Cholula, Mexico

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When I told my husband Tony that my Mom and I were planning a trip to Cholula, Mexico, he immediately asked me if we were going to visit the factory where the famous hot sauce is produced.  I told him it wasn't on our itinerary but that I would make sure to bring him back a big bottle in any case. I had flown down to my parent's house in Mexico City to deliver our cat Snow, who my parents are kind enough to cat-sit every time we need to be traveling for a few months.  My Mom had recently been doing some reading about Cholula and decided we should take a weekend getaway together.

Cholula is only about two hours away from Mexico City, just west of the modern city of Puebla.  It has a fascinating history that is often overlooked by visitors to Mexico: tourists flock to Teotihuacan, the site of the famous Sun and Moon pyramids built by the Aztecs, when in reality Cholula was the site of an equally important Mesoamerican city and also boasts the largest pyramid by volume in the world.  That's right, even bigger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

The pyramid  is crowned on top with a church called La Virgen de los Remedios (Virgen of remedies)-- when the Spanish conquerers came to Mexico in the mid 1500's they decided to show their power by building Catholic structures on top of all the Native worshiping sites.  Today, you have to be decently close to even realize that there is a pyramid underneath-- from far away the overgrown site just looks like a giant hill with a church on top.

Another geographical detail that makes Cholula so stunning is the city's proximity to the active volcano Popocatepetl and the dormant Iztaccihuatl, both covered in snow year-round.  Aztec mythology has it that Iztaccihuatl was a princess that fell in love with the warrior Popocatepetl, and waited for him to return from battle so they could be married.  After being falsely told that Popocatepetl had perished in battle, she died from grief, and when her lover returned home to find her dead, he took her body outside of the city and buried her.  The gods then covered both of them with snow and changed them into mountains.  That is why Iztacchihuatl is often called "The Sleeping Lady" (the mountain peaks really do look like one) and Popocatepetl still spews spoke in his anger and sadness.

Growing up in Mexico City I used to love catching a glimpse of the snowy peaks on a clear day, or even driving out into the country to cut down our Christmas tree near the base of Popocatepetl.  Today it is less often that you can see the peaks from the city, so getting close to them again was a nice treat.

We ended up having both a stimulating and relaxing weekend in Cholula, and I was so glad that we went to re-discover this city that has so much to offer.  Below are my suggestions of what to do, see and eat, if you ever have the time to plan a trip yourself.

Where To Stay:

1) Estrella de Belem B&B: We chose to stay at this charming little property, which is conveniently located in the middle of town a few blocks from the Zocalo, or main plaza.  The rooms are built around a grassy courtyard, and steps take you up to a spectacular rooftop area with a pool and jacuzzi.  From up top you can see the nearby archaelogical site and church, as well as both volcanoes.  Breakfast is complementary and spectacular: we started out with fresh green juices, fruit skewers with chocolate dipping sauce, and continued with poached shrimp over gruyere eggs and fresh sweet breads.

What To Do:

1) Visit the archaeological site and the Virgen del los Remedios Church: You can easily spend half a day exploring this area and all it has to offer.  Start by walking along the paths that lead you around the pyramid-- there are good descriptions in both English and Spanish that explain the timeline and construction of the various structures.  Next take a trip inside the pyramid through tunnels dug by archaeologists and then visit the small but interesting museum across the street.  You can end by hiking up to the Virgen de los Remedios church on top of the pyramid for spectacular views of the entire region. When we visited, we were lucky enough to join in a procession leading from the church and down into the city, filled with interesting offerings of saints and live music.

2) Take a trolley tour of the city: A double-decker trolley tour leaves the Zocalo (between Hidalgo and Miguel Aleman) every few hours for a 1 1/2 guided trip around Cholula.  It's only given in Spanish, but it's still worth the trip even if you don't speak the language.  (There is apparently also a nighttime trolley tour on weekends).  Our trolley made two stops where we were able to get out and explore, the most interesting being the church of Santa Maria Tonanzintla.  Before the Spanish arrived, the locals revered Tonantzin, the god of corn.

When they were ordered by the Spanish to build a church, they slyly incorporated images of their beliefs into the decor.   There are hundreds of faces of indigenous children with bulging eyes and feathered plumes, along with representations of many local Mexican fruits like papayas, tejocotes, zapotes and chili peppers. Apparently the Spanish were oblivious to what they were doing! After getting off the trolley you can wander around the Zocalo (it's the second largest in Mexico) and maybe stick your head into Capilla Royal (the royal chapel).  If it seems to you that there are an over abundance of churches, you're not wrong-- Spanish conquerer Hernan Cortes once wrote home to Spain that Cholula had a church for "every day of the year".

Where To Eat:

1) Cos Cos: The concierge at our B&B recommended this local place just a few blocks from our hotel and the Zocalo.  It is obviously the "happening" spot in Cholula and for good reason-- it is located in an old mansion and full of funky art and decor and several trees growing through the building are covered in white lights.  The menu is modern, healthy and tasty (think interesting pizzas, pastas and salads).  The drink menu is standard but good-- we enjoyed an after dinner drink blended with vodka, milk and mazapan (a peanut candy similar to marzipan).

2) La Quinta Luna: For a more elegant and typical meal, reserve a table at this centrally located B&B.  We opted for an earlier dinner and were seated in the lovely courtyard surrounded by beautiful flowers and several running fountains.  We began with avocado soup with chilled shrimp, then I had a delicious red snapper with fresh vegetables and my Mom had a salmon fillet with a tamarind chile sauce.  Both were very simple but extremely tasty, and the fresh warm bread with chive butter was an excellent accompaniment.

Where To Drink:

1) La Lunita: This place has the ultimate location kitty-corner to the pyramid and church.  Get a seat on the upstairs balcony with an unbeatable view of the site and of all the bustling action surrounding it. La Lunita is supposedly famous for having the "best Sangria in the world" (it was good but I've had better).  A more interesting choice was a drink made with Sidra (a local cider), brandy and grenadine.  On your way out, make sure to admire a replica of the famous mural "The Drinkers" that was discovered inside the pyramid.

Other Things To Try:

1) Cacao: a cold blended beverage made with raw chocolate that is similar to a frapuccino!

2) Orejas de Elefante (elephant ears): enormous tortillas filled with beans, sauce and cheese.

3) Chapulines (grasshoppers): fried and most likely covered in chili.