A Crown Jewel of the Conquest in Calpan
San Andrés Calpan isn’t the kind of place that most tourists would stumble upon by accident. Situated on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano, about 23 miles west of the Puebla capital, this small farming town is known mostly for producing tejocotes and other fruits, including those celebrated in the patriotic regional dish chiles en nogada. But Calpan wasn’t always off the beaten path: Back in the 16th century, it was a key stop along the Spaniards’ route from Veracruz to Mexico City.
Calpan was founded in pre-Hispanic times by Toltecs and Chichimecas but inhabited by Nahuas, who gave the city its primary name, which means “place with many houses” in Nahautl. Conquistador Hernán Cortés himself later occupied a home here, certified local tour guide Consuelo Jiménez Asomoza told us during a recent visit. After discovering that what the area lacked in gold it made up for in agricultural richness, Cortés issued his first land grants in Calpan, dividing up the acreage (and its native residents) among his senior-ranking officers as a means of paying them for their service, she explains. The site’s pyramid, a tribute to the plumed serpent-god Quezalcóatl, was then dismantled and its stones repurposed in the building of a religious complex—a monastery, church, and four standalone outdoor chapels, or capillas posas—dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle (San Andrés in Spanish). Construction dates from 1548.
If you look closely, you’ll find the recycled indigenous stones—half of ball-court ring here, irregularly sized pyramid blocks there—in the walls of the 16th-century Catholic complex.
Today a UNESCO World Heritage Center, the monastery—still used by monks for prayer services—is open to the public. Its architecture features exquisite craftsmanship that blends European and indigenous symbolism in intricate fashion. “Aside from the elegant, tall façade of the church, the most important elements at Calpan are the extraordinary capillas posas, related in style and period to those at Huejotzingo,” Mexican art expert Joseph Armstrong Baird writes in his 1962 book, The Churches of Mexico: 1530-1810. “Each posa has a different top, and the moldings and ornamental crestings are remarkably varied.” For example, one depicts the Blessed Virgin’s ascent to heaven, surrounded by angels; the wings of the four cherubs nearest to Mary are crossed in an “x,” which is a Nahua symbol for death. On another, clam shells evoke the pilgrimage of St. James the Apostle in northern Spain next to a heart that’s been divided into four chambers; inside, a sacrificial altar features a vessel for the vital organ’s offering.
In 2009, El Universal newspaper referred to Calpan’s outdoor chapels as “the most important in all of Latin America.” The site is certainly worthy of a detour off more modern, well-traveled roads through Puebla.
El Convento Franciscano del Siglo XVI is open daily, 9am-1pm and 4-7pm. Admission is free, but visitors are asked to make a small donation to support current efforts to restore the church’s interior, which in recent years was damaged by an earthquake and a fire. Calpan may be reached from downtown Puebla by private car or public transit (take the R1 bus from the “San Pablito” esplanade on 18 Poniente between 9 and 11 Norte; the hour-long ride takes you through Cholula and Huejotzingo). For more information, contact the city tourism office at (222) 114-0864.
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