yellows, the patterns are a brilliant synthesis of Puebla's many cultural influences: they capture aspects of Islamic, Aztec, and Art Nouveau design.
One morning, at the Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía, I take a cooking class with Alonso Hernández, executive chef at the Compañía and its sister hotel, Mesón Sacristía de las Capuchinas. Hernández has devised a menu that is classically Pueblan in its mix of far-ﬂung and indigenous ingredients. In Mexico, pre-Hispanic foods, European imports, and Asian transplants come together to produce this incomparable Mestizo cuisine. In a modern kitchen, Hernández roasts peppers on a comal, an iron griddle used in Mexican cooking for thousands of years, and grinds spices in a traditional molcajete. While preparing the batter for chiles rellenos con queso en caldillo, he whips egg whites into stiff peaks. He studies their consistency for a moment—firm and very dry. Suddenly, he lifts the metal mixing bowl above his head and ﬂips it over: the egg whites do not move. The students applaud, and Hernández cracks an irresistible smile. When I leave, I'm given a folder that includes recipes, the history of Mexican food, and a primer on the varieties of chiles. As Calderón de la Barca observed, the chile is "as necessary an ingredient... as salt."
Baroque and Moorish sensibilities fuse most dramatically in Querétaro. La Casa de la Marquesa is an 18th-century palace realized in high Mudejar style: elaborately stenciled walls, curvaceous stone archways, and massive carved wooden doors worthy of the Alhambra. The city's spectacular cathedral, Templo de Santa Rosa de Viterbos, was designed with lavish Mudejar details, as seen in its slender tower and soaring flying buttresses, which, in a sudden Gothic reversion, are topped by irreverent gremlin faces. Inside, the church is Baroque, with painstakingly elaborate marquetry and the requisite extravagant gilding.
In the center of Querétaro, quiet walkways link the city's colonial-era parks and plaza. The Christmas dioramas in the Jardín Zenea extend far beyond the typical crèche to include Bible stories ranging from creation to damnation and salvation. We never expected to see Adam and Eve, but it is the portrayal of Hell—a giant smoke-belching rat with red, burning eyes—that is the real holiday surprise. The Christmas season here starts on December 16th and runs into January; traditionally, children receive their presents on Epiphany, January 6, when the Three Kings gave their gifts to the Christ child. Roaming about Querétaro, we keep running into the Three Kings, costumed men posing in makeshift sets with papier-mâché animals, available for family photo ops. Bordering the lovely Plaza de Armas are shops selling handmade toys, another reminder of the imminent naughty-or-nice accounting.