Church on top of a gigantic pagan pyramid

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

A pyramid so huge that the Spanish, thinking it was a hill, built a church on top.

↑ Church and the stepped pyramid at Cholula

When I first read about Cholula, about a church that was built over a native pyramid, it kinda sounded like one of those pumped-up touristic marketing materials. Nevertheless, I decided to visit the place since it was conveniently situated on the way to Puebla, my next destination. I had no idea how rewarding the visit would turn out to be.

Cholula is a sleepy town about 90 minutes from Mexico city. The city’s pre-Hispanic origins are manifested through festivals that run all year round. Divided into eighteen neighbourhoods (barrios /बार्रीअो), each with a patron saint that is typically a deity adapted from the native religion to Christianity, Cholula boasts of some 365 churches (one for each day)!

↑ Colourful and brightly painted houses in the barrio San Miguel Tianguisnahuac

Mexico? India? Identity crisis

Having embarked on this excursion to the countryside outside Mexico city in less than 15 hours since my arrival in Mexico, I was fascinated with how familiar the landscape felt to rural India. There were milkmen loading large aluminium cans on their bicycles, making a peculiar sound that, together with the gentle morning breeze, reminded me of my childhood in India. The streets were dusty, the heat was scorching, and all along the road there were mechanic and tyre repair shops in ugly shacks next to colourful buildings with deep red steel rebars emerging out of the columns and unfinished concrete roof slabs precariously supporting a haystack on top. I saw animals wandering around and kids running on the side of a busy road while their mothers sat under a tree probably gossiping and talking about their husbands. “Am I in India??” I wondered.

Walking to the pyramid through the town

I wasn’t traveling solo that day; my friend Jeruen and I took a bus early in the morning and reached Cholula for brunch as the town was just waking up. Although self-proclaimed seasoned backpackers, we committed a rookie mistake of eating at a restaurant in the tourist hotel zone at the Zocalo. Ah well…

↑ Main street

The stretch from Zócalo (central plaza) to the church/pyramid is the main commercial drag of the town. I imagine that the place would get very busy during the high season. Buildings were brightly painted which was such a relief to my eyes which, just a day ago, were immersed in black-and-white landscape of snowy Toronto.

Great Pyramid of Cholula and Nuestra Señora de los Remedios Church

↑ Church and the pyramid which is being excavated

The main attraction of Cholula is this giant pyramid (largest pyramid in the world!) which is so large that the invading Spanish built a church on top of the mound. The temple-pyramid complex was built in four stages, starting from the 3rd century BCE through the 9th century CE, and was dedicated to the deity Quetzalcoatl. Cholula declined around the same time as Teotihuacan. The Spanish church is dedicated to the worship and appeasement of rain, much like its pre-Christian deity of agriculture.

↑ Beautiful interior of the church

The church itself is gloriously decorated in neo-classical style and I was pleasantly surprised with its upkeep. From the veranda, you could walk around the periphery of the church and see spectacular views in all eight directions. It reminded of the pradakshina concept in Hindu and Buddhist temples, where it is customary for a visitor to circumambulate the central chamber housing the shrine.

↑ Back side of the church

After checking out the church and taking tons of high dynamic range photographs, we descended the pyramid hoping to see the excavated tunnels of the underlying pyramid. Unfortunately, entrance to the tunnels was closed for repairs and maintenance and I was very upset for having missed this opportunity to explore the largest pyramid in the world.

↑ The pyramid is being excavated and restored. I didn’t particularly like the use of modern materials like concrete and machine-cut stones that formed of ultra-precise straight edges.

Easily reached, Cholula can be combined with the neighbouring city of Puebla to make a comfortable weekend trip from Mexico city. Hope you enjoyed reading about this excursion.

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery