The Great(est) Pyramid of Cholula

When you think of Great Pyramids, you probably think Egypt and when you think of Cholula, you probaly think hot sauce. The city lends its name to the sauce, but the city of Cholula is not home t0 its creation or production – it does however, have a much more impressive claim to fame. Cholula is home to a Great Pyramid.
Visiting the site in person, it really is hard to imagine what the state of the pyramid might have been 500 years ago, but it is certainly possible even today to mistake it for a giant hill.

Cholula is located in the state of Puebla, nestled between a few of Mexico’s tallest peaks, including the oft-erupting Popocatepetl. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the city is a large Catholic church, a familiar site in Mexico – Cholula alone is home to 365 churches, one for each day of the year. This particular church, Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, is much more prominent than the many other churches that dot the city, visible from almost anywhere in town from its perch. What’s remarkable about this scene isn’t the church though – it is the hill. Beneath the Nuestra Senora de los Remedios sits the LARGEST pyramid in the WORLD. 

Long overlooked, the pyramid and surrounding ruins were hidden in plain sight beneath the church for nearly 500 years, before archaeologists began to excavate the site in the early 20th century revealing that the hill was in fact a giant pyramid built over a thousand years earlier. There is a lot of debate about whether the Spanish simply intended to build the church on the most prominent hill in town, or whether they knew exactly what they were doing and built the church atop the pyramid to reinforce the strength of their Conquest and the superiority of their deity.

It is possible to climb to the top of the pyramid, and the view from the top is highly recommended. On a clear day you can see a lot of both Cholula, and Puebla, as well as the peaks of Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl, and La Malinche three of the highest peaks in Mexico. The church is also open to the public, and is worth a look as well.

Looking out at Popocatepetl from atop the pyramid as smoke billows from its crater.

The climb, the view and the church are all free if you are willing to put in the effort, but the site has more to offer those who are willing to pay the small entrance fee. Within the pyramid, there is an extensive tunnel system estimated to run a total of approximately 8 km altogether, which is partially open to the public. The tunnels are very narrow in places, and it sometimes feels like you are lost in an underground maze that is getting smaller and smaller – we were both on the verge of panic attacks, and the sense of alarm is only amplified when you remember that two of the three giant mountains outside are active volcanoes. If you are someone who is claustrophobic, or easily shaken (possibly literally, by the volcanoes) I would skip the tunnels and head straight to the ruins. The same ticket that gets you into the tunnels also gets you into the adjacent ruins, and museum. The ruins are fairly extensive, and highlight the numerous expansions that were carried out at the site over the centuries. Tragically, because the entire site lay forgotten for so long only a small fraction of the ruins have been excavated, and the rest lays trapped beneath developments built on private property.  It seems unlikely that any further excavation will happen any time soon, but exploring what has been uncovered already, as well as the surrounding city of Cholula is definitely worth the trip!

The ruins surrounding the pyramid are impressive, but much of them remain buried beneath the modern city.


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