Travel is rife with surprises, 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 trip 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 great experiences.
Cholula can be found in central Mexico and the city 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 five 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. On another side is the Convento de San Gabriel that dates to the 16th century. As with the other giant-walled churches, you can definitely imagine historical cranky monks 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. Unfortunately, one isn’t allowed to take photos inside.
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.
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…
Great Pyramid of Cholula and Nuestra Señora de los Remedios Church
You may think it strange 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 a 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 millennium, 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.
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You can now download this article on to your smartphone or tablet with the GPSmyCity app; for a small upgrade fee, you will be able to read it offline as well as get a city map with GPS directions! Pretty neat, eh