Cholula, Mexico, is the oldest still-inhabited place in North America. Located about two hours from Mexico City, close to the city of Puebla, it is often visited as a side trip from Mexico City. It is, however, worth more time, a destination best explored from a stay in Puebla.
Cholula is stunningly beautiful. Said to be Mexico’s most beautiful town, Cholula is set against the background of the Popocatepetl volcano, largest in North America and fifth largest in the world.
If “oldest city” and “largest volcano” aren’t enough to whet your appetite, how about the world’s largest pyramid? The world focuses on the pyramids in Egypt, but much closer to home and easier to reach are the pyramids of Mexico. This one holds the world record for size, and size matters. The base of the pyramid in Cholula is three times the size of the biggest one in Giza, Egypt.
When you visit, you should get a guide to show you around the pyramids because they are not visible from the street and much of the pyramid area is still unexcavated, meaning that a mound of dirt that looks like a hill is actually a pyramid, only partially visible from one side. Learning the background of the pyramids will also give you a greater understanding of their significance.
The pyramids were built before Christ by Olmec indigenous people and were buried under at least a meter of silt from a volcanic eruption making them hard to find. It wasn’t until the 20th century that excavation began, and there is still much to be done. Since Mexico has other funding priorities, it may be a while before the full grandeur of the site is uncovered.
In a situation that is a metaphor for how the Spaniards treated the indigenous people, a beautiful church was built on the top of the pyramid complicating possibilities of full excavation. To be fair, at the time it was built, it was not known that the hill it occupies was actually a buried pyramid. Further excavation would require moving or destroying the church. The situation creates what is truly a Mexican standoff, no pun intended.
A local museum has a scale model replica of the pyramid area and is the best way to fully understand just how large the scale is.
Meanwhile, the church, built to honor the Virgen of Remedies, is a fine example of baroque style and offers a tremendous view of the beauty of the colorful city of Cholula and, also, the city of Puebla in the distance. From this vantage point you can see the surrounding volcanoes. With a guide, you can learn how Cortez conquered Mexico in this area, see why the Cortez Pass got its name and discover the legend of the sleeping lady of the mountain.
One impediment to visiting the church is the steep climb to get to the top of the hill (i.e., the pyramid) it is built on. Allow 10 minutes and rest as often as you need to but know that you will be well rewarded for the climb to see the view and the church. There is a tourist train from the Cinco de Mayo area of Puebla to the base of the church if you want to arrive that way.
After the pyramids and this church, you’ll want to visit two other fine examples of baroque churches in Cholula, a city of many churches. Again, finding these will probably require a guide or taxi as I did not notice any public transit to these church locations which are in other parts of Cholula.
One of these churches is Santa Maria Tonantzintla and the other is the nearby Temple of San Francisco Acatepec, with a Talavera façade that you will probably agree, hands down, is the nicest baroque church exterior in the world.
While in Cholula, consider visiting Chipilo, an Italian neighborhood famous for its excellent cheeses and Italian food. Cholula is also known for its exciting nightlife that caters to college students.
Cholula would be an excellent, easy weekend trip from nearby Dallas.