When I mentioned to an acquaintance that I would be revisiting Mexico, he remarked, “Nice. Are you planning on leaving the resort?” I suppose many travelers to the country do cloister themselves nowadays, but while I enjoy occasional bouts of pure relaxation, walling myself off from a destination is not my style. On this trip, I intended to return to the colorful colonial cities near the center of Mexico, which offer an entrancing combination of indigenous culture and European architecture. These are world-class destinations within easy reach of the continental United States, and, moreover, ones that offer excellent value for the money.
These are world-class destinations within easy reach of the continental United States, and, moreover, ones that offer excellent value for the money.
When heading to Mexico, people invariably ask me, “Is it safe?” Most drug cartel-related murders in Mexico occur in hot spots along the U.S. border, which is at least eight hours by car from the closest hotel we recommend. (It takes nearly as long to drive from Manhattan to Cleveland.) True, I’ve read recent reports of cartels extorting small businesses, even in some of Mexico’s safest cities. But the average traveler is highly unlikely to encounter problems. For an additional sense of security, I recommend using a reputable ground operator to arrange for transfers and guiding. I’ve employed Journey Mexico several times, and the company always provides top-quality guides and drivers.
This time, I returned to two cities I’d overlooked on my previous visit to colonial Mexico: up-and-coming Puebla and ever-popular San Miguel de Allende. The former, a city of about 1.5 million people, is well-known to residents of Mexico City, an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive away. Travelers from other countries visit in far fewer numbers, giving Puebla an authentic, unspoiled atmosphere. I found it surprising that the city isn’t more famous, considering the charms of its pedestrian-friendly and well-preserved 16th-century center, a UNESCO World Heritage site full of elaborate churches, impressive museums and stylish bars. The city has an unusually rich culinary heritage, which I relished in both traditional and innovative restaurants. And — not least important — Puebla recently saw the openings of two enticing luxury hotels.
The best of these was the 78-room Rosewood Puebla, fronting a leafy square close to the heart of the old center. I say “was” because after our stay, the hotel changed management companies and now calls itself the Azul Talavera Hotel. It occupies several historic buildings, the best-preserved of which is the lavaderos, a vaulted 16th-century public laundry that now serves as an atmospheric event space. But in many ways, the hotel felt fresh and contemporary.
A welcoming front desk clerk led us through the adjacent lobby lounges, furnished with art book-lined shelves and comfortable seating groups and up to our spacious Premier King Room. Its exposed-stone walls, partially covered by swaths of plaster bearing faded layers of paint, were obviously original, but the black Talavera-tile floors were a new and striking addition. Off the entry hall was a room containing a large orchid-topped work desk and an antiqued wall mirror. It connected to the bedroom, furnished with a sideboard inlaid with intricate marquetry, two beige linen armchairs and a sofa in dusty pink, which matched accent pillows on the iron-framed king bed. Our stylish bath had a freestanding tub of hammered copper, dual vanities set in a white-marble counter and mirrors framed in blue-and-white Talavera tiles. The room overlooked the ocher Templo de San Francisco, a pleasant view, but below it was a busy street clogged with honking trucks during rush hour (fortunately not when we were sleeping). Request a view of the quiet central garden courtyard or of the square in front of the hotel instead.
Our favorite place to relax at the hotel was on the roof deck, which afforded a splendid view of the sunset behind the domes and bell towers of Puebla’s old center. On an especially clear evening, we also spotted the cones of distant volcanoes. The bar there offers highboy tables, plus cushioned sofas and armchairs in which to enjoy an aperitif, but the loungers lining the raised lap pool have an even better view.
On the same level is the spa, which has only a small lobby-lounge and treatment rooms, as well as a fitness room with panoramic views. There is no changing room, sauna or steam room. But my treatment room proved to be quite comfortable, with its own shower and armchair. I reserved a Talavera Massage, in which the highly professional therapist employed Talavera ceramic pestles in the manner of hot stones. I arose from the table feeling relaxed and ready for dinner.
“Relaxed” would be the generous descriptor for the service at the hotel’s Pasquinel Bistrot, where it took ages to acquire a glass of water and an eternity to place an order. The geologic pace was especially irritating because the staff seemed to outnumber the occupied tables. But once the food started arriving, my mood improved. A well-balanced appetizer of fresh sea bass tiradito al pastor came with spicy guajillo chile salsa, sweet pineapple purée and crunchy pickled onions. I also loved the crispy-skinned confit of tender suckling pig with a sage and guava gastrique, though the accompanying fried kale turned from crunchy to unpleasantly chewy all too quickly. Breakfasts on the restaurant’s patio were an unfailingly delightful way to start each morning. My favorite dish was a pretty omelet studded with squash blossoms and filled with Atlixco cheese and huitlacoche (corn fungus). I found myself lingering over this last breakfast, delaying our checkout for as long as possible. I wish I could recommend this hotel, but until we reevaluate the property in its incarnation as the Azul Talavera, I cannot unreservedly endorse it.
Our Premier King’s stylish and cheerful décor and its well-considered design; its striking bath; the always-welcoming staff; the roof deck’s memorable panoramic views; the atmospheric Bar Los Lavaderos in the cellar overlooking the centuries-old laundry.
The slow service at dinner; the spa’s lack of a sauna or steam room; the traffic noise that invades rooms facing Avenue 14 Oriente.
Request an accommodation facing the rear garden courtyard or, as a second choice, a room at the front of the hotel.
The nearby Cartesiano hotel also combines new and historic structures. Its 78 rooms occupy a new building as well as a refurbished former tile factory behind it. We opted for a King Size Suite in the old factory, where no traffic noise could penetrate. Our ground-floor accommodation facing one of the two garden courtyards sacrificed privacy in exchange for character. (Suites on the historic buildings’ second floors overlook exterior walkways; rooms in the new building are the most private.)
Although no bellman was in evidence when we pulled up to the hotel — our guide brought the luggage inside — my first impression of Cartesiano was otherwise favorable. A friendly front desk clerk offered us water and chilled towels as we sat in the airy lobby, and then led us along the broad path dividing the new building from the large lobby-lounge and bar. We passed a glass-walled library, made cozy with objets d’art and sofas, and descended a sweep of a staircase to reach the rear courtyard and our suite’s entrance.
Unfortunately, the only furnishings in the suite were a king bed, a long table holding the television and a dinette with two midcentury modern-style chairs. I wish the interior designers had found room for an armchair in which to relax. But I did like the bath, which doubled as a dressing room. It had ample closet space, dual vessel sinks, a large shower stall and Ortigia bath products, but no tub. I also regretted the lack of slippers.
The hotel’s main restaurant had a lengthy menu of appealing local dishes, some with traditional presentations and some more contemporary. At our dinner there, we shared a delectable appetizer of a crêpe-like parcel filled with melted white cheese and huauzontle (green amaranth), a mild local vegetable resembling soft, conical broccoli. For my main course, I opted for the seasonal mole de caderas, a deeply flavored guajillo chile-infused goat broth with on-the-bone goat and green beans. À la carte breakfasts on the restaurant’s terrace were also delicious, and we sipped aperitifs each evening on the bar’s adjacent terrace.
Aside from a small but diverting art gallery and a quiet café, the hotel’s other main amenity is its large spa, which has separate steam rooms and experience showers for men and women and a coed indoor pool and jetted tub. Here, too, the price for a massage was too reasonable for me to resist. I booked a Baroque Massage, which, true to its name, proved rather complicated. It included two aromatherapy oils, Swedish massage, deep-tissue pressure around my upper back, some lomi lomi long strokes and a bit of Thai-style stretching. I didn’t always understand what was happening, but I enjoyed it.
In spite of Cartesiano’s more extensive spa, I preferred our first hotel, which had a warmer and more cheerful décor and better-designed accommodations. I can only hope that its level of service will remain high now that it is no longer a Rosewood.
The location on the edge of the old center; the restaurant’s appealing roof terrace and tasty food; the historic buildings’ atmospheric courtyards; the inability of outside noise to penetrate our suite; the cheesecake bites at turndown; the extensive spa; the price.
Our suite’s lack of an armchair or sofa and its lack of privacy, since it directly faced a courtyard and staircase.
The hotel has a small art gallery along Calle 3 Oriente with rotating shows; a staff member told us about the artists and offered a complimentary beer as we browsed.