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Cacaxtla and the mystery of its spectacular Maya murals

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

The Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl archaeological site is one of the most interesting and unique in all of Mexico. Aside from its massive structures and breathtakingly beautiful vistas, this ancient city in Central Mexico boasts a rather out-of-place feature — Maya murals. 

Cacaxtla’s seeming out-of-place murals are without a doubt the site’s main attraction in an archaeological site brimming with fascinating features and history. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though they each have their own entrance, for all intents and purposes Cacaxtla and Xochitécatl were part of the same Tlaxcaletcan ceremonial center. Because of this fact, and for simplicity, from here onwards we will refer to the ancient city as simply Cacaxtla.

A sculpture with arguably Olmec features is found near the entrance to the archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The archaeological site of Cacaxtla is located in the south of the state of Tlaxcala, in the municipality of Natívitas, and tucked within the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley. 

Photograph taken atop a round pyramid-like structure with a Christian cross in the foreground and the Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Little is known about the foundation of Cacaxtla, including the precise date of its foundation, which was likely in the 5th century CE. The name Cacaxtla comes from the Nahuatl word cacaxtli, making reference to the large baskets used by merchants to carry goods.

Cacaxtla’s so-called spiral pyramid near the core of the ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It has been widely speculated that Cacaxtla may have been established by either Maya or Olmec peoples, displaced from their own faraway cities. As we will see later, this hypothesis makes a good deal of sense when analyzing the art and architecture of the city, but otherwise has no data to back it up. That being said, there is good evidence for the existence of Maya settlements in Central Mexico, as is the example of Maya neighborhoods in Teotihuacán

Detail of a bird among anthropomorphic ears of corn in Cacaxtla, Tlaxcala. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After the fall of Cacaxtla, the region would be dominated by the Tlaxcaletecan civilization, which would remain a thorn in the side of the powerful Aztec empire until its conquest by Spain. Perhaps, for this reason, a certain degree of historical resentment still exists against the modern state of Tlaxcala. This resentment is often manifested by minimizing it or making fun of its small size, or denying its existence in jest altogether

A mural in Tlaxcala city depicts a battle between a Tlaxcaletcan and an Aztec counterpart. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

The archaeological site was re-discovered in 1975 by farmers from the nearby town of San Miguel del Milagro who began to find artifacts in the areas surrounding the mounds of the then-pasture lands. 

Artifact found early on by farmers in Cacaxtla, currently located at the museum of the archaeological site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The ancient city combines the features of a large ceremonial center with extensive residential complexes, pyramids, and an enormous palatial complex measuring roughly 200 meters / 660 feet wide and 25 meters / 82 feet high. 

Striking colorful design is found in Cacaxlta, surrounded by black feet, with a feathered eye below. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

However, despite the prevalence of architectural features reminiscent of Mexico’s south, the architecture found at Cacaxtla has a flavor all its own.

A large three-stone megalith atop a pyramid frames the town below and the iconic snow-topped Popocatepetl volcano. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from the main citadel, the ancient city was dominated by a complex made up of several ceremonial platforms and pyramids, flanked by residential complexes. 

A large ceremonial platform with a wide staircase leads to an ample plaza atop. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The tablero-talud pyramidal structures found on the site are not particularly large but are still quite beautiful.

Given its east-facing position within the ceremonial complex, it is likely that this small pyramid served as an astronomical marker and was likely associated with the planet Venus and its corresponding deity. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from its impressive size, the ancient city’s palatial complex is notable for its many interior causeways and surviving stucco, to say nothing of its murals. 

A stucco feature survives near the center of Cacaxtla’s citadel. Photo Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Cacaxtla’s palatial complex has received extensive restoration, likely due to the interest caused by its spectacular murals. 

Major excavations at Cacaxtla began well over a decade ago and continue to this day. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

You don’t need to be an art historian to spot the clear similarities between the murals found in Cacaxtla and those in a Mayan city such as Bonampak

Though the exact circumstances under which Cacaxlta’s murals came to be is a mystery, their beauty is undeniable. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If Cacaxtla was in fact not populated by Mayan peoples, it would still be plausible that the city’s murals would have been produced by Maya artists — perhaps brought to the city from the Usumacinta region or the Yucatán Peninsula by a powerful lord in search of great prestige. 

Another aspect linking Cacaxtla to the Maya is the use of the pigment known as “Maya Blue.”

Maya Blue was made primarily from a small-leaved plant known as anil that, when combined with a special type of clay found in Mesoamerica, allowed for the creation of a stable blue pigment. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Cacaxtla’s murals can be seen all over its palatial complex, but several of the best examples can be seen to the sides of a large staircase leading to an altar.

Several of the murals in Cacaxtla are protected by plexiglass covers, but fortunately, they can still be seen and photographed fairly well with minimal glare. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

IF YOU GO

Cacaxtla is located 22 kilometers from the city of Tlaxcala and 41 kilometers from the city of Puebla. Tours to the archaeological site are available from both locations but are sometimes hard to find, as the site is not considered a major tourist attraction.

A map shows the location of Cacaxtla in the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley. Image: Google Maps

If you are unable to find an organized tour to Cacaxtla you may want to consider hiring a taxi driver to take you. But if you choose this option make sure to negotiate the price beforehand. Depending on your point of departure road tolls may apply. 

Surviving murals on what once appears to have been load-bearing pillars or walls inside of Cacaxtla’s Citadel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee to Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl is 80 pesos and also includes entrance to the site’s museum — gates are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

The entirety of the Citadel in Cacaxtla is covered by a permanent structure designated to protect its many archaeological treasures. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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