Built in the 8th century BCE, Cuicuilco is one of the most ancient settlements in all of Mesoamerica.
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.
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.
Archaeological evidence suggests that even early on in its history society in Cuicuilco was highly stratified with a ruling elite entrusted with governance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is also possible that structure E was in some way connected to the great pyramid by an underground passageway.
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.
This second pyramid is believed to have been dedicated to the fire god Huehuetéotl.
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.
The archaeological site also has an excellent museum full of artifacts and useful information, it is very much worth a visit.
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.
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.
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.