Public works maintenance in the colonial city of Puebla has revealed an intricate maze of underground tunnels which until now existed only in the realm of urban legend.
The entrances to four tunnels have been discovered during routine work in the city’s historic center. Lined with stone, the tunnels reach a height of seven meters and a width of three and a half. Dating back some 500 years, they have resisted the passage of time, the weight of an ever-growing city and a severe flood in the 1600s.
That flood buried a good part of the then-young city — Puebla was founded in 1531 — because it proved easier for its denizens to build over the tonnes of mud than to dig out their original buildings. So parts of the city and its mythical tunnels were lost and forgotten.
Geological studies have revealed that those tunnels extend well over over 10 kilometers. At first it was thought that what had been uncovered was a sewage system, but after further excavations it is now believed they provided colonial officials and religious authorities with covert means of moving between convents, churches and administrative offices.
To date, a 100-meter stretch of the tunnels has been cleared out, and will be soon be completely restored by specialists from the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH).
A second section, located under an elementary school, has also been cleared but due to more humid conditions will take longer to restore.
The exact location of the four tunnel sections hasn’t been revealed yet in an effort by city authorities to avoid further deterioration that could be caused by visitors, and to preserve the structures until their restoration is complete.
More underground discoveries are expected. As buildings were erected in the 1500s, colonial reports mention the discovery of buried “bones of giants,” as they were called. Specialists today are certain that what was found then were paleontological remains, probably those of mammoths and even dinosaurs.
Excavating and restoring the tunnel system is a decades-long, multi-million-peso task, one that individual municipal administrations aren’t capable of covering on their own. Specialists point out that the process must be a constant, long-term one because a tunnel can’t be cleared out without evaluating its stability and the risks entailed for structures on the surface.
Meanwhile, a similar, long-lost historical structure is about to be opened to the public. A bridge known as Puente de Bubas, constructed in 1682, was buried in 1962 when the San Francisco river was routed into a culvert and buried.
In 1999, maintenance crews discovered that the bridge hadn’t been torn down but instead turned into part of the culvert’s structure. After a 5-million-peso restoration project, the 300-meter-long bridge, located just four blocks away from Puebla’s zócalo, is ready to receive visitors, who will be able to walk on a 70-meter-long stretch of the historical monument when it opens in December.
One feature of the original area will not be there when pedestrians cross the bridge. At one end there used to be a hospital for victims of syphilis, after which the bridge was named: bubas is a medieval word for the disease.
Puebla celebrates its 500th anniversary in 15 years’ time and there are hopes that by then a greater part of the city’s buried and lost history will have been recovered and restored.