Friday, September 12, 2014

Santa Maria Tonantzintla : Inside Mexico's Most Mysterious Church and Cholula

Mexico is spilling with nature, charming villages and bustling cities. But if you travel between cities you will certainly come across something beautiful and unexpected on your way.

cholula and santa maria tonantzintla header

After our one night stay in Puebla, we had originally planned to head straight back to Mexico City. But after talking to some locals, we were heavily recommended to do a small day trip to Puebla's neighbouring city, Cholula. In Mexico, Cholula is known as the city of 365 churches (but we learnt from our tour guide there are in fact only 37). The locals of Puebla told us we must must must visit the church on top of the Aztec pyramid and we must must must visit Santa Maria Tonantzintla.

Since we still had plenty of time left in Mexico City, we booked the trip.

Depending on your budget and time constraints there are a number of different tour options you can choose. Day trips from Mexico City to Cholula are even offered because they are so close. Because we planned to drive back to Mexico City that night we chose the cheaper half day option which took us to only the most important places in Cholula.

talavera ceramics potplants on wall

On our way to Cholula we were taken to a Talavera pottery factory on the outskirts of Puebla. Apparently, authentic Talavera only comes from around Puebla because the clay in this area is used in the traditional production process for over 500 years. Only the most unique and intricate designs are found and made in Puebla (such as the gorgeous wall plant holders above). But damn, its expensive - the small plant holder was $40USD. So if you want authentic Talavera be prepared to pay big bucks for it. After an hour at the factory we made our way to Cholula.

My First Impression of Downtown Cholula? It reminded me a lot of San Miguel de Allende. But in a manufactured inauthentic way. Don't get me wrong, downtown Cholula is very pretty (the streets are a lot cleaner too), but it just does not have the charm of San Miguel. But this isn't why we came to Cholula. The best was yet to come.

cholula building la lunita

Cholula is home to the largest pre-Columbian pyramid in Mexico. Actually no, not just Mexico, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is the largest pyramid (by volume) in the world (bigger than the Egyptian pyramids!) However, because it has not been fully excavated and nature has taken over you can only see part of the pyramid at the bottom. From the distance it looks like a natural hill. On the top of the pyramid is a church which the Spanish built to impose "superiority" over the existing native architecture.

The church on top, Church of our Lady of Remedies is quaint and pretty, with a stunning view of the surrounding city and the two volcanoes nearby, but you have to work for it. The hike is very steep and had me huffing and puffing after the half hour trip to the top.

Church of our Lady of Remedies cholula

Finally I made it to the top... I was so grateful there was a little convenience store so I could buy a cold drink. In one word, I would describe the church as quaint. The interior has a simple, yet impressive design. Totally worth the hike.

Church of our Lady of Remedies cholula
Church of our Lady of Remedies cholula

But people don't hike to the top just to see the church. Cholula's proximity to Mexico's most famous volcano, Popocatepetl makes the top of the pyramid the perfect place to catch a glimpse of its snow covered dome. Although we were lucky to get a perfect view of Popocatepetl in the middle of the day, it is typically recommended to get here first thing in the morning to get a picture perfect view before mist begins to cover the sky. Popocatepetl is still active so the sky can get pretty misty and cloudy from time to time. So now you have two awesome reasons to visit Cholula - see the largest pyramid in the world and get up close and personal with the tallest volcano in Mexico.

Popocatepetl mexico cholula

How About a Traditional Mexican Snack.... Fried Grasshoppers anyone? At the bottom of the pyramid there are many vendors selling snacks, drinks and fresh fruit. Yes I tried one and yes it was delicious.

grasshoppers in cholula

Next we visited the church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla. The outside is nothing special. Was this really the church everyone was raving about? But as soon as I stepped into the church I was breathtaken. This has to be the most beautiful church I have ever visited. The decoration covering every wall is so intricate and detailed, like nothing I had ever seen before. It was like an explosion of indigenous baroque with the decorative design, faces and nature all in one.

I Was Completely and Utterly Enchanted.

We were told this church was built by the indigenous people, and is completely unique in Mexico (maybe even the entire world). An interesting little nugget of information - apparently the indigenous artists of the church incorporated their own Aztec gods into the wall decorations so they could worship their own gods and the god imposed onto them at the same time. I think I've found a new favourite place in Mexico!

Santa Maria Tonantzintla exterior cholula
Santa Maria Tonantzintla interior beautiful
Santa Maria Tonantzintla interior beautiful

Finally it was time for our journey to end. All in all, I think Cholula is a great place to take a day trip from either Puebla or Mexico City. It's a small city with a lot to offer- pyramids, volcanoes and beautiful intricate churches. Go out of your way and budget a day to spend in Cholula and visit Santa Maria Tonantzintla!

And here is a truck filled with piƱatas (spotted on the drive home). Can't get anymore Mexican than that.

truck cholula with pinata

Image attribution:
"Popocatepetl" by Russ Bowling // CC BY 2.0 * ; "Cholula, Mexico" by Russ Bowling // CC BY 2.0 *
* changes were made to the original materials

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