Cuicuilco — forged in stone and destroyed by lava

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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.
Aerial view of Cuicuilco’s largest pyramid which happens to be round and sport a large ramp on its eastern side. Photo: Courtesy INAH

Built in the 8th century BCE, Cuicuilco is one of the most ancient settlements in all of Mesoamerica. 

This great city even predates the construction of Teotihuacán and is roughly contemporaneous with the great Olmec capital of La Venta.

Cuicuilco’s main pyramid with a tower belonging to Mexico’s largest university in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

What is perhaps even more surprising is that Cuicuilco is not located on some far-off mountain range or lost in dense rainforest, but rather within one of the largest cities on earth — Mexico City. 

Image of Mexico City’s Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park as seen from Cuicuilco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like all Mesoamerican city states, Cuicuilco relied heavily on its control of the surrounding countryside which produced food for the community and a surplus for trading. 

But aside from agriculture, Cuicuilco developed a reputation for producing pottery of exceptional quality which greatly influenced the traditions of subsequent peoples in the Valley of Mexico. 

Tripodal ceremonial vessels produced in Cuicuilco, are now on exhibit at the site’s museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Archaeological evidence suggests that even early on in its history society in Cuicuilco was highly stratified with a ruling elite entrusted with governance.

Elites in Cuicuilco were among the first Mesoamerican peoples to practice aesthetic cranial deformation. This cultural practice was later adopted by other civilizations including the Aztec and Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

These elites, along with members of the priestly class were afforded the privilege of living near or within the main ceremonial center, while merchants, workers, and presumably captives made their homes on the periphery. 

It is estimated that by the 1st century CE, Cuicuilco had grown its population to approximately 20,000  — making it comparable to Teotihuacán.

Although during this time there is no direct evidence of war between Cuicuilco and Teotichuacán, then again it may have only been a matter of time. But unfortunately, by the 2nd century CE, Cuicuilco was out of time.  

The end of Cuicuilco came suddenly in the year 250 CE with the eruption of the nearby Xitle volcano.

The eruption of Xitle and destruction of Cuicuilco by famed Mexican painter Jorge González Camarena. The artworks hangs at Cuicuilco’s onsite museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is unclear how many survivors were able to escape the eruption, but it is widely believed that most migrated to Teotihuacán and the then emerging communities in Tula

These refugees brought with them their own traditions and technologies, but appear to have for the most part integrated fairly well into their new societies. 

The first excavations in Cuicuilco took place in the 1920s and were financed by the National Geographic Society.

During the first excavations at Cuicuilco archaeologists uncovered chambers within the pyramid and were able to restore them to a degree, but just how far they penetrated into the structure is unknown. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

However, Cuicuilco’s main ceremonial center was severely damaged when the olympic village for the 1969 games was erected in its vicinity. As a result, only 8 structures of ancient Cuicilco survive to this day. 

Efforts to undo the damage were carried out by the INAH in the 1980s but met with limited success. 

Burial remains found during excavations in Cuicuilco in the 1980s and are now housed at the onsite museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Nevertheless, visiting Cuicuilco today is still quite impressive. Its largest and most famous structure is a circular pyramid constructed with basalt stone. 

But as one would expect this temple was severely damaged by the eruption of the Xitle volcano, making a complete restoration of the pyramid virtually impossible. 

Despite the extensive damage caused by the eruption, Cuicuilco’s main pyramid was so large that much of its architecture survived remarkably well — though it has been restored extensively.

Restoration and maintenance work continues in earnest at Cuicuilco to this day. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Being much smaller than the main pyramid, Structure E suffered much more damage during the eruption of the Xitle volcano, but has also been restored to a surprising degree.

Structure E served primarily as an altar facing the ramp of Cuicuilco’s great circular pyramid and is thought to have been used as a spot of purification before approaching the grand temple. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is also possible that structure E was in some way connected to the great pyramid by an underground passageway. 

A closed-off passageway into structure E may have been used for burial purposes or to connect the structure with the site’s main pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During the aforementioned construction of the Olympic Village for Mexico’s 1969 games, a road was built that bisected Cuicuilco in two.

On the other side of the section of the ceremonial center containing the great pyramid, it is possible to observe another large pyramidal structure, topped with a contemporary sculpture. 

The placement of a contemporary artwork atop this ancient monument in Cuicuilco is rather unusual, especially as no signs in the vicinity make any reference to it. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This second pyramid is believed to have been dedicated to the fire god Huehuetéotl.

A vessel, possibly an incense burner with the image of the Nahuatl fire god Huehuetéotl. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite being surrounded by large corporate headquarters, and Mexico’s largest University, the archaeological site of Cuicuilco itself is a surprisingly pleasant natural oasis, full of colorful birds, blooming cacti, and lizards. 

These adorable little red birds are everywhere in Cuicuilco and seem to be rather used to people as they are not shy at all. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The archaeological site also has an excellent museum full of artifacts and useful information, it is very much worth a visit. 

The entrance to the museum features the hieroglyph of Cuicuilco, likely depicting the fire god Huehuetéotl. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Cuicuilco from any point in Mexico City is fairly easy as the area is well connected to the metropolis’s extensive public transit system.

A map shows the location of Cuicuilco, in the south of Mexico City. Image: Google Maps

Another good choice is to opt for the services of a ride-sharing app, as prices in Mexico City tend to be rather affordable. But as always it’s best to schedule your trip well outside of the city’s infamous rush hour. 

A large sign signals the entrance of the Cuicuilco archaeological site just off of a major highway. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entrance to Cuicuilco and its museum are free of cost and are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Registration at the entrance of the site is required. 

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