Saturday, December 3, 2016

[CHOLULA] The World's Biggest Pyramid


15 KM west of Puebla, Cholula is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos. A small university town with a young population, tourists mostly just skip it in favor of its bigger neighbor, which happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even then, a lot of people who have several days to spare in Puebla make it a point to go to Cholula on a daytrip. The reason? Well, it houses the world’s largest pyramid. Okay, I see some raised eyebrows there. The disclaimer is that it is the biggest in terms of volume, whatever that means.


The highway between Puebla and Mexico City runs through Cholula, which means you get there first if coming from the west. There are direct buses from both Autobuses del Norte and TAPO, although there are more departures in the  latter. In any case, the Puebla-bound buses are never in short supply. For the direct Cholula bus, the interval between trips is usually between two to three hours. I decided to take the 10:30 AM bus and found out the hard way that this is not a good idea. Consider this as a warning.


I don’t know if it’s always the case, but we spent an hour stuck on the outskirts of CDMX, and then for another hour lining up for the San Marcos Highway tollgate. It was really upsetting. The driver said that there was an accident or something, which caused the delay. I’ve left the capital on a Saturday morning many times before, but I did so at around 7 AM or 8 AM. I guess leaving at 9 AM onwards means getting stuck in the outbound weekend traffic. Plan your trip accordingly.


Estrella Roja has three stops, the second of which is the one in Cholula. The driver announces the destination, so there’s no need to panic. We left the city at 10:30 AM and arrived exactly at half past two. Had we not been delayed for two hours, I guess the normal journey for this route would have taken 2-2.5 hours on the road. Once you get off at OXXO, walking would be the best option for you as the town is small and compact anyway. There are many colectivos running around, but the routes are confusing.


You’ll see the pyramid as the bus enters the town. If you’re expecting one with easily visible sides, then you will be disappointed. What’s easily recognizable even from afar is the church that the Spanish colonizers erected on that hill. Even so, you will find photos on Google Images where the outline of the pyramid and the church itself are both visible in one frame. If you have time to spare for exploring the town below, then you’ll probably figure out from which angle this photo-op can be best taken.


If you’ve travelled a lot in Latin America, then Cholula will just be added to your long list of Spanish colonial towns. Cobblestoned streets? Check. Colorful pastel houses? Check. Church addiction? Check. There are three or four churches within the vicinity that easily attract attention thanks to their distinct architecture and sheer size. Since it’s almost Christmas, you’ll also find a giant Christmas tree at one of the plazas, with a brightly colored cathedral and some maroon colonial architecture serving as its background.


The entrance to the archaeological zone is along the main road. One of the inroads to which the road signs point actually leads to a parking lot and a street full of vendors. You can’t enter the complex from there. Admission fee is standard at MXN65 (~PHP160) but again, you get in for free if you have valid student credential. Video fee is MXN45 (~PHP110) if you have a bulky and rather obvious video camera. In this day and age, who does? Once you get past the ticket booth, it’s time to enter the tunnel.


The tunnel is a freaking maze which reminded me of Paris’ creepy catacombs. Getting lost is not the issue here, though, but rather the traffic that the tourists generate. The pathways are narrow but well-lit. Restricted areas are barricaded with iron grills and a padlock, which might translate to boredom for the adventurous. The trail leading out to the main complex is not complicated at all. Just follow the crowd. The traffic is not necessarily a bad thing. If the group in front of you hired a guide, that means a free guided tour for you.


What follows is a hike uphill. No need to be such a wuss now. This is a very easy climb not even lasting half an hour. The ascent is on a combination of cemented walkways and dirt paths. Even your grandma will find this to be an easy climb. You are rewarded with panoramic views of Cholula as you go higher. They say that there are two volcanoes somewhere in the background, although distinguishing them from the ubiquitous mountain range surrounding the town can be quite a challenge.


The Spaniards always made it a point to eradicate whatever trace of anything aboriginal, which is why you will now see a big cathedral on top of that hill. The church is called the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. It does look imposing on the outside, thanks to its combo of twin minarets and a dome. The interior is even more impressive. The color scheme is a mix of unassuming beige with golden highlights. Add the prevalent blue shades of the ceiling paintings and you’re in for a good visual spectacle.


Unfortunately, photography is not allowed INSIDE the church. You can go hardcore camwhoring outside, but they are rather specific with their regulations inside. I didn’t see any officer implementing such rule, but there wasn’t any rude tourist who was trying his luck either. I would have snapped a photo in secret but what’s the point. Rules are rules, people. Let’s follow them! Besides, admiring it right then and there is the better thing to do.


All in all, a Cholula day trip from either Puebla or Mexico City is doable, unless you want to stay for a few days to relax and unwind. I’m good with just a daytrip when it comes to small towns like this, which is why I just called it a day rather early and took an Uber to Puebla, where my Airbnb place for the weekend was waiting. The trip costs around MXN100 (~PHP250) for the 30-minute ride, which isn’t bad if you are in a hurry. If not, then you can always take a colectivo headed east for around 10% of that price.

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