Great Pyramid of Cholula

By Julie Skurdenis
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La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios on top of the Cholula pyramid. Photos by Julie Skurdenis

For me, Mexico is inextricably linked to its pyramids. Yes, there are colonial-era churches to visit, plenty of them, plus markets full of color and activity, miles of beaches, fiestas throughout the year and — let’s not forget — the fabulous food. But it’s the archaeological sites that keep drawing me back.

Mexico is rich in archaeological sites, many of which boast pyramids built by Mexico’s great Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec and Aztec.

The pyramids they built are found in central and southern Mexico and include smaller pyramids in more intimate archaeological sites, like Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, as well as grandiose pyramids in huge complexes, like Teotihuacán in central Mexico. And everything in between.

The greatest pyramid

But this is about the “greatest pyramid” of them all, one called Cholula.

If you thought that the Pyramid of Cheops/Khufu (Khufu was an Egyptian pharaoh in the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period, roughly 2609 to 2584 BC; the Greeks called him Cheops) in Giza, Egypt, was the largest pyramid in the world, guess again. It isn’t. It’s Cholula, which — by volume — is almost twice as large as Khufu’s pyramid. My husband, Paul’s, comment: “Who knew?”

Model of Cholula pyramid, with the present-day church on top, in the on-site museum.

To give a few statistics, the Pyramid of Cholula is 157 million cubic feet in volume; Khufu’s is 88 million cubic feet. Cholula measures 1,476 feet on each of its four sides and stands 217 feet high (Khufu’s pyramid is 482 feet high but only 755 feet on each side). If you check me out on these figures, you will find that there are hardly two sources that agree, but it does give you an idea of the size.

Cholula is located about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City and only a few miles west of the city of Puebla. Humans have inhabited the area for at least 7,000 years, first as hunter-gatherers, then as settlers living in small farming communities that evolved into ceremonial centers by about 1000 BC.

Pyramid construction

Cholula was one of these centers, both an important religious center and a trade city linking Mesoamerican peoples to its north and south. Building may have begun on the Cholula pyramid between 300 to 200 BC, probably first with a small pyramid constructed of adobe.

Successive generations added layer upon layer to the initial core until, probably between AD 200 and 450, it not only rose in height and increased in volume but became progressively surrounded by civil buildings, residences, plazas, altars and ceremonial platforms. As many as 100,000 people lived there at its apogee.

Then, around 600 to 700, perhaps a bit later, the pyramid was abandoned. Tropical vegetation eventually covered the immense structure, turning it into a huge overgrown hill.

Olmec-Xicalancas conquered Cholula in the 10th century, followed by the Toltec-Chichimecas in the 12th and 13th centuries. The pyramid that had dominated ceremonial life for over 1,000 years was not revived by the Toltecs as a religious center. Instead, they built a new pyramid, the foundations of which lie buried beneath the present-day city. Neither did the Aztecs resurrect the old pyramid when they arrived about 1300.

Conquistadores

By the time Hernán Cortés and the conquistadores arrived in 1519, what they saw was the overgrown hill. Did the Spaniards know there was a pyramid beneath the vegetation? Some archaeologists and historians doubt it, but I think the Spaniards must have learned of the pyramid’s existence from the natives, since not too long after their arrival, a church was built atop the “hill.”

This is a classic case of a new religion superseding and supplanting a previous one — not an uncommon occurrence for conquerors. The Cholula pyramid had been dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, one of the major Mesoamerican deities. The new church on top of the pyramid was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

Excavations on the pyramid started in 1931 and continued until the mid-1950s, resuming in the mid-1960s. Archaeologists excavated some of the plazas, platforms and altars as well as a portion of one of the monumental staircases. These give visitors an idea of both how large the pyramid grew to be as well as of its grandeur.

Cholula’s tunnels

Tunnel deep within the Pyramid of Cholula — Mexico.

But what is most unique about Cholula are the tunnels 20th-century archaeologists dug straight through the pyramid. There are 5 miles of tunnels slicing through the successive layers of the pyramid, like cuts through a layered wedding cake.

Today, visitors enter through a booth on the north side of the pyramid and walk through half a mile of dimly lighted tunnel corridors past other corridors and staircases leading to other layers of the pyramid. Most of these are closed off except to archaeological workers.

It’s not too claustrophobic an experience, since you can walk without bending over or crawling, as is necessary in some pyramids or burial mounds. A guide can be hired, but it’s easy enough to do on your own. It’s a totally unique experience.

After you exit the tunnels, ask if the mural called “Los Bebedores” (“The Drinkers”) can be viewed. At 187 feet long, it’s one of the longest pre-Columbian murals yet found in Mexico. It depicts men in various states of inebriation, probably from imbibing pulque, the fermented sap of certain agave plants. The mural is not often exhibited because of its fragile condition.

Don’t miss a visit to the on-site museum, where an excellent cut-away model of the Cholula pyramid is on display showing the various layers of construction.

Colonial church

It’s a climb but worth it to the church on top of the pyramid/hill. Dating from the 16th century, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (The Church of Our Lady of the Remedies) is an ochre-colored church beautifully trimmed in white, with twin bell towers and with cupolas decorated with tiles manufactured in nearby Puebla.

Inside, it’s a small jewel box of a church, especially when lit by chandeliers. It is usually open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

If you go…

Basilica Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (Metropolitan Basilica Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) in Puebla, Puebla state, Mexico.

Cholula pyramid (phone +52 222 247 9081), which Paul and I visited in February 2019, is open daily from 10 to 5. Admission to the tunnels and museum costs 80 pesos, about $4. For more information about Cholula, visit https://lugares.inah.gob.mx/en/zonas-arqueologicas/zonas/1776-cholula.

It’s about a 2-hour drive from Mexico City to Cholula. I recommend a stop in nearby Puebla to visit its cathedral, one of the oldest in Mexico (begun around 1575), and to buy one or two of the Talavera tiles for which Puebla is famous.

If you have the time and want an extra-special experience, consider returning to Mexico City via Cuernavaca, where you can visit its cathedral and the Palace of Cortés, dating from the early 16th century, once the fortified home of the Spanish conquistador.

You can also treat yourself to lunch or dinner at Las Mañanitas (phone 52 777 362 0000, lasmananitas.com.mx), a superb hacienda-type hotel, part of the Relais & Châteaux chain. The hotel is enclosed within beautiful tropical gardens and has a pool.

If you can, overnight there. Some of the rooms have private patios and fireplaces, in keeping with the Spanish-colonial atmosphere. Room rates begin at $244 per night for a room for two.

Cuernavaca and Las Mañanitas are a 100-mile drive from Cholula, about two hours away. From Cuernavaca, it’s about 60 miles and 1¾ hours back to Mexico City. It’s a spectacular extension to add to equally spectacular Cholula pyramid.

Catedral de la Asunción de Maria (Cathedral of Mary’s Assumption) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Palacio de Cortés (Palace of Cortés) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
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La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios on top of the Cholula pyramid. Photos by Julie Skurdenis

For me, Mexico is inextricably linked to its pyramids. Yes, there are colonial-era churches to visit, plenty of them, plus markets full of color and activity, miles of beaches, fiestas throughout the year and — let’s not forget — the fabulous food. But it’s the archaeological sites that keep drawing me back.

Mexico is rich in archaeological sites, many of which boast pyramids built by Mexico’s great Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec and Aztec.

The pyramids they built are found in central and southern Mexico and include smaller pyramids in more intimate archaeological sites, like Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, as well as grandiose pyramids in huge complexes, like Teotihuacán in central Mexico. And everything in between.

The greatest pyramid

But this is about the “greatest pyramid” of them all, one called Cholula.

If you thought that the Pyramid of Cheops/Khufu (Khufu was an Egyptian pharaoh in the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period, roughly 2609 to 2584 BC; the Greeks called him Cheops) in Giza, Egypt, was the largest pyramid in the world, guess again. It isn’t. It’s Cholula, which — by volume — is almost twice as large as Khufu’s pyramid. My husband, Paul’s, comment: “Who knew?”

Model of Cholula pyramid, with the present-day church on top, in the on-site museum.

To give a few statistics, the Pyramid of Cholula is 157 million cubic feet in volume; Khufu’s is 88 million cubic feet. Cholula measures 1,476 feet on each of its four sides and stands 217 feet high (Khufu’s pyramid is 482 feet high but only 755 feet on each side). If you check me out on these figures, you will find that there are hardly two sources that agree, but it does give you an idea of the size.

Cholula is located about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City and only a few miles west of the city of Puebla. Humans have inhabited the area for at least 7,000 years, first as hunter-gatherers, then as settlers living in small farming communities that evolved into ceremonial centers by about 1000 BC.

Pyramid construction

Cholula was one of these centers, both an important religious center and a trade city linking Mesoamerican peoples to its north and south. Building may have begun on the Cholula pyramid between 300 to 200 BC, probably first with a small pyramid constructed of adobe.

Successive generations added layer upon layer to the initial core until, probably between AD 200 and 450, it not only rose in height and increased in volume but became progressively surrounded by civil buildings, residences, plazas, altars and ceremonial platforms. As many as 100,000 people lived there at its apogee.

Then, around 600 to 700, perhaps a bit later, the pyramid was abandoned. Tropical vegetation eventually covered the immense structure, turning it into a huge overgrown hill.

Olmec-Xicalancas conquered Cholula in the 10th century, followed by the Toltec-Chichimecas in the 12th and 13th centuries. The pyramid that had dominated ceremonial life for over 1,000 years was not revived by the Toltecs as a religious center. Instead, they built a new pyramid, the foundations of which lie buried beneath the present-day city. Neither did the Aztecs resurrect the old pyramid when they arrived about 1300.

Conquistadores

By the time Hernán Cortés and the conquistadores arrived in 1519, what they saw was the overgrown hill. Did the Spaniards know there was a pyramid beneath the vegetation? Some archaeologists and historians doubt it, but I think the Spaniards must have learned of the pyramid’s existence from the natives, since not too long after their arrival, a church was built atop the “hill.”

This is a classic case of a new religion superseding and supplanting a previous one — not an uncommon occurrence for conquerors. The Cholula pyramid had been dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, one of the major Mesoamerican deities. The new church on top of the pyramid was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.

Excavations on the pyramid started in 1931 and continued until the mid-1950s, resuming in the mid-1960s. Archaeologists excavated some of the plazas, platforms and altars as well as a portion of one of the monumental staircases. These give visitors an idea of both how large the pyramid grew to be as well as of its grandeur.

Cholula’s tunnels

Tunnel deep within the Pyramid of Cholula — Mexico.

But what is most unique about Cholula are the tunnels 20th-century archaeologists dug straight through the pyramid. There are 5 miles of tunnels slicing through the successive layers of the pyramid, like cuts through a layered wedding cake.

Today, visitors enter through a booth on the north side of the pyramid and walk through half a mile of dimly lighted tunnel corridors past other corridors and staircases leading to other layers of the pyramid. Most of these are closed off except to archaeological workers.

It’s not too claustrophobic an experience, since you can walk without bending over or crawling, as is necessary in some pyramids or burial mounds. A guide can be hired, but it’s easy enough to do on your own. It’s a totally unique experience.

After you exit the tunnels, ask if the mural called “Los Bebedores” (“The Drinkers”) can be viewed. At 187 feet long, it’s one of the longest pre-Columbian murals yet found in Mexico. It depicts men in various states of inebriation, probably from imbibing pulque, the fermented sap of certain agave plants. The mural is not often exhibited because of its fragile condition.

Don’t miss a visit to the on-site museum, where an excellent cut-away model of the Cholula pyramid is on display showing the various layers of construction.

Colonial church

It’s a climb but worth it to the church on top of the pyramid/hill. Dating from the 16th century, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (The Church of Our Lady of the Remedies) is an ochre-colored church beautifully trimmed in white, with twin bell towers and with cupolas decorated with tiles manufactured in nearby Puebla.

Inside, it’s a small jewel box of a church, especially when lit by chandeliers. It is usually open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

If you go…

Basilica Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (Metropolitan Basilica Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) in Puebla, Puebla state, Mexico.

Cholula pyramid (phone +52 222 247 9081), which Paul and I visited in February 2019, is open daily from 10 to 5. Admission to the tunnels and museum costs 80 pesos, about $4. For more information about Cholula, visit https://lugares.inah.gob.mx/en/zonas-arqueologicas/zonas/1776-cholula.

It’s about a 2-hour drive from Mexico City to Cholula. I recommend a stop in nearby Puebla to visit its cathedral, one of the oldest in Mexico (begun around 1575), and to buy one or two of the Talavera tiles for which Puebla is famous.

If you have the time and want an extra-special experience, consider returning to Mexico City via Cuernavaca, where you can visit its cathedral and the Palace of Cortés, dating from the early 16th century, once the fortified home of the Spanish conquistador.

You can also treat yourself to lunch or dinner at Las Mañanitas (phone 52 777 362 0000, lasmananitas.com.mx), a superb hacienda-type hotel, part of the Relais & Châteaux chain. The hotel is enclosed within beautiful tropical gardens and has a pool.

If you can, overnight there. Some of the rooms have private patios and fireplaces, in keeping with the Spanish-colonial atmosphere. Room rates begin at $244 per night for a room for two.

Cuernavaca and Las Mañanitas are a 100-mile drive from Cholula, about two hours away. From Cuernavaca, it’s about 60 miles and 1¾ hours back to Mexico City. It’s a spectacular extension to add to equally spectacular Cholula pyramid.

Catedral de la Asunción de Maria (Cathedral of Mary’s Assumption) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Palacio de Cortés (Palace of Cortés) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.