The grand city of Cholula and its sacred pyramid — the largest in the world

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Nestled in the central Mexican highlands and surrounded by Mexico’s most iconic volcanic chain lay the ancient city of Cholula. 

Our Lady of Remedies Church has sat atop Cholula’s grand pyramid since the 16th century. Pictured in the background is the massive Popocatépetl volcano. Photo: Courtesy

Founded in the 5th century BCE as a small village, Cholula grew continuously over millennia to become one of the most important centers in all of classical Mesoamerica. 

Teotihuacan-style structure in the Patio of the Altars, Cholula, Puebla. Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Despite several invasions by the Mixtec, Toltec, Tlaxcaltecans, and Spanish, Cholula has stood the test of time and continues to this day as an important economic, cultural, and religious center. 

One of the few surviving altars in the ancient city of Cholula in the Mexican State of Puebla. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As a matter of fact, Cholula is one of Mexico’s most important pilgrimage sites and attracts hundreds of thousands of people during its yearly festival.

Cholula and its famed Tlachihualtepet pyramid are so grand that capturing its true size is quite difficult, even with a drone. Photo: Courtesy

Of course, contemporary Cholula is much different than during antiquity, but still standing proud is the massive Tlachihualtepet pyramid  — which in the Nahuatl language means artificial mountain.

Despite decades of work by archaeologists, only small sections of the Tlachihualtepet pyramid have been restored. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are of course many “great pyramids,” but this grand structure is not only the biggest pyramid in Mexico or the Americas but the largest in the entire world when measured by volume.

Model of Cholula’s Tlachihualtepet pyramid and its many surrounding structures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatpan Magazine

It is possible to get to the top of Tlachihualtepet pyramid along a winding path, all the way to the 16th-century church at its top. 

View of the city of Cholula in the state of Puebla from atop the Tlachihualtepet pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Tlachihualtepetl pyramid appears to have begun construction sometime in the 300’s BEC and was built over several following centuries until reaching its ultimate size in the 5th century.  

Some segments of the interior chambers and hallways of Cholula’s great pyramid are open for the public to explore, but only on occasion and with an official guide. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At nearly 1,500 x 1,500 feet at its base, the pyramid of Tlachihualtepet covers a surface nearly twice that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. As for its height, the structure comes in at 220 feet — giving it a total volume of 175 million cubic feet.

Beautifully restored section of Tlachihualtepet’s original stairway. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The pyramid was badly damaged during several invasions, including the infamous “massacre of Cholula” during which the conquistador Hernan Cortés, aided by a Tlaxcalteca army, sacked and burned the great city.

The involvement of the Tlaxcaltecan in the massacre of Cholula resonates to this day and continues to resonate in the form of animosity towards the modern state of Tlaxcala. Pictured, the Tlaxcalteca capital of Cacaxtla. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

The only mural to have survived the many invasions suffered by Cholula is known as “The Drunks.” 

The “mural of the drunks” depicts life-size human figures drinking a beverage, likely pulke or a beverage made out of hallucinogenic mushrooms.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Near the base of the Tlachihualtepet are several structures that would have served a variety of civic and ceremonial purposes. 

Small altar in the middle of Cholula’s main courtyard, likely used for the burning of incense. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Further afield it is possible to observe a large plaza known as the patio of the altars. This large open area is flanked by structures on all sides but one, and is home to several structures and a handful of badly damaged sculptures.

Basalt head sculpture found in Cholula’s Patio of the Altars. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The architecture of Cholula is fairly consistent with that of other great city-states in the Valley of Mexico, which is to say that it conforms to the Tablero-talud style. 

Tablero-talud is a form of architectural style made up of an inward-sloping surface or panel called the talud, that has a perpendicular surface to the ground sitting upon the slope called the tablero. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Cholula is quite easy from Puebla, as the city is only five miles away. It is possible to take a taxi or even public transit directly from Puebla City’s downtown. 

A map shows the location of Cholula in the Valley of Mexico. Image: Google Maps

Getting to Cholula from Mexico City is also fairly easy, though the traffic tends to be quite arduous, making staying the night in Puebla a great option as opposed to a day trip. 

A Catholic cross stands atop the Tlachihualtepet pyramid, overlooking the city below. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Cholula’s archaeological site is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The entrance fee is 85 pesos for both domestic and international visitors. 

The city of Puebla is well worth visiting for at least a couple of nights because it is famous for its cuisine, colonial architecture, and crafts. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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