Church Me Up – Cholula, Puebla State, Mexico


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.”

The so-called Great Pyramid of Cholula (Tlachihualtepetl) topped by the Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church which the Spanish built on top of the temple.

 

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.

Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula with Popocatépetl volcano looming in the background.

The band taking a lunch break during a celebration at Santuario Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church in Cholula, Mexico.

 

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.

 

Chapulines: crunchy, salty, spicy fried grasshoppers.

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.

 

San Gabriel monastery in Cholula, Mexico.

 

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.

Container City in Cholula, Mexico has turned a collection of old shipping containers into a hip hangout full of shops, cafes and bars.

 

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.

 

The relatively subdued exterior of Tonantzintla church gives no hint of the ornate decorations inside.

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.

Created by local indigenous groups, the interior of the Tonantzintla church features depictions of brown-skinned angels--perhaps as a local version of the all-white iconography in Spanish-built churches.

Created by local indigenous groups, the interior of the Tonantzintla church features depictions of brown-skinned angels--perhaps as a local version of the all-white iconography in Spanish-built churches.

 

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.

San Francisco Acatepec church preparing for a celebration.

An artist working on sand and glitter "paintings" on the floor of the San Francisco Acatepec church in preparation for a baptism ceremony.

 

 

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11 comments on “Church Me Up – Cholula, Puebla State, Mexico

  1. Great photos, especially the one with Popo in the background! I always thought the pyramid was called Tepanapa – probably from my Lonely Planet. ;-) Good to finally know it’s real name. The container city sounds neat too, I’ll have to check it out the next time I’m there!

  2. A question regarding the photo with Popo in the background: Where exactly is the point where you made this photo? Did you use a special lens to make this perspective or found a special place/time?
    I was in Cholula 3 months ago and really wanted to take a similar photo. In reality the volcano seemed too far away to make this possible. Then a friend of mine went to Cholula to do the same. He also searched for the appropriate perspective but couldn’t find one. Afterwards we agreed with him that this photo was only possible in Photoshop. I don’t believe you would photoshop this, so please share where and how this photo was made.
    Thank you for your blog.

    • No photoshop and no special lens, you just need a long zoom, 300mm in this case. I was hunting all over town for an angle and it seemed as if a rooftop was the only option, then I found this perspective just a block or two after the circle on the highway that heads to Puebla.

      • thanks for the hint! :) being there next month and really looking forward to it!

        Btw. your blog is more than awsome! Thanks for sharing!

        Greetz,
        Rob from Austria

  3. We spent only a couple of hours in Cholula last year but looking at your pictures I am thinking that we should’ve explored more of it! We didn’t see these shipping containers and missed out on a few very pretty churches (only made it to the one on top of the pyramid). Love all the pictures, especially the one with Popocatepetl in the background – stunning!
    Dani recently posted..Travel in Honduras – safe or notMy Profile

  4. When we lived in Puebla, MX in the 1970′s our living room window view was the pyramid at Cholula flanked on both sides with Ixta on one and Popo on the other; the most spectacular view of any place we’ve lived.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Links

  6. I’m sorry, I love your blogs but I just have one correction to this one. The pyramid is not Mayan, it was actually built by the Cholulan culture one that’s believed to be related to the Teotihuacan culture.

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