Cholula: More Than Just a Hot Sauce
It’s one of the longest-inhabited sites in the Americas, home of the world’s largest pyramid, and one of Mexico’s “pueblos mágicos.” Yet more people may recognize Cholula for the popular hot sauce (made in Jalisco, not Puebla) that’s named after it than for the historically significant place it is. Even Mexicans have been known to overlook it. In a 2010 special edition about the country’s “most spectacular” archaeological zones, Dónde Ir de Viaje magazine neglected to even mention Cholula.
“Cholula is not only the oldest continuously occupied ceremonial center in the western hemisphere, but in some respects, one of the most enigmatic,” John Pohl wrote for the Foundation of Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “The Acropolis, even larger than Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun, is a confounding mass of Pre-Classic to Early Post- Classic brick and masonry that defies conventional excavation, while a Late Post-Classic city is buried beneath the ever expanding urban growth of the modern community.”
In fact, it’s quite possible to miss the massive Great Pyramid of Cholula even if you’re staring right at it. The structure, overgrown with natural vegetation for centuries, looks like a grassy knoll from a distance. Archaeologists can’t unearth the monument, which the Guinness Book of World Records calls the largest ever constructed, because Spanish conquerors built a church on top of it in 1594. Today, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is both a protected Colonial monument and a destination for Catholic pilgrims. To study the pyramid, whose Nahuatl name is Tlachihualtepetl or “artificial mountain,” archaeologists dug nearly 5 miles of tunnels. Visitors may pass through a portion of them, though anyone prone to claustrophobia should stick to the exterior grounds, which are partially exposed. The MX$30 entry fee also includes admission to the site’s museum, which features a scale model of the pyramid’s multistage construction, reproductions of the two large murals found deep inside the structure, and other artifacts. Most of the signs and descriptions are translated into English. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. To get to the museum from the ticket booth, head across the street and down the stairs to the right of the public restrooms.
You can, of course, also go up to the Church of Our Lady of the Remedies, which is a steep but relatively quick climb. On a clear day, the views of the surrounding metropolis and the volcanoes in the distance are breathtaking. If Mass is not being celebrated, visitors may pass through the sanctuary, where you’ll find a collection of dolls representing virgin saints and can peer through the unusual glass-backed altar out into the nave. (Note that flash photography is strictly forbidden.) On weekends, the area behind the pyramid is a hub of activity: Street vendors often set up arts and crafts booths, and a team of voladores regularly treats onlookers to their flying ritual. If you’re in town this weekend, May 15 and 16, don’t miss the hot-air balloon fair, Festival Globo Mágico, which takes place here from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is MX$35; balloon rides cost MX$200 (a quick lift) to MX$2,000 (hour-long tour).
The Area’s Backstory, in Brief
Experts have long disputed the timeline of Cholula’s evolution, but it’s now believed that the area has been inhabited since at least 100 A.D., possibly much earlier. Through the ages, various indigenous groups established Cholula as an important religious, economic, and political center. Between 600 and 700 A.D., the site appears to have grown from a small settlement into a regional hub. Then from 750 to 950 A.D., Cholula expanded rapidly as Olmeca-Xicalanca rulers “exploited a power vacuum created by their fallen rival, Teotihuacán,” Pohl notes. The acropolis thrived, alongside contemporary sites like El Tajín, until the Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples moved into the area and relocated the ceremonial altar around 1100 A.D. “Cholula then became, in the words of one Spanish chronicler, a New World Mecca, the largest pilgrimage center in highland Mesoamerica and the nucleus of a Nahua commercial exchange network that extended from the Basin of México to El Salvador,” Pohl explains.
Between 1150 and 1500 A.D., Cholula emerged as the region’s power center — one so important that Aztec royalty traveled there to be anointed by Cholulan priests. The area’s population had swelled to nearly 100,000, making it the second-largest city outside of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, a.k.a. Mexico City. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519, Hernán Cortés and his army (and its indigenous allies, including the Tlaxcaltecans) took over with a bloody massacre, burning much of the city and killing thousands of people.
These days, Cholula comprises three municipalities — San Andrés, San Pedro, and Santa Isabel — which some 200,000 people call home. Over the past decade, the once mostly rural area has developed into the major suburb of Puebla. And, thanks in large part to the 7,000 students from affluent families who attend the University of the Americas Puebla each semester, Cholula also has a vibrant nightlife. Restaurants, cantinas, and nightclubs abound along the main drag, which changes names several times (14 Oriente, 14 Poniente, Morelos) as it stretches from the Periferico highway to the heart of San Pedro Cholula.
In October 2012, Cholula (a zone around the pyramid that encompasses the archaeological site and the main squares of San Andrés and San Pedro) was named a “pueblo mágico” by the federal tourism board.
Post updated on December 23, 2012.