The Pueblo Magico town of Cholula
About half an hour from downtown Puebla, the town of Cholula (which is included in Puebla’s administrative area) is both a historical and scenic highlight in the region, so much so that it’s one of Mexico’s 132 Pueblos Magicos.
The most famous highlight here is Great Pyramid of Cholula. Built starting around the 3rd century BC, the pyramid (also known as Tlachihualtepetl) is the largest pyramid ever built, even surpassing the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It has a base of 450 by 450 meters (1,480 by 1,480 ft) and a height of 66 m (217 ft) and, according to the Guinness Book of Records, it is both the largest pyramid as well as the largest monument ever constructed anywhere in the world with a total volume estimated at over 4.45 million cubic meters.
Cholula actually consists of seven overlaid pyramids built over twelve centuries. The first stage was built at about the same time as the pyramids of Teotihuacan (just outside Mexico City) and has characteristics similar to Teotihuacan. However, unlike Teotihuacan which mysteriously collapsed in the 6th century BC (its population disappearing) Cholula continued on. A 2nd stage of building, under the Olmecs, was superimposed on the first and departed from Teotihuacan’s style, with stairs on all four sides.
There were many religious rituals during these early periods, including human sacrifice. Often sacrificed were children, who were decapitated in order to appeal to Tlaloc, the god of rain. Evidence of beheaded, deformed heads were found in front of what is now called the Altar con Ofrenda (the altar of offering).
By the time the Toltecs occupied Cholula, around 1100 or 1200 A.D, the great pyramid was abandoned and largely submerged by earth (naturally? Or on purpose? Having read a lot of material on the pyramid it’s still not clear). The Toltecs instead focused on building new temples around the original. They dedicated one (under today’s town square) to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and the city became a Mecca for pilgrims from throughout Mesoamerica. Eventually, the Aztecs took over Cholula and were there when the Spanish arrived. The Great Pyramid was, by then, disguised as nothing more than a grassy hill.
Cholula was the location of a major battle between the Spanish and Aztecs. In 1519 Hernán Cortés, who had befriended the neighboring Tlaxcalans, travelled to Cholula at the request of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma. But it was a trap as the Aztecs had set an ambush. The Tlaxcalans tipped off Cortés about the plot and the Spanish struck first. Within a day they had killed 6000 Cholulans and the city was looted by the Tlaxcalans. Cortés vowed to build a church here for every day of the year, or on top of every pagan temple, depending on which legend you prefer to believe. Today there are 39 churches here including Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios located on the top of the pyramid mound (it is unclear if the Spanish knew about the underlying pyramid or if they just built the church here because of its impressive geographical location). Although there is not a church for every day of the year, 39 is still plenty for such a small town.
The pyramid was hidden under dirt and trees until construction began in 1910 on an insane asylum at its base. Discovered, major exploratory work commenced in the 1930’s when tunnels were dug to discover the various levels of the pyramid.
Highlights of Cholula Today
The zona arqueológica de Cholula comprises of the excavated areas around the pyramid and approximately 8km of tunnels underneath. Visitors entering the site can enter a section of the tunnels (a pretty spooky experience) and exit a few hundred meters further on the opposite side of the mound. From there, a path takes you to the Patio de las Alteres which was the main approach to the pyramid. There are large stone slabs, an Aztec-style altar, and a reconstructed section of the pyramid (The Mexican government is pouring money into Cholula, heavily promoting the pyramid as a tourist destination).
Another path takes you up to the Spanish church on the top of the hill. Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is a pretty church with glorious views over the town (you can see Cholula’s zocalo below) and the surrounding mountains.
Finally, the Museo de Sitio de Cholula is a small museum highlighting artifacts found on the site as well as a large cut-away model of the pyramid mound. Bilingual signage describes life in Cholula, both before and after the Spanish conquest (life after the conquest seemed particularly brutal).
Left: With the fear of conspiracy against the new Spanish rulers, torture and death of Cholulans was common. One of the most gruesome techniques was to starve a large dog for several weeks then to release it on a chained man. Once dead the dog was allowed to feed on him.
The zocalo is huge but not the prettiest I’ve ever seen, a mix of amusement park / parking lot / cemented square. But it is a pleasant spot to enjoy the tranquility of the town, have a drink (at one of the cafes or restaurants), and look across at some of the churches surrounding the square. The huge Arabic-style Capilla Real, with its 49 domes, dates from 1540 and is a highlight.
Getting there. A taxi from Cholula can get you here in about 20 minutes. Otherwise collectivos run between Cholula and Puebla, stopping either near Centro or at the CAPU bus station in town.
Organized Tours: From Puebla, this 5 hour tour explores Cholula in depth, covering everything in this post. From Mexico City you can take this full-day tour which covers Puebla (one of my favorite cities in Mexico) as well as Cholula.
Overall, Cholula is a really interesting day trip from Puebla and I highly recommend it.
Related: The Best Pueblos Magicos in Mexico?
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