79 F
Mérida
Thursday, June 30, 2022

Xochicalco, the grand yet often overlooked heir of Teotihuacán

Latest headlines

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.
Xochicalco is most famous for its stunning Maya inspired Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Xochicalco is perhaps the most underrated archaeological site in all of Mexico — and that’s saying something.

Xochicalco as seen when approaching it from the road. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Arriving early in the morning on a Saturday, and staying for several hours, the only other people I encountered were a couple of birders near the parking lot and INAH guards.

At most other sites, a pyramid such as this would be the main attraction. At Xochicalco it is just one of many. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Yucatán Magazine Tours

Xochicalco is comparable in size to other important Mesoamerican archaeological sites such as Uxmal and features some truly breathtaking art and architecture. 

Layout of the core of the ancient city of Xochicalco in modern-day Morelos, Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the Nahuatl language, Xochicalco translates as “the place of flowers,” likely a reference to the several species of flowering cacti found in the ancient city. 

It’s no wonder that cacti dominate the landscape in this arid region of central Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But don’t let its unassuming name fool you, during its heyday, Xochicalco was one of the great powers of central Mexico and the city which filled the power vacuum left by the fall of Teotihuacán

Teotihuacán-style artifacts and jewelry have been found all over Xochicalco and the surrounding area. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It is important to note that although Xochicalco’s name is undoubtedly Nahuatl, there are good reasons to believe that it was erected by a group of Maya who emigrated northwest into the valley of Mexico. 

Some evidence suggests that migrants from Campeche may have settled in Xochicalco and joined with other groups of Maya people who fled Teotihuacan after its mysterious downfall Pictured, Edzná, Campeche. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

That being said, Xochicalco also exhibits features consistent with other cultures such as the Olmec. This makes a great deal of sense when we consider that as the heir of Teotihuacán, the city would absorb much of this great capital’s multi-ethnic population. 

Xochicalco is of course not the only Mesoamerican city in Central Mexico that exhibits ample evidence of Maya influence and occupation, with another classic example being Cacaxtla, located in the state of Tlaxcala. 

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 / Yucatán Magazine

Given its great size and location near the Colonial city of Cuernavaca, Xochicalco has long held a fascination for lovers and antiquity, and unlike many other great Mesoamerican cities was never truly “lost”.

Illustration of a now plundered temple by Carlos Nebel of Xochicalco produced in the early 17th century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

When entering the site from the parking lot, you will walk along a path leading to a large plaza flanked by structures on all sides, called La Plaza Inicial. 

Right in the middle of La Plaza Inicial sits a platform with an estela with two other larger platforms framing it on each side.

Wide angle shot of the Plaza Inicial’s northern quadrant. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gacht / Yucatán Magazine

Unlike Teotihuacán, plenty of hieroglyphic inscriptions survive to this day at Xochicalco. 

Closeup of hieroglyphic inscriptions with the symbols for “cane,” associated with the number 10, and “reptile” associated with the number 9. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

To the southwest, and far below the artificial platform one is standing on it is possible to see Xochicalco’s largest Mesoamerican ballcourt.

View of Teotihuacán southmost and largest ballcourt, truly one of the most impressive in all of Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though this ballcourt is not open to the public, visitors can still get a really good view of it from the Grupo Inicial.

Making your way north from the Plaza Inicial, you will ascend several large stairways and notice many smaller temples and altars on this massive complex. 

In many ways, Xocichalco’s central ceremonial center resembles more a multi-tiered plaza than a distinct series of structures of architectural groups. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Following the same path is a large structure divided into four rooms that likely housed Xochicalco’s high priest.

Though the roof of this temple has long collapsed, many of its treasures survived remarkably well. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This large complex known as El Templo de las Estelas takes its name from the four stelae found within. 

The four stelae on this remarkable temple exhibit artistic influence from Nahuatl, Toltec, and Maya artistic traditions. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

From the vantage point of El Templo de las Estelas, it is possible to see an elaborately adorned structure just to the north.

Even if you think you know what to expect, your first glimpse of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent is likely to leave you speechless.

The feathered serpent motif is repeated around the entire perimeter of the structure and is mirrored on all four of its edges. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As its name would suggest, this temple is adorned with several enormous reliefs dedicated to the feathered serpent known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico and Kukulcán in the Mayan world. 

Xochicalco’s Temple of the Feathered Serpent is one of the most striking and best preserved structures in all of Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from these impressive renderings of Quetzalcoatl, it is impossible to not notice another recurring motif, that of a cross-legged lord, in full classical Mayan regalia. 

Everything about the repeating representations of this unknown lord including his dress, jewelry, profile, and artistic style screams “Maya.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The temple also features several other beautifully rendered elements such as cornices, hieroglyphic inscriptions, stone markers, and representations of other smaller human figures. 

Closeup of hieroglyphs on Xochicalco’s Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Just to the north of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent is a structure of similar dimensions, which likely was adorned in a similar fashion, but which for some reason or another did not survive nearly as well. 

The structure known as the “twin pyramid” in Xochicalco, Morelos. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Moving east, we come along a section of Xochicalco commonly referred to as the eastern quadrant, which features serval interesting structures. 

The largest and most striking of these is Xochicalco’s northern ballcourt, whose size is a testament to the importance of the ceremonial center — especially considering the site has another two similarly massive Teotlachitli complexes.

Known as Poc ta Poc in the Mayan world and Teotlachitli in central Mexico, both describe similar variations on what we have come to call the Mesoamerican ballgame, which in reality was a highly symbolic ceremony that on occasion would end in human sacrifice. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like any other thriving metropolis, Xochicalco needed a large amount of water to survive. Irrigation systems and water canals can be seen throughout the city, but the most obvious example of this ancient water management system is the city’s several water storage cisterns. 

This large cistern found at Xochicalco in the east of the ancient city likely provided water to much of the ceremonial complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is also some archaeological evidence to suggest that these cisterns may have been used as pools for the city’s elite, though likely only during the rainy season. 

Water in Xochicalco was also pumped into temazcales, which were a sort of steam baths popular among Mesoamerican peoples.  

Large temazcales have been found across Mesoamerica and are thought to have been used for both recreational, medicinal, and ritualistic purposes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Some of the best-preserved stucco at Xochicalco can be found inside a chamber adjacent to the site’s largest cistern.

If you look closely it’s possible to make out hints of the dye known as Mayan blue on surviving stucco at Xochicalco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

After you have completed your visit to Xochicalco, make sure you take some time to explore its fantastic onsite museum. 

Xochicalco’s museum is full of great exhibits and interesting artifacts found at the site and is very much worth a visit. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Xochicalco is 25 miles from Cuernavaca, the capital of the state of Morelos, and 75 miles from Mexico City. 

A map shows the location of Xochicalco in central Mexico. Image: Google Maps

It is likely that part of the reason Xochicalco is not more visited is that it’s not exactly easy to get to unless you have a car. 

Awful traffic and toll roads make the drive to Xochicalco from CDMX not exactly fun to drive. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite its grandeur, finding organized tours to Xochicalco on short notice can be fairly tricky. Some tour agencies of Mexico City and Cuernavaca do offer day trips, but unless you have fellow travelers with whom to split the expenses this option can get quite expensive.

If you start to feel a little lightheaded on your way to Xochicalco, keep in mind that it’s because you are over 1,000 feet above sea level.

Though it’s possible to rent a car in Cuernavaca, this can get quite pricey as well. Your best bet is probably to ask around in Cuernavaca and try to find a taxi driver willing to take you to the site and wait while you explore. 

When arriving at the site one of the first things you are likely not to notice is the incessant buzzing of timelines, a particularly large species of beetle known as temolines. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The entrance fee to Xochicalco is 85 pesos and the site is 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.

- Advertisement -spot_img

Subscribe Now!

spot_img

More articles