Unlike nearby Puebla, which was established by the Spanish in an empty plain, Cholula has been inhabited continuously since about 500BC. Waves of educated immigrants---including Zapotecs and Mixtecs from Oaxaca, the Teotihuacanos, and Toltecs---contributed to this multiethnic society which in its prime produced fine manuscripts, pottery, sculpture, and mosaics. Today Cholula has a decidedly small-town appearance, but its history and culture are evident in one of the world’s largest pyramids, several amazing Indian Baroque churches, and a prestigious university. Its location just west of Puebla and less than two hours from Mexico City makes it a great day or overnight trip.
Cholula’s past can be seen in its main claim to fame: la Gran Pirámide de Tepanapa. Added to over a period of almost a thousand years, it is one of the largest pyramids you’ll ever see … or not see. Unlike those of Monte Albán, Teotihuacán, and the Yucatan Peninsula, the Great Pyramid at Cholula is underground; it looks like a pointy, grass-covered hill. The structure had been abandoned by the time the Spaniards marched on Cholula on their very first foray into the interior of today’s Mexico (in 1519), en route to Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish normally dismantled the temples of conquered indigenous societies, both as a symbolic gesture and as a source of building materials for their own churches and administrative buildings. Cholula’s pyramid was just too large to disassemble, so the Spanish built on its apex a church in honor of Our Lady of Remedies. This is the church often seen on postcards with the active volcano Popocatepetl in the background.
Today’s visitor, instead of clambering up its stepped sides, can only explore the pyramid’s interior through a series of narrow, underground passages. Although this experience is unique, one doesn’t really get a feeling for the original structure. A model in the on-site museum gives a better idea of the original, mud-brick construction, which was finished in AD700. Guides hired at the site entrance can also make the visit to the tunnels more interesting and informative.
Despite its impressive history, Cholula today is a small, provincial-looking town. Peppered among its grandiose colonial churches are empty lots, fields of marigolds, and one- and two-story houses and businesses. Cholula is actually two parishes that meld into one another but share some administration functions. San Pedro Cholula has the tourism office, a large and beautiful main plaza, and Los Portales---a wide colonnade sheltering indoor-outdoor bars and restaurants.
Facing the main plaza, the city museum is in a beautiful old home called la Casa del Caballero Aquila (Home of the Eagle Warrior). A minuscule entrance fee gains entrance to this 16th-century home with photos of old Cholula as well as pre-Hispanic ritual objects, obsidian tools, jewelry, and Cholula’s famous pottery. (According to the Mexico scholar Michael Coe, the Aztec king Moctezuma would only eat and drink from Cholula-produced vessels.)
Because so many people visit Cholula, there are plenty of restaurants and hotels, including a few boutique properties. Most of the bars, however, are found in contiguous San Andrés Cholula, considered as separate parish since pre-Hispanic times. It’s logical that most of the nightlife happens there, since this is also home to la Universidad de las Américas (University of the Americas, or UDLAP), a prestigious private university with schools of Arts, Engineering, and Humanities. Unlike most Mexican universities, UDLAP has on-campus student housing. Its many sports teams include American football as well as soccer, basketball, track and field, tennis, and others. Visitors with some extra time in the area might check out the campus, which offers a café and Tuesday night movies as well as sporting events. Their website is www.udlap.mx.
Not far from the university, the work of UDLAP graphic designer Gabriel Esper Caram can be seen in the avant-guard Container City, a commercial space made of recycled maritime containers and housing art galleries, bars and restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses. This unusual conglomeration of structures also hosts music and other events.
If Container City represents the vanguard of urban design, Cholula’s Indian Baroque churches exemplify its mestizo culture. Also called novohispano baroque, these colonial masterpieces meld indigenous motifs and artistry with Spanish building style in a dizzying display of 3-D religious art. Even people who are unimpressed by colonial churches should not skip a visit to Santa María Tonatzintla and neighboring San Francisco Acatepec. They are just too bizarre-beautiful to miss.
The closest to the center of Cholula is Santa María Tonatzintla. Its façade is an ornate combination of brickwork and Puebla tiles. No photos can be taken of the interior, which is disappointing to camera buffs. (A lady at the front door sells perfectly good photos, which is better than nothing.) Still, not staring through a camera lens lets you concentrate on the extraordinary beauty of the interior: floor-to-ceiling, high-relief, polychrome and gold gilt cherubs, angels, and saints all interspersed with flowers, vines, and rosettes. The work was executed by native artisans, and brown-skinned figures are interspersed with the white-bread faces usually seen almost exclusively in Catholic churches.
The temple honors the pre-Hispanic goddess Tonatzintla, onto which the Spaniards superimposed the Virgin Mary in order to help convert the indigenous masses. A few kilometers away is equally exotic San Francisco Acatepec. Blue, white, green and yellow tiles cover the façade, interspersed with unglazed red brick, mosaics, and statues of saints. The interior is stunning, and photography is allowed.
Although not nearly as impressive as these ethnic beauties, San Pedro Cholula has its share of Spanish colonial churches. Built in the 16th century, the fortress-like Convento de San Gabriel faces the main plaza. It shares its huge atrium with la Capilla Real. Originally an indoor-outdoor structure, the Royal Chapel was built to accommodate large numbers of Indian converts, who presumably had to remain standing outside to hear the sermon. Now enclosed, la Capilla Real was styled after the great mosque of Córdoba, Spain and has dozens of interior columns and cupolas. On the opposite side of the square, the more traditional, 17th-century Iglesia de San Pedro honors the town’s patron, Saint Peter, and boasts its fair share of statues, marble baptismal fonts, and floor-to-ceiling decoration.
The crown jewel of the city, however, is la Iglesia de los Remedios, with its fantastic location atop the Tepanapa pyramid. By Puebla state standards, the outside is rather plain (except for the beautiful tiled domes and its painted plasterwork façade), but inside are many interesting paintings, niches of saints, mosaics, and chambers decorated in brightly painted and gilded plasterwork in Moorish design. Views of the town and the twin volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, are exceptional, as its location atop on the world’s largest pyramids (even if it does look more like a hill).
Cholula is at face value neither sophisticated nor desperately scenic. Its value lies in several millennia of culture and history. Whether on an extended visit or even a day trip out of Puebla or Mexico City, plain-Jane Cholula has more than her share of attractions, including hikes or mountain climbing on nearby volcanoes.