Just about everyone who writes about Puebla recommends taking a day trip to Cholula, a nearby town famous for its many churches and the Great Pyramid of Cholula, which is said to be the largest pyramid in the world. Cholula is located about 11 miles northwest of the Puebla city center and there are several ways to get there. You can take the new train which goes directly to the archaeological site: cost is 60 pesos each way and trip time is 40 minutes. You can take a local bus which costs 7 pesos and probably takes an hour and a half and drops you at the bus station in Cholula, which still leaves you with a long walk or taxi ride at the end to get to the pyramid. You can take a taxi there and back which is the most expensive option. Or you can take a packaged tour from one of the local tour companies. We stumbled on one of these companies located right on the corner of the zócalo. They offered a four hour trip with stops at two famous churches on the way for 150 pesos each. When we went inside to check it out we saw they offered a senior discount for 90 pesos and they said we qualified…the only time we ever encountered a senior discount in Mexico that applied to non-Mexicans. At that price we couldn’t refuse.
The next day walked back to the zócalo where we boarded a red open-topped double-decker bus for the tour. We were told the trip to Cholula would take 45 minutes, but as the bus slowly wound through the city streets in a very complicated route it seemed unlikely we would get there that quickly. No doubt the route was to avoid traffic problems we couldn’t see, but we didn’t arrive at our first destination until over an hour after we’d started.
The first stop was at the Temple of San Francisco Acatepec, which boasts an incredibly ornate baroque exterior covered in colorful talavera tiles. This is the only church I’ve seen in Mexico where the exterior rivals the interior. When we arrived there was a wedding going on in the church so we had to work around the crowd to see the interior, which was similar to the interiors of some of the most ornate churches we had seen so far in Oaxaca and Puebla. The tour guide explained that the church had been extensively photographed by Frida Kahlo’s father and years later it was destroyed in an earthquake and his photographs were used to recreate the original decorations of the church.
The second stop was at the church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla. This one had a fairly ordinary exterior, but its interior was even more ornately decorated than San Francisco Acatepec. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos in this church, but here is a link to a photo of the interior.
When we finally reached the archeological site at the Great Pyramid of Cholula we were very late. We were originally supposed to get 1.5 hours at the site, but when we arrived we were told that we only had about 50 minutes to visit. We spent the frenetic hour trying to see as much of the place as we could. The cost for admission to the archeological site is 70 pesos (about $3.75) per person. This includes access to tunnels which extend through the base of the pyramid, the museum, and excavated portions of the outside of the pyramid. We did the tunnels and walked the outside perimeter but skipped the museum. The walk through the tunnels is really fascinating but not something you would want to do if you are prone to claustrophobia as they are both narrow and not very tall. I had to be careful not to hit my head in several places. I estimate we probably walked about 400-500 meters before we emerged on the other side of the pyramid from where we entered. Archeologists have apparently excavated at least 8km of tunnels so far. Inside you can see numerous side branches which are gated off from access. Lower sections of the outside of the pyramid have been partially excavated so you can get an idea just how it was constructed and how massive it truly is. Although it’s only two thirds as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza, its total volume is nearly double with a base of 400 by 400 meters. However, given that most of it has not been excavated it is not as visually impressive as other archeological sites we had visited, like Palenque and Monte Alban.
As it looks today, most of it would appear to the casual observer to be a hill surmounted by a church. The church is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Church of Our Lady of Remedies), built in 1594. It is a major Catholic pilgrimage destination, and its historic and religious significance is one of the reasons the pyramid has not been fully excavated. Photos of Cholula often feature the bright yellow (Tuscan Gold?) church with nearby volcano Popocatépetl,in the background, usually shot with a telephoto lens to make it appear as if the church is practically at the foot of the volcano (it isn’t). I have to admit that my main reason for wanting to visit Cholula was not to see the pyramid or churches, but to get a good view (and photo) of the volcano that I had seen in so many photos. At 17,802’ it is Mexico’s second tallest peak and the 5th tallest in North America. Unfortunately the weather was cloudy and hazy the afternoon when we were there, so all we could make out was the mostly obscured bottom of the volcano in the distance.
We finished rushing through the archeological site with 13 minutes left before we were supposed to meet back at the bus, so we decided to hike up the hill and see if we could get near the church. Ger stopped about halfway up in a nice meadow area and said she’d wait for me there. I made it to the top and spent three or four minutes racing around the outside of the church taking pictures in all directions before heading back down. We were five minutes late to the bus, but most of the others hadn’t returned yet when we arrived.
The trip back into Puebla was much quicker but still the four hour tour ended up taking five and a half hours, even with the shortened visit to the pyramid. It was nice sitting on the top deck of the double decker bus through Puebla as it provided many photo opportunities of the city from an elevated vantage point. We wish we’d spent less time looking at churches and more time at the archeological site, but we still managed to cover a lot of ground in the hour we spent there and weren’t displeased with the tour overall.