East of Mexico City, and among the destinations reached from its TAPO bus terminal, is the region’s second-largest city, the thriving and ultra-colonial Puebla. This city not only warrants a couple of days of your time in its own right, but makes an excellent base for forays north to more tranquil Tlaxcala, and west to Cholula with its enormous ruined pyramid. Both were important tributary states of the Aztecs when Cortés marched this way from the coast to pillage and conquer in the name of European civilization. Puebla and Cholula also offer excellent views of central Mexico’s twin volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, both currently off-limits owing to the continuing threat of eruption, though you can visit the national park which surrounds them.
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Allied to Cortés in his struggle against the Aztecs, as well as with colonial Spain in the War of Independence, TLAXCALA, the capital of a tiny state of the same name, has become a byword for treachery. Because of its alliance with Cortés, the town suffered a very different fate from that of nearby Cholula, which aligned itself with the Aztecs, and in the long run this has led to an even more total disappearance of its ancient culture. The Spaniards founded a colonial town here – now restored and very beautiful in much of its original colonial glory, but whether because of its traitorous reputation or simply its isolation, development in Tlaxcala has been limited.
The town lies 131km west of Mexico City and 30km north of Puebla in the middle of a fertile, prosperous-looking upland plain surrounded by rather bare mountains. It’s an exceptionally pretty and much rehabilitated colonial town, comfortable enough but also fairly dull. Most of the interest lies very close to the zócalo, with its cluster of banks, post office and central bandstand, where the terracotta and ochre tones of the buildings lend the city its tag of “Ciudad Roja”, the Red City. Tlaxcala’s appearance, slow pace and proximity to the nation’s capital have drawn a small expat community, though the latter’s impact on daily life is minimal. Given the lack of low-cost accommodation, you might want to consider staying in Puebla and visiting on a day-trip.
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.
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.
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.
Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl
Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl
You get excellent views of the snow-clad volcanic peaks of Popocatépetl (5452m) and Ixtaccíhuatl (5285m) from almost anywhere west of the capital, and viewing from afar is all most people do these days. “Popo” has been rumbling and fuming away since September 1994, and for much of the time since then the region has been on Yellow Alert, with evacuation procedures posted throughout surrounding towns. Activity was renewed in December 2000, culminating in the largest eruption on record. Though there were no devastating lava flows, the crater spat out hot rocks, dust fell on the capital and, on several occasions, Mexico City’s airport (over 60km away) was closed for a few hours. Local villagers, evacuated for weeks during the eruption, were forced to stand idly by while their livestock trampled their fields. In April 2012, renewed activity, including the expulsion of volcanic ash, led the authorities to step up the level of alert to “Yellow Phase 3”, which means among other things that no access is allowed within 12km of the volcano until further notice.
“Popo” and “Ixta”, as the volcanoes are affectionately known, are the nation’s second and third highest peaks (after the 5700m Pico de Orizaba). Their full names come from an Aztec Romeo-and-Juliet-style legend. Popocatépetl (Smoking Mountain) was a warrior, Ixtaccíhuatl (White Lady) his lover, the beautiful daughter of the emperor. Believing Popocatépetl killed in battle, she died from grief, and when he returned alive he laid her body down on the mountain, where he eternally stands sentinel, holding a burning torch. From the west, Ixta does somewhat resemble a reclining female form and the various parts of the mountain are named accordingly – the feet, the knees, the belly, the breast and so on.