Jaguars, sacrifice, and power in the virtually unknown ancient city of Acaquilpan

Long before the settlement of the great Mesoamerican capitals of Teotihuacán or Tenochtitlan, Mexico’s central valley was full of chiefdoms and city-states vying for power. 

The centuries have not been kind to Acaquilpan, yet its wonders shine through. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Because today, the Valley of México is dominated by Mexico City, many of these ancient cities have been reduced to rubble.

The name Acaquilpan is believed to derive from the Náhuatl word Atlicpac, which means “adjacent to the water,” likely referring to the lake of Texcoco.

The archaeological site known as Acaquilpan, or Los Reyes, lies within the urban sprawl of Mexico City’s southeast, within a fenced-off park. 

Access to Acaquilpan Archaeological Park is free but sometimes closes without warning. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though the site’s remains are relatively few, its importance is considerable. During the reign of the Mexica, it was an important ceremonial site, as attested to by the discovery of Jaguar Cuauhxicalli.

A Cuauhxicalli is a type of large stone vessel used to place the hearts of the sacrificed during ceremonies. 

The Chaac Mool is perhaps the best-known form of Cuauhxicalli, as it can be found across virtually all Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The two beautifully preserved Cuauhxicalli of Acaquilpan were spirited off to museums in Mexico City for restoration and preservation.

A Jaugaur Cuauhxicalli in Mexico’s National Museum of History and Anthropology with the famous Aztec Sun Stone at its back. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

However, visitors to Acaquilpan can still enjoy these figures thanks to two fiberglass replicas installed at the site.

The fiberglass Cuauhxicalli at Acaquilpa may not be the real thing, but it makes for a good compromise. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Acaquilpan appears to have first been inhabited sometime in the 3rd century BCE, in a pattern similar to that of other cities, including Acozac and Chilmalhuacán.

Ceremonial platform in the Mesoamerican archaeological site of Acaquilpan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But the archaeological remains visible today at Acaquilpan date mainly to the Mixtec period of occupation beginning in roughly the 8th century.

It is still possible to scale the largest temple at Acaquilpan, though getting up can be a bit tricky because half its stairway is missing. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht  / Yucatán Magazine

The structures at the site are constructed out of volcanic stone in the style of Tollan-Xicocotitlan, the dominant city-state of the region of the time — though on a smaller scale. 

Structures at Acaquilpan are likely to have had stucco representations of Jaguars, as is the case in Tollan-Xicocotitlan, though these artworks were lost long ago. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The archaeological site of Acaquilpan is dominated by a large artificial platform on which its surviving structures sit.

Building structures atop artificial platforms was commonplace across Mesoamerica for thousands of years and signified a special status involving religious and civic rites. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

At Acaquilpan, it is also possible to observe the ruins of an elite residential complex, which is more than a full-time dwelling for the city’s nobles as a symbol of their power.

Residential complexes in Mesoamerican sites are often the sites of discoveries of large amounts of ceramic and the remains of organic materials like seeds, which suggest they may have also functioned as kitchens. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The remains of a circular base, which was likely a Temple to Ehécatl, the deity of the winds, is also visible. 

The cult of Ehécatl was extremely prominent, especially during the late Postclassic period, as examples of this type of construction can be found at most sites and within a subway station in Mexico City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Acaquilpan from anywhere in Mexico City is fairly easy, especially by taxi or ride-sharing service. 

The Mesoamerican city of Acaquilpan is the southeast of Mexico City. Map: Google 

Another good option is to hire a driver for the day to visit other interesting sites in the area, including Acozac and Chimalhuacán.

Though Mexico City is extremely densely populated, parks are home to interesting birds like the red Mexican house finch. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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.
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