A church on a hill? The world’s largest pyramid?
If you answered (D), all of the above, you are correct. That bumblebee yellow church, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, is sitting on the largest (and possibly the most unearthed) pyramid by volume in the known world. Its base is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza (it’s not as tall as Giza, however).
Cortes didn’t notice the pyramid (or at least the full size of the pyramid). He was too busy massacring the city — he bragged that his men killed three thousand locals, mostly nobles and leaders, and burned the city to the ground in three hours. Onlookers said the kill count was as high as thirty thousand. Cortes then ordered the destruction of all of Cholula’s temples — it had at least one temple for every day of the week — and bragged that he’d replace them all with churches. Only fifty churches replaced the temples. And most of them were built in the place and with the stones of the old temples. Cortes did miss the granddaddy, however, the one that been overgrown by vegetation for centuries and looked like a hill.
Good luck pronouncing that one. It means “made-by-hand mountain” and is the native name for the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Pyramids really. A succession of seven pyramids, all constructed around and atop each other. Prehispanic civilizations morphed the size and configuration to meet their cultural and religious needs. Then some civilization abandoned it. By the 12th century, when the Toltec-Chichimecas took over the city, the pyramid was already overgrown.
Over the last century, archeologists have excavated much of the site — including five miles of underground tunnels (see picture below) — though much remains unearthed. An incredible, well-designed museum — which we thought rivaled the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City in terms of displays and artifacts — now hugs the hill, err, pyramid. The museum also features a 30-minute, vibrantly artistic, 360-degree movie of Mexico’s famed sites. A must stop when you’re in this area.
On the afternoon we arrived, everyone was exercising. That night, everyone was exercising. The next morning, everyone was exercising! Cholula is one fit city. We thought, perhaps, it was just the neighborhood we were staying in — it was flush with sneakers and yoga pants — but then we confirmed, through another overlander from Belgium, that the entire city is exercising. All hours. Everywhere. It’s captivating to watch, I thought with a Modela Negra in one hand and a plate of dorilocos in the other. Everyone is also dressed, whether in workout or work clothing, to the nines. To the elevens really. It was one of the first times on this trip that Andrea and I glanced at each other, wearing function over form clothing lathered with three-day’s worth of grime and perspiration and spicy karate nut dust, and knew that we looked like the van dwellers we are.
Cortes supposedly said that the Cholula area was the most beautiful he’d seen outside of Europe. You can sense, though you can’t often see, why he would say that. The volcanoes and mountains surrounding the valley are usually clouded by smog — we did catch a glimpse or two of Popocatépetl (see picture below), an eternally smoking volcano that’s also the second highest peak in Mexico, while we were there.
The town itself is charming and colorful with an eclectic juxtaposition of ancient, stone cathedrals and modern, stylish restaurants. It’s a great city for ambling. You can meander from the zocolo through cobblestone streets to the church on the pyramid in a matter of minutes. There, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the valley, which extends to the now larger Puebla, the fourth largest city in Mexico (you an see the towers of Puebla in the photo below; also, can you spot our van?!). Fortunately for future generations, Cortes never figured out what was beneath this view.