Mexico

Visit the World’s Largest Pyramid (Cholula, Mexico)

Written by Mark McElroy

Who knew the world’s largest pyramid was in our own backyard?

A visit to the pyramids sounds almost too exotic to squeeze into a weekend, right? And, for a lot of MadeByMark.com readers, airline tickets to Egypt (especially given the unrest there) or a weekend in Giza might be out of the question.

Did you know, though, that the largest pyramid in the world is practically in America’s back yard?

The Great Pyramid of Giza (constructed about 4500 years ago) is the tallest pyramid known, at 455 feet high. But the Great Pyramid of Cholula (built near Puebla, Mexico about 2300 years ago) has twice the volume of the largest of the Egyptian pyramids. Measuring just under 1500 feet (that’s two and a half football fields) on each side of the base and standing 217 feet high, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is also the largest monument ever constructed by anyone, anywhere on earth.

The reason you’ve probably never heard of this overlooked wonder of the ancient world? Well, today, it doesn’t look much like a pyramid at all:

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(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org)

After the collapse of the pre-Hispanic culture that constructed the pyramid in a series of phases over hundreds of years, the sands of time literally buried this monument to the god Quetzacoatl. Over time, the pyramid began to look like a hill, and no external signs hinted at the elaborate structure beneath the surface:

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And this remains true today — mostly because, during Colonial times, the Catholics built an elaborate church on top of the mound. (Interesting, isn’t it, how some places are always sacred spaces, hosting temples to a procession of various gods over the centuries?) Because uncovering the pyramid would destroy the church, the older sacred site will never be properly excavated.

But don’t worry: you can still visit the pyramid, despite its subterranean status. Archeologists have carved miles of tunnels into the structure, making it possible for visitors to move through long, narrow, corridors and actually pass through the heart of the temple:

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At observation points along these trails, you can see the stepped terraces and rainwater gutters that defined the steep slopes of the building — all still deep underground, of course!

I wouldn’t be completely honest with you if I didn’t note that a visit to the Great Pyramid of Cholula might not be the best excursion for anyone who is anxious in tight spaces. I’m not terribly claustrophobic, but I confess I could actually feel the weight of the pyramid above me, and, at one point, the long and narrow tunnels were almost more than I could handle. I’m glad we were the only people there; had the tunnel been crowded, I probably would have freaked out a little.

Even if you don’t go into the pyramid itself, you’ll want to make the long, steep, winding climb up the hill — to visit the church, of course (which contains one of the “conquering virgins,” or statues of Mary left behind by the conquistadores), but also to gaze out at the amazing view, which includes neighboring pyramids and altars that have been excavated.

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From Mexico City, you can make this visit to the world’s largest pyramid easily in just one day — and even combine it with a trip to Puebla to shop for pottery, visit the Golden Chapel, and immerse yourself in the local food scene. Book yourself into the Red Tree House, contact Journeys Beyond the Surface, and arrange an archeological expedition for yourself that would make Indiana Jones proud!

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Mark McElroy

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