There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 20 November 2017

Cholula, a Big Pyramid and Fresh Grasshoppers: Part 3 of South East from Mexico City

Catching the Bus from Mexico City to Puebla

We arrived at Mexico City’s Terminal Oriente bus station in plenty of time for our 10.15 bus to Puebla. The electronic sign over the gate failed to mention a 10.15 and when we checked in our cases heads were shaken, teeth sucked and 10.15 was crossed out and replaced by 10.45. The sign showed no 10.45 either.

The relevant corner of Mexico City's Oriente bus station

The 9.30 bus came and went as advertised, but later times proved fictional, no bus actually arriving until 11.30. We joined the queue, the driver surveyed our tickets, sucked his teeth and shook his head. The luggage check-in man appeared to argue our case, and as no one else had tickets for seats 7 and 8 we were allowed on.
Puebla is 100km south east of Mexico City

Curtains were drawn, a film started and the bus set off – nobody but us showing the least interest in the outside world, though there was actually little to see beyond Mexico City’s multi-lane ring road and ninety minutes of autopista. The bus was comfortable, the road in good condition and we made up a little time. At Puebla, G, who had been waiting with mounting concern, found us and drove us to our hotel in the city’s centro historico.
Lynne walks down the road outside our hotel, Centro Historico, Puebla

I will leave the delights of our characterful hotel until the next post, which is devoted to Puebla. G departed while we strolled down the road to find a lunch. Sitting outside a café (the day was warming up nicely) in a small square I had a cheese enchilada and Lynne ate some tacos - corn dough products seemed unavoidable. G reappeared at the agreed time and took us to Cholula.

Cholula and a Giant Pyramid

Cholula is a city of 100,000 people and although it is within the 3.5 million strong Puebla Metropolitan Area we crossed a clear boundary between Puebla and Cholula which felt like a different city. It has two districts, San Pedro and San Andrés, and is further divided into 18 barrios, each with its own patron saint so Cholula has many churches and many saints’ days to celebrate. Nuestra Señora de los Remedios is the overall patron and her church looks over the city from the top of Cholula’s pyramid.
Nuestra Senora de los Remedios on the great Pyramid of Cholula

The pyramid is Cholula’s main tourist attraction and, according to Google the ‘world’s biggest’. The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, (previous post) is the third tallest (66m), after the Pyramids of Khufu (138m) and Chephren (136m) in Egypt. Cholula is, by comparison, stumpy, only 55m tall it has a base 400 metres square compared with Khufu’s 230m x 230m, and a volume of 4.5 million m³ against Khufu’s 2.5 million. So, a Mexican can say Cholula is the biggest, an Egyptian Khufu and both are right and both are wrong*.

The pyramid, which is largely grassed over, could almost pass for a natural hill. Like the pyramids of Teotihuacan it was built between the 4th century BC and the 8th AD in four stages, a serious of steps and platforms being constructed one over another.

Model of Cholula Pyramid, Museum at Pyramid site

At its peak ancient Cholula had 100,000 inhabitants, but the pyramid was abandoned in the 8th or 9th century (at much the same time as Teotihuacan) and the population dropped dramatically. The remaining inhabitants continued to bury their dead around the pyramid until the Toltecs took over in the 12th century and built a new temple. When the Spanish arrived Cholula was still a population centre but the pyramid was completely grassed over; they still thought it worth popping a church on top to be safe.

Excavations started in 1931 and we entered the small but thoughtfully laid out museum to see what they found.

The 57m long mural of ‘The Drinkers’ was discovered by accident in 1969. 1,800 years old it is the oldest known mural showing the drinking of pulque, the fermented sap of the agave. This was done for pleasure, but also to bring the drinker closer to the gods. The mural is not on show, but a section is reproduced in the museum showing pulque being drunk by an old man, a soldier about to go into battle and a pregnant woman – all people in need of a little divine assistance (and we can ignore the modern view that pregnancy and alcohol do not mix). I do not have a good picture, and I cannot find one in the public domain, so here is a link to a picture by AndreaB.

There is also pottery from all periods of the site’s use. It is interesting to trace the development of the craft from crude beginnings to the first steps towards mass production, where a stamp was used to create a uniform design in the base.
Pottery from the Cholula pyramid site

The Manuscrito Aperreamiento is a copy of a 16th century codex held in the National Museum of France. At the top is Hernán Cortés and Doña Marina, Cortés’ Nahua translator and mistress. At the bottom is Andrés de Tapia, one of Cortés’ henchmen, and in between is a record of their mistreatment of the indigenous people.
Manuscrito Aperreamiento, Cholula Museum

We made the short walk to the base of the pyramid...
At the base of the Cholula Pyramid

…and followed a series of tunnels into the interior. Archaeologists have dug 8km of tunnels through the pyramid, locating altars and finding offerings and human remains. Construction involved successively building a newer bigger pyramid over its predecessors. Each pyramid had steps up the side and it was eerie coming across the steps of an earlier pyramid deep in the interior.
The steps of an earlier pyramid inside the Cholula Pyramid

We emerged on the far side and followed a path through a grassy area and round to more excavations at the side of the platform.
Excavations at Cholula

‘The Drinkers’ is in a building near here, but so far only 6ha of the 154ha site have been dug. There are no current plans for further excavation, but there are undoubtedly other major finds waiting to be made.
Excavations at Cholula

We finished in the Courtyard of the Altars a large open rectangle with four altars on the perimeter. It may have been used for major ceremonies like those associated with the passing of power, but nobody really knows.
On the Courtyard of Altars, Cholula

Grasshoppers with Chili and Lemon

Leaving the archaeological site we found ourselves in a open square with a market on two sides.
Market, Cholula

G paused at the grasshopper stall. We tried grasshoppers fried plain with a squeeze of lemon, grasshoppers fried with garlic and grasshoppers fried with chilli, which we liked best, so we bought some. I think G was a little taken aback, but we have enjoyed them before as beer snacks in Laos, so it was not a new experience. I have, though, drawn the line at some of the larger beetles and scary arachnids we have seen in Cambodian markets.
Grasshopper saleswoman, Cholula

Modern Cholula

We walked through the colourful streets of modern Cholula…

…where some buildings showed damage from the September earthquake…
Earthquake damaged building, Cholula

…including San Gabriel, built in 1549 as the main church of the Franciscan Monastery and plonked, with heavy handed symbolism onto the site of the former temple of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who had previously been Cholula’s presiding deity.
San Gabriel, Cholula

The oldest part of the San Gabriel complex….
Capilla Real, San Gabriel, Cholula

…is known as the Capilla Real though it has no royal connection. The 1540 building was remodelled in the 17th century but what makes it unique, at least in Mexico, is the mosque-like pillars and cupolas.
Inside the Capilla Royal, Cholula

We reached a pleasant central square. ‘Have a coffee,’ said G pointing to the cafés lining one side of the square ‘while I fetch the car.’ After being walked up to, into and through a pyramid and then round the town we had no idea how far away or in what direction the car was, but that was not our problem. We chose a table and ordered two cappuccinos (or should that be cappuccini – perhaps not in Spanish).
Puebla, the First LA in the Americas

G was an enthusiast, and although darkness was falling he felt the need to show us another aspect of his city before finishing for the day. En route we stopped at traffic lights but for once no gang of would-be windscreen washers appeared, instead there was a girl with a hula-hoop. She performed an impressively athletic little act, finishing just in time to collect her money as the lights changed.

‘Puebla’ is the feminine of ‘pueblo’, meaning simply ‘town’ but formally it is Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza – calling a city by a nickname or part of its name is common in Mexico (and not unknown at home, ask the residents of Kingston upon Hull). Puebla was founded in 1531 as Puebla de los Ángeles (‘The first LA in the Americas’ said G) and the new business district is known as Angelópolis. G drove us through this gleaming city of steel and glass; no doubt it is the image the modern city of Puebla, home to the highly automated factories of Volkswagen and Audi, would like to project, but it feels characterless and could be anywhere.
After seeing the Puebla Hilton - exactly like 400 other Hiltons in 40 other countries - we happily returned to the unique Méson Sacristía de la Compañía in the old colonial city. The restaurant has a good reputation, so we decided to eat in.

Mole Poblano, Maragritas and Talavera Pottery
Those who know me - whether personally or through this blog - will be aware that I am not given to standing back when drinks are being poured. It is therefore some admission to say that tequila had never before passed my lips (or Lynne’s), so we ordered our very first margaritas. And excelent they were too, I liked the flavour and the glace frappé, and they were big enough to drink throughout the meal, but I struggled to understand the point of the salted rim.
Lynne and a margarita, Puebla
Lunch had been smallish, but Lynne’s difficulty digesting corn dough meant she settled for soup. Mole poblano, though, is Puebla’s speciality, so I had to try it. There are other moles in Mexico, mainly heavy, rich dark sauces which dominate the dish. I had rice topped with a slice of radish, the ubiquitous beans sprinkled with cheese and spiked with a nacho, and a nicely cooked piece of chicken lurking below the sauce, but these were the side shows, I was eating mole.
It was not unpleasant, the smoked chillies give it a mildly spicy flavour, but I found it seriously underwhelming. Searching for mole poblano recipes, the first I found had 26 ingredients. By the time you have that many the inevitable result is a fuzzy confusion of flavours. There are many, Rick Stein included, who hold moles in high regard – I respectfully choose to differ.
Mole Poblano, Mesones de Sacristia de la Compania, Puebla
The dishes were heavily embossed, distinctively blue and decidedly chunky. After 25 years as North Staffordshire residents we have acquired the Potteries habit of turning over side plates to discover their origin. The waiter clocked this and took his opportunity to launch into a lengthy lecture on Talavera pottery.

Maiolica was brought to Mexico early in the colonial period and the fine clay of the Puebla area led to the development of a local style. The golden age of Talavera pottery was 1650-1750 but there has been a recent revival with a Denominación de Origen now protecting Tavelera Poblano made using the original 16th century method. Each piece is thrown by hand and all are unique and individually signed.

*Excluding the platform on which the Cholula pyramid sits, Khufu wins on both counts, though neither can compete with the as yet unopened 330m tall Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang (see Last day in Pyongyang).

1 comment:

  1. This makes me sorry we missed Cholula when we lived in Mexico. We also have tried grasshoppers (or crickets) and prefer the chili-spiced ones, too. We'll eat most anything splashed with chillis, lime and salt--tacos, tequila, beer, whatever!