When it comes to pyramids, Egypt hogs the limelight. But the towering, triangle-shaped edifices are not solely found in the pharaohs’ old stomping grounds — Sudan, Guatemala, and Iraq all have grand pyramids worthy of travelers’ attention. In fact, the largest of them all is in Cholula, Mexico.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl, is 177 feet tall and its base covers 45 acres — making it the largest monument ever constructed by any civilization on the planet. The enormous structure is located in a small town, just 80 miles from Mexico City, so it’s an easy day trip from the capital. Here is everything you need to know about the largest pyramid in the world and how to visit it.
The hidden pyramid
There’s a reason why the Great Pyramid of Cholula is not widely known: It is partially covered in dirt and topped with a Spanish colonial church. If you don’t pay attention, it looks like a large hill.
Legend has it that the Aztecs, when learning about the Spaniards advancing toward their city in 1519, worked day and night to cover the remains of the abandoned pyramid with dirt, to protect it from getting destroyed. Although built long before their time, the Aztecs still considered the edifice sacred.
The stratagem worked and no one suspected the existence of the pyramid until the end of the 19th century. When the soil used to disguise it as a simple hill started to erode, archaeologists recognized that there was a structure underneath. But there was no digging it up — in the late 16th century, the Spaniards had built the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (the Church of Our Lady of Remedies) atop the fake mound of dirt and the church was a holy site protected by the state.
So, the experts found a way around the Catholic house of worship and dug about five miles of tunnels under it, through the hill, to explore, date, and understand the structure that had been hidden for so long.
How did this pyramid get to its size? Who built it?
The Great Pyramid of Cholula was built over hundreds of years, starting in 200 BC until the 9th century AD. Several ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, the Olmec and Toltec among them, built it in six phases during this time. They each added a new layer to the existing pyramid.
But, for reasons that remain unknown to this day, the people who used to populate this geographical zone all moved on, and by the time the Aztecs arrived in the area, around the 1300s, they found the structure abandoned. With no idea where it came from or who built it, they credited one of the seven giants from their creation mythology, Xelhua, with building the pyramid.
Visiting the pyramid and the archaeological site
About half a mile of the excavated tunnels have been transformed into a well-lit, arched passageway that is open to the public. Though you’ll find no signs to explain the structure, walking the underground maze helps get an understanding of the immense size of the pyramid. On either side of the main tunnel, niches showcase ancient artifacts, like clay figurines, found during the excavations.
The tunnels start on the north side of the pyramid, cut through its center and emerge on the south side, at the entrance of a large archaeological site.
Although the main entrance takes visitors through the tunnel, a pathway leads around the structure directly to the archaeological site for those who don’t wish to go underground.
The first stop is the Southeast Plaza, where visitors can observe a few excavated elements, some of them showing the different phases of construction. One of the highlights of the plaza is a long mural, representing geometric figures in red and ochre, protected by a sheet metal roof.
Following the footpath along this area, visitors reach the Courtyard of the Altars, a complex of buildings that once marked the main entrance to the pyramid. This structure is a large open area bordered on the north side by the hill/pyramid. On the east and west, it is comprised of two raised platforms, the Southwest Plaza and the Patio of the Altars. The Patio of the Altars is surrounded by four altars. The second altar displays two feathered serpents, representations of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, carved along its base.
Farther along the footpath, visitors can climb a small tiered pyramid. From the top, while you’re still way below the top of Quetzalcoatl, you’ll see a large part of the modern town of Cholula. Recently reconstructed, this small pyramid was one of the newer layers of the main structure, dating from around 500 to 700 AD.
Continuing on the trail around the site, visitors will reach the modern gate and stairway leading to the top of the pyramid.
Topped by a church
The Spanish built the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios on the highest point in the city, ignorant to the fact that the largest pyramid in the world lay beneath the soil. The church dominates its surroundings — the active volcano Popocatépetl is its only rival in the landscape.
Mass is still held in this ornate Catholic church every Sunday. Those visiting the pyramid on a Sunday can hear the music and mass all the way on the bottom of the hill/pyramid.
On a clear day, the views from the courtyard surrounding the church are spectacular. Visitors can not only see the entire town of Cholula, but also the surrounding volcanoes, Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and La Malinche.
How to get there
Though little known, the Great Pyramid of Cholula, in the state of Puebla, is easy to reach. Fly into Puebla City and then take a taxi to San Andrés Cholula. (You need to mention San Andrés, since there are two different towns named Cholula.) If you’d rather use public transportation, there are local buses between Puebla and Cholula.
Estrella Roja has a bus service from Mexico City’s TAPO bus station to Plaza San Diego in San Andrés Cholula. The bus stops close to the pyramid; you’ll see the ticket booth and entrance as soon as you get off.
There is an entrance fee for the archaeological site, which includes the walk through the tunnel. Entrance is free on Sundays.
You can also climb the pyramid for free without visiting the archaeological site. A different entrance, always open, leads via a paved pathway to the top. Though a gate to the church grounds is locked overnight, you can walk up to the top of the hill/pyramid and get a feel for its size and have a great view of Cholula below.