Suitcase and World: Cholula.

Monday, July 18, 2011


This morning we began our road trip through Mexico!

After breakfast, we checked out and waited in the lobby for our tour guide.  Francisco showed up on time.  He wasn't what I expected which was someone in their 20's or 30's.  That's the age span most of my guides have been in.  Francisco was much older.  I'm guessing he's in his 40's.  I hope that with age comes experience and that he'll be a good tour leader.

As we followed Francisco out the front door, I asked him how many of us were in the tour group and he replied that it was just the three of us.   I was happy at the thought that we were getting our own private tour of Mexico and since the three of us were getting along so well already, the next 10 days should work out well.  I just hoped Francisco was a nice guy.

We crossed to street to wait for our car and driver to arrive.  While I stood waiting, I took in one last view of the zócalo.  I will miss this pretty and lively square.

A few minutes later, a white mini van pulled up and a portly gentleman got out of the driver's side.  Francisco introduced him as Juan Jose and he was going to be our driver for our trip.   He looked like a very friendly kind of guy.  When he took my bag from me, he told me I could call him "Juanito" and so I did though I liked the sound of "Juan Jose".

We piled into the van and immediately the chatter began. We were excited to finally be getting on the road and Francisco was doing his guide duties but passing us information as we rolled along.

Our final destination for the day would be Oaxaca.   It would be a long day's ride, at least six hours.  Our first stop though would be the town of Cholula which lies just about a 20 minute or so drive from Puebla.

Museo de Sitio Zona Arqueológica Cholula. We drove through the modern day town of Cholula and Juan Jose pulled over on the hillside.  Francisco and the three of us all got out.  Down the steps we went and short distance later, we entered the grounds of a small museum.

We followed Francisco inside and got our introduction to what we were about to see which was the Great Pyramid and the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Church of Our Lady of Remedies) that was built atop the pyramid.
It's really hard to visualize a church built on top of pyramid.  Luckily, the museum has a 3-D model with a section that has been cut away to show what archaeologists think the original pyramid looked like.

The Great Pyramid is estimated to be 54 meters (177 feet) high and between 380 meters (1247 feet)  and 439 meters (1440 feet) long on each side making it one of the largest in terms of its base.  It has long been believed that the pyramid functioned as a temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.  The architectural style of the building was closely linked to that of Teotihuacán.

Construction of the pyramid was started sometime around the 1st century AD and finished in the 8th century AD.

The museum also contains a small collection of artifacts recovered from the site.

To the Pyramid! With our history lesson done, we headed out to see the site.  Along the way, Francisco pointed out a set of ancient temple steps. It's obvious the modern day town of Cholula was built up around the original pyramid grounds.

 Archaeologists have discovered a series of tunnels underneath the Great Pyramid. 

From the main road, we veered off onto a small pathway.  Francisco pointed metal doors that mark entrances to the tunnels.  It used to be that tourists could enter the tunnels.  On the day we were there, the door was looked.  I peered inside but didn't see anything but a tunnel carved out of rock. 

From the pathway, we could see the church way up on the hilltop which was once the top of the Pyramid.  That would have been one hell of a large Pyramid!!

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios.  With my zoom lens, I angled in to get a better view of the church's orange colored facade and its decorated domes.  If there's such a thing as a church view that makes you smile, this would be it for me.  Happy colors and a touch of whimsy!

We continued walking and the one thing about visiting ruins in Mexico is that there is no sign letting you know that you've *arrived* so without warning, you're greeted with a view that leaves you wondering whether or not you're seeing THE ruins.  But in this case, we were!

Where the altars are.  The first thing that strikes you about the Great Pyramid at Cholula is where the heck is the pyramid?  In fact, it's so overgrown with grass and trees that it just looks like a hill.  I'm guessing this is probably what the Spaniards thought when they first saw it too.  They probably thought they were building their church atop a hill; not atop an ancient pyramid.  Took centuries later before archaeologists would figure out that there was a massive stone structure buried beneath the hill.

Walking along, we soon found ourselves standing in a grassy expanse surround by ancient stone slabs.  We had arrived at the Patio de los Altares.

Back in the day, the altars were used for sacrificing children, who were believed to be messengers of the rain god Tlaloc, during droughts. Seashells were also offered, on the altars, as a tribute to the apparently less bloodthirsty Quetzalcoatl.


Interesting but faded carvings and murals adorned several of the structures.

Another altar.  This one was cordoned off and had a glass cover over the opening.  I'm guessing excavation work is still ongoing here.

Girls just wanna have fun!  Since most of the Great Pyramid is still hidden underground, there wasn't much to see after the Patio de los Altares.  We walked around the complex and soon happened upon a small group of school children who looked like they were having a recess break.  The girls were entertaining themselves by rolling down the hill.  Ayşe thought they were having so much fun that she wanted to be a part of it so with no urging from any us, she joined them! In the end, I don't know who was having more fun - the girls or Ayşe.:-) 

You can just call me "F". After we left the girls with a small bag of candies, we continued our walk and soon arrived at the structure that is simply known as "Building F"  which is a large stone stairway that is designed in an architectural style known as "talud-tablero".  A talud-tablero structure consists of a platform, or the tablero, on top of an inward-sloping surface or, the talud.

Building F consists of three tableros with large taluds facing west. The tableros are decorated with a motif that looks like a woven palm mat. This effect was created by sculpting stones than placing them like a mosaic. For this reason, the structure is also referred to as the Piedra Laborada (Worked Stone) building.

Using stone found from both the taluds and the tableros, archaeologists set about reconstructing Building F, using commercially made cement, resulting in criticism for being overly reconstructed.  I had wondered why this structure did not have the look and feel of ruins dating back centuries!!  They should have just left it alone.

Kids and "F". As we arrived at Building F, so did a large group of school children on a field trip.

Next thing you know, they were dropping their backpacks all around us and took off up the steps of Building F.  They scurried up the steps with ease.

The children stayed up at the top just long enough for their chaperones, who were standing by near us, to take photos.

Then, as quickly as they went up, the came down.  In all of that, there was one poor girl who was having difficulties going up the steps.  I think she had a fear of heights.   Ayşe was on her way to help the girl down when one of her classmates came to her rescue instead.  He held her by the hand and slowly walked her down.  Now, that's a gentleman in the making.

To town we went.  Across from Building F was an entrance that led out to the town.  That's where we headed to next and that's where we came upon a young boy selling chapulines. Of course, I had to buy a bag.   Click here to read the story and see the photos.

We walked a short distance and I was expecting that we would be walking back towards the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, which is the church atop the Great Pyramid, but apparently not.  I realized afterwards that we just didn't have time. I would have enjoyed a visit.

We met back up with Juan Jose who drove a short distance to town and dropped us off.  Thinking back, we could have walked ourselves from Point A to Point B but this is just the first morning with guys so we're being treated with kid gloves.  Hopefully, they'll relax as the trip goes on because I think we would have preferred the walk, especially knowing that we have a long drive ahead of us.

Plaza de la Concordia and the zócalo.  We were still a few blocks from the center of town so we walked the blocks.  I enjoy peeking into all the stores and restaurants and other establishments as I walk a long.  I'm just nosy :-)

We ended up in the Plaza de la Concordia, Cholula's town square.  It was a pretty little square with well tended flower beds.  In the middle, there was a raised podium instead of the water fountain that I commonly see in squares like this one.

From the plaza, we entered the zócalo.  Here, Francisco explained to us about the layout of the zócalo.  Usually a religious building on one side, a government administration building on another side and commercial establishments on the third side.  The establishments would be the buildings fronted by the arches.  Francisco did explain to us the reason behind the inclusion of arches in the architectural design but I've forgotten what it is.

From the zócalo, there was a great view of the church, high atop the Pyramid.

Church time.  Next it was a short walk to the nearby the Iglesia y Convento de San Gabriel (San Gabriel church and monastery) which was established in 1529 by the Franciscans.  The Spaniards destroyed a temple that was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl and constructed the church and monastery atop the ruins.

The current complex was built in the 1540s, beginning with the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) in 1540. The main church was begun in 1549. There is also a third chapel by the name of the Capilla de la Tercera Orden and a cloister.  The monastery is dedicated to the Archangel Gabriel and is one of the largest Franciscan monasteries in Mexico.

We didn't enter the church but we did notice the unusual decoration surrounding the front door.  On closer inspection, we could see that it was a large dried floral arrangement.  I'm thinking it was something that was put up for Semana Santa (Holy Week) and left there. 

We walked around the church and headed towards the Royal Chapel which is also called the Capilla de Naturales (Indigenous Chapel).  The first chapel here was built in 1540, but the current structure dates from the 17th century, with the interior redone in 1947.

Compared to the chapels we had just seen in Puebla, this one was remarkably stark. Maybe the Franciscans were the minimalists because the Dominicans definitely loved to bling it up!

Watch Ayşe as she takes one last look at the chapel before walking back out.  As she swings back around to take in one last view, there's quick shot of the holy water font.  According to Francisco, the font dates from the 16th century and is carved from a single piece of stone.  The base is decorated with flowers and leaves and a simple molding which imitates the cord Franciscans use to tie their habits.

Back outside, Francisco pointed out to us the brightly colored yellow wall that surrounds the church's complex.  Very reminiscent of what you might see in a fort. 

I've since learned that the pointy white things are known as merlons which are a key architectural feature of fort walls. More specifically,

Francisco also pointed out the cloister area of the complex which still functions as a monastery and also houses a library that contains more than 25,000 volumes.

We headed inside the church and had a quick look. I have to admit, after Cuernavaca, Taxco, Mexico City and Puebla, I was reaching my fill of churches.  I only stayed a few minutes inside as did everyone else.

Francisco was definitely on a mission to get us going so we quickly back tracked through town and met back up with Juan Jose.  Time to hit the road!!

Next destination.  Oaxaca!!