Off the beaten track: The lesser-known Mesoamerican city of Xochicalco, Mexico.
by Anna Jacobs
Chichen Itza, Tulum, Palenque and Teotihuacan are most likely to come to mind when the words ‘Mexican temple’ are uttered. Well-established on the tourist trail these sites have risen to fame and although fascinating and beautiful, the crowds are an undeniable and unwelcome feature. If you crave a more tranquil experience of Mesoamerican art, history and architecture, unimpeded by the stampede, Xochicalco (pronounced Sox-chi-calco) is the answer. Located in the province of Morelos, a short drive south of Mexico City, this untapped treasure is the antithesis of its counterparts listed above. Near-empty courtyards and vast jungle-clad hills enable the visitor to appreciate its history, seeping from cracks in the stonework.
The Rise and Fall of Xochicalco
Xochicalco was built from the bricks of its falling neighbours, metaphorically at least. Around the year 650 CE the demise of a number of large cities resulted in the movement of peoples. Some of these came together to build the new city of Xochicalco, bringing with them their differing cultural, religious, and architectural practices. The new era which had begun, now labelled the Epiclassic Period, was defined by political and military instability for all. Consequently, among other new settlements, Xochicalco was strategically placed atop a hill, reinforced by significant military defences. This is lucky for us, as the panoramic views which enabled the Xochicalcans to foresee an attack are unspoiled and spectacular. The site was abandoned around the year 900, the reasons for which have remained relatively mysterious.
What will I see?
Xochicalco is a winner on two fronts: for its architecture and its natural beauty. The combination of both is what makes it truly extraordinary. Deep-emerald jungle, blanketing the surrounding hills; authentic native flora creeping into courtyards and lining pathways; and wide grass-covered plazas, give the impression of a perfect balance between nature and man-made. Translated from Nahuatl, Xochicalco means ‘in the house of flowers’, demonstrating the perceived belief in the importance of nature’s relationship with man. If you are lucky you might also see an Iguana!
The city was broadly split into three levels, which are visible today. These represented the hierarchy of society and architectural structure. The lowest level, enclosed by the city walls, was made up of defended entrances and residential buildings. No structures of importance were built at this level. As the outermost area of the city, it was the most vulnerable to enemy attack.
The middle level is dominated by two plazas. The Plaza of the Stela of the Two Glyphs is the slightly larger of the two and is so named because a stela was found, ritually buried by the residents, on which two dates were carved in the form of glyphs. Along the edge of the space a magnificent, imposing, tiered pyramid sits presiding over the panoramic landscape below. This plaza allowed residents to observe celestial events rising over the distant mountains. Curiously disconnected from the rest of the site, this plaza lies on a different axis, east-west and north-south, suggesting that it was built independently and for celestial observation. The importance of this to the residents of Xochicalco is evident in many aspects of the architecture.
The second plaza lies beneath the great Temple of the Stelae, which sits astride a pyramidal base. A steep staircase off the plaza leads to a patio with stunning views incorporating man-made terraces and wild jungle beyond. The elevated self-contained temple, within which the three stelae were found has similarities with Monte Alban (located in Oaxaca). The stelae demonstrate a mixture of Teotihuacano, Zapotec, and Mayan designs, and tell the story of the 260-day celestial calendar. These stelae are a rare find for Central Mexico and link the three major civilisations of the Classic Era within one settlement. They are now found at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The residents were able to record their 260-day calendar using the sun. An observatory was constructed on the middle level of the settlement for this purpose. A crack in the ceiling, measuring 8.7m in height, allowed light from the central plaza above to enter the cave. Direct sunlight only entered for 105 days of the year, between 30thApril and 15thAugust. The remaining 260 days were therefore easily recorded. The pinprick entrance to the shaft also enabled people to make detailed observations of the sun’s features, such as solar flares and sun spots. Observatories such as these demonstrate the importance of celestial activity to the Mesoamerican peoples.
The southern ball court, the largest of the three at Xochicalco, is also found on the middle level. The series of altars, one for each day of the sacred calendar, which lies to the west of the court, demonstrates the ritual importance of the game. This is further validated by the eastern ball court, found on the upper level of the city. Aligned with the central plaza, it is surrounded by temples, baths, pyramids, and a ramp carved with images of animals. It is most likely that this was the main ritualistic court. The northern ball court was built in the less-common style found at Monte Alban and appears to have been used the least.
It is generally believed that games held on these courts were played between two teams of 1-4 people. Protected by leather belts, players used their hips to bounce a heavy rubber ball between sides. The winners were bestowed great honour, as their victory demonstrated divine intervention. This honour however, often came with great sacrifice, that of their own lives which they gladly gave.
As well as the central plaza, acropolis, and other structures, the uppermost level contains the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents. Built in the distinctive style of Teotihuacan, identifiable through the Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpents), the pyramid also displays Mayan influences within the elaborate headdresses of the figures. The larger-than-life carved images that adorn this temple are enigmatic and bold. This temple, like the plaza, was built 15 degrees east of north, the peculiar alignment also found at Teotihuacan.
Everything described here deserves merit in itself. Bold, artistic, and culturally fascinating, the site sells itself. Where Xochicalco truly excels, over and above its compatriots, is the peace and quiet found here. This allows for a more memorable and authentic visit, undisturbed by the hum of the tourist crowd. Furthermore, due to the inaccessibility of the site and its protection under Federal Law since 1972, it is well preserved and retains many original structures.
Excavations began in 1909 and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Xochicalco has a fairly extensive museum at its entrance, housing and explaining artefacts that were found on site. The most memorable for me were the gigantic pots, large enough to fit multiple humans inside!
How to get there
There are two main options. Firstly, travel directly from Mexico City (Taxqueña bus station). Ask the driver if you can be dropped at the Xochicalco crossroads. From here you can pick up a taxi to take you the remaining 2 miles. If you would rather walk this last leg, beware of the hill and the heat! Secondly, you can travel from the local capital Cuernavaca, which is well worth a visit in itself. From there take a taxi all the way or hop on a Pullman bus, which drops you at the crossroads on request. Remember to always allow for a delay!
About the Author
Anna completed her master’s degree in history in 2019, graduating with a distinction from King’s College London. She has conducted many historical research projects, both short and extended, academically at university and also privately. Her main interests revolve around gender and class within the fields of social and cultural histories. In her spare time she has taken various trips and thoroughly enjoys learning about local history and culture. As a major travel and history enthusiast, she hopes to develop these interests into a career.