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On our first foray out of this home base, Katie and I hit the ruler-straight highway with her Puebla-native boyfriend Raul in his (new) red VW, en route to Cholula.The small city is just 40 or so minutes away and is best known for an odd landmark: a 16th-century Spanish colonial church planted atop a grassy pre-Hispanic pyramid. To be fair, as Raul pointed out, such a scene is actually a rarity in Mexico.As I gained confidence, my short list of memorized Spanish phrases and road signs turned into sentences, and I found myself easily booking bus tickets and safely navigating the roads behind the wheel.

In a city known for its rooftop terraces, an evening drink at Mama Mia with a view of the city’s landmark cathedral, La Parroquia, was a highlight.As we wove out of the congested colonial city, a small brush fire lit up the grass alongside the highway. Katie was waiting when the bus pulled into the Puebla station.The charming Spanish colonial city proved to be an excellent home base from which to explore central Mexico, made all the better for La Fonda de Santa Clara restaurant and its array of traditional dishes covered in the rich chocolate sauce for which Puebla is known.Bordering cliché, the beach village is still basking in its barefoot hippie glory days.Palm-roofed restaurants and hotels like our hillside bungalow, La Loma Linda, line the beach, camouflaged by sun-scorched browns, greens, and tans of the surrounding landscape.

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