Not Yet Trending is an investigative story from inside Airbnb. Tipped off by guest travel data, we find up-and-coming destinations before anyone else can. To get the story numbers can’t tell us, we go straight to the source: our hosts.
Despite the tragic earthquake that was centred in Puebla, the hospitality of Mexico and our Airbnb hosts goes unshaken. 433% more Airbnb guests have visited Puebla in the past year, making it our latest Not Yet Trending destination. To unlock the city, we turned to our hosts.
A two-hour drive from Mexico City, Puebla is now unveiling its long-kept treasures to the world. For centuries, it’s been a historical city to pass through, but younger generations sharing the town’s traditions, food and warmth are now giving people a reason to settle in.
—- This blog post has been translated from Spanish
We Mexicans are used to being called baroque. Not our architecture so much as our soul: complex, elaborate, flamboyant, and more than a little over-the-top. Think of the girls celebrating their quinceañeras in bright fuchsia ball gowns with dates dressed as over-gelled princes. Or our abuelitas, with their hand-crocheted doilies covering every piece of furniture in the house. We fill every void with detail, layering colors, music, and food one atop another. It’s a tricky mission, but if you had to pinpoint the epicentre of all this baroqueness, it would, undoubtedly, be in Puebla.
Puebla was born baroque in 1531, and has been enamoured with its extravagance ever since. It is almost intimidating: every single building, convent, school and even the corner pub and the market chicken stall have high aesthetic standards. There’s not a single unadorned nook in the city’s 360+ churches. In Puebla, colours must harmonise and typography matters.
This crushing beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed — every day more and more experienced travellers are arriving here, keen to immerse themselves. Discontented with brightly-painted pueblos created for tourists and noisy beachfront party spots, these adventurers want to be part of something real, alive, and cutting-edge. Something like downtown Puebla.
Poblanos are crazy about their heritage, and about the rebirth of the city. “I love being baroque,” says Malú Arrelano laughing. Malú and her husband Luis Mora live in the heart of downtown. With a huge remodel to their 19th century home after their daughters grew up and left them with extra space, Malú and Luis decided to become Airbnb hosts. They have finally been able to liberate their antiques (inherited from grandparents and great-grandparents) from decades of storage, which give their guest rooms that luxury feel of a boutique hotel, with a sense of the city’s history and the warmth of family.
This marriage of the best of the old and the new — a new, baroque-modern Puebla culture — is the essence of what’s attracting visitors. Starting 50 years ago, many long-time Puebla families decamped from downtown to move into then-new areas of the city. Now the children and grandchildren of those older generations are moving back — opening businesses in historic buildings, studying and connecting with their roots.
Puebla has long been known in Mexico for being staunchly traditional, a closed society slow to welcome new people or ideas into their way of life. But Poblanos feel that changing.
Alejandro García Lama, a 26-year-old working in finance, is one of these agents of change. He moved downtown to the ancestral home of his great-grandparents, remodeled it with his cousin Natalia, and started renting five rooms on Airbnb. The interior patio of the house, which had for decades hosted family meals, is now a global party. Around a firepit, amidst his great-grandmother’s cacti and aloe plants, guests toast with cervezas, rocking in hammocks, singing and strumming a guitar.
It might sound like gentrification, but unlike other cities worldwide where residents are being forced out, Puebla’s revival is actually rooted in concern for its inhabitants.
Like Alejandro, 36-year-old José Adrián wanted in on this new vision-turned-reality. Along with a group of friends, he rented an abandoned mansion in the downtown Barrio de los Sapos, where they opened a bakery (Mostovoi), a restaurant (Casa Nueve), a co-working space (Workósfera), and refurbished rooms upstairs to host Airbnb guests. Now, amidst its famous antique markets, Barrio de los Sapos is filled with young, innovative neighbours intent on sharing with the community.
“We want to reintegrate segregated areas with our work,” says José’s friend Tomás Darío, who co-founded the art project Colectivo Tomate. At the project’s workspace, Colectivo Tomate painted a mural recounting the harsh history of the Atoyac River, which has been buried underneath Cinco de Mayo Boulevard for years. “Downtown was the Spanish part; indigenous people could only cross to work. These stories need to be told so that people can connect with their roots and these historic indigenous neighborhoods.”
One of those neighbourhoods on the indigenous side of the river is Xanenetla, which Colectivo Tomate has made (Instagram) famous with its street art takeover, known as ‘Mural City.’ The project brought Mexican and international artists to paint murals on buildings all over the neighbourhood, images which tell the stories of the inhabitants of the structures, designed in concert with the people living inside. In the process, Colectivo Tomate has helped erase Xanenetla’s stigma of being dangerous.
“We don’t see the murals as a way of profiting from visitors, says Arturo Ramírez, a Xanenetla resident historian who played a crucial role in the artwork and whose family has lived here for at least seven generations. “We want to connect with them, little by little, to try to bridge many years of being separate. Even when our ancestors made the bricks to build Puebla with their very own hands, we were segregated for centuries.”
As lovely as this mélange of Poblanos and visitors sounds, at first Alejandro’s mum, Ana Lama, was not pleased to have strangers sleeping in her son’s house. But she came around, and eventually he convinced her to turn his childhood bedroom at her house into an Airbnb, too.
Coming from one of the oldest families in Puebla, Ana says, “I would never have thought I’d have so much in common with someone from Pakistan, Russia, France or Colombia.” But being part of Airbnb has changed her life, Ana says chuckling. Her guests love her breakfasts, not just for the food (like corn bread with sliced chiles topped with onions), but for the chance to bond and learn about each other. “You’re my Poblana mother!” is a compliment Ana has received (in myriad languages) in her two years since becoming a host.
And Ana isn’t an isolated case — apparently the love of Puebla’s mamás is now spreading worldwide. “Would the paperwork be difficult for you to adopt me?” says guest Paulina to Malú, half joking, half melancholy at thinking about her stay ending soon. Malú always tells her guests to make themselves at home as if they were with their own older relatives, “but without the pressure to hang out with them.” Her guests pretty much ignore her completely. They cook with her out of her great-grandmother’s 19th century cookbook, they bring her gifts, and they stay in touch even after they have gone back to their own homes. It’s hard to leave Malú’s house. And Puebla.
Rogelio Elizalde Arana is a travel writer and Airbnb host in Mexico City. He’s currently wandering around New Zealand, looking for more stories.
*According to Airbnb internal guest arrival data for the city of Puebla, Mexico between November 1, 2016 to November 1, 2017.