It provided my host family great amusement that in my first months here in Puebla my only trips to Cholula were made after dark. The nightlife in Puebla is tame to say the least, and there is much more going on in Cholula (just half an hour away) thanks to its large student population. After much nudging (which ranged from subtle hints to stern orders) I eventually made it to Cholula for a day trip, and understood immediately why it came so highly recommended. Cholula has a lovely small-town feel: it’s tranquil, colourful, and nestled deep in the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley surrounded by the volcanoes of the Central Mexican Highlands. It offers a completely different experience to so many of Mexico’s vast and sprawling colonial cities founded after the conquest, under the heavy hand of Spanish influence.
Cholula is one of Mexico’s oldest settlements and home to centuries of pre-Hispanic history. From AD 1-600 it grew into an important (indigenous) religious centre, until it fell to the Olmeca Xicallanca. At some point between AD900 and 1300 the Toltecs and/or Chichimecs took over, and it later fell into Aztec dominance. When Cortés arrived with the Spanish he formed an allegiance with neighbouring Tlaxcala, and when the Aztecs in Cholula plotted to ambush Cortés the Tlaxcalans tipped him off and the Spanish had the upper hand. 6000 Cholulans were killed in a day and the city was looted ruthlessly by the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish founded the city of Puebla to overshadow the old pagan centre of Cholula, which was further devastated by a severe plague in the 1540s. These days it remains upstaged by the Catholic and colonial splendour of Puebla, but has developed its own alternative following: it is home to a generally younger, more fashionable population and hosts numerous trendy restaurants and bars. It also has a completely absurd number of churches in relation to its size.
Thanks to its original indigenous population, Cholula is home to the widest pyramid ever built – Pirámide Tepanapa. What is more striking than the pyramid, however, is the church perched triumphantly atop – a powerful symbol of the merciless religious conquest that came with the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. Although very little remains of the original pyramid structure, visitors can still explore the network of interior tunnels and see the excavated areas outside. Then it’s a short but steep climb up to the church, which offers spectacular views over the flat plains of Cholula.
Two of Cholula’s most interesting churches are located in the neighbourhood of San Andrés. The first I visited, San Francisco Acatepec, was constructed between 1650 and 1750, the golden era of Mexican baroque and talavera. The immense wealth, exquisite design, and talented craftmanship of this period are flaunted in the façade of colourful tiles covering the front of the church, which really makes quite an impression. The interior is just as awe-inspiring, entirely encrusted from floor to ceiling in elaborate golden decoration. Unfortunately, the interior isn’t original, it was destroyed by a fire in 1939. But it was painstakingly reconstructed in 1941 thanks to photographs made before the fire which extensively documented the decoration – taken by no other than Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo’s father. At no time is the church more flamboyantly adorned than during the fiesta for San Francisco (the namesake of the church) which falls on the 4th of October. The most beautiful displays of fresh flowers covered every available surface, ready to wow the weekend’s worshippers.
The church of Santa María Tonantzintla was also built in the seventeenth century, but is strikingly different. First of all, unlike Acatepec, it is relatively unassuming from the outside. It is far plainer, and has models of the Saints but with dark faces (like those of the indigenous Mexicans who created them). Whereas Acatepec presents itself as an extravagant show of Spanish wealth and style, Tonantzintla displays a far more complex union of Mexican and European culture and an interesting melding of Christian and indigenous world views. This includes the interpretation of both indigenous and Christian Gods and symbols, and the development of worship of Mother Nature to the Virgin Mother, Mary. The angels adorning the walls are not the blonde-haired, pale faced cherubs the European eye is accustomed to, but with dark skin and hair – those of Mexico’s Indians. Unlike the golden glow of Acatepec, the interior incorporates paintwork in a vast array of colours, and rather than smooth and pristine carvings, Tonantzintla’s are much more deeply etched and simplistically stylised in design. The church of Tonantzintla is autonomous from the Archdiocese of Puebla, and they do not allow photographs to be taken inside, but I have found a couple from Google which are shown below (all other photos are my own).
Next up on our route was Huejotzingo, a small municipality in Puebla’s countryside. Here we visited the Franciscan monastery San Miguel Arcángel which was founded in 1525, making it one of the oldest monasteries in the Americas. It remains in very good condition, with original dining room and kitchen features, and etchings on the walls revealed beneath the more recent paintwork. The adjacent church (despite being mid-way through some repair work) was absolutely full of young teenagers having their first Holy Communion, and a wedding party waiting outside. The area is also known for its vast orchards and the production of apple cider – a sample of which was the perfect way to top off a long day of culture-seeking in the sun. It’s a hard life!