The highway running south from Cuernavaca snakes past endless sugarcane fields, roadside stands piled high with freshly cut roses, and towns with tongue-twisting names that hark back to pre-Hispanic times. Before long, the ancient ruins of Xochicalco come into view, perched like a fortress high on a hill overlooking lush valleys and shimmering lakes.
Xochicalco – whose name means “Place of the House of Flowers” – flourished between 700 and 900 A.D. It was once one of the most important cities in Mesoamerica and home to as many as 15,000 people. During the 20th century the ruins of this heavily fortified complex were extensively restored, and in 1999 Xochicalco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it is the largest and most-visited archaeological site in the state of Morelos.
The city of Xochicalco rose to prominence during the decline of Teotihuacan, whose immense ruins lie to the north of present day Mexico City. This powerful civilization had exerted its influence over most of Mexico for almost a millennium. Teotihuacan’s collapse in the eighth century A.D. has still to be fully explained. Its demise left a power vacuum in Central Mexico that was filled first by Xochicalco and later by the Toltec city of Tula.
Xochicalco’s origins remain something of a mystery. Its buildings bear the marks of several different cultures, including the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, and the Aztecs. However, the city’s architecture and artwork are essentially Mayan, leading archaeologists to believe that Xochicalco was founded by Maya traders from the Gulf Coast of the Yucatan peninsula. The strategic location south of Teotihuacan would have given them access to trade routes radiating out from the Valley of Mexico.
An excellent on-site museum that opened at Xochicalco in 1995 gives an idea of who the Xochicalcans were and how they lived. The building was designed according to the principles of environmental sustainability, and it is almost totally self-sufficient. Solar panels and batteries supply electricity. Rain water is collected and recycled, and ventilation is taken care of by an innovative thermal rotation system.
The pale green museum complex sprawls on a rise just east of the ruins. Upon entering the building, you come face-to-face with a wide glass window offering a panoramic view of Xochicalco’s skyline. You then make your way past a scale model of the archaeological site and down a corridor lined with exquisite sculptures to the museum’s six galleries clustered beehive-like at the far end of the building.
On display in the galleries are stone statues, ceramics, and ornaments related to various aspects of ancient Xochicalco’s history and its inhabitants’ way of life. A signature sculpture representing the room’s main theme occupies the entranceway to each gallery. Soft natural light issuing from prism-shaped skylights bathes the artifacts, which are accompanied by explanations and diagrams.
From the site’s main parking area, a trail winds uphill to Xochicalco’s main plaza. Here stands the most beautiful and enigmatic of Xochicalco’s monuments, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. Bas-reliefs carved in the Mayan style adorn the squat pyramid’s four sides. Along the structure’s sloping base is a huge undulating feathered serpent. In one of the serpent’s coils sits a Maya ruler or priest wearing an elaborate plumed headdress. Archaeologists feel that this dignitary may have been connected in some way with the god Quetzalcoatl, who was much revered throughout pre-Columbian Mexico.
Above the serpent stretches a series of panels depicting seated men. It was long thought that these figures were astronomers from throughout Mexico who had met at Xochicalco to make calendar adjustments. Archaeologists now speculate that the men actually represent towns subjugated by Xochicalco. Eagles, jaguars, and warriors carrying shields and spears decorate the pyramid’s topmost level, suggesting that the Xochicalcans were more than just peaceful star-watchers.
It is possible to spend several hours exploring Xochicalco’s plazas and densely packed temples, many of which are festooned with Mayan glyphs and carvings. There are also two I-shaped ballcourts like those found on the Yucatan peninsula. Here the Xochicalcans played the sacred “ballgame” that was popular throughout Mexico and northern Central America. Experts think that both the Toltecs and the Aztecs used Xochicalco’s Mayan-style ballcourts as models for the ones they later built in their cities.
Not to be missed is the unusual underground solar observatory sequestered inside one of many caves peppering hillsides found on the site’s northwestern edges. A guard opens the iron gate protecting the cave’s entrance and takes small groups of visitors along an eerie tunnel with painted stucco walls. At the end of the dimly lit passage is a small chamber with a crude altar and light streaming in through a hole in the ceiling.
The light travels down a narrow shaft leading from the surface. When the sun is at its zenith, a beam of sunlight bursts through the shaft at high noon. This event, which happens twice a year, must have been significant for the Xochicalcans. At any time of the year, when you put your hand in the light, the shadow cast on the chamber’s floor appears to show finger bones like an x-ray. While this peculiar effect probably has a simple scientific explanation, it adds another layer of intrigue to these already mysterious ruins.
GETTING THERE: Xochicalco can easily be visited on day trips from Mexico City or Cuernavaca. The Xochicalco archaeological site and museum are open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The ticket booth closes at 5 p.m. Admission is about US$4.00, which includes entrance to both the ruins and the on-site museum.
Below is a slide-show of some of my Xochicalco photos. Move the cursor over the screen to view the captions. Click on individual images to see larger versions and for information about ordering prints or downloading files for personal, editorial or commercial use.
Xochicalco, Mexico - Images by John Mitchell