La Quemada, its Grand Citadel, and the Legend of Chicomóztoc

La Quemada is perhaps the most imposing ancient city in Northern Mexico, built atop wind-swept stone faces and cliffs. Photo: Carlos Rosado Van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

High in the arid hills of the state of Zacatecas lies La Quemada, one of Mesoamerica’s most enigmatic ancient cities. La Quemada, Spanish for “The Burned,” makes reference to evidence of a large-scale fire that appears to have engulfed the city sometime in the year 900 C.E. 

La Quemada exists on a scale not seen this far north in Mexico, making it the target of countless theories. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like many Mesoamerican sites, the ancient name of La Quemada has been lost to time. Archaeologists struggle to agree on who first built this city, though many theories abound.

Some believe the masons of Teotihuacan built La Quemada as a forward-operating base for conquest and trade. Others believe the city was a Toltec outpost, while still others maintain it was built by the Purépecha of Michoacan. 

The three-level platform within one of the citadel’s many courtyards is often described as a sacrificial altar, though evidence of this fact is scarce. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

A controversial theory, though the one most often cited, says that La Quemada is actually the fabled location of Aztlán. According to legend, Aztlán was the first city built by the Nahua people, who emerged from the mythic cave of Chicomóztoc and thus began their migration to Central Mexico. The Mexica, the last of these groups to arrive, would establish the Aztec Empire here. 

A 16th-century codex depicts the Nahua peoples’ origin from the Chicomóztoc cave. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This theory has been popular since the 15th century, but no archaeological data has been found to back up this claim. Still, the size of La Quemada and its remoteness from the Mesoamerican heartland has kept folks speculating for centuries. The fact that the dates can be made to fit the theory lends credence to the legend and will likely keep it alive until proven otherwise. Regardless of who built La Quemada, there is no denying that it is magnificent, both in size and in the elegance of its structures.

When entering La Quemada, the first structure you are likely to notice is La Salón de las Columnas or Columns Hall. This large enclosure houses several large stone columns supported by a stucco roof. Research carried out since the 1950s suggests the chamber was likely the site of rituals and perhaps even human sacrifices.  

Even though its ceiling is now missing, standing in Columns Hall evokes a feeling of eeriness and claustrophobia that is hard to describe. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Just outside Columns Hall sits a large sunken patio that is believed to have served as La Quemada’s main market area. This market would have been crucial for local merchants to sell their wares and for folks from regions across Mesoamerica to meet and exchange ideas.

Marketplaces in ancient Mesoamerica served as important places of commerce, power and the mingling of peoples who might otherwise never have met. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Its Votive Pyramid is one of the most often photographed and distinct structures at La Quemada. Today, the staircase of this pyramid reaches only a few meters above its base but at one time, it continued up to the summit where it’s likely a smaller temple or cornice lay on its top. 

Some archaeologists suggest that atop La Quemada’s Votive Pyramid would have sat a tzompantli, or decorative skull rack —  similar in style to that of the pyramid in Tenayuca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

La Quemada is home to multiple ballcourts, with its largest located north of the Votive Pyramid and built in the classic “I” configuration. The ballcourt is 230 feet long by 50 feet wide, making it one of the largest in northern Mesoamerica. None of its markers or rings survive to this day. 

Given how much is different about La Quemada from sites in other regions, the rules of the ballgame likely differed considerably from those in the Valley of Mexico or the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Directly across from the Votive Pyramid is a large staircase that begins the ascent up several levels to the top of La Quemada’s citadel. 

While climbing La Quemada’s massive staircase, it’s easier to go around the back way to access the first levels of this monumental structure. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Up a few levels, you can get a real sense of La Quemada’s immensity and notice the labyrinthine nature of several of its elite residences.

Though most of La Quemada’s population lived in the surrounding countryside, evidence of habitation has been found at the base and on multiple levels of the citadel.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As you continue to climb, give yourself some time to rest and take a few deep breaths. The site is, after all, nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. 

In some residential areas, fragments of the original stucco that would have covered the structure are still visible. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

On the citadel’s fifth level, there is a ceremonial center complete with a set of unique structures and evidence of the charred human remains of sacrificial victims or captives of war. 

The materials used to build the structures at La Quemada vary widely but tend to be relatively small compared to the size of the carved stones used by cultures like the Zapotec or Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

A series of chambers and rooms sit at the very top of the citadel. These were likely used as lookouts and signaling stations. 

Several of the surrounding hilltops in the area would also have similar lookouts, though on a considerably smaller scale. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Exploring the summit of the site provides an opportunity to view the remains of the walls that once served to protect La Quemada from attack.

La Quemada was vulnerable to threats from nomadic raiding tribes living in the surrounding mountains, hoping for easy loot. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

La Quemada is roughly a one-hour drive from the city of Zacatecas, in the state of the same name. Because this area of the country has been rather unstable for the past few years, it is a good idea to visit the site through a travel agency that is up to date on local security issues.

Despite being by far the most visited archaeological site in the state, La Quemada is by no means a busy place. Unless you visit at Easter or during some other major holiday season, you are likely to have the site to yourself. Just remember to bring enough water and be mindful of where you step. 

The onsite museum at La Quemada is worth a visit and is included in the 80-peso entrance fee to the site. 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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