Mexico: Puebla – The ancient cities of Cholula and Puebla

Visiting the largest pyramid by volume in the World (albeit hidden) and the colonial city of Puebla

 

The cities of Cholula and Puebla are located some 2 1/2 to 3 hours (80 mile / 130 kilometres) from Mexico City – depending on the traffic.

There are buses that run between the cities but we decided to take a small group tour with Wayak which proved to be a great option as it turned out to be a long day trip. If we had done this independently under our own steam using public transport it would have been a nightmare – and probably almost impossible in a day.

The journey to Puebla from Mexico City was not very exciting but it does take you away from the pollution that is trapped in the valley where Mexico City is located, to a higher elevation where the air is much cleaner and visibility clearer. Along the way, we stopped for a break and this gave us a chance to see the twin volcanos of Iztaccíhuatl, a 5,230m (17158 feet) dormant volcano and the very much active Popocatépetl (5,426m, 17801 feet), one of the country’s most well-known and active volcanos. On the day we travelled clouds of smoke could clearly be seen puffing out of Popocatépetl.

The Legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl is a story of love. A local chief had a beautiful daughter named Iztaccihuatl who fell in love with a handsome young warrior called  Popocatepetl. He went off to war, but not before asking the chief for the hand of Princess Iztaccihuatl. Not long after a love rival of Popocatepetl pronounced that the brave warrior had died in battle. Crushed by such tragedy and overwhelmed by sadness the princess died.

Returning from war Popocatepetl was obviously a bit upset so he built her a great tomb by combining 10 hills to form a mountain and laid her body on it. He took a flaming, smoking torch so he could watch over her eternal sleep. Eventually, snow covered their bodies, forming two majestic volcanoes that would remain joined until the end of time.

 

 

Our first real stop was in the small town of Cholula, which was at one time a very distinct town from the neighbouring city of Puebla, but today has largely merged, becoming more of a district of the metropolitan area.

The primary reason for our visit was to see the Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl (Nahuatl for “made-by-hand mountain”). It is the largest archaeological site of a pyramid (temple) in the New World, as well as the largest pyramid known to exist in the world today (by volume). The pyramid stands 55 metres (180 ft) above the surrounding plain, and in its final form, it measured 450 by 450 metres (1,480 by 1,480 ft). The pyramid is a temple that traditionally has been viewed as having been dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl.

In 1519, Hernan Cortez and his men marched into the city and massacred 10 per cent of the population, and built a tiny church on top of the massive hill as a symbol of their conquest.

It wasn’t until 1910 that the pyramid underneath was finally discovered.

Unlike other pyramids in Mexico, you cannot see the original form as it is buried under soil, grass and other assorted vegetation. Looking at it you would think you are just staring at yet another hill. They have built a miniature representation of the temple in front of the hill so you can get some idea of what it actually looked like. Archaeologists did start to remove the earth covering the pyramid, but it was buried under a layer of volcanic material from an earlier eruption. Concerned about the damage that would result from further excavation they stopped their work.

It was de rigueur in the day of the Spanish conquests of South and Central America to build churches upon of the temples of the indigenous people – and the Great Pyramid of Cholula is no different. So atop the hill-come-temple sits the bright yellow Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remediosa. We, of course, had to visit this place so took the not so long walk up. This being at altitude was not so easy going and by the top, we were puffing and wheezing a little!

From the summit of the pyramid, you get splendid 360-degree views across to the volcanos and mountains, the city of Puebla and the colourful houses and churches of Cholula.

The church façade is very pretty in yellow and is stunning against a blue-sky backdrop. The inside is nonetheless beautiful and is, of course, in keeping with the time of its construction heavily ornate, decorated in gold leaf and pale yellow paint.

It costs nothing to go inside. There are lot of signs up that tell you what you can and can’t do, including taking photos. Having said that, there are some docents around who will sell you a band for a few pesos that allows you to take as many photos as you would like.

Coming down the hill was definitely easier than going up. We had some time to spare before moving on to our next stop in Puebla, so we went for a stroll around some of the close by streets of Cholula, with its brightly coloured colonial-style houses, elegant churches and interesting shops selling various artisan products. We made a mental note that this would be a nice place to come back and spend a couple of days in the future to explore further.

After the relative calm of Cholula, we headed across to Puebla or more correctly Puebla de Zaragoza – re-named in 1862 after the Mexican war hero Ignacio Zaragoza who led the Mexican army to victory over the French.

It was lunchtime when we arrived. Our tour group was taken to a restaurant which didn’t work for us as every dish was meat-based (we are vegan) – luckily our tour guide was able to point us to La Zanahoria a vegetarian restaurant literally just across the street. They offer an à la carte menu but we were pushed for time so we headed straight for the buffet, which had a relatively extensive set of options for vegetarians and vegans. Having had our fill of tasty, wholesome food we were now energised for our exploration of Puebla.

 

Due to its history and architectural styles ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque, Puebla was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The city is also famous for mole poblano, chiles en nogada and Talavera pottery.

Our journey through the city began in the main square, the Zócalo, of Puebla – which is dominated by the Cathedral of Puebla.

Work started in 1575 on the construction of the Cathedral, but it was not completed until 1690 – there were few interruptions along the way and some poor management of the project. The north tower was completed in 1678, and the south tower in 1768. Overall, it took nearly 200 years to fully complete the building.

It is a spectacular building – and typical of the Cathedrals that were built in Mexico at the time – a combination of Renaissance and Baroque styles. The towers of the Cathedral measure 200ft (70m) making them taller than those of the Cathedral in Mexico City.

The interior is spectacular with 14 side chapels, as well as an octagonal altar. Sadly, you are asked not to take photos inside the Cathedral – so I have borrowed some images of the inside of the Cathedral from a fellow blogger Peters Travels and a local tourism site.

 

 

From the Cathedral, we crossed the Zócalo and headed to our second religious site of the day; the Convent Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. This is a relatively ordinary church but it has a very special chapel – the Rosary Chapel. Built between 1650 and 1690, the Rosary Chapel features an astonishing array of artistic work, mixing the traditional Catholic symbols with those of the region, under a swath of gold leaf. The light that enters the chapel from the dome roof makes the place shine with ethereal light. Truly stunning.

 

The Rosary Chapel

 

We were just about done visiting ecclesiastical institutions for the day, so we headed out to explore the streets of Puebla. This is one of the largest cities in Mexico, with about 1.6 million residents in the city and a total of 3.5 million in the metropolitan area.

The presence of large companies, such as Volkswagon has made this one of the more wealthier cities in the country. It is also a very popular tourist destination. Consequently, there are a lot of shops to spend your hard-earned money in. If you are looking for something a little less mass-produced there is a wonderful little street of artisan workshop where you can but a variety of beautiful and unique products. Close by, if you have a more limited budget, is a small market selling more typical souvenirs and gifts.

One of the main attractions to Puebla is its architecture. Many different styles are represented in over 2,600 designated historic buildings – they include Classic, Renaissance, and Mexican Baroque styles. Its colonial-style buildings are painted in an assortment of bright colours and decorated in traditional Talavera tiles. It is wonderful just to walk through the streets, soaking in the atmosphere and admiring the many beautiful buildings.

 

 

Our final port of call before heading back to Mexico City was the Casa de la Cultura. This very elegant building  is decorated with Talavera tiles. The main reason for visiting here was to see the Biblioteca Palafoxiana. Founded in 1646, it is recognized by UNESCO for being the first and oldest public library in the Americas. It has more than 45,000 books and manuscripts, ranging from the 15th to the 20th century. In 2005, it was listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. There is a small fee to enter the library or you can stare in through the narrow entranceway!

 

 

Also in the Casa de la Cultura is housed a small collection of art, most of which are temporary exhibitions, and are free to view. It is definitely worth spending a few minutes to check these out.

 

 

If you are in this part of Mexico, Puebla is definitely worth the excursion. If you go with a tour company it is possible to do this as a day trip from Mexico City. Alternatively, it would also be a great place to spend a few days exploring the streets and checking out its famed culinary delights.

 

 

 

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