Cholula is a city of over 100,000 people on the road from Mexico City to Puebla. It is known for its many churches and large student population, but is most visited due to the presence of one of the largest pre-colonial sites in the country and the church that the Spaniards built on top of it.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, Cholula was a major city with 400 temples, an important shrine to the god Quetzalcoatl and a reputation for the finest pottery in the country. The local people, allied to the Aztecs planned to ambush Cortes and his men on their way to the city of Tenochitlan. Unfortunately, the Spaniards were tipped off by the Tlaxcalans. The Cholulans paid a terrible price with as many as 6,000 being massacred including almost all of the local leadership and the city was pillaged by the Tlaxcalans. Cortes went on to destroy many temples which resulted in the 39 churches currently found in Cholula - rather than the 365 of legend.
Despite the carnage, it is still possible to see significant remains from the pre-colonial period. The Piramide Tepanapa in the Zona Arqueologica is the main site and the location of one of the largest pyramids ever built. More accurately, it is the site of a number of pyramids one built on top of another over time. From a distance the site appears to be a grass covered mound with the yellow church domes rising above. But this hides the earlier history and it is possible to enter some of the 8 kilometres of tunnels within the pyramid and to view the results of their work as well as some partially restored elements uncovered by archaeologists.
The Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sits on top of the pyramid. It is accessed by climbing a steep, winding track from the pyramid's base, populated by vendors selling wooden toys, fruits, chillies and other local produce. I stopped to look at what was on offer and bought a small wooden flute to bring home as a memento. The elderly woman vendor was amused that she couldn't tempt me to buy any of the fiery looking chillies she offered. Even the thought of them makes me sweat! The last stretch to the summit ends with a set of very steep steps, which once negotiated bring a full view of the church's white and yellow facade.
The climb is worth the effort. As well as being able to see inside the church, there are stunning views across the city with its many churches and clear site of the volcano Popocatapetl. Its a climb that gets made by pilgrims as well as tourists due to the presence of an image of the Virgin of the Remedies, a variation on the Virgin Mary dedicated specifically to the needs of the poor. Its also possible to visit some stunningly decorate churches in the nearby villages of Tonatzintla and Acatapec. You can see pictures and read about them here.