With its red-hot cinema, culinary culture and contemporary art scene, Mexico City is North America's capital of cool. But spare a thought for the colonial-era towns in the vicinity of the world's second largest metropolis. Chief among them is Puebla, two hours southeast of the capital. Set in a valley and ringed by a series of volcanoes including the 14,636-ft (4,461-m) Malinche Puebla was founded in 1531 along an important pre-Columbian trade route. This helped Puebla prosper during Spanish rule, resulting in one of the most elaborate and colorful town squares, or zócalo, in the New World, with High Baroque churches and hidden, Moorish-inspired courtyards.
Two decades ago, Puebla was designated a World Heritage Site, paving the way for its modern revival and a clutch of new tourist developments. The zócalo was restored, and new nonstop flights from the U.S. brought more visitors. With the opening in spring this year of La Purificadora, www.lapurificadora.com, Puebla has a hotel that does it justice too. Created by the team behind Mexico City's chic Hotel Condesa DF, La Purificadora takes its name from the 19th century water-purification plant and ice factory in which it's housed. Today, the structure has been given new life by famed Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. He has transformed the building into a 26-room aerie, installing a wide stone staircase in its triplex al fresco lobby, along with a rooftop pool offering pristine views of nearby colonial gems (among them the 16th century Church of St. Francis).
Puebla's singular blend of indigenous, Spanish, Arab and even Asian influences has resulted in one of Mexico's most compelling cuisines. At La Purificadora, young Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera serves Mexican tapas such as figs with shredded Oaxaca cheese, which he pairs with 1950s-styled sparkling waters, inventively flavored with everything from tamarind and ginger to green tea. No visit to Puebla, however, is complete without experiencing the local specialty, mole poblano. This chili-based sauce is laced with up to 30 ingredients, from almonds and sesame seeds to cinnamon and chocolate, and the mole served at Casareyna Hotel, tel: (52-222) 232 2109, is considered Puebla's best. If you've really caught the local culinary bug, make the half-hour trek to Cholula, an Aztec site where one of the world's tallest pyramids towers over a produce-packed market square. You can pick up spicy mole paste or a cup of popo a frothy, refreshing rice-and-chocolate-spiced drink. Back in Puebla, you can learn how to prepare these yourself at the Méson Sacristia de Capuchinas Hotel, www.mesones-sacristia.com, which offers three-day cooking courses focused on both local and national specialties.
For after-dinner diversions, head for La Boutique, tel: (52-222) 482 0603, a dance club with international DJs. Come daytime, meander though the city's compact colonial center, passing its 17th century Catedral de Puebla. Check out the antique shops lining Callejón de los Sapos or splurge on intricately detailed, floral-patterned Talavera tiles at the Uriarte Talavera Factory, www.uriartetalavera.com.mx, which has been in business since 1824. True, Puebla's charms are a world away from Mexico City's all-hours action. But for a growing number of cognoscenti, that's no bad thing.