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.

Pirámide Tepanapa

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, 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 it’s now 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.

The archeological site

The archeological site around and underneath the pyramid is usually accessed from an entrance on San Andrés through a 400m-long series of tunnels dug by archeologists. Unfortunately the tunnels were closed at last check for structural repairs and reinforcement, and it was not clear when they would reopen, but the rest of the site, and the museum (across San Andrés on 8 Nte, with a few artefacts and a model of the pyramid) were in the meantime free to enter from a temporary entrance on the east side. 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.

The tunnels

Even when you can go inside, the section open to the public is 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.