My quest to visit all of Mexico’s magic towns has led me to Cholula, the site of what is widely considered the world’s largest pyramid.
The magic town program is an initiative by the Mexican government to promote small towns across the country that offer visitors some kind of “magical” experience related to local culture, art or history. I’ve taken it upon myself to visit all 80+ magic towns, and decide whether or not they actually are magical. You can find out more about the general idea of this government program in my first entry, where I visited Tlaxco.
My second magic town, Cholula, is somewhat more well known than Tlaxco. For one, it’s home to the Great Pyramid of Cholula. Here it is, pictured below.
Can’t see it? I’ll give you a hint: the Nahuatl name for the pyramid is Tlachihualtepetl, which literally means artificial mountain.
See that hill with a church on top of it? That’s the pyramid. Although it’s significantly shorter than the Great Pyramid of Giza, Tlachihualtepetl’s base is almost four times the
size of its more well known Egyptian counterpart. It also has almost double the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza (4.45 million cubic metres versus 2.5 million cubic metres).
Part of the reason for this staggering size is that Tlachihualtepetl arguably isn’t a single structure; it’s actually an entire political-religious complex, comprised of numerous buildings attached to the original structure. Basically, the builders started with a relatively small structure, and just kept adding more and more stuff over generations, to create what is now widely regarded as the world’s largest monument of any kind.
Visitors can actually go inside Tlachihualtepetl, and explore its claustrophobic tunnels.
Most days of the week it costs around MX$60 (US$3), though entry is free on Sundays. This is the best time to visit, as it’s when locals take advantage of the free entry to bring the entire family. Tlachihualtepetl is easily Cholula’s biggest draw card for visitors, though the town does have a few other tricks up its sleeve.
The town has a large student population, meaning there’s a plethora of bars and hipster restaurants. Some of these are pretty lame, and mostly aimed at cashed up students. Others are ok, with the ones near the pyramid serving some pretty good micheladas.
The town is also a good place to buy chapulines – a kind of grasshopper that’s extremely tasty when toasted.
The chapulines enchilados (chilli grasshoppers) can’t be recommended enough. They go down great with an ice cold beer, or even a shot of tequila.
Like most small towns across Mexico, Cholula also has a lively zocalo, which is the perfect spot for a cup of coffee and people watching. On Sundays, the square comes to life with a food and trinket market. On the east side of the plaza is the sprawling Ex-Convento de San Gabriel, which includes three old, weathered churches.
Reaching Cholula from the nearby city of Puebla is extremely easy. Although the two settlements were totally separate and distinct a few generations ago, nowadays urban sprawl has left Cholula feeling like little more than an outer suburb of Puebla. There are regular colectivos from Puebla’s city centre, on the corner of Calle 5 Poniente and 3 Sur. There’s also larger buses than run twice an hour from Calle 2 Norte and 12 Oriente. They should drop you off a few blocks from Cholula’s zocalo, though you may want to nudge the driver to let you know when it’s your stop.
So Cholula is easy to get to, has a world class attraction in Tlachihualtepetl, and a few other nice draw cards. However, was seriously underwhelmed the first time I visited. During an ordinary work day, there isn’t much happening in the town. The zocalo is nice, but the whole place feels a little pretentious. On top of that, those student bars seem to be mostly aimed at twenty somethings with rich parents, who have enough money to pay for over priced beers, but not enough life experience to recognise a lousy burger when they see one. Overall, it feels like visiting a carnival the morning after the main event. I’m sorry Cholula, but you’re just a bit shit during the week.
However, on the weekends, Cholula is just great. The place is full of Poblanos out to chill. Tlachihualtepetl has free entry, there’s hawkers hawking their chapulines on every street corner, and the market in the zocalo is abuzz with life. It all makes for a perfect half or full day trip from Puebla.