Rise and fall of Xochicalco

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Pyramids of Xochicalco and Temple of the Plumed Serpent

Spread over a desolate plateau, Xochicalco (so-chee-kal-ko शोचीकाल्को) is a sprawling pre-Columbian archeological site that bears a remarkable affinity with the Mayans, the Teotihuacans, and the Matlatzincan cultures of central Mexico. Xochicalco became a regional power that filled the political vacuum created by the declining Teotihuacan empire around 600 CE.

Main Pyramid on the lower level and inscriptions in white stone

Couple of weeks before going to Mexico, I posted on CouchSurfing’s Cuernavaca forum to check if someone else was interested in going to Xochicalco with me. I was delighted to hear from one person and she met me at the Curnevaca bus station for this one day excursion.

Curiosity of archeology geeks might be piqued by the unique angle of the pyramid walls in Xochicalco. It shows a clear a progression (improvement?) from Teotihuacan style of construction which itself was influenced by the Maya.

The site

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Xochicalco is located in the middle of nowhere – you could go to the top of the hill and see as far as your eyes can see, and you won’t find any signs of human presence. I like that aspect of Mexico – it may be crowded in the cities, but step outside and there’s nothing but wilderness. The main ruins of Xochicalco are located on top of an artificial plateau amidst seemingly unspectacular mountain ranges. Archeologists claim that the entire area around this excavated site was once inhabited and there are plans to excavate the adjoining hills too. It was particularly hot on the day I went there, and the spewing heat from the sun gave me a shiny red nose and tanned forearms.

In the middle of the mountain ranges

After a sumptuous roadside meal of Gorditas and changing buses a couple of times, we reached the site. Past the aggressive offers from tour guides, there is a very informative museum at the entrance of the ruins. Most of the information is exclusively in Spanish, but one can read through it and understand the gist of the description. Among other exhibits, I was particularly curious about the remarkable similarity (or influences if you prefer to call it that way) between the pyramid construction styles of the Mesoamerican cultures.

Pyramid complex on the lower level and the central platform that was probably used for civic/religious ceremonies.

Rise to glory and decline to unimportance

Nahuatl for “in the (place of the) house of Flowers,” Xochicalco was founded in about 650 – 700 AD and it rose to prominence as the Teotihuacán empire north of here weakened. This period in Mexican history is known as the Epiclassic period and is characterised by the rise of several regional powers such as the Olmeca-Xicallanca of Xochicalco, the Toltecs of Tula, etc. The city was founded by a Mayan group of traders from Campeche (Yucatan), at a site that gave them an excellent position along several of the major Mesoamerican trade routes. Unsuitable for agriculture, the topography was more suited for setting up a defensive fortress and a commercial, scientific and religious center.

Around AD 900 the city was burned and destroyed, and by AD 1200, Xochicalco had fully declined, much like the fate of the Teotihuacan empire it had displaced 600 years ago. Many of the excavated houses and temples still have signs of burning and destruction. The exact reason for the fall is unknown but class struggle and societal decay might have had something to do with it.

Astronomical observatory and the solar calendar

It is believed that Zapotec, Mayan and Gulf coast spiritual leaders convened here to correlate their respective calendars. There is an astronomical observatory at the site, however when I went there, it was closed for visitors which was very disappointing. The Observatory is a cave that was modified to allow study of the movement of the sun. The cave has a chimney through which a beam of sunlight projected on the floor of the cave. Scientists observed the movement of sun and used it to construct their advanced calendars.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Iconography is dominated by militarism and warfare images, similar to the Toltec warrior temples in Tula

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Pirámide de Quetzalcóatl) has fine stylized depictions of the plumed serpant in a style which includes apparent influences of Teotihuacan and Maya symbolism. This pyramid was restored and reconstructed few decades ago from ruins and relics that were scattered around the site.

It is interesting to note how divine serpents feature prominently across several ancient civilizations around the world. There is Jörmungandr in Norse mythology, West-African Aidophedo, Greek Hydra, staff of Moses in Judeo-Christian myth and instances of snakes Chinese mythologies. You can checkout Hindu/Buddhist temples while backpacking in South-East Asia, or see Vishnu temples in India depicting the Shesha. One of the oldest records featuring images of gods rising from a sea of snakes can be seen in paintings in Egyptian pyramids, which you can visit during your Sharm el Sheikh Holidays.

Who knows, maybe the ancient civilizations, albeit occurring at different times, were somehow connected by a common theme?

Ball court, site of the ball game that lasted from hours to days and ended with the winning captain being sacrificed by the captain of the losing team.

It took us close to three hours to fully explore the site, climb all the structures we were allowed to climb and admire the beauty of this completely isolated location while imagining how the site might have looked at the time of its zenith. Residents living in housing quarters at the base of the hills, the ruling class and priests residing in lavish homes on higher elevations and the temple of the feathered serpent at the top. Scientists tucked away in one corner, studying the movement of sun from a dark cave and sportsmen engaged in a ball game on numerous ball courts spread around the settlement.

Getting there

Xochicalco is a convenient day trip from Cuernavaca (38km) or Taxco (78km), and an easy weekend trip from Mexico city (130km). Lonely planet states that Cuautepec buses from Cuernavaca’s market go directly to the site. But somehow I didn’t know that, so I took multiple bus journeys and two painful hours to get to the destination. Checkout what other bloggers have to say about Xochicalco. Among the sites I visited in central Mexico and Yucatan, this was the least touristic place so it definitely ranks high on my list.

This post is part of my Mexico travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery