by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com.
About ten or fifteen minutes outside of Puebla is the colonial town of Cholula. Most of us know Cholula as the place where the big yellow church sits on top of the massive unexcavated pyramid, but there is much more to this little town than meets the eye as you pass by it on the highway. In spite of the fact that in land mass, Cholula is actually larger than Puebla, the population has been a constant 200,000 for the last century, as young people do not want to continue the town’s agricultural focus and continue to leave for the United States at regularly increasing rates. One of the town’s largest and steadiest sources of income is the money sent by these youngsters, although few of them return.
You can take the bus from Puebla several times a day for about $1.50, or if you prefer, there are three-hour tours from Puebla that run fairly often for $15. Of course, of primary interest is the yellow church, La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios. I know I was fascinated by the idea that while it was common for the Spaniards to raze major indigenous temples and build their own cathedrals with the stones from those temples, for some reason, this pyramid was left and the church constructed on top of it. The Conquistadors flattened the hundreds of temples and other structures they found in this once large religious center, but the Great Pyramid – the largest in the New World – remains. Visitors are welcome to follow tunnels to the inside of the pyramid, but having experienced the dampness and humidity inside El Castillo at Chichen Itza, we were more interested in getting to the top of it.
The bumpy road to the summit is a mean walk, but the breathtaking view once you get there makes the effort seem inconsequential. The church is lovely, as is the view of Cholula to the rear and side, and Puebla to the front, but the best part for me was looking into the face of Popocatepetl. On the day we picked to visit, the sun was brilliant and Popo was puffing a little, so its snow cap was covered with ash and not clearly visible, but it was still a thrill for me. When I was a child living in Cuernavaca, visitors were still able to climb to the top of Popo and look into its crater (which my parents saw to it that we did at least every six months or so), but you can no longer get that close, so while it is always memorable for me when I see the top of Popo from a plane, or passing by in a bus or car, this up close and personal view was particularly meaningful.
While standing around up there soaking up the outlook and the sun, some local people stopped to point out to us the many cathedrals below and tell us that Cholula has 108 churches, although only three of them have full-time priests. For the rest, priests come in to perform communions and confirmations, baptisms and weddings as needed. We were also told that there are many pre-Colombian ruins buried in and around the Pyramid and throughout Cholula, but the natives are so attached to their churches that they refuse to allow the Mexican government to excavate for fear of causing damage to their colonial structures such as has occurred in Mexico City with the construction of the subway. Therefore – with the exception of one authentic temple platform next to the Great Pyramid that suddenly appeared after a particularly intense rainstorm – all the “ruins” visible in the area are reconstructions designed to draw tourists. I was impressed that Cholulans are determined not to risk their colonial heritage even in the interest of the tourist dollars that would surely result from excavation of the site considered to once have been the religious capital of highland Mexico.
After navigating the walk back down the hill, which was perhaps even more challenging than getting to the top, we sort of aimlessly wandered the city, looking at as many of the great cathedrals as we could find. Luckily for us, an exceptionally friendly street vendor finally told us that we should not miss the Mexican Baroque church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla (Place of My Little Mother) and gave us directions to get there. This magnificent structure was under construction from 1550 through 1702 and we were told that it is considered to be of entirely Mexican design with no Spanish influence. This is certainly the case inside, where the saints represented in the imposing ceiling and along the walls have a definite indigenous appearance, but I found the preponderance of gilt and ornamentation decidedly Spanish in origin. Still, its stucco and tile façade has an atmosphere and aspect that is truly distinct from the other churches in the area, as well as from most Colonial-era cathedrals I have seen.
Cholula is so close to the city of Puebla that it is well worth an afternoon of exploration. It is an exceptionally clean, picturesque town with – it seemed to us – very friendly natives anxious to discuss and show off their town’s attributes. There are plenty of interesting-looking restaurants, although we had a lunch of rotisserie chicken and Coca Cola Light at an outdoor sidewalk table, and we saw several souvenir shops selling much the same products as those found in Puebla at slightly reduced prices. But above all, that view of Popo is something to see.
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