Rarely do I come upon a place that stops me in my tracks with its simple beauty, however, the courtyard of the Camino Real Hotel in Puebla does just that. If it weren’t for the man speaking on his cell phone next to me, I could easily play time traveler. This spectacular 16th century structure, originally a prominent colonial convent, encompasses a whole city block. In the first centuries of the Spanish empire, it housed the daughters of Puebla’s élite, noblewoman who chose the church and an education over marriage.

As I enter the building from the bustling, traffic jammed street, the patio’s vast, space and serenity surround me. It seems impossible that something so tranquil could be just steps away from chaos, but that may well be the secret of Mexico–contrast. Crossing the threshold of the ancient, 15-foot high wooden doors, I’m transported back in time. A few steps past the lobby beckons the largest colonial patio I’ve ever seen. In the center stands an immense fountain, the base covered with centuries-old talavera. It bubbles cool water as the intense mountain sun beats down upon it. The patio is surrounded with arches, supported by massive stone pillars. Yellow paint brightens the walls, bringing warmth to the cold, grey stones that cover the floor.

I quickly check-in to a large, dark room filled with antiques, including an exquisite tile bathtub before exploring the building. Chipped paint, revealing ancient frescoes, covers the wall outside my room. Tiny courtyard patios are tucked away in every corner, some with small, inviting fountains, others with tropical plants and vibrant Bougainvillea. The upstairs rooms wrap around the main patio, offering breathtaking views of nearby churches, many with talavera rooftops. A perfect harmony of history and the modern world converges inside the heavy, thick walls.

It’s still early and I head to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The covered area of the patio, under the arches, serves as outdoor seating, while an inviting buffet, featuring many Pueblan specialties, is set up indoors.  I choose an outdoor table close to the main fountain, which entrances me. The tourists I expect to see in the restaurant are nowhere in sight. Instead there are Pueblans enjoying the best of Puebla, as it should be. I order Enfrijoladas–scrambled eggs wrapped in corn tortillas, covered with a black bean sauce topped with fresh cream and cheese. Relishing every hearty bite, I contemplate ordering the same breakfast tomorrow, not even interested in trying something new.

Puebla is famous throughout Mexico for its’ food and with very good reason. It combines the cuisine of Spain with the pre-Hispanic world, adding foreign touches along the way:  French, thanks to Napolean lll ‘s invasion of Mexico in the 19th century and Chinese, due to the many laborers that arrived during the colonial period. Each cuisine lent a hand in the fledging Pueblan palate.

After an afternoon of exploring the city’s many churches and museums I head to the Fonda Santa Clara for dinner. Mole (see mole blog post for description) was created in Puebla, at the Santa Rosa convert to be exact, so I’m not surprised when the menu offers mole in every color: black, red, green and yellow. I order the chicken enchilada plate with three stuffed tortillas, each one covered in a different mole. The black mole is rich, sweet and spicy all in the same bite; the green mole tastes fresh and healthy; the yellow mole mild and smooth. I also sample the regional chapulas (prepared like no where else in Mexico) –corn tortillas dipped in either red or green salsa, fried, and then topped with shredded chicken. The salsa is cooked into the tortilla, developing a very distinctive, fiery flavor. A far cry from the chapulas I ate at Taco Bell in my youth.

Another great restaurant is the Meson Sacristía located on a trendy pedestrian street near the Cathedral called Las Ranas. A house specialty is the Pipían--a thick mole-like sauce made with toasted pumpkin seeds, served over roasted pork loin. Its flavor is earthy with a hint of the lettuce and cilantro, which are ingredients in the sauce. The cheese stuffed fried chipotle chiles are unique–smoky and spicy, as one would imagine.

With only two days and a limited number of meals ahead of me, I venture to the local market for an authentic dining experience (like I need to eat another meal), where stalls are piled-high with a wide selection of dried chiles and local produce. In the center of the market are a number of food stalls serving Cemitas--crusty bread resembling a light Bolillo, stuffed with shredded pork and white cheese. Along the edge of the stalls are plastic white bowls of spicy salsas meant to accompany the simple, tasty sandwiches. I grab a bar stool and I’m not disappointed with the food or the experience.

It’s almost impossible to talk about food in Puebla without mentioning Chiles en Nogada. Like Mole, they were created in the famous Pueblan convents of the 1700’s, which at the time were the gastronomic centers of Mexico. The Chile en Nogada is a tribute to the late summer’s harvest of fruit. It’s a Poblano pepper traditionally stuffed with ground meat combined with raisins, nuts, apples, peaches and pears, topped with a thick, creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranates. It’s known as the national dish of Mexico and can be found in most Pueblan restaurants; however, this time I’ll have to pass. Even though I’m capable of eating enormous amounts of food, I’ve finally had enough.

Checking out of the Camino Real is a sad experience. After 48 hours I decide I could live here. Not in Puebla exactly, but in the Camino Real, especially since they offer room service.  I’ll be back one day though, the Chiles en Nogada are waiting for me.

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