In the city with secrets, it was long whispered that the founders of Puebla City built a network of underground tunnels. Locals said they were a way to traverse across the city undercover or perhaps for the use of mysterious religious ceremonies. There was a map belonging to a local family in the 19th century that proved it, some said.
With each new finding, they reconsider what they know of their city’s origins.
Others said the talk of these ancient tunnels was a mere urban legend. No one knew where they were and the existence of these secret tunnels could never be proven.
But all that changed in 2015 when workers found a small section of the tunnel buried under mud. A public works excavation soon revealed an intricate maze of underground tunnels right under the heart of city’s historic centre.
Believed to be around 500 years old, multiple entrances were found across the network, with stone-lined tunnels reaching more than six miles in length and three and a half in width. Excited archaeologists and historians started investigating to unravel the secrets of Mexico’s hidden tunnels and now suspect the passageways were used as “hidden roads” by privileged segments of society during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Catholic churches and monasteries, built during the same period, would have communicated with each other through the network.
With the discovery, the Puebla’s Secrets program was set up by the municipal government to restore the tunnels, bridges and other hidden vestiges. With each new finding, they reconsider what they know of their city’s origins. What we do know is it was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1531 in an area then inhabited by local Indians. But why did they need to communicate and transport their treasures underground?
Sergio Vergara Berdejo, manager of the Puebla History Center, said the infrastructure is from the founding of the city but also reveals its history from generation to generation. Fifteen different architectural styles of archway systems have been found, each reflecting the time of construction. One, for example, shows the builders used a type of cement composition made with stone chips and other materials to fashion a half-way arch.
“Puebla in the seventeenth century was flooded and half the city was covered in mud, the city we walk in now is the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the bottom is the treasures that we must preserve,” said Berdejo. An old bridge had been discovered which was buried after the city flooded centuries ago and is thought to have connected the colonial city with the areas where Indians lived on the other side of the Almoloya River.
In 1862, the underground warren was used by Mexican troops during the Battle of Puebla, hiding military from the invading French armies sent by Napoleon III. The wider tunnels allowed horses and carriages to pass ammunition secretly around the city. The battle ended in a victory for the Mexican Army over the occupying French forces.
Remarkably, the underground structures have withstood the weight of the buildings above, water systems, and earthquakes over the centuries, and remain in good condition.
The long term rediscovery project may continue for more than 10 years as only three percent of the city’s underground network is so far thought to have been discovered. This small section, the May 5 Historical Passageway, is already open to visitors.
Puebla is a city that keeps revealing her secrets. Not that this was a surprise to Puebla Mayor, Antonio Gali. His grandfather used to tell stories of the tunnels, even seeing Porfirio Díaz (the Mexican revolutionary who later became president), cross through the vaults on horseback, he says. After the Mexican Revolution the tunnels were left abandoned but thanks to storytelling the tunnels were never truly forgotten.
But the story doesn’t end here. There may be more revelations. In the 1500s when the Spanish were erecting the city’s first foundations, colonial reports mention the discovery of buried “bones of giants.” There are stories here too, it seems. Native Mexicans are said to have given large bones to Spanish conquerors as gifts and the region is notorious for legends of ancient human giants. Some say the bones are folklore, others they were dinosaur bones, others say that the fossilized bones of human giants have been held back in a cover up. Maybe one day Puebla City will reveal her truth.
Los Secretos de Puebla: Avenida 2 Oriente 1003, Barrio de la Luz