There are a lot of wonderful places to live in Mexico and Puebla happens to be one of them. But is Puebla the most interesting city in Mexico? As an industrial powerhouse and a United Nations World Heritage Site, the birthplace of mole poblano and the center of Talavera pottery in Mexico, Puebla should be on your radar if you are considering an expat life in Mexico.
Puebla is Mexico’s fourth largest city and the capital of the state with the same name. It lies in a broad valley to the east of Mexico City separated from the capital by two major volcanos, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. At 2,153 meters (7,064 feet) above sea level, its temperate climate is slightly warmer than that of Mexico City.
The city was founded in 1531 as Puebla de los Ángeles. Historically, the city’s importance has been as a way station on the road between Veracruz, Mexico’s main port, and Mexico City. Puebla itself was relatively small with one major industry, a Volkswagen plant, which was so dominant that whenever it experienced a downturn, the city took notice.
The economy began to diversify in the 21st century, as the state invested in the city’s infrastructure, education and promoting tourism to make Puebla a destination. One important improvement was an upper-level bypass for through traffic on the highway connecting Mexico City to points south and east, greatly alleviating rush hour traffic.
Puebla does not lack for visitor attractions. It has over 5,000 historic buildings, with the colonial downtown declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. The downtown is replete with a monumental cathedral, Baroque chapels, government palaces, an over 400-year-old library and traditional markets.
Colonial-era facades in Puebla are unique in Mexico as they are a mix of terra cotta and glazed Talavera tiles. The city is home to the famed China Poblana, an Indian woman brought here as a slave in the colonial period who created a dress that bears her name. Mole poblano is the most famous dish associated with the city. Other important foods include cemitas (a thick sandwich on a chewy roll), memelas (similar to gorditas), chalupas (corn dough cups with fillings) and tacos arabes/pastor. Tourism brings about one million visitors a year, mostly from Mexico, but visitors from other countries are also discovering Puebla.
Despite its size, it has many prestigious universities and private schools, attracting out-of-state and foreign students, ranking behind only Mexico City since the 1980s. Universities here include Tec de Monterrey, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (Ciudad Universitaria), Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP), Universidad Anáhuac and Universidad Iberoamericana.
Over the past 20 years, the population of Puebla has grown tremendously to about 1.5 million in the city and double that in the metropolitan area. One of the main drivers of this growth is migration from Mexico City, Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca. For those from the capital, Puebla offers big city amenities with more affordable real estate. Those from the other states often move their families here for better educational opportunities and more security.
Puebla’s expat residents are of working age, usually living in the city for a number of years and then moving on. The area around the VW plant has long had a foreign, mostly German, population. There is no retiree community in the city proper. Only very recently have expats been organizing, forming Facebook groups and a chapter of InterNations. Countries with consulates in Puebla include Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Guatemala, Honduras and Italy.
Housing costs are rising in the area as much as 30 percent a year. This is particularly true for the luxury housing market, which accounts for most of the new construction. Good housing in all price ranges can be had all over the metro area, but several locations are repeatedly recommended.
Puebla’s historic center has remained very livable but shares some of problems that other old city-centers have. It is attractive for colonial-era construction and a bohemian vibe. It has not experienced the urban decay that the Mexico City center has, but there are still serious problems with narrow roads clogged with traffic and street vendors. You will need to go to other parts of the city for more modern shopping. This area of the city was seriously damaged in the 2017 earthquake. Much of the restoration work has been done, at least to facades, but it is a good idea to check any house or apartment here thoroughly.
Angelópolis was the start of Puebla’s recent building boom. Since 2000, prices here have shot up 50-to-80 percent, making it one of the most expensive and exclusive areas in the city, It has luxury shopping centers, a golf course and country club, major private hospitals, and even an 80-meter-high Ferris wheel. Living here is much like living in any city in the developed world. However, because of corner-cutting, some buildings have issues with flooding, along with cracks from the ground settling. There are also apartments and building bought with drug money, but problems related to this are kept quiet.
Predating, Angelópolis, La Paz was the first truly upscale neighborhood in Puebla, centered on Avenida Juarez outside the city-center. Originally, the area consisted of houses with multiple bedrooms to accommodate large families. These houses are no longer in demand, and many have been demolished to make way for apartment buildings. It mostly attracts younger professionals, has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city and is one of the safest.
San Andres and San Pedro Cholula are twin municipalities that have been swallowed up by Puebla’s growth. They used to be rural towns famous for a pyramid with a colonial church on top. Growth in this area began in 2013. San Pedro in particular has seen a rise in restaurants, nightclubs and recreational facilities. Although areas that border Angelopolis and the like have similar prices, other areas are still somewhat reasonable. The Cholulas are home to UDLAP, so there is a large student population with many businesses and housing options that cater to them.
Like La Paz, Las Ánimas was an area with single family homes, but it has become popular again because of new roads that link it with the rest of the city. Apartments exist and prices are rising, but it has conserved more of its single-family homes. It has a good selection of restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, hotels and a shopping center.
Despite the growth, much of the city has kept a more small-town feel, definitely not as overwhelming as Mexico City. Outside of the new, swanky developments, the city does not evenly divide into good and bad areas, with good and bad neighborhoods found all over.
The growth of the city means that a number of nearby towns have become more attractive. The most important are Atlixco, south of the city, along with towns along the Puebla-Mexico City highway such as Huejotzingo. Other towns worth checking out are north of the city, even as far as Tlaxcala, with similar traditional architecture and culture, but much smaller.
Puebla’s increasing population also means that services have improved, but there are still problems with insufficient infrastructure. Medical services are quite good with many expats using Angeles, Puebla and Beneficiencia hospitals, but there is still need for more private facilities. English-speaking doctors can be found, but they are scattered. Your best bet to finding one is through expat Facebook groups. Travel to Mexico City, which is about 131 km or 82 miles away, is really only necessary for highly-specialized care.
Despite the city’s recent popularity, it ranks lower in surveys for quality-of-life among Mexican residents, who cite problems with government services, crime and perceptions of municipal authorities. Street maintenance is still a major issue, especially potholes on secondary roads. About half the population believes the city is unsafe.
Puebla is very much a car city, primarily because it is so spread out. But another reason is the city has never put in a long-term plan for integrated public transportation. Attempts have been mostly blocked by the private bus companies that dominate public transportation. These busses are often old, expensive and require knowledge of the city to use. There is the Ruta Puebla (similar to Mexico City’s Metrobus), but it has only two lines with limited reach.
Geographically, Puebla is the gateway to the southeast of the country, but if you are heading to the U.S., the drive is straight north to Texas. Traveling west beyond Mexico City by car almost certainly requires using the Arco Norte highway, one of the most expensive toll roads in Mexico. First class buses run from the CAPU bus station in the north of the city. The closest airport is in Huejotzingo, a good 45-minutes outside of the city, but most people take airport buses to Mexico City to catch flights there.
Is Puebla the most interesting city in Mexico? It has major competition for that title, so probably not. But it certainly has a lot going for it that expats should consider.