Churches of Cholula

By staff January 1, 2005

Like most people who love Mexico, I have my favorite town. And, no, it's not Cancun (although Cancun can be a lot of fun.) And, no, it's not San Miguel Allende, either, where all the rich Americans live. It's not even Merida, which is so exotic that one theory says the indigenous people there are descended from space aliens.

No, my favorite town is barely known in the United States, and when its name does come up, it's as a brand of hot sauce. But since both my sister and my mother live there now, I've come to know it quite well. And in Mexico, the town of Cholula is famous. For thousands of years it's been a spiritual center, a place of pilgrimage, and, so the legend goes, home to 365 churches, one, as they say, "for each day of the year." In reality it has only about 40. But still, it does seem a lot; and if you're one of those Catholics who make the sign of the cross every time you pass a church, you're going to be very busy indeed, as was a cab driver I had the last time I was there. Only he made the Mexican version, which involves doing it three times and then kissing your thumb. It got to the point where he was driving with one hand.

Cholula has the distinction of being the oldest continuously inhabited town in the Western Hemisphere. People have been living there for anywhere from 8,000 to 25,000 years, depending on whom you're asking. It's where they domesticated corn. In its present-day incarnation, it's a sprawling town of 40,000, built on a grid pattern, all one- or two-story buildings, each built right on the street. I can't really call it pretty, as much as I would like to, and when people ask me what it looks like I have to explain that this is the way the Arabs built towns, and the Arabs taught the Spanish and the Spanish taught the Mexicans and that's why Cholula bears an uncanny resemblance to Fallujah.

But Fallujah doesn't have the volcanoes. Two 18-thousand- foot-high volcanoes hover over Cholula, and one is still quite active. This is the famous Popocatepetl, which is the first and only Nauhuatl word that tourists learn how to pronounce. Popo sets off plumes of smoke, and one frequently looks up to see how badly it's erupting that day. Sometimes you can hear it making loud noises, and when things are bad you have to clean ash off your windshield. When things are really bad its rim glows red at night. I stand there at the window, staring at it and desperately trying to remember the volcano evacuation route.

The first time I came to Cholula, which is two hours from Mexico City, I was naturally anxious to see its famous pyramid, as it is not only impossibly ancient (it's thought to be the home of Quetzacoatl, the key figure in most pre-Columbian religions) but also the largest pyramid in the world, larger than those in Egypt when measured in volume. But even though I had been told it was right in the middle of town, it was nowhere to be seen. There was just this town with all these churches, with everything surrounding a small mountain. Then I realized that the mountain was the pyramid. It is so old, so layered, that it has all but returned to the earth. They've uncovered one side so you can get an idea of the stonework and the terracing, and you can tour the tunnels and climb to the top, where they have built-surprise-a church. But as pyramids go, it takes a little squinting to try and imagine it in its glory days.

Daily life in Cholula is daily life in a Mexican town, and that is its great appeal. The streets are packed day and night. Every corner has a little restaurant with the delicious smell of tacos wafting out, and each block is lined with mom-and-pop stores selling everything you could possibly need in life-hardware, school supplies, teeth extractions, coffins. There are beggars (but not that many), and the main square has a long arcade with restaurants where you can sit and watch the tough, clever Mexican street dogs trot by. The main square is also just about the only green, leafy place in town, and I make a point to drop by once a day. It's a university town, which means they're used to foreigners and the little children don't point at you and laugh, as they do to me in many Mexican towns. There is an excellent municipal museum on the plaza, and down at the other end an old Franciscan monastery (still in use) that houses the worldwide archives of the Franciscan order. Next to it is the Capilla Real, which dates back to the 1500s and is modeled on the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, complete with 49 domes.

Mexico is most interesting when you plan your visit around a theme-the old silver mining towns of Guanajuato and Queretaro, for example. You could compare and contrast. Or perhaps a tour of the Mayan archaeological sights. Maybe even Lana Turner's Acapulco. Cholula is the logical headquarters for day tours to the best of the Mexican colonial churches, and while I admit this doesn't sound as much fun as tequila-soaked afternoons poolside at the Villa Vera, you will be a better person for it.

The area surrounding Cholula probably has the best examples of these remarkable buildings. And let me emphasize that these are not little wayside chapels or rustic adobe missions like the Alamo. These are great big churches, some the size of cathedrals, many meant to be fortresses against Indian attack. Their naves can soar stories and their walls can be 10 feet thick. They're the country cousins of the great European churches of the period, and while it sounds incongruous that we should have any significant Renaissance architecture in the Western Hemisphere, we do-and the best of it is within easy reach of Cholula. Don't miss Acatepec, Huejotzingo, Atlixco or Calpan. And above all, don't miss Santa Maria Tonanzintla, with its incredible interior of gold leaf and angles. It's considered the icon of the artistic synthesis that occurred when the Old World collided with the New.

There are two excellent places to stay in Cholula. La Quinta Luna is a bed and breakfast in an elegantly remodeled old building downtown, and the Villas Archeologicas is a pretty resort set down incongruously in the middle of a cornfield. The view of the pyramid from this angle is striking, and you really get a feeling of some mystical place of long ago.

Still, after all the churches and pyramids, my favorite building in Cholula remains the insane asylum. It's a neoclassical building dating from 1910, rather handsome and dignified and set at the base of the pyramid. I spend time in its gardens in the afternoon, feeding a one-eyed cat that seems to live there. Every once in a while an inmate escapes and they get out an old VW Beetle with a great big loudspeaker on top and drive through the streets saying, "Attention. A lunatic has just escaped. He was last seen wearing a blue shirt and brown pants . . ."

Just another day in a town that has seen it all, many times over.

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