Puebla Stories and Tips

Cholula--churches, pyramids, and pottery

Cholula Photo, Puebla, Mexico

My friend Tammy and I decided that we liked Carlos's walking tour of Puebla and his trip to the town of Huacachoula for the Dia de los Muertos so much that we would arrange to see the nearby town of Cholula, home of the largest pyramid in the western hemisphere, with Carlos as our guide. It was a good decision.

Cholula is a small town that has become a suburb of Puebla. Its main claim to fame is the great pyramid -- a pyramid with a larger volume than the great pyramid at Giza. From the front, the pyramid looks like a regular old hill, albeit one with a very attractive lemon yellow church at the summit, Nuestros Senora de los Remedios. Driving up to the base of the "hill", however, you see the tunnels that archaeologists laboriously cut through the heart of the pyramid. For an entrance fee of 33 pesos (about $3), you can explore the tunnels and the excavated portions of the pyramid that lie on the back side of the hill.

Walking the cool, dim tunnels of the pyramid, we were very glad that Carlos was with us -- there are dioramas scattered throughout offshoots of the main tunnels that chart the pyramid's development over the centuries, but no explanation of what you see. Carlos explained to us that the pyramid we see today is not one pyramid, but a series of them, each built atop the previous culture's construction like Russian nesting dolls.

At the end of the tunnel, across a path leading to the church at the pyramid's summit, is the backside of the archaeological site where various layers of pyramid have been excavated. Here again, we were happy to have Carlos, since the placards that explain various areas of the site have about three times the information on them in Spanish than they do in English. He told us that the pyramid had been a temple to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of pre-Columbian times. We went to the fascinating Plaza of the Altars, with acoustics that make clapping hands echo back like the cries of eagles.

When we had finished exploring the ruins, we walked up to the church at the top of the pyramid and had a beautiful view of Cholula and the surrounding area. In pre-Columbian times, the great pyramid was not the only one in Cholula -- the town was, in fact, a great religious center -- the Vatican of the native Mexicans. When Cortez came upon it as he explored Mexico, he pronounced Cholula the most beautiful city outside of Spain -- and then proceeded to massacre its inhabitants.

Why was this the loveliest city outside Spain? Because the pyramids at Cholula had an interesting feature -- towers, upon which the priests build bonfires so that the city gleamed in the darkness and was easily seen from far away. But the Spaniards wanted to subdue the populous and convert them to Christianity, so they pulled down most of the temples and used the stones to build the many churches that you see in Cholula today.

We climbed back down the hill and headed for two famous churches that are in small towns close to Cholula -- Tonantzintla and Acatapec. The church in Tonanzintla is justly famed for its carved stucco interior, a riot of fruits, flowers, vines, children, saints, and angels with wings of fire. The brightly colored carvings are gilded at the edges to stunning effect. Nearby in Acatapec, the church's facade is famous for being entirely covered with beautiful Talavera tiles. Inside, there is a more restrained version of the intricate stucco decoration at Tonanzintla, its restoration just completed following a devastating fire in the 1940s.

We also toured the Talavera de la Reina factory with Carlos. This beautiful factory is decorated from top to bottom with Talavera tiles and shards of broken dishes. Carlos explained the whole process of making Talavera (which is done wholly by hand). It takes six months to produce a single item, from digging the local clay to firing, glazing to finally selling. We got to watch the artists work at the potter’s wheel and see the men and women who paint on the lovely designs (many in freehand!).

At the end of the day, Carlos dropped us off at our restaurant, located in the charming La Quinta Luna hotel, and showed us some of the hotel's modern, luxurious suites and romantic candle-lit courtyard -- a wonderful ending to a lovely day.

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