Just six miles west of the colonial city of Puebla is one of Mexico’s historically important colonial towns: Cholula.
Cholula is best known for its archaeology park, which is host to Mexico’s largest pyramid—Pyramide Tepanapa. It’s also the world’s largest pyramid by volume; bigger in that sense than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt.
At its zenith, Cholula was the second largest city in the land after Tenochtitlan. It is thought to have been an important religious and cultural center at the time. The city fell to the Olmecs sometime around 600 AD, and again to the Toltecs about three hundred years later. By the time Hernan Cortes arrived during the early part of the 16th century, the city was under heavy influence of the Aztecs.
Hernán Cortés visited Cholula at the request of Montezuma, but the invitation was part of plan to ambush him. However, the nearby Tlaxacalans—who had befriended Cortes and who themselves were no friend to the Aztecs—tipped him off, allowing the Spaniards to arrive prepared. Cholulans paid dearly for conspiring with Montezuma: Cortes ordered a massacre of their people and that their pyramids be destroyed and churches built in their place.
So the legend goes, Cortes ordered the construction of 365 churches in Cholula—one for each day of the year. In actual fact, the city has about 40—a considerable number in relation to the size of the town’s population. One of the city’s most popular events is the Concert of Church Bells which takes place here in November. See Local Events for details.
Cholula is organized into two distinct areas: San Pedro Cholula and San Andres Cholula. San Pedro Cholula is where the main churches, museums and archaeological park are situated; San Andres Cholula is the town’s night life area, which is particularly popular with students as a campus of Puebla’s State University is also situated there.
Although Cholula is an easy day trip from Puebla, it’s worth considering using Cholula as a base to explore the area while you’re in the region and to visit the fascinating nearby villages of Tonantzintla and Acatepec. See Key Attractions for details.
There is another important benefit to be enjoyed by staying overnight in Cholula: the majestic volcanoes—Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl—are best viewed early in the morning, before the heat of of the day creates mist and blocks a clear view of these inspiring mountain volcanoes.
The Zocalo, or main plaza, in Cholula provides a focal point for the town; as well as being Cholula’s principal meeting place, it’s also host to a number of restaurants, cafes, and small stores situated behind the arches of the Municipal Palace facing the main plaza.
Churches near the Center
According to legend, Hernan Cortes ordered one church to be built in Cholula for every day of the year; in actual fact the city is host to about 40, a considerable number in relation to the size of the town’s population. The Ex Convento de San Gabriel, along the east side of the main Plaza, is a major landmark inside a walled garden hosting three churches: Capilla de Tercera Orden, Capilla Real and Templo de San Gabriel.
Church Bells Concert
One of Cholula’s most famous (well attended) events is the annual concert of church bells held in November each year (exact dates vary). The city lights are all turned off, and townspeople carry candles to the center of town to gather in communion and enjoy the music of the bells.
Cholula’a Archaeology Park
Cholula’s ‘claim to fame’ on the world archaeology map, is that its archaeology park, known simply as “Zona Arqueologica de Cholula” is host to the world’s largest pyramid—by volume. The Piramide Tepanapa, or ‘Great Pyramid of Cholula’, is the widest pyramid ever built. In its hey-day it measured 1,476 feet across and 213 feet high; thus by volume it is larger than Ceops in Egypt. The Spanish built a church on top the pyramid, the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios; it’s unclear whether the Spaniards were aware at the time that a pyramid existed underneath the grassy mound.
Entrance to the park begins with a walk through a 1,200 foot length of tunnel through the Great Pyramid. Some areas of the Great Pyramid have been excavated and a small proportion of the extensive tunnels which burrow through the pyramid structure are open to visitors; they are best experienced as part of a guided tour. Archaeologists dug around five miles of tunnels to explore the structure which is made up up several pyramids built on top of one another, although most of the tunnels are not open to the public.
The ancient city’s main Plaza, Patio de los Altares, may also be seen on the south side of the archaeology park. The small museum, across the way from the entrance, was opened in 1971 and shows an excellent cut-out model of the pyramid and a reconstruction of the ancient site as well as artifacts recovered from the excavations at the archaeology site.
A walk up to the church, at the top of the pyramid, rewards you with neoclassic architecture and good views of the city, the Valley of Puebla, and of the volcanoes — although you’ll need to attend the area in the morning for the best views of the volcanic mountains.
The Volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl
Mexico’s two most famous volcanoes— Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl— tower over the region south of Mexico City and particularly so over Cholula. Afternoon mists usually block a clear view of the volcanoes, so it’s important to be in Cholula in the early morning to enjoy the best views and get the best pictures.
Popocatepetl (wiki) known locally as “Popo”, is Mexico’s second highest peak, towering some 5,426 meters (17,800 feet) above sea level. Pico de Orizaba (wiki) Mexico’s highest mountain, is just a couple of hundred meters taller. You can also see Pico de Orizaba from Cholula. Popocatepetl is Mexico’s most active volcano. The last major eruption, which occurred in 1947, began the present cycle of volcanic activity inside the mountain.
Iztaccihuatl (wiki) is a dormant volcano, is linked to Popo on the north side and has four peaks; the highest of which towers some 5,230 meters (17,150 feet) above sea level. The shape of the peaks resemble a female figure lying down (for an explanation of the Legend of Popo and Izta, see below). Iztaccihuatl almost always has snow at her peaks.
Both Popo and Izta mountains may be seen from Mexico City, but rarely these days as the capital’s air pollution block a clear view most of the time. The mountains are situated just 45 nautical miles from the nation’s capital and, on the occasional clear day—for example, during a windy day in springtime, or shortly after the rainy season in late October or early November—the sheer majesty of these fine volcanoes may be enjoyed with a clear view from the capital. Cholula is the ideal place to enjoy clear views of both these volcanic mountains all year.
The Legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl – Variations on the legend have been told through the years. According to one Aztec Legend, Popo was a great warrior who loved Izta. He went off to war and when Izta heard false news of Popo’s fall in battle, she died of a broken heart. When Popo returned to find his love gone, he vowed to always watch over and defend her. The shape of Iztaccihuatl mountain is that of a ‘sleeping woman’. It is also said locally, that when “trouble is brewing in the world”, Popo becomes active.
Museums in Cholula
Cholula offers a number of museums and cultural centers for visitors.
Franciscan Library – This building, situated in the grounds of the Ex Convento de San Gabriel, has been beautifully restored and stocks some 24,000 tomes of public works dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The works principally cover the topics of religion, theology, philosophy and fine art; they are published predominantly in Latin and old Spanish. Website: http://biblio.udlap.mx/franciscana/
Museo del Caballero Aguila – For something different and unique, visit this museum which features a walking tour of the history of Cholula, said to the be longest continually occupied residence in North America, from pre-Hispanic times to the present-day.
Casa de la Cultura – Cholula’s Cultural Center features temporary exhibits and workshops covering a range of cultural themes including art, music, theater, paintings, etc.
Craft Works and Local Confectionery
Along Calle Morelos, you can enjoy a range of art and craft shops selling locally produced works as well as the regions famous confectionery, made from natural fruit paste. The craft works on offer include ceramic tableware, red clay pottery, wrought iron-works, locally produced fireworks, blown glass works, cotton textile goods and wood sculptures.
Like all Mexican towns and cities, Cholula has an excellent assortment of lively and charismatic markets. Most of the local people here shop regularly at the main market in town, just two blocks from the main plaza on Calle Morelos. The market building houses a panoply of stalls selling all manner of goods and chattels, from fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and spices, to leather goods, toys, crafts, flowers, prepared foods (to eat in or take away), home wares, hardware and electrical goods. The market gets going at at around 10 am daily and is open ’till late. It’s well worth a visit, if only to enjoy the feel and atmosphere and scents of a genuine Mexican market in action.
San Andres Cholula
East of San Pedro Cholula, behind the archaeology park, is San Andres Cholula. This side of the city is host to a campus of Puebla’s Universidad de las Americas and is the place to go if you are looking for vibrant (and student oriented) night-life in Cholula. If you don’t go to the “other” side of the town, you could spend a visit in Cholula and never know this ‘student city’ was there. San Andres Cholula is also a place where an enormous number of shipping containers are stored; so many that an area of the district is known as “Container City”. Some foreign visitors purposefully visit the area to see this man-made curiosity and take pictures.
Tonantzintla and Acatepec
One of the “must see, must do” local tours from Cholula is to visit the nearby villages of Tonantzintla and Acatepec. The tour is known as the Ruta Franciscana and takes in the two villages as well as the magnificent churches here. They are best experienced with the help of a local tour guide to ensure you get the most of out of your visit and especially to understand the culture and history of these places. Most hotels offer package tours which begin early in the morning and return you to Cholula later in the day.
Getting There & Around
By Air – The nearest airport is situated in Puebla. The road journey from the airport to Cholula lasts about 20 minutes. To get to Cholula from the airport, buy a ticket from the authorized taxi booth or take a bus to Puebla and change there for a second local bus to Cholula. You can also arrange a shuttle to pick you up from the airport and take you to your hotel in Cholula (see Airport Transfers below). For detailed information about flights and flying, see the Mexperience guide to Air Travel in Mexico.
By Bus – You can take a first-class bus from Mexico City’s eastern bus terminal to the city of Puebla and, from there, get another bus (or a local cab) for the fifteen minute drive to Cholula. Also see the Mexperience guide to Traveling by Bus in Mexico.
By Car – To drive to Cholula from Mexico City, take Highway 150D South, or from Veracruz, 150D west. From Puebla, follow the signs to the Cholula, which is situated about six miles west of the city of Puebla. See additional information about Driving in Mexico and Mexico’s Toll Roads here on Mexperience.
Car Rental – To explore Mexico’s colonial towns and cities, consider renting a car for your visit. Having your own car will give you more flexibility than using public transport options and, in some cases, offer you access to places which are otherwise difficult to visit without the use of a car. Read our guide to Car Rental in Mexico to learn what you need to know about car rental in Mexico.
Taxis – Taxis in most of Mexico’s colonial towns and cities are not metered, so agree your price before you get in. Taxi travel is very affordable in Mexico, in comparison to the USA, Canada and Europe, and so provides a viable means of public transportation in Mexico. Your hotel can arrange taxis for you; some post their rates on a board in the lobby; taxi hotel rates are usually higher than cabs you hail off the street. If you speak Spanish, you will have a distinct advantage and be able to negotiate a price with the driver. For detailed information, read the Mexperience guide to Taxi Travel in Mexico.
Telephone: Connect to the guide about Communications in Mexico on Mexperience for detailed information about keeping in touch and the latest table of national dialing codes.
Exchanging Currency: Banks with ATM machines are found in the areas around the main plaza (Zocalo). During business hours, they and the local Casas de Cambio will buy traveler’s checks and cash from you as well. For detailed information about exchanging and managing your money, read the Mexperience guide to Money in Mexico.
Travel Insurance: We recommend that you are adequately covered with travel medical insurance and/or travel assistance insurance when you are visiting Mexico. Read the Mexperience guide to Travel Insurance in Mexico for full details and links to specialist insurance suppliers.
Viewing the Volcanoes: If you want the best views, we recommend you stay overnight in Cholula and see the volcanoes at sunrise (as the sun rises it illuminates the snow capped peaks beautifully) and again later in the morning (after breakfast) around 10 a.m. From around 11 a.m. onward, mists develop and the view across to the majestic volcanic mountains which overlook the region, and Cholula in particular, begin to obscure the view.
Internet Access: Internet cafes can be easily found in towns and cities across Mexico and WiFi is increasingly commonplace–from cafes, shops, hotels, and some cities even offer free WiFi in some defined public spaces.
See Also: Finding WiFi Internet Access in Mexico
Active Volcano Alert: Popocatepetl is currently semi-active, although recent volcanic activity has settled down again. However the State of Puebla and in particular the immediate areas surrounding the volcano are on yellow alert. There is no immediate threat and it is quite safe to travel to both Puebla, Cholula and environs. Constant monitoring of volcanic activity takes place by Mexico’s geological society, and if the situation changes, plenty of notice will be given.
What to Buy in Cholula
The state of Puebla is the home of Talavera ceramic-ware, and you can buy a selection of items including colorful tiles, crockery and dinnerware made from this hard-wearing (and “unbreakable”) ceramic craft. The ceramic ware is not inexpensive anywhere, but Puebla and Cholula is the best place to buy it, as it is among the least expensive of the places in Mexico that sells it.
The markets here are a real treat. The city’s principal market, situated in a covered stone building, proffers an opportunity to browse an authentic Mexican market selling everything from fresh foods, spices, local arts and crafts and curios. See Key Attractions, above, for details.
On Calle Morelos, you’ll also find an ample range of art and crafts stores. See Crafts works and Local Confectionery in Key Attractions, above.
Cholula enjoys year-round, spring-like weather. The climate is ideal for taking part in a variety of outdoor sports and activities and for taking in the local culture, architecture and scenery. Rains are seldom a feature here; when they do come they tend to be during the months of April thru November, but as with most monsoon areas, the rains tend to be fierce and brief in the late afternoon, leaving the evenings dry and cooled off. You may need a warm pullover for cooler mornings and evenings, especially in the winter months.
Weather & Climates in Mexico
Learn more about the weather and climates through the seasons and regions by connecting to the Mexperience guide about Weather and Climates in Mexico
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