There are around 40 churches in the town of Cholula (which is essentially a suburb of the ever-sprawling city of Puebla these days), however, one quite literally stands above the rest.
The Spanish built the Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church on top of a massive pyramid called Tlachihualtepetl (which means “artificial hill” in the native Nahuatl language). The temple was so overgrown when the Spanish got there that they claimed they thought it was just a hill, not one of the most important indigenous spiritual centers.
Never mind that the Tlachihualtepetl temple (which our Lonely Planet guidebook calls Tepanapa for some reason) is so big that the folks at the Guiness Book of World Records calls it “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.”
These days Tlachihualtepetl is a combo church and archaeological site. The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is a major pilgrimage site and bustles with activity. It also affords some of the best views of neighboring Popocatépetl volcano (the second highest peak in Mexico at 17,802 ft) and Iztaccíhuatl volcano (the third highest peak in Mexico at 17,159 ft) from its perch atop the temple.
The church is surrounded by the partially excavated ruins of the city that once surrounded the massive pyramid and this archaeological site is accessed by walking through a tunnel that goes right through Tlachihualtepetl itself–a great way to see the different layers and levels of construction.
Or at least that used to be how you got into the archaeological complex. When we were there the tunnel was closed for repairs and had been for a year. The woman selling tickets to the site did not exude hopefulness when asked about the likelihood of the dramatic tunnel entrance re-opening anytime soon. The only good news is that while the tunnel is closed the site is free.
After touring the ruins we sat down at one of the bars nearby and had a cold beer and a bag of chapulines–fried, salted and spiced tiny grasshoppers. They are crunchy and salty and quite tasty. It’s also a fitting snack since images of grasshoppers are a feature of the archaeological site and a ubiquitous snack in Cholula.
Cholula also offers a couple of unexpected attractions too. The first is a place called Container City which is literally a collection of old shipping containers that have been re-purposed as hip cafes, cool clothing stores and bars. It’s a big hit with the many college students in the area.
Cholula is divided into two areas: San Andres and San Pedro. San Andres has most of the attractions and tourist facilities including La Quinta Luna boutique hotel. Built in the 1900s, the current owners spent two years restoring it retaining as many of the original details and materials as possible. Now it’s a 10 room find filled with art around a relaxing central courtyard garden.
The restaurant is worth a splurge and they recently opened a spa treatment room.
One night we popped into the Reforma bar (the oldest in town), where someone obviously has a Marilyn Monroe fetish. Just be warned: If you order a sangria at Reforma (it’s one of their specialties) don’t expect the Spanish kind. This sangria is shockingly sweet and made by combining a brown liquid, a clear liquid and just a splash of very cheap, very sweet red wine.
We did not visit ALL of the churches in Cholula, but we did tour a couple more including the Tonantzintla church where the ceilings and most surfaces inside the church are encrusted with elaborate decorations featuring brown-skinned angels.
The church was created by local indigenous groups and some think they may have been trying to create their own version of the Rosary Chapel in the Church of Santo Domingo which the Spanish built (featuring only light-skinned imagery, of course) in Puebla. You can see a photo of the Rosary Chapel near the bottom of a post we did about Puebla.
We arrived at San Francisco Acatepec church as the congregation was preparing for baptisms. Streamers were up, the cleaning ladies were out in force and an artist was putting the finishing touches on sand and glitter “paintings” covering the floor from the door to the altar.