The Road from San Miguel de Allende to Puebla: Undiminished Anticipation and an Unexpected Oasis
A fine mist began to fall in San Miguel de Allende on a cool November morning as we maneuvered our fully packed, big white van on a familiar cobblestone road in Los Labradores, up to the smiling guards we had come to know by name. The gate was raised and through it we went, returning our protectors' well wishes and hearty waves in kind. Onto the highway, we turned east, to places we had never been.
We were six months into our Mexico road trip, with our initial experiences and adventures now behind us. As a result of our relative success, our most basic pre-trip fears and anxieties had been greatly diminished:
Could we get by in Mexico on the equivalent of one year of high school Spanish?
Was it safe?
Could we find our way around?
Would anyone help us if we needed it?
To the extent necessary, we had mastered the required skills, found that others weren’t needed, and had the firsthand experiences to prove that our trepidations about Mexico were largely unfounded and that the people were very friendly and very helpful. Now, as we accelerated to speed on the highway out of San Miguel de Allende en route to fresh adventures in Puebla and beyond, all this was in the past, so could relax and just enjoy ourselves. That’s why, with few worries to offset our enthusiasm and attitude, our spirits were high.
Our plan called for us to drive from San Miguel de Allende to Puebla (to get a taste of a larger city lifestyle), on to Orizaba (a small town in the mountains), then to descend from the Mexican Highlands to Villahermosa, and on to one of the beach towns near the historic city of Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. From there, we would head to the world renowned vacation hotspots in the state of Quintana Roo—Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc., right to the border with Belize.
We were told that the places that awaited us would be different in many ways from what we had already experienced. Very soon, we would not have to rely on the second hand accounts of what others had said or written; we would know for ourselves, in the most direct and intimate way. What would we see, hear, smell, touch and taste for the first time? We were about to find out.
The type of terrain we encountered for several hours on the road out of San Miguel de Allende was familiar to us, with the gently rolling hills we were accustomed to seeing in this central part of the Central Mexican Highlands. We could have gone through Mexico City, which we were told many times would be a fantastic thing to do, but for us, Mexico City would have to wait, as we couldn’t afford the several days it would take to attempt even a cursory experience of this mega-city with more than twice the quantity of inhabitants of Los Angeles. Instead, a little more than 100 miles from our starting point in San Miguel de Allende, we diverted slightly northward, on the Northern Arc, bulging around and bypassing Mexico City.
San Miguel de Allende is at about 6,200 feet elevation and Puebla is even higher, at almost 7,400 feet, relieving the inhabitants and visitors of the entire area of the heat and humidity they would otherwise endure at the same latitude at sea level. (For comparison, Denver is at about 5,200 feet.) The air was refreshing to the point of intoxication. Off to the sides of the very well maintained road with high speed traffic and modern cars we were treated to scenes of a much more seasonally attuned and relaxed time. Men and boys tended their flocks of sheep just like we assumed they have done for hundreds of years on the side of the road while corn was being harvested and set into beautiful cone-shaped sheaves in rows up and down the gently curved hillsides.
After almost five hours of driving, we entered the outskirts of Puebla, and passed by a Volkswagen assembly plant so huge it had an off-ramp named after it. Impossible to miss because of their seeming but not actual incongruity (if you thought about it) were billboards advertising Oktoberfest festivities that had already occurred.
Past the sprawling plant and the outdated German holiday signs we went, on to the general downtown area, which was where our hotel was located, and that reminded Jet of West Los Angeles. Even with the nice, wide roads, Puebla still is a city of over 5 million people with the downtown congestion and everything else that goes with it. This area of Puebla certainly didn’t appear to have a lot of poor people in it. Mercedes and especially BMWs were everywhere around us. And, they were clean and new. Also, we must have passed three BMW dealerships.
Little by little, in moderately heavy traffic, we unevenly approached our destination. We kept a very close watch on Google Maps so we didn’t miss our turnoff to get to our hotel. If we did miss it, our penalty would be to have to figure some way to do a U-turn in unfamiliar downtown traffic with three or more lanes in both directions in a van so fully packed that the back windows were blocked.
We passed a huge Wal-Mart, a store that seems to be everywhere in Mexico; even in places like this more posh area of downtown. Then, with very little notice, our turnoff appeared, so we made a quick right.
Within the few seconds it took us to realize our environment had changed, time slowed down and the natural tenseness that you feel when you don’t know where you’re going in the downtown area of a big city evaporated as if it had never happened. Down the small slope with mature and varied trees draping our way we went, into a virtual oasis right in the middle of the city.
The road was made of gray pavers laid as in a mosaic. Large and beautiful trees arched around us, and interspersed between the buildings were empty, parklike areas adorned with dark green grass. Slowly down this little road we went, looking in all directions, surprised and quite happy with what we saw.
Less than 100 yards ahead on the right was our hotel, with light Barbie-pink walls and white window encasements and columns, in what I would describe as a sleek version of the French neo-classical style. Across from the circular pull-off where we parked our van to check in was a great and, by American standards, very inexpensive, upscale restaurant, as we were to personally verify at dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. The restaurant was also in the same architectural style, with a covered patio open to street, within which we could see some nicely dressed men enjoying what we assumed would be a sophisticated dinner accompanied by an appropriate merlot.
The hotel lobby had marbled floors, and a nice, grassy courtyard immediately behind it, ringed by the rooms. Our room also had marble floors, with Louis XVI furniture and paintings combined with an ultra-modern bathtub and ultra-modern bathroom fixtures. It was all very nice, very relaxing, and again, by American standards, ridiculously inexpensive. If I remember correctly, in-room Jacuzzi included, it was about US $70 per night total, and they accepted our dogs.
After checking in, we took what would have to be described as a leisurely, early evening stroll, and discovered that we were in a little neighborhood (fraccionamiento), with custom homes, a church with a school, and a pet hotel. Architecturally interesting, Frank Lloyd Wright-type homes appeared amongst the empty, grass covered lots, many graced with huge trees. More than one home was painted periwinkle. The homes were modern, cubic, and with architectural interest; bold, tasteful, and unafraid to be non-conventional. One of the homes we admired most had very modern, straight edges. Another one had several columns of small windows. We saw very intricate, perfectly manicured, well-placed and architecturally aware plantings in front of the houses. Many of the plants weren’t curvy or organic, like we saw in the gardens of Ajijic or growing in the jungle in Nayarit. Instead, they were very angular, both in where they were planted, and in their general manicured shape, a perfect, integrated match the homes. The homes made interesting use of several different materials; for example, a walkway made out of both wood and tile.
This was a very pleasant place, which was astounding, given that directly across the street were very tall, very nice, modern buildings, a shopping mall, 6+ lanes of consistently heavy traffic, and the type of high rise apartments you would expect to see in the nicer part of a larger US city. So right in the Mexican city of Puebla was this little hideaway, with its different color scheme, style, and it’s mix of patrician and modern feel.
The next morning, I took the dogs for a walk around the fraccionamiento, in this charming bubble of a place that reminded me of Atlanta, Georgia in the fall, with deciduous eucalyptus and pine trees dropping their leaves in the cool, morning air and the slight fragrance of the forest. I felt like staying. It was just wonderful. And, it certainly wasn’t the Mexico we had expected to encounter when we crossed the border in 90+ degree heat in Mexicali six months earlier.
Next: we travel over magnificent mountain terrain to Orizaba, find the hotels there don't meet our needs, and make a bee-line to Cordoba as darkness descends.
To read the next story, go to The Road from Puebla to Cordoba, Mexico: Otherworldly Canyons, Meeting Celebrities, and the Cordoba Gift Exchange
To read the previous story, go to How Traveling and Living Abroad Gave Me a Better Perspective on Time and Happiness
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