Puebla’s expansion in recent years has made Cholula, 15km to the west, virtually a suburb. Nonetheless, it retains its small-town charm and has one abiding reason to visit: the ruins of Cholula. A rival of Teotihuacán at its height, and the most powerful city in the country between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of Tula, Cholula was at the time of the Conquest a vast city of some four hundred temples, famed as a shrine to Quetzalcoatl and for the excellence of its pottery (a trade dominated by immigrant Mixtecs). But it paid dearly for an attempt, inspired by its Aztec allies, to ambush Cortés on his march to Tenochtitlán: the chieftains were slaughtered, their temples destroyed and churches built in their place. The Spaniards claimed to have constructed 365 churches here, one for each day of the year. Although there are a lot of churches, the true figure certainly doesn’t live up to the claim. There may well be 365 chapels within the churches, though, which is already a few hundred more than the village population could reasonably need.
One side of Cholula’s large zócalo – the Plaza de la Concordia – is taken up by the ecclesiastical buildings of the Convento de San Gabriel, built from 1529 on the site of the temple of Quetzalcoatl. The Gothic main church is of little interest, but behind it is the great mustard-yellow Capilla Real (Mon–Sat 9am–1pm & 4.30–6pm), topped by 49 tiled cupolas. Moorish in conception, the interior comes with a forest of columns supporting semicircular arches and immediately recalls the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain.
Arriving in Cholula you can’t miss the Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, picturesquely sited atop a hill with Popocatépetl in the background. If you climb up to it, up, you can buy snacks such as chapulines (fried grasshoppers) on the way. What’s not immediately apparent is that the hill is in fact the remains of the Great Pyramid of Cholula – the Pirámide Tepanapa – the largest pyramid ever constructed, though now it’s ruined, overgrown and really not much to look at. At 66m, it is lower than the largest of the Egyptian pyramids but with each side measuring 350m it is also squatter and bulkier. As at other sites, the outer shell was built over a series of nested pyramids, constructed between 200 BC and 800 AD, something amply illustrated in the site museum. You can find detailed printed guides at the bookshop next to the museum, which can be useful if you have a deep interest in these ancient structures.
Cross the road to reach the archeological site, accessed through a 400-metre-long series of tunnels dug by archeologists, just a fraction of the 8km of exploratory tunnels which honeycomb the pyramid. They’re well lit and capacious enough for most people to walk upright, but there’s still a palpable sense of adventure as you spur off down side tunnels, which reveal elements of earlier temples and steep ceremonial stairways that appear to go on forever into the gloom. Emerging at the end of one tunnel you’ll find an area of open-air excavations, where part of the great pyramid has been exposed alongside various lesser shrines with explanations in English of their importance. Though undoubtedly fascinating, the ruins are a good deal less impressive than some of the more famed sites around the Valley of México. The ring of superimposed structures around the Patio de los Altares are certainly worth a look and there are some fine murals, but these can be better appreciated in the site museum where replicas are kept.