Cholula: Exploring the Largest Pyramid in the World

Last Updated on: 30th December 2023, 10:08 pm

Ask most people what the largest pyramid in the world is, and they’ll likely tell you the Great Pyramid of Giza. Narrow it down to Mexico, and you might hear Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun. But Mexico’s – and the entire world’s – largest pyramid, in fact, is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, located about 10 km west of the city of Puebla.

While Cholula’s Great Pyramid may not even be as tall as Teotihuacan’s, it’s still considered the world’s largest by volume, taking up over 4.45 million cubic meters. It’s even so huge that the Spanish presumed it was a natural hill when they conquered the city.

Cholula is an easy day trip from Puebla, and in addition to its archaeological site, the town is home to some beautiful churches that can be visited on the same day.

For information on reaching Cholula from Puebla or Mexico City, check the very end of the article.

Cholula: A Brief History

The first permanent settlers arrived in Cholula around 500 BC, a time when the area was surrounded by lagoons and the land was especially fertile.

And by around the first century BC, Cholula had become one of the most dominant forces in the region. This is also when residents would begin construction on what was to become the largest pyramid in the world.

During the Classic Era (150-600 AD), Cholula developed and expanded concurrently with Teotihuacan. The city then reached its zenith around 600 AD, when it was home to as many as 80,000 residents. While we now mainly associate pre-Hispanic Cholula with its massive pyramid, the city was once as wide as 13 square kilometers.

But as ancient Cholula has now largely been built over, there’s a lot missing from the archaeological record. We can only speculate, then, on what caused Cholula’s fall from power. One popular theory is that it was a result of the rise of nearby Cacaxtla.

Notably, Cacaxtla had been founded by a group of Mayan traders (who also established Xochicalco in Morelos). And this same group also occupied Cholula at one point, possibly even adding the last stage of the pyramid.

The Mayans eventually abandoned the site and it was later taken over by the Tolteca-Chichimeca, a group that splintered off from the collapsing Toltec Empire.

The new inhabitants constructed a large new temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, which would later be demolished and replaced by the Iglesia de San Gabriel.

Cholula would accordingly become a prominent center of Quetzalcoatl worship, and as it also held a strategic position for trade, it remained a populous and thriving city.

In the 16th century, upon the arrival of the Spanish, the Cholulans invited leader Hernán Cortés as an honored guest. But in reality, they, along with the Aztecs, had plans to ambush the conquistadors in the central square.

But the plan was discovered by Cortés’s native translator and advisor, La Malinche. Cortés, in turn, staged his own ambush on the city and its nobles, resulting in thousands of Cholulans being slaughtered.

Later, following the defeat of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish returned to Cholula, destroying its hundreds of temples. The glorious city, in fact, was said to have 365 temples – one for each day of the year. But the Spanish would only build a few dozen churches in their place.

Interestingly, it was years before the Spanish realized that Cholula’s prominent structure, the Great Pyramid, was manmade and not a natural hill. Presumably, it was already covered in overgrowth by that point, but locals still prayed at a temple on its summit. Upon discovering this, the Spanish replaced it with the Church of Our Lady of Remedies, which remains there to this day.

During the early days of Mexican archaeology, archaeologists like Adolph Bandelier and Désiré Charnay visited Cholula and collected artifacts. But comprehensive excavations wouldn’t take place until 1931, when a team led by Ignacio Marquina focused on exploring the Great Pyramid’s interior. But not a whole lot was discovered.

In 1966, new excavations focused on the pyramid’s southern side, which is largely what visitors entering the archaeological zone see today.

Bafflingly, very little excavation work has been carried out in Cholula over the past several decades, despite it being recognized as having the largest pyramid in the world. And all throughout town, you’ll find unexcavated ancient temples that have yet to be touched.

Around the Base of the Largest Pyramid in the World

Cholula’s Great Pyramid was known in antiquity as Tlachihualtepetl, or the ‘Man-Made Mountain.’ It stands at 54 m high and has a massive base which stretches out to around 400 m on each side.

As you’ll immediately notice, a Catholic church now stands at the top. But more on that later.

The Great Pyramid was oriented toward the setting sun on the summer solstice, and it was built over a cave and natural spring. Mesoamerican (among many other) civilizations liked to build pyramids over caves, as they were long believed to be links to the underworld.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

The pyramid was built in four stages over the course of around a thousand years. But as you can see, it remains largely overgrown and unexcavated to this day. And it’s not alone. Just across from it is Cerro Cocoyo, yet another untouched (albeit much smaller) pyramid.

Today, a visit to Cholula’s official archaeological zone largely consists of observing the structures at the south of the Great Pyramid’s base.

Typically, one would also be able to explore the pyramid’s tunnel system upon entering the site, though they were still closed during my visit due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

 Given the sheer size of the pyramid and the fact that some of the former booths are no longer in use, the current entrance is a bit tricky to find (see map above). At the time of writing, the site is open from Tue.-Sat., 09:00 to 18:00, and costs $90 MXN to enter.

The remains of Structure 5

Entering the site and arriving at the south side of the pyramid, what you see can be difficult to wrap your head around. The structures here were built in layers over the course of a millennium, and it can be hard to tell where one structure ends and another begins.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Structure 6's sunken patio

One of the first buildings you’ll encounter is known as Structure 5, a talud-tablero building built during Stage 3 (500-700 AD) of Cholula’s history. The architectural style, which consists of alternating sloped and vertical sections, was innovated at Teotihuacan. 

Just nearby, and partially over it, is Structure 6, which features a deep sunken patio with mosaic flooring.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Structure 4
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Continuing further west, you’ll encounter Structure 4, an elaborate complex which lies just east side of the massive Patio of the Altars. Featuring multiple staircases which seem to lead to nowhere, it’s a confusing – but no doubt interesting – building to look at.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Next, you’ll reach one of the archaeological zone’s highlights, the Patio of the Altars, which was constructed between 200 and 450 AD. Amazingly, its original floor was located about nine meters below the current ground level!

Notably, rather than grow over time, the courtyard underwent numerous modifications, gradually shrinking as its surrounding buildings expanded.

As the name suggests, the courtyard is surrounded by a few altars, some which feature tall stelae. Underneath, archaeologists have discovered offerings of seashells and even burials. You’ll also find a carved stone head.

Cholula Museum
A model of the Patio of the Altars and the Great Pyramid as a whole at the Cholula Museum

Interestingly, in a small yet deep sunken patio to the south of the main courtyard, are the remains of a Mexica (Aztec) altar in which ceramics were placed as offerings. Burials were also discovered underneath – a common practice at the time.

Moving on, to the west of the Patio of the Altars is Building 3, the facade of which was painted with an elaborate painting known as the ‘Drinkers.’ 

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

The mural depicts around 100 figures, all wearing loincloths and drinking out of ceramic vessels. While very difficult to make out on-site, you can find a colorful recreation on display at the Cholula Museum (more below).

Cholula Museum
A recreation of the 'Drinkers' mural

There’s still debate over whether the figures were drinking alcohol (pulque) or a hallucinogenic brew consisting of mushrooms or peyote. In any case, some scenes of the 56 m-long mural depict the participants defecating and vomiting!

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Continuing further west, you’ll reach Structure 2, built of stone and adobe. The upper portion may have functioned as a residential complex.

This is yet another confusing building to look at, featuring multiple layers and staircases that end abruptly.

A body was found buried underneath which likely dates to the time when the Olmeca-Xicallanca (Mayan traders) controlled the city.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Structure 2

Around the corner, you’ll encounter a small altar constructed sometime after the initial abandonment of the Great Pyramid. According to some scholars, Cholula’s later inhabitants went as far as sacrificing children for rain in times of drought. 

Given the discovery of two children’s skulls, such terrible acts may have happened right here.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Walking over to the west side of the pyramid, you’ll reach a platform known as Structure 7. Built around 450 AD, it’s arguably the most impressive building at the Great Pyramid’s base to have been uncovered so far.

It was built over an older semicircular structure, parts of which can still be seen to the side.

With much of the Great Pyramid still unexcavated, we’re left with the bizarre sight of this smooth and precisely carved monument sitting right beneath a crude mound of dirt and grass.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Up to the Top

The above description concludes the ticketed portion of the Cholula archaeological zone. But one of the main highlights of visiting the largest pyramid in the world, of course, is climbing to the top.

Open to all visitors, you’ll find an upward path soon after coming out the exit situated across from Structure 7.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

As you make your way higher, you’ll see spectacular views of Popocatépetl looming over the town. The active volcano is Mexico’s second-highest peak at 5,426 m.

If you’ve done any research on Cholula, you’ve surely seen photos of  the Church of Our Lady of Remedies with Popocatépetl directly behind it. But you won’t get to enjoy this view from the pyramid itself.

While I didn’t know this at the time, the shot can apparently be taken from a bridge overpass near the Universidad de Las Américas (see map above). But if you only have a smartphone, don’t bother, as a telephoto zoom lens is a must.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Overlooking the main archaeological zone
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Also from the top of the largest pyramid in the world, you can enjoy views of Cholula’s numerous churches, including the Iglesia de San Gabriel (more below).

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
A view of the Iglesia de San Gabriel

Reaching the top, you’ll encounter the Church of Our Lady of Remedies (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios). Like many churches built over pre-Hispanic structures, it was constructed by the Spanish in the 16th century to demonstrate the dominance of the Catholic faith over native traditions.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Currently, the church – and Cholula as a whole, acorrding to local belief – is protected by an image of Mary known as Our Lady of the Remedies, or Virgen de los Remedios.

It was first brought to Mexico in 1519 by a captain named Juan Rodríguez de Villafuerte, who took it from the Basque Country.

The image is the star of numerous legends that date it back to at least 700 AD, reminding one of the elaborate chronicles detailing images’ backstories in places like Southeast Asia.

According to legend, before the church here was built, Rodríguez de Villafuerte hid it within a pre-Hispanic temple atop the pyramid while he and his men were escaping the Aztecs. It was later discovered by natives, who’ve revered it ever since.

Presently, each year, the Floriculturist Festival, or Fiesta de Floricultores, takes place in Cholula to give thanks to the Virgen do los Remedios for her protection. And during the festivities, a religious procession parades the image around the streets before she’s eventually returned to the church.

The lasting reverence for the image, and thus the church in which she resides, is likely a major reason why the situation surrounding excavations at the Great Pyramid is so complicated.

Regional Museum of Cholula
A photo of the Virgen de los Remedios from the Cholula Regional Museum
Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Frankly speaking, the church itself is nothing special, and not particularly beautiful compared with the other colonial churches around town.

While nobody’s going to ask me, I would be in favor of dismantling the church if that’s what was required to fully excavate the largest pyramid in the world. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other suitable homes nearby in which the Virgen de los Remedios can reside.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
Mt. Iztaccihuatl

Walking around the platform, you can enjoy various scenic vantage points, including the mountains of Iztaccihuatl and Malinche. And from the back of the church, you can even get a clear view of Puebla.

But don’t linger here for too long, as there’s still plenty more to see around the area.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World
The churches of Cholula with downtown Puebla in the background

Around Cholula

The Great Pyramid isn’t exactly in Cholula’s center, but the central square can be reached in about ten minutes on foot. On the way, be sure to stop for a look at the Iglesia de San Gabriel.

As mentioned above, when the Tolteca-Chichimecas took over the region, they constructed a large new Quetzalcoatl temple separate from the pyramid. The stone from the destroyed temple was then used to construct this massive church in 1529.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

Cholula has a charming main square and central park. It’s lined by numerous restaurants, and if you started your explorations of the pyramid in the morning, this would be a good place to stop for lunch.

If you’re not especially hungry, you can proceed from the pyramid to the town’s two main museums, both of which are located near the archaeological site.

Cholula Largest Pyramid in the World

The Cholula Museum

Entry to the Cholula Museum is free when you present your ticket for the ruins. While it could probably use an upgrade soon, it’s still worth a visit for its comprehensive background info on the ancient city.

The objects on display largely consist of ceramics from various phases of Cholula’s past. And speaking of phases, archaeologists have broken down Cholula’s history into four periods, with placards at the museum providing summaries of each.

Cholula Museum
Cholula Museum

Originally, Cholula’s ceramics were largely influenced by Teotihuacan, but the style changed throughout the centuries as new groups settled in the region.

As mentioned above, much of the ancient city has yet to be excavated, so there aren’t as many findings as one would expect for such an important pre-Hispanic metropolis.

Cholula Museum
Cholula Museum

As pictured above, other highlights of the museum include a model of the Great Pyramid and recreations of some of the ancient mural paintings.

The Regional Museum of Cholula

Just nearby is the Regional Museum of Cholula, which requires a separate ticket to enter ($42 MXN, closed Mon.). If you’re at all interested in Mesoamerican archaeology, a visit here is absolutely worth it.

Cholula Museum

Not only will you learn general info about the region of Cholula, but the museum features a surprisingly comprehensive overview of all of Mexico’s great pre-Hispanic civilizations. You’ll even find artifacts belonging to each.

Regional Museum of Cholula
A stone sculpture of Ehecatl from Cholula

You’ll also find pieces from the colonial era, as well as contemporary paintings and modern folk art. Unfortunately, DSLR’s aren’t allowed in the museum, though smartphone photography is fine.

Before and after your visit, you can also observe yet another unexcavated pre-Hispanic temple across the road.

Cholula Museum

Cholula's Top Churches

Some visitors may want to call it a day after visiting the locations featured above. But if you’re still up for some adventure, Cholula is home to two especially gorgeous churches that architecture enthusiasts won’t want to miss.

Unfortunately, they’re not centrally located. You’ll want to take an Uber (15 min.) to Templo de Santa María Tonantzintla, from which you can walk (20 min.) to San Francisco Acatepec. Your best bet to return to Puebla will then be to take another Uber. 

Cholula Churches
Cholula Churches

The Templo de Santa María Tonantzintla was built from the 16th-19th centuries in a unique style dubbed ‘indigenous Baroque.’ The church was built over a former temple to the goddess Tonantzintla, and the stunning carvings within feature imagery such as dark-skinned saints and ears of corn.

It was even called one of the world’s most unique churches by none other than Aldous Huxley. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside. 

Cholula Churches

After 20-25 minutes on foot, you’ll arrive at the colorful San Francisco Acatepec. Even if you’ve visited churches all over Mexico, this facade, entirely covered in ceramic tiles, is one-of-a-kind.

Construction began in the 1500s and finished in the year 1760. The stunning mosaics, made of Talavera pottery, were placed along the facade over the course of a century.

Even after a visit to the largest pyramid in the world, this church remains a sight to behold!

Cholula Churches
Cholula Churches

As mentioned, the best option to return to Puebla is to take an Uber. I tried my best to find the nearest public bus stop, but the information provided by the MoovIt app was incorrect.

A helpful local saw me standing around and informed me that no bus to Puebla would be coming. And so I hailed an Uber, which luckily arrived just before a downpour.

Additional Info

Cholula is only 10 km away from Puebla and you have a few different options to get there.

As of 2017, visitors can visit the largest pyramid in the world via the Puebla-Cholula Tourist Train. The station in Puebla is located at the intersection of Calle 11 Nte. And Av. 18 Pte to the north of the Centro Historico.

The journey takes about 40 minutes and the train will drop you off right by the archaeological zone. Unfortunately, however, there are only a few daily departures on weekdays.

There are also said to be buses running from CAPU, and I noticed numerous colectivos with ‘Cholula’ written on them in the area outside the bus station.

However, if you’re not staying near the tram station, the easiest option would be to simply take an Uber to Cholula. The ride is short enough to be relatively cheap, while you’ll be able to get dropped off right outside the ruins.

If you happen to be coming from Mexico City instead of Puebla, you can find direct buses from the TAPO station run by the Estrella Roja company, though be sure to confirm the timetable in advance.

Or, if you’d rather not deal with the hassle of public transport, consider this highly-rated tour from Mexico City, which takes you to the highlights of both Cholula and Puebla over the course of a day.

The most beautiful part of Puebla is undoubtedly its Centro Historico. And this is also where you’re going to find most of the city’s cultural landmarks. What’s more, is that there are plenty of hotel options to choose from here, such as the highly-rated Hotel Boutique Casareyna (high-end), Hotel Diana (midrange) and Hotel Centro Historico (budget).

But would there any reason to not stay in the center? Yes, and for two main reasons. First of all, Puebla is not just a destination in its own right, but the city is one of the best bases for day trips in all of Mexico.

Secondly, the main bus station, CAPU, is unfortunately located quite far from the center. While I originally wanted to stay in the historical district, I realized that there were at least five day trips I wanted to go on that would require a visit to CAPU – not to mention my arrival and departure days.

And so I found an Airbnb within fifteen minutes on foot from the station. In the end, I’m really glad that I did, as it saved me a lot of time and hassle.

Unfortunately, however, the whole area around the bus station is not the most charming, to say the least (though it did at least feel safe). Compared with the historical center, it felt like another world.

While I didn’t have the best experience at my Airbnb for various reasons, you may want to consider Hotel Central, located right next to the station. I would end up staying here during a later trip, and while it was very basic and a bit rundown, I found it fine overall for the price.

Puebla has no tram network, and the drive between the center and CAPU is at least 20 minutes (only if traffic is perfectly smooth). Deciding where to stay, then, all depends on how many day trips you’ll be taking and how extra early you’d be willing to depart to ensure you don’t miss your buses.

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