Travel is rife with surprise, both good and bad. Normally, I’m not one for surprises but sometimes, I get one at which even I can’t be annoyed. Part of my visit to Mexico was to visit a friend in Puebla. Close to that city is a place called Cholula. I’d never heard of it but man, was I ever happy to explore it! It had everything I could want – historical sights, food, markets, and people watching. As a surprise location, one that wasn’t on my list of “things to do, places to go”, it was a great reminder why flexible travel plans make for the best experiences.
Cholula can be found in central Mexico and is situated in a fantastic spot: flat plains all around with 2 volcanoes located to the west. Its name is a Nahuatl word and it either means “where water falls,” or “place of those who fled”. The city itself is the typical colonial style of grid streets, a central square, grand buildings, and a million churches. However, just because the city is clearly colonial, that isn’t all it is – the area has been occupied since about 500BCE! So it’s Hispanic history, while now front and centre as you wander around, is only a drop in the bucket compared to its pre-colonial times. While you can spend a couple days exploring everything to be seen in and around Cholula, here are some highlights you should not miss:
Plaza de la Concordia
This square is filled with all sorts of people including locals, vendors selling street food and knickknacks, and the odd foreigner or two. The square is surrounded on all four sides by some interesting architecture so don’t be surprised if you find yourself meandering in a square. On one side there is a gallery measuring 170 metres, fronted by 46 arches which are supported by columns. Apparently, this is the longest archway of its kind in Latin America. What is extra cool is that behind the archway, there are businesses. Okay, actually, that’s not the cool part – the cool part is that behind the business is the spot where the area’s pre-Hispanic nobles used to meet for council meetings. Today, that spot now holds City Hall – full circle, in a way!
Convento de San Gabriel
On another side of Plaza de la Concordia, there is the monastery of San Gabriel, dating to the 16th century. It is one of 37 churches in Cholula! It has several chapels and they all look different from each other so it is worthwhile checking them all out. It is still inhabited by a few Franciscan monks but I didn’t see any myself. To get inside the church, you pass through a tall gate encircled by thick yellow walls with faded red points. It’s rather pretty in the sunlight despite the thick walls being rather prison-like. What I enjoyed most about this monastery was not necessarily the grandness of the place but rather all the little details. Especially if you’re a photographer, you can spend some serious time in here capturing all the things that catch your eye.
Parish of San Pedro
Built in the 17th century, this church is also located on the Plaza de la Concordia. This one is worth a peek for its ceiling. As with the other giant-walled churches, you can definitely imagine cranky monks in the 1600s wandering around the place in hot itchy robes and their not-exactly-pleasant interactions with the local people.
Church of Santa María Tonantzintla
I still can’t decide if I liked the uniqueness of this church or was horrified. SMT is highly valued for its interior decorations which are apparently called folk or indigenous Baroque. Built in the 16th century, it is pretty fascinating to visit for the extensive pre-Hispanic elements that include brown skinned figures and indigenous features such as headdress or plant matter like corn. I wasn’t able to examine the place for long as my visit was mistimed – just before a church service started up. Unfortunately, one isn’t allowed to take photos inside but the person I was with snuck one anyway. You can’t really see details but it gives you an idea why I’m still stuck on if I like it or not!
Cholula has many markets that you’ll probably stumble upon as you wander around the city. When I was there, it was primarily focused on Christmas gear. If I were to judge by the markets, people here take Christmas seriously to a whole new level! There are the “regular” markets as well where you can find food and beautiful brightly coloured textiles.
Great Pyramid of Cholula and Nuestra Señora de los Remedios Church
You may think it unusual to get two structures for the price of one but in Mexico, it actually isn’t all that unusual. There are a number of churches that were built on top of pre-Hispanic structures such as pyramids. Nuestra Señora de los Remedios Church is one such church. When you see it, Nuestra Señora looks like a bright jewel box of a building on top of giant hill. The thing is, though, that giant hill is actually concealing most of a pyramid. Actually, to be more precise, there are a number of pyramids under there. For about one millennia before the Spanish ran roughshod over the area, about six phases of pyramids were built, making this pyramid the largest (by volume) in Mexico. Part of the hill has been excavated so it is possible to now see parts of the Great Pyramid. There aren’t many explanatory signs around the place so you will need to have some imagination. But it is definitely worth a visit – there are some carvings, alters, and reproductions of a couple murals around. There is also a very awesome narrow staircase that gives you a commanding view of Cholula and its surrounding plains. Perfect spot to have a little picnic!
Built on top of the Great Pyramid is a church, Nuestra Señora, completed in 1575. The site for this church was chosen precisely because of the pyramid and how important it was to the local indigenous population. Despite how it got started, the church is quite beautiful. Its yellow-orange exterior is bright in the Mexican sun, definitely drawing your eye to it lying way up on the hill. There aren’t really any exterior decorations except for one dome covered in Puebla tiles. Inside the church is rather traditionally Catholic but it is still quite colourful, especially with the gold.
From Cholula, you can see two volcanoes – and of course, they have a sappy romantic story attached to them. Popocatépetl (“the Smoking Mountain”) and Iztaccíhuatl (“white woman” in Nahuatl, also called the sleeping woman in Spanish) are a warrior and a princess respectively. You can probably guess the soap-opera story…
Men in Hats