The interesting and important state of Puebla is often overlooked because it is overshadowed by nearby Mexico City. In fact the western state border of Puebla is within 35 kilometers of the eastern edge of the Federal District. The state of Puebla also may be overlooked because it is rather small in area, ranking only 21st among Mexico’s 32 states. On the other hand, its 2010 population of nearly 5.8 million ranks it 5th behind only Mexico State, the Mexico City Federal District, Veracruz and Jalisco.
Though small in size, Puebla is very diverse. The topography is rugged and elevations range from under 100 meters in the northeast to volcanoes rising over 5,000 meters above sea level, both to the east (Orizaba – 5,636m) and west (Popocatepetl – 5,410m and Iztaccihuatl – 5,230m). These extremes in elevation give Puebla a very wide range of climates and ecosystems, from semi-tropical rainforests and grasslands to highland forests and alpine ice packs.
Almost inevitably, given its high population density (168.5 inhabitants/square kilometer), many of these ecosystems have been degraded. Several of the most attractive natural areas are now protected. They include the Izta-Popo Zoquiapán, La Malinche and Pico de Orizaba National Parks as well as the very large Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve, which has over 100 different mammal species, 16 of which exist nowhere else on the planet.
Puebla also has significant social and ethnic diversity. There are numerous wealthy people and upscale areas in Puebla City, which has the eighth highest 2005 Human Development Index (HDI) score among major Mexican cities, behind only Mexico City, Chihuahua City, Monterrey, Querétaro City, Cancún, Torreón and Cuernavaca. Most people are surprised it comes out ahead of Guadalajara and Zapopan.
On the other hand, the state as a whole is rather poor. Based on its relatively poor levels of infant mortality, literacy, school enrollment, and income levels, the state ranks 28th of 32 states in terms of 2008 Human Development Index. Puebla is tied with Michoacán and ahead of only Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca. It also ranks 28th in illiteracy which is over 10% (2010); however 96% of the 6 to 11-year-olds now attend school, and illiteracy for those between the ages of 15 and 25 is less than 3%. While 98% of homes now have electricity, over half of Puebla’s workers make less than $115 pesos ($8.20US) a day. Approximately two/thirds of the state’s population live below the Mexican poverty line. The state’s high level of poverty is partially due to its indigenous population of almost one million and the fact that almost 30% of its inhabitants live in rural areas, some of them quite remote.
The city of Puebla is the heart of a Metropolitan Area which extends across state lines to the city of Tlaxcala. Metropolitan Puebla-Tlaxcala is the country’s 4th largest urban area with a population over 3.1 million, but is overshadowed by Mexico City, the eastern edge of which is less than 30 minutes by expressway. In fact, some urban specialists suggest that these two major metropolitan areas may merge in the future. On the other hand, the mighty Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanoes, both over 5,000 meters in height, lie directly between the two cities. The high speed expressway skirts around the north side of the volcanoes.
The city of Puebla has long had strategic significance. The city was initially established during the colonial period owing to its strategic location between Mexico City and Veracruz, the dominant port for shipments to and from Spain. Puebla was the country’s second largest city for more than three centuries up until the mid 19th century. The Mexico City-Puebla railway was completed in 1869, but the main line to Veracruz bypassed the city, which diminished its comparative advantage, and resulted in it dropping to fourth place, overtaken by Guadalajara and Monterrey.
The state’s historical importance is evidenced by numerous important military confrontations, including the massacre of Cholula (1519), Santa Ana’s siege of Puebla City (1845), American General Winfield Scott’s occupation (1845-48), the “Cinco de Mayo” battle of Puebla against the French (1862), the French victory in the Second Battle of Puebla (1863), and occupation by the Zapatistas during the Mexican Revolution. The state is the birthplace of four Mexican Presidents: Ignacio Comonfort (1855–1858), Juan N. Méndez (1876–1877), Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946) and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–1970).
Despite the state’s relative poverty, industrial development has been significant and Puebla has become one of Mexico’s most industrialized states. Since colonial times Puebla has been an important center for the textile and ceramic industries. Much of Mexico’s famous talavera pottery is made in Puebla. Talavera came to Puebla from Talavera, Spain, which in turn had acquired it from Arab traders who originally brought it from China.
Since the mid 20th century Puebla has become a very important modern industrial area. The most important manufacturing activities are metals, chemicals, electronics, textiles and particularly motor vehicles. The Volkswagen plant in Puebla is one of the largest outside Germany. In July 2003 it produced the very last of the over 21 million old “Beetles” built by VW. The plant now produces New Beetles, Jettas and Boras that are exported worldwide. The motor vehicle assembly industry is supported by scores of automobile parts factories in the state.