MEXICO — Cholula in the last years has been taking over from Puebla City as the place to go on a Friday and Saturday evening.It attracts younger poblanos (people from the state of Puebla) for its much more accessible prices, especially for a beer and light snack to the tune of live trova music underneath the arches, and it appeals to tourists of all ages and nationalities for its relaxed pace. The rhythm of life in Cholula provides a contrast to the city of Puebla which is choked with traffic during the day and not wholly comfortable by night – with parts of the center dark and deserted and most of the action going on along Avenida Juárez.
Established touring patterns used to whisk visitors in and out of Cholula as a morning or afternoon trip from Puebla. This made sense because the later city was better served by hotels and eateries, and had so many sights — churches and chapels, ex-monasteries, talavera factories, the great Palafox library, the famous kitchen where “mole was invented,” museums, tiled facades, sweet shops — you cannot see them all even in a long weekend.
Contributing to the rise of Cholula, it that the smaller city’s infrastructure has soared and established itself in the last two years. Where there was one dingy and overpriced central hotel under the arches, one conference-type establishment with pleasant gardens but too far to walk from the zócalo (and not cheap), or the pricey Club Med by the archeological site, now there is an international quality hotel which runs excellent tours, offers discounts to scholars and is the favorite place to eat — even drawing people from Puebla. Useful and clear signposts went up two years ago, a simple touch that makes a huge difference.
Before, you would get to Cholula and no one knew if there was a tourism office, but would kindly point you in the direction of the Gran Pirámide de Cholula, the world’s largest in volume. The result was that this was often the only sight visitors would see. The location of the site museum, on the other side of the road and a few steps further out of town, and poor signposting, would mean that many visitors who scaled the pyramid didn’t even know the museum existed – even though their admission ticket covered both places (Zona Arqueológica del Gran Pirámide de Cholula, Calzada San Andrés, at Calle 2 Nte., Tel: 01 – 222 – 247 9081. Open 9am to 6pm).
Now there is a local museum, called Casa del Caballero Aguila, on the corner with the zócalo (4 Ote. #1, Tel: 01 222 261 9053, open 9am – 3pm, closed Sat. and Mon. $35 pesos, admission free Sun. and Thurs). Visitors no longer miss out on the Ex-Convento de San Gabriel, or San Gabriel Friary (1540), with its huge Moorish-style “Capilla Real” (1575) with 49 domes and seven naves. The Monastery here is still inhabited by about 15 Franciscan monks who in 1986 agreed for part of their building to be renovated and converted into Cholula’sFranciscan Library, a spellbinding place that can be visited on advance request.
There is greater awareness of nearby treasures, in particular the two colonial churches of Sta. María Tonanzintla (famous throughout Mexico for its indigenous work and imagery) and San Francisco Acatepec (with one of the best preserved polychromatic facades in the country). They are only about 15 minutes away by car and the tourism office will help people find their way there if they do not have their own wheels (Dirección de Turismo Municipal de San Pedro Cholula, Tel: (01) 222 – 261 2393, Calle 12 Ote, esquina 4 Nte., San Pedro Cholula. Open Mon. – Fri. 9 – 7; Sat and Sun 9 – 2).
PUEBLA AND CHOLULA
Another change in recent years, with urban spillage and soaring road traffic, is that Cholula is no longer a comfortable 15 minutes from Puebla, but often half an hour, and sometimes the journey takes more. Even though it is still an affordable taxi hop away from Puebla, this is yet another reason to linger in Cholula rather than treat it as a hit-and-run destination.
Puebla is an outstanding tourism attraction, almost overwhelmed with treasures, but it is also a major city. Cholula is relaxing; you take a deep breath, you look at the sky, you do not feel you have to hurry.
This is in part because of the huge zócalo, one of the largest in the country, whose wide space maintains a calm and stateliness that cannot easily be invaded by cars or even vendors. It also has a rural ambience, especially in the attractive area of San Andrés Cholula, the more indigenous parish, which is poorer but at least as rich in tradition as San Pedro Cholula, with which it competes (Dirección de Turismo y Archivo Municipal, Gobierno Municipal de San Andres Cholula, Tel: (01) 222 – 247 8606 ext 205, Avenida 16 de Septiembre 102, San Andrés Cholula). v
Cholula is full of Prehispanic legacies. For example, visitors with a sharp ear might soon notice that the town’s ten neighborhoods retain their Pre-Hispanic title, politely preceded by a newer Christian name, such as San Miguel Tianguisnahuac or Santa María Xixitla. These names roll poetically from local tongues – abbreviations are almost never heard.
Because the Indian nobility of Cholula – or Chollollan, as it was before – was converted in the first wave of the new colonial order they were allowed certain privileges, such as wearing western clothing, riding horses and using the title of “Don”. As a result of this, and other forces consolidating local pride and tradition, many Cholutecans still use their pre-Hispanic surnames, often combined with a Spanish surname, such as former town stewards, Raymundo Tecanhuehue López and Humberto Tolama Tototzintle.
These stewards or “mayordomos” were established as part of the Spanish town council, and their power is still alive in many towns of the Valley of Mexico. However, in Cholula, the town chronicler still refers to the barrios ascalpulli, the pre-Conquest political organization of neighborhoods.
The durability of such traditions and the strength of the positions of stewardship will escape the eyes of a casual visitor. But if you visit Cholula on either of its two major fiestas, September 8th (when the Virgin de Los Remedios is lowered from her Sanctuary and carried around Cholula in a series of processions) or around November 30th (the day of San Andres) you will notice a fervor and density of social participation that make an immediate impact.
LOCATION — Cholula is located in the state of PueblaTRANSPORTATION — Authorized taxis cost around 80 pesos from CAPU (Puebla’s main bus station) to Cholula, and about 100 pesos to return. RECOMMENDATION — For those interested in the 2,000-year endurance of this ancient city, look out for the beautifully illustrated book: Cholula: The Sacred City by Anamaría Ashwell.