When Hernan Cortez, his men, and a contingent of Talaxcalan natives approached the city of Cholula in October, 1519, it was a vibrant center of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Continuously inhabited for nearly 1000 years before their arrival, it was an important center of trade and religion. An estimated 50-80k residents from across the Americas lived in the city, under the control of the Aztec empire.
It was the alliance with the Aztecs that drew the interest of Cortez. Under the pretext of a plot against them, the Spanish attacked an unarmed assembly of the city’s priests, nobles, and leading politicians. Once the conquistadors began their attack from within, the Talaxcalan made their assault from the outside. The fighting and pillaging is believed to have lasted for days, resulting in an overwhelming Spanish and Talaxcalan victory, and thousands of dead Cholulans.
A plot against the Spanish and their local allies is certainly plausible. The Talaxcalan were historical enemies of the much stronger Aztec empire, and Cortez had repeatedly ignored warnings against penetrating further into the territory of Montezuma II. Despite the plausibility, historical records contain only conflicting first-person accounts supporting the existence of a plot to ambush the Spaniards. The physical evidence suggests it was a fabrication.
Whether or not a plot to ambush the Spanish truly existed, the resultant victory over the city of Cholula secured Cortez’ supply lines to the coast and struck a mighty blow to the Montezuma II’s empire. Other vassal states, already chafing under Aztec rule, saw that the empire couldn’t offer the protection it promised. The political destabilization created tears in the fabric of the Aztec state, and fractured the unity they would need to repel the Spanish.
When Cortez reached the shores of Mexico, the population was an estimated 25 million. Only a century after the arrival of the Europeans, the indigenous population had fallen to only 1 million. While the military conquest was certainly a factor, the cascade of epidemics the Spanish brought over the Atlantic are primarily to blame.
It was in a gravel parking lot, next to a few soccer fields and in the shadow of the great pyramid of Cholula that we popped our top and made our home for the next few days, with the ever present Volcan de Popocatepetl smoking on the horizon.
The longest continuously inhabited area in North America, Present day Cholula is a college town, and it has the bars to prove it. The main strip is packed with slick establishments pumping music and advertising cheap booze. The accompanying tattoo shops and rumbling Harley’s give the place a Florida spring break vibe in the evening.
Of course, Cholula is much more than just a college party town. It has over 50 beautiful churches, including the La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios built by the Spanish in 1574 at the very top of the great pyramid, as well as an excellent selection of food. You can still find half a roasted chicken for about $3, beans, rice, tortillas, and sauces included; but you can also find a great seriously amazing burger and pair it with a top-notch artisanal cervesa. The area is also replete with artisans who still produce the traditional ceramics it became known for over 1000 years ago.
The area has had a recent influx of serious government investment. There are gleaming soccer fields, walking paths, and parks. The brand new and state of the art archeological museum and tourist train into Puebla are educational, convenient, well-staffed, and free. While we enjoyed Cholula very much, it felt a little jarring in contrast with our experiences in the rest of Mexico.
Although we didn’t spend as much time in the nearby and much larger city of Puebla, we did take the (again, excellent and free) train into its center for a day. Not sure how we’d like a city so large, we were pleasantly surprised. Puebla offered many of the things we liked about Cholula, but with a more classical colonial feel.
There are a multitude of museums, fountains, squares and cathedrals as well as a deliciously melded food culture. Famous for mole, the area also offers “tacos Arabe” where the tortilla is replaced with a middle eastern style flatbread, and cemitas, Puebla area original sandwiches that center of their fresh made buns.
Our scheduled Spanish classes looming closer, we reluctantly left Puebla and Cholula woefully underexplored. We did make our first jungle camp on the shores of Laguna de Catemaco. The massive trees, humidity, and warm temperatures were certainly a contrast to our last few weeks of high-altitude living. In the mornings we woke to the growl of howler monkeys, and we worked on our taxes (yep, still have to do that) and decompressed for a day while flocks of macaws flew and squawked noisily in the trees above us.
Next Monday: We spend an entire week in one place, and we learn just how much Spanish we don’t know. Yet.
Bonus Video: We find out where all those explosions were coming from..
Below are links to additional reading on the history of Cholula, the Spanish invasion, and the Cholula massacre. These are my sources for the above information. I realize this isn’t proper citation, but this is a blog not a research paper. J
The Cholula Massacre: Factional Histories and Archaeology of the Spanish Conquest by Geoffrey McCafferty