Cholula Pyramid Tunnels

The Tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula

The Tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula

by Carmen Caelen


One of the biggest misunderstandings when it comes to visiting the Pyramid of Cholula has to do with its infamous tunnels.  Tourists are always shocked when I tell them that the tunnels were made by archaeologists and are not ancient at all.  People always want to believe that there is something mysterious hidden inside the pyramids but, in Mexico, that is very rarely the case.  Mesoamerican pyramids were not built as tombs; they do not have chambers or anything on the inside in the vast majority of cases.  Mesoamerican pyramids are temples, elevated platforms on which all kinds of religious events took place.  This is exactly what we see in Cholula.  The following information aims to clarify the function of the tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula as well as provide the reader with a better understanding of what archaeologists were able to learn from them.

Initial explorations

The archaeological explorations in Cholula began in the 1930s.  The findings, however,  were seemingly insufficient to grant the Sacred City an important place among the greatest sites in Mesoamerica.  The first excavations started in 1931 under the supervision of Ignacio Marquina.  The work done at this moment aimed to identify the different construction phases of the pyramid and establish a chronology based on ceramic styles.  During this season, two main tunnels were dug that crossed through the base of the Great Pyramid in a north-south axis and an east-west one.  In subsequent excavations more tunnels were dug in different directions.  This allowed the archaeologists to uncover a series of structures built underneath the pyramid’s last construction phase.  In total, 8 kilometers of tunnels were dug.

During the 1960s the Proyecto Cholula or Cholula Project was launched with the intention of carrying out a detailed study of the site and its surrounding areas from an archaeological, ethnohistorical, and anthropological perspective.  Miguel Messmacher and Eduardo Matos carried out a second field season in 1966 under and several more structures were uncovered.  A third season, once again led by Ignacio Marquina, finished exposing the remaining structures that are now visible at the exterior part of the site in 1967.  Sadly, little work has been done in Cholula since.

The Great Pyramid

The archaeological data places the beginning of the construction of Cholula’s ceremonial center around 500 BCE, lasting all the way to around 1,200 AD when it was abandoned and the city’s capital was moved slightly.  It reached the status of one of the great cities in Mesoamerica during the Classic Period.  The Great Pyramid is the most representative feature of the ceremonial complex.

Most of the archaeological explorations in Cholula have focused on the Great Pyramid and its surroundings mainly due to the fact that it is the most important building that survives to this day.  Its size and degree of decay make it look like a natural hill and, at first glance, no one would suspect that it is actually a pyramid.  The building is currently located along the border of San Pedro Cholula and San Andres Cholula.

The base of the Great Pyramid measures 400 meters per side and over 65 meters in height.  The last construction phase took place during the rule of the Olmeca-Xicalanca.  The structure was made out of adobe, which is not a common material seen in other Prehispanic temples.  It is possible that the structure was never finished due to the arrival of the Tolteca-Chichimeca.   Underneath that last building, archaeologists discovered at least 7 other structures.

The geographical orientation of the Great Pyramid is not at all random; studies have confirmed that it is oriented 26˚ from north.  With this orientation the pyramid would have been aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice.  Astronomical alignments like this were also linked to their agricultural calendar.

The archaeological findings

The information recorded by the Proyecto Cholula concluded that the Great Pyramid contained five main construction stages.  We can visualize this as a Russian doll where there are several smaller buildings underneath the last one built.  The reason this was done in Cholula, and in other sites of Mesoamerica, was to maintain the sacred lineage and power already held by the current structure.  In the Prehispanic worldview there was the belief that every 52 years a new cycle began.  It has been suggested that many of these new constructions corresponded to the beginning of a new cycle.

According to the data provided by Ignacio Marquina, the first structure had an almost square base, measuring 113 m by 107 m.  The architectural style – talud-tablero – and the presence of mural paintings indicates that it dates to approximately 250 AD.  The second building, measuring 190 m per side and 34 m high has a rare architectural style.  It is made up of 9 levels, all containing stairs across their entire length.  The third stage corresponds to a series of platforms and not pyramids like the other ones.  It is important to note that not all the construction stages included a new temple.  On some occasions there was only partial remodeling done, such as in this case.  The fourth phase consists of a large building that covered the previous three constructions.  During this stage the largest part of the final pyramid was built, reaching a width of 400 m per side.  Adobe was used in the construction which, when the pyramid was abandoned, deteriorated and became what now looks like a hill.  The fifth construction stage corresponds to the Postclassic Period.  It includes structures like the Altar of Skulls which contained the remains of a male and female.

Recent research carried out in the pyramid’s tunnels used new technology to generate a virtual map of the different structures located beneath the Tlachihualtepetl and discovered three additional construction stages.  The first surprise was that there was an older building below the first one Marquina documented.  This small platform called La Olla dates to the 1st century AD and measured approximately 34 m on its east-west side.  Another new structure found was the Building of the Plain Pannels, which would correspond to the third construction stage.  It measured 145 m by 178.  Over this, a new building was also found which seems to be an earlier version of the second building registered by Marquina.


Visit Cholula in the company of a local archaeologist and learn all about this amazing place:



Marquina, Ignacio.  “Proyecto Cholula. Investigaciones, no. 19.  Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, D.F., 1970.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. “Excavaciones en la Gran Pirámide de Cholula (1931-1970).” Arqueología Mexicana, núm. 115, 2012, pp. 31-35.

Uruñuela y Ladrón de Guevara, Gabriela & Robles Salmerón, María Amparo.  “Las subestructuras de la Gran Pirámide de Cholula. Viejos túneles, nueva tecnología, nuevos datos.”.Arqueología Mexicana, núm. 115, 2012, pp. 36 – 41.