Cholula Great pyramid

The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico Is the Largest in the world

Did you know where the largest pyramid in the world is? You would guess, Egypt, I suppose. I know I did until I planned a visit to see the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Before I left for the trip, I did some reading about what we were visiting. And I found out that the Great Pyramid of Cholula, with a base of 450×450 meters, a total volume of 4.45 million cubic meters and 66 meters tall, it’s not only the largest pyramid base but also the largest known monument constructed anywhere by any civilization on the planet. Yes, it’s in the Guinness Book of records.

How come the site is so obscure then, you might wonder. How come this is not common knowledge? You might think I am mistaken. That’s what most people say when I tell them. At first, I thought I was wrong, too.

So I researched and researched and still came up with the same answer: the Great Pyramid of Cholula is the largest known pyramid in the world. Not the tallest though, but largest by footprint and volume. I know, it would make a good travel trivia question, few people would get the answer right. But now you know.

The Largest Pyramid in the World Is Still in Use Today

Not all and not the actual pyramid. But people use a newer addition, a church on top, the same way they always used the pyramid: as a place of worship. Not for the same religion that it was originally built for. Still, in some way, they still seem to claim it as sacred ground.

In the Spanish Catholic church built on top of the ancient pyramid, called the Iglesia de Nostra Senora de Los Remedios, they hold mass every Sunday.

Not only inside the church but also outside, on top of the pyramid, under a tent, to fit more people. You can hear the songs and mass for a great distance while climbing the steps of this ancient structure.

I noticed because was there on a Sunday morning. I didn’t go to listen to a Catholic mass, but to visit the Pyramid of Cholula.

Our Trip to Cholula

Since we wanted to visit the Archaeological sites of Cholula and Cacaxtla for some time now, when we had a long weekend and found a flight to Puebla, we decided to just do it.

So we got a flight to Houston, and from there we flew into Puebla on a small plane. I mean, tiny plane. But it made it, safe and sound. We landed on a small strip, walked off the plane and into the terminal.

A tiny plane took us to Puebla
A tiny plane took us to Puebla

It was late, but we had a hotel lined up in Cholula, so we asked for a taxi at the airport.

“San Pedro or San Andrés?” the girl at the counter asked.

“No, Cholula,” answered Jeff.

“She’s asking which Cholula,” I chimed in. “I think there are two; where is our hotel?”

“Just a minute, we’ll get the address,” we looked at the girl waiting at the counter. “Where is the pyramid?”

“San Andrés,” she answered.

“Ok, so I think it’s San Andrés,” but we showed her the address anyway.

“Yes, San Andrés,” she answered.

Now that she knew our destination and the distance we needed to go, she could tell us the price, charge us, while she called up the drivers, asking for one who would go to San Andrés Cholula.

About fifteen minutes later we pulled up in front of the hotel in the center of Cholula. San Andrés, to be exact.

We got the room, but it was still early enough and we wanted to explore the town. We walked out in the balmy air.

“Let’s go see where the pyramid is,” said Jeff. “So we know where we should go in the morning.”

We walked out of the hotel towards the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Climbing the Great Pyramid of Cholula at Night

We walked towards the general direction of the Zocalo and past it, the Pyramid. A few blocks from our hotel we found ourselves in the middle of the marketplace where most of the vendors were closing up shop. We walked through it, with no one trying to sell us anything – they were trying to leave – and followed the pedestrians-only road.

We found the ticket booth for the tunnels, so we knew where we would start our morning the next day. Quest over, we could’ve returned to the room, but it was a beautiful night, so we kept going.

Circling the great pyramid, as we walked, I started to grasp its immense size. Now I believed what I read about it being the pyramid with the largest base on the planet.

We expected a closed gate to stop us at any time, but none did, so we kept going. We passed through an open one that looked like it was taking us to the top of the pyramid. Still thinking we would hit a block, a locked gate soon, we kept climbing.

We passed a field where young couples walked around hand in hand, enjoying their free Saturday night. The trail still kept climbing.

“Would we be able to get to the top?” I wondered aloud. It seemed unlikely, but no one and no gate stopped us. By the time we reached the stairs, we saw the whole town of Cholula below. It was a beautiful view at night.

We climbed the stairs all the way to the gate to the church on top. This is where we hit a locked gate. But we reached the top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula. The church was a much later addition, though beautiful, lit up at night.

Cholula church at night
The church on top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula at night

We spent time up there, then turned around. We kept walking down the stairs and talking when suddenly we found ourselves in front of a locked gate.

“Not again!”, I said but laughed. Seems like we getlocked in somewhere every few years. But this was not the way we came, I realized when I looked around. The trail we followed on our way to the top was higher up the hill-pyramid.

“I know, I saw it,” said Jeff, “but I thought we could go out this way, it would’ve been closer.”

“Well, thanks for not telling me,” I grumbled. Exhausted, I was not looking forward to repeating part of the climb.

It wasn’t as bad as it seemed though, and a few minutes later we were back at the field where we took the path down into the town.

We returned to the hotel, to leave more exploring for the next day.

Visiting the Great Pyramid of Cholula

In the morning, we packed up, got our backpacks on and took off for the pyramid once again. I got some Mexican breakfast cakes from the Market on the way, and we arrived at the ticket booth for the tunnels before it opened. A few people were there already, so we settled in the line and waited. It would open in minutes.

When we wanted to pay, they waved us in.

“It’s free today.”

It was a Sunday. Though in most of Mexico only the locals are free on Sundays, they still charge tourists, it wasn’t the case here. They didn’t have many tourists anyway, it was nothing like the ruins at the Maya Riviera in Yucatan. Considering we were visiting the largest pyramid on the planet, on a weekend, it surprised me, but I enjoyed it.

The Tunnels

Out of the 8 km (5 miles) of tunnels inside the pyramid, leading in all different directions, they opened about 800 meters to the public, and that’s where we started our tour.

The tunnels comprise arched passages, and I recognized the Maya Arch. As far as I knew until this moment, only the Maya used this specific arch, triangular at the top. In fact, they named this architectural style after them.

Cholula in the tunnel inside the Great Pyramid
We entered the tunnel that led inside the Great Pyramid of Cholula

Since only one person can fit in the tunnel, we walked single file and stopped often. We noticed many other offshoot tunnels leading up or down, left or right, higher or lower into other parts of the pyramid. A whole underground maze led to different places within the structure.

We entered on the North side of the pyramid and walked inside it towards the South side. When we emerged, we recognized the South exit from our walk the previous night.

Did you think the tunnels were there in ancient times? I did, too, at first. I was guessing they dug the tunnels as secret passages within the structure, used in times of war. As interesting as it sounds, it isn’t the case.

I found out later that archaeologists created them, between 1931 and the 1950s. They dug the tunnels to find out about the structure of the pyramid, to prove that it was man-made, not a natural hill. Since they couldn’t unearth the pyramid, because of the church on top, the tunnels allowed them to understand its structure and layers.

I like that they ended up building the Maya arch tunnels rather than using beams and other support. The reason they could do this was the base of the pyramid itself, massive, made with sun-dried adobe bricks. These tunnels allowed archaeologists to show the real value of the structure, not visible from the surface.

Cholula in the tunnels one of the original staircases
Left and right looking down through side tunnels we saw staircases of the older ancient pyramid buried under the newer one.

Walking underground in the center of the structure helped us glimpse a few of the ancient stairways of the older pyramid, buried under the newer one.

The Archaeological Site

The tunnel marks the entrance to the Archaeological site, on the Northeast side of the pyramid. It ends on the South end where we turned right to visit the excavated site, alongside the base of the pyramid. They didn’t excavate much of the whole since to do so they would have to tear down the church. But since it is a designated colonial monument, with historic and religious significance, so far they didn’t touch it.

Cholula archaeological site
Once out of the tunnels, we walked through the archaeological site

Still, the small area that lay excavated gave us an idea of how significant this site was.

The Southeast Plaza

The first area we walked through was the Southeast Plaza. Though not much to see there, this plaza shows some different construction phases, giving us an idea about the timeline of the constructions. We walked through it, then following the path, we came to the Patio of the Altars.

The Patio of the Altars

The Patio of the Altars marked the main access to the pyramid, and it comprises a few altars surrounding a courtyard. Two of the four altars, those on the East and North side of the patio, have stelae and base-relief designs carved on. The altar on the East side has carvings on its edges.

In the Northeast corner of the patio stands another altar, a simple one, comprising a plain stone on top of a small platform. On the patio floor nearby stand two three-dimensional sculptures, a head and a part of an animal. The West altar is a large slab with carved edges, depicting a serpent.

Great Pyramid of Cholula Patio of the Altars
At the Northeast corner of the Patio of the Altars

The Southwest Plaza

As we continued walking, we came to the Southwest Plaza, comprising remains of quite a few buildings. Since they didn’t have many inscriptions to explain them all, I enjoyed walking through it, without understanding much of what was going on here. Then again, I need not understand everything; I guess. I could let my imagination run wild and make up stories of what they might have used this area for.

One of the buildings that intrigued me was covered to protect a long mural inside. Though not as spectacular as the murals in Cacaxtla that we saw later on the trip, the colors were still worth a look.

Cholula the building with some stucco and murals
The building with some stucco and murals

More Structures to be Dug Out in the Future

As we walked throughout the site, we could tell that they were still digging out more structures from below the surface, covered by centuries of dirt and vegetation. By the time they finish, they might find that the base is even bigger than they understand right now. The Pyramid of Cholula might break its own record.

As we kept going, we reached a tiered pyramid base that reminded me of Chichen Itza.

A Tiered Pyramid, known as Building F

Cholula Walking on the base of the Great Pyramid
Walking on the base of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, we came to a tiered pyramid

As we got closer, I noticed a squirrel peeking out from one of its crevices.

Squirrel in Cholula
A squirrel was peaking gout from one of the pyramid’s crevices.

Though it was sunny and I tried to wait for a cloud in the sky before climbing it, none seemed close enough to shade me. So I climbed it while the sun was beating down on me. It was easier than it seemed. And easier for me. Sometimes it pays off to have tiny feet. I didn’t have to turn sideways like normal size people to fit my feet on the narrow steps. The incline wasn’t bad, either.

Cholula Layered pyramid
Nothing stopped us from climbing this short pyramid

As I found out later, this structure dates from around 500-700 AD, added during one of the later stages of building the great pyramid. The reason it’s in such great shape is that they reconstructed it recently, they didn’t necessarily find it this way.

As short as it was, the top of this pyramid still offered a great view of the city below, with some of its churches. Like Puebla, Cholula has many of them, one on every corner, and then some.

Locals claim they have a church for every day of the year. Looking at the city’s skyline, it’s easy to believe it, though, in reality, the number is closer to 159. At least that’s what I read somewhere. I didn’t count them, but either way, it is a lot of them, and they are all beautiful colonial buildings.

Cholula View from the smaller pyramid
We had a good view of the city with some of its churches. The market is under the white tent.

Continuing on the trail, we went through part of the market and got to the gate we tried to get through the night before when leaving the pyramid top.

Walking through the Gate during the Day

We stood in front of the gate we saw locked the night before where we tried leaving. It was open now, and from the outside, it looked beautiful, all decorated with flowers on a red background.

Cholula - entrance gate to the highest level of the Pyramid
The entrance gate to the highest level of the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the church on top

After walking half the day and climbing a pyramid, the stairs seemed steeper than the night before and the climb much longer in the sun. As much as I tried to walk on the side, even there I barely had any shade. Besides, the stairs under this barely-there shade were steeper.

On the bright side, at least it wasn’t as hot and humid as when we climb the pyramids in Yucatan. Still, trying to reach the top this hill-pyramid while the sun was beating down on me was harder than I expected. I was feeling my age, I suppose. I was also carrying my backpack with all my belongings, can I use that as an excuse?

Huffing and puffing, embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with local ladies older than me, I still made it to the top. The gate to the church was open and we entered the grounds of the church.

On the Church Grounds

Finally, some shade! It was nice to walk under the huge tent set up in front of the structure. I was tempted to sit in one of the chairs set up in front of the stage, but I suspected they were setting it up for mass. Not that anything’s wrong with attending the mass of a religion not your own, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to take a seat away from someone who actually climbed all the way up to listen to it.

Instead, I walked around, peaked inside the ornate church, then joined other visitors sitting on the wall enclosing the church and looked out towards the Valley below and the surrounding volcanoes.

Cholula View of the town from the top of the pyramid
View from the church grounds, on the top of the Great Pyramid

You know you are in Mexico when even the Catholic priest wears a bright green robe (I always thought they wore black), and a band plays guitar and other modern instruments and upbeat songs on the stage behind him.

We didn’t stay for the whole sermon; it was not the reason we walked up all those stairs. But it felt rude to leave right away, so we waited till the first song was over. I’ll admit, I felt like standing up and dancing to the beat. This was far from sermons I’ve attended before in dark cathedrals, accompanied by slow, sad-sounding music.

We left through a different gate we entered. We heard the sermon and the accompanying songs all the way to the bottom of the hill (pyramid).

Why I called the pyramid a hill, or why it stayed hidden for so long

You might still wonder why you haven’t heard about this Great Pyramid of Cholula before and why it seems so obscure, even compared to others in Mexico.

Built in its first form around 200 BC, this pyramid kept growing for centuries, until it reached its large size. Eventually, its inhabitants abandoned it and vegetation took over.

To get to its form of today, they built it in six phases, until the 9th century AD. If my math is correct, it means about twelve centuries of building the same pyramid. Now it makes sense that it’s the largest in the world. It wasn’t even built by the same people. Different ethnic groups built its different layers. They didn’t tear down the previous structure when they conquered or moved into the site of an older nation. Instead, they added their own to the existing one.

But by the time the Aztecs came, they must have found it abandoned, because they came up with a legend of its creation, crediting one of the seven giants from their mythology with it. This giant, called Xelhua, built the pyramid using adobe bricks after he escaped a great flood in the Valley of Mexico.

The Aztecs moved on and stopped using the pyramid which became overgrown by vegetation. This is not the desert where structures just bake in the sun but stay visible.

By the time the Spanish conquered the surrounding areas, the pyramid looked like a natural hill. So they built their biggest church on top to sit high above the surrounding Valley and city. They would have been happy to know they built it on top of an ancient pyramid, but they didn’t find out until the end of the 19th century.

Excavation of the site didn’t start until 1931 when archaeologists dug about 8 km of tunnels inside the pyramid. It was the only way to find out anything about it, without demolishing the church on top. But since the church was protected as an important building from the colonial era, they couldn’t touch it. So they dug tunnels to prove that the “natural hill” is, in fact, a man-made structure.

Leaving Cholula and its Great Pyramid

We spent the whole morning exploring the Great Pyramid of Cholula, and we were ready to leave. However, I thought we could go through the tunnels once more before leaving the area for good. But on the way out, when we looked over and noticed the long line of people waiting to get in, I changed my mind.

We realized we were lucky to have gone so early in the day. The early bird got the worm, in this case, a great visit without the crowds.

We planned on getting lunch in Cholula before leaving for Puebla but changed our minds. Hot, and tired, we wanted to go check into our next hotel. We still stopped in the Zocalo before getting in a taxi that would take us to Puebla.

Cholula Zocalo
In the Zocalo, I thought they hired Edward Scissorhands to shape their bushes into different shapes. My favorite was the serpent, with its red and green colored plants.


What is the largest pyramid in the world?

The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico is the largest known pyramid in the world, by footprint and volume, though not by height. Not only that, but it is also the largest known monument constructed anywhere by any civilization on the planet.

How large is the Great Pyramid of Cholula?

The largest pyramid in the world, the Great Pyramid of Cholula has a base of 450×450 meters, a total volume of 4.45 million cubic meters and it’s 55 meters tall. That is about 1476×1476 feet, 15 cubic feet and a height of 180 feet.

When was the Great Pyramid of Cholula built?

Starting it in 200 BC, and reaching its present size (minus the Catholic church on top) in the 9th century AD, the Great pyramid of Cholula was built over the span of twelve centuries.

Who built the Great Pyramid of Cholula?

Since it took twelve centuries to build, multiple ethnic groups of ancient Mexico, the Olmecs, and Toltecs among them, long before the Aztecs came to the area.

Where is the Great Pyramid of Cholula?

As the name suggests, the pyramid is in the town of Cholula san Andrés, in the state of Puebla, Mexico.

How to get there?

Fly into the city of Puebla, Mexico, and take a taxi to the pyramid. Or take a bus from Puebla to Cholula and walk from there. You won’t get lost, you can see the ticket booth from the bus stop. But if you do get lost, around a bit more, and experience the culture in town, then head towards the hill, or the market.

Visiting hours and fees

You can climb the pyramid any time, though only one of the gates is open off-hours.
Opening times for the archaeological site: daily 9 am – 6 pm
Fees: 20 pesos (about 4USD) daily, except on Sundays, when it is free for everyone.

Great pyramid of cholula pin
Cholula pyramid pin 2
Cholula pyramid pin 3

Scroll to Top