Everybody wants to go to Mexico and who can blame them? There are spectacular beaches and resorts and some incredible food to be tried. Even if beaches do not appeal to you, there are deserts and forests to be explored. Mexico’s rich history has shaped it to be what we see today, but what about that history? Most of you will have heard of the Maya and Aztec people. In this article I would like to delve into some of the most spectacular ruins of these civilizations. Compared to other civilizations, relatively little information has been uncovered about both of these cultures. However, the lack of information does not take away the incredible structures they left behind or their beauty.
Mexico’s Pre-Columbian History
Mexico’s first known society were the Olmecs. These people lived on the Gulf Coast close to what is now Veracruz and lasted up until 600 BC. The Zapotec people had built cities by BC 300 which housed up to 10,000 people. Teotihuacán city was constructed near what is now Mexico City between BC 100 and AD 700. The civilisation responsible for this city’s construction shared the same name. This group had a strong influence on the surrounding regions and controlled parts of southern Mexico due to their strength. Unfortunately, the Teotihuacán culture only lasted up until the 7th century, when they were overthrown.
The Mayans thrived between AD 250-900. This amazing civilization created a calendar and constructed many incredible structures and cities. The majority of the sites to be mentioned in this article were built by the Maya people. Unfortunately, the Mayan civilization eventually collapsed in the early 10th century. Despite this, at the same time as the Mayan collapse, the Toltec people emerged in central Mexico. This group may be most infamous for their human sacrifices in order to appease the gods.
The Aztecs were the last great civilization of Pre-Columbian Mexico. They were primarily located in the central valley and rose to prominence in 1427. These people worked together with the Toltecs and Mayans to overthrow smaller civilizations and cultures to rule over them. Eventually, however, the alliance, led by the Aztec Empire, ruled Mexico from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf Coast. At its peak, the Aztecs ruled over roughly 5 million people.
The Spanish Invasion of Mexico
Hernan Cortes arrived in Veracruz in 1519. The Aztec King Moctezuma invited Cortes to Tenochtitlan, believing that he was the serpent god Quetzalcóatl. This would be the end for the Aztec people. In 1521 Cortes, along with his new allies, attacked and conquered the Aztecs. Cortes called the area Nueva España, or New Spain. Most of the Aztec Empire was controlled by Spain by 1574 and the people enslaved. In the years between 1521 and 1605 close to 25 million indigenous people were killed due to diseases brought by the Spanish.
Located 35 kilometres from the Guatemalan border, Calakmul sits in the state of Campeche. The name translates to ‘The city of Two Adjacent Pyramids’ and used to be known as Ox Te’uum, which means ‘Three Stones’. It became a World Heritage Site in 2002. Construction began by the Maya people in the 6th century BC, although its most fruitful period was between AD 500-800. At its peak, the city had over 50,000 inhabitants and 6,700 structures and buildings. It spreads over 70 square kilometres and remains a beautiful example of middle pre-classic architecture. Pre-classic architecture is recognisable as the figures in the city are sculpted in stone and then modelled in plaster.
Calakmul was highly significant to the entire region for over 12 centuries. Rulers and their wives are represented through paired stelaes found on the site, highlighting their significance. The pyramid temple in Calakmul is one of the tallest in Mayan architecture and reaches a height of 45 metres. If you go to the top of the pyramid you can seven see Guatemala over the treetops.
A museum sits on the road entering the ruins. This museum explains the importance of the Biosphere Reserve that the ruins reside in as well as the site’s history. For travellers, this museum will enhance the experience of the Calakmul ruins.
Casas Grandes, the Clay City of North Mexico
A very different experience to Calakmul, Casas Grandes lies in Chihuahua, North Mexico. The name translates from Spanish to ‘Great Houses’, which seems fitting. The site has also been known as Paquime and was built from 700-1475. Over 2,000 rooms make up the site, including workshops, living rooms and even patios. Clay was used to form the structures, some of which have been estimated to be several stories high.
The Casas Grandes site remains the largest known archaeological zone that represents the Mogollon culture and people. Little information has been uncovered about the Mogollon people and no written language was left behind. Archaeologists have suggested that more of the site still has to be excavated.
Translating to ‘The Palace of Red Corn’, Chacchoben sits 177 kilometres south of Tulum. Chacchoben’s construction began around BC 200 and finished in roughly AD 900. Peter Harrison rediscovered the site in 1972, however it was first discovered by a local by the name of Serviliano Cohuo. Serviliano lived on the site after its discovery and welcomed Harrison. As its discoverer, Serviliano was the site’s protector until his passing. It was then that restoration began in the 1990’s and measures were put in place to protect the site. Only in 2002 did the site open to the public.
The largest structure on the site, known as Temple 24, reaches a height of 13 metres. This structure sits on a five tier platform with stairs on all four sides of the pyramid. The Temple of the Vessels can also be found on the Chacchoben site. This temple sits on the acropolis terrace and has one large stairway going to the top. At the back of the building sits the original red stucco, clinging to the pyramid wall for over 1,200 years.
Chichen Itza, the Real Life El Dorado
This may be the most famous of all Mayan sites. There are 26 ruins to see on the site and every one of them are worth the trip. Buildings here include the Temple of the Jaguar, the Temple of the Warriors and the sacred cenote. If those names are ringing a bell and you are wondering why they seem familiar, perhaps you have watched the classic movie The Road to El Dorado. If you have not, I would highly recommend it.
The main pyramid, also called Chichen Itza, rises 30 metres high and has two columns which depict open-mouthed snakes. Above the snakes sits Chaac’s mask, the rain god. The pyramid sits atop another which stands 16 metres tall. On the Spring and Autumn Equinox at 3pm, the light and shadow phenomenon casts a silhouette. The silhouette sits on the balustrade and forms the shape of a serpent, joining at the snakeheads at the bottom.
Elsewhere on the site you can find the Mayan Ball Game. Also an iconic part of the movie mentioned above, this ball game remains a mystery. The game has been thought to be ceremonial and we know little from depictions. Players could only touch the ball with their hips and thighs however the method of scoring remains ambiguous. Furthermore, the number of players remains unknown but we can deduct that it could be played one on one, in pairs or in teams. The ball itself was made of liquid latex, harvested from the rubber tree. This latex was moulded into balls of various sizes and could weigh up to 5 kilograms.
Several tours are available for the Chichen Itza site, ranging from classic to luxury and even a cuisine tour! What more could you really ask for?
Located in the state of Veracruz, this site was flown under the tourist radar. The city was in its prime from roughly AD 800-1200 and held up to 20,000 people. A large portion of the city must still be excavated, but evidence shows that it was abandoned after a devastating fire. The architectural style of the city is vastly different to most others, leading to the mystery of who built it. In it, there are at least 17 ball courts with more likely to be found. The carvings found in the city point to the possibility of heads being used for balls, but this cannot be confirmed.
The Pyramid of the Niches, the main structure in the site, rises six tiers. As the name suggests, this building is covered in niches, 365 to be exact. These niches likely represent the solar calendar, but more evidence is needed to confirm this. It has been hypothesised that items or food would have been placed in the recesses as offerings for the gods.
This unique site would not be one to skip out on. The lack of tourists and the beautifully tranquil atmosphere will make you never want to leave.
Monte Albán can be found in the state of Oaxaca, southern Mexico. It became a world heritage site in 1987 and boasts the cultural mix of Zapotec and Mixtec architecture. There are over 170 tombs on the site, as well as plazas, pyramids, underground passageways and ball courts.
Evidence shows that Monte Albán went through many phases throughout its construction. Initially, in the 1st Century BC the Zapotec people built and dressed with stone. The city thrived during the classic period and was heavily influenced by the Teotihuacán style. In the 4th Century Monte Albán lost prominence and the structures within it began to crumble. Mixtec people inhabited the site in the 16th Century, reusing many of the resources left behind. This resulted in the cultural mix we see in architecture today. Unfortunately, this fourth phase came to an end with the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century, leaving the city abandoned.
Palenque, Mexico’s Hidden City
Built in the late classic period (AD 600-900), Palenque sits in the Chiapas state in southern Mexico. This extravagant site, surrounded by beautiful forest, became a World Heritage Site in 1987. Uncharacteristically, builders used plaster to get a smooth finish on the structures in Palenque. Traditionally Mayan architecture did not exhibit these smooth finished buildings.
Additionally, rather than adorning the outer surfaces with carvings, the interiors were decorated.
Tablets of carvings are stuck to walls using plaster and terracotta and stucco images can be found throughout the site.
One of the main attractions in Palenque, and also the best preserved and largest, remains the Temple of Inscriptions. The name comes from the numerous hieroglyphs inscribed inside. In 1952 Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered a crypt under the temple and jade-ornamented remains inside. Researchers identified the body as Kʼinich Janaab Pakal I. Pakal, also known as Pakal the Great, ruled over Palenque for 68 years before his death in AD 683.
Originally called Zama, which means ‘dawn’, Tulum was renamed by Stephens and Catherwood in 1841. The site was rediscovered by Juan Jose Galvez in 1840 and remains the only Mayan structure on the beach of the Caribbean. Tulum faces east over the water, hence the original name translation, and boasts magnificent views of the surroundings.
This site is one of the few walled cities built by the Maya people. As the water protects the east side of the city, walls rise up on the three sides of the city. The walls rise 5 metres high and are 8 metres thick. Tulum was inhabited by Talking Cross cult members during the Caste War, as shown by historical records.
Dates carved into a stelae indicate that the site was founded in AD 564, in the classic period. History tells us that the site only thrived much later on, from 1200-1521 during the post-classic period. Tulum was a highly important location in terms of trade and networking. The site was a hub for international trade, with items from the Mexican highlands and jade from Guatemala being found there. In the 16th Century the old world diseases brought over by the Spanish resulted in the settlement being all but wiped out. Tulum was inhabited by few people for the next 70 years after the conquest before being completely abandoned.
Most likely due to the idyllic location, Tulum has been the most popular Mayan ruin site for a long time. There are mangroves, cenotes (sinkholes) and snorkelling opportunities nearby, further which add to the location’s appeal.
Meaning ‘Thrice Built’ Uxmal is considered one of the most important Mayan sites. It sits in the Yucatan state, 150 kilometres west-southwest of Chichen Itza. The site has been deemed the most important representative of the Puuc architectural style for good reason. Common attributes of this style include limestone construction, smooth wall surfaces, stucco finishes, Chaac depictions and the decorating along horizontal lines.
Like many other Mayan cities, it was hypothesised that Uxmal was abandoned in AD 1450 when the League of Mayapan ended. The central ruins span roughly 60 hectares, however the residential districts around it spread considerably further. One of the most interesting structures in Uxmal is the fascinating Pyramid of the Magician. This pyramid rises 28 metres high, with three concentric sections forming it. A Chaac mask-shaped entrance sits at the top section of the temple, watching all below it. Although this temple sits taller than any other building, it also, however, has the name ‘House of the Dwarf’. Legend says that the pyramid was built by an enchanted dwarf overnight who then ruled the city.
The Nunnery Quadrangle, another interesting building on the site, sits west of the Pyramid of the Magician. It consists of four rectangular buildings with a grand total of 74 rooms. Although largely a mystery, many suggest that it was a residence for soldiers, priests or even students. Other ruins of interest within Uxmal include the Governor’s Palace, the House of Turtles and the Great Pyramid. If you plan a full day at Uxmal, be sure not to miss out on seeing more. The House of Pigeons, Cemetery Group, North Group and the House of the Old Woman are all worth it.
Built in the 8-9th Century after the fall of Teotihuacán, this fortified city is a sight to behold. It became a World Heritage Site in 1999 and is a fusion of cultures. The city, which sits atop a till and translates to ‘In the Place of the Flower House’, sits in Morelos state, Mexico. The structures on the site have Aztec, Zapotec and Olmec architectural styles evident. Excavation on the site began in 1909 and revealed the so-called Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. Additionally, excavations revealed several plazas, houses and ball courts.
The most fascinating aspect of Xochicalco are the large reliefs that adorn the sides of the temple. In the stone are carvings of men with elaborate Mayan-styled headdresses as well as huge plumed snakes. These carvings are intricate and show how skilled those who constructed the site were. It might just be the best feature in the whole complex.
Why Not Try Some Local Delicacies While You Are Visiting Mexico?
Pre-Columbian Mexico may be responsible for some of the world’s favourite foods. If you find yourself in Mexico and are feeling daring, I will leave you with a short list of things to try. They might spice up your life a little bit.
- ‘Dog snout’ salsa (no dog snouts included, no worries there)
- Cochinita Pibil – a meat cooked by being buried on coals
- Poc Chuc – a meat marinated in citrus and grilled
- Subanik – a ceremonial stew
- Tamalitos (not tamales)
- Michelada – a spicy drink made with beer
- Jamaica (pronounced ha-mike-ah)
- Horchata – a plant milk beverage
- Balché – a sweet, mildly intoxicating beverage
- Âtōle – hot corn- and masa-based beverage
Some of these foods and drinks may be spicy for some so be sure to have something at hand to soothe the spice! When they say Mexican food has some heat, they are telling the truth. Many recipes use habanero chilis or even hotter types. You have been warned.
A Few Things To Know Before You Go
Mexico, like every country, has its charms as well as its… not so great things. While there may be many beliefs about Mexico that are not true, some advice should be heeded for your own general safety and wellbeing. Mexico is not unsafe as many might have you believe, however, like any country, it is beneficial to know a few things beforehand. If you want to have the best experience possible, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Do not drink the tap water – it is not safe and may cause you to get sick.
- You do not need to be fluent in Spanish, but knowing a bit certainly helps.
- Definitely explore outside of the known tourist areas -there is so much to see.
- Use pesos rather than your home currency as it will help you save money.
- Earthquakes are common due to Mexico lying on the most active fault line in the world.
- Most shops do not open before 8am on weekdays.
- Learn the restrooms – those marked with ‘M’ are for the ladies!
- Toilet paper does not get flushed – it goes in the bin.
- Car rental scams are rife – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
- Pack a variety of clothing – Mexico’s weather can change and it may not always be hot.
Final Thoughts on Traveling to Mexico
If you are waiting for a sign telling you to go to Mexico – consider this to be it. You like to party on the beach? Mexico is for you. If you prefer to be alone in a forest with the ruins, Mexico’s got that, too. Your taste buds will love you forever after one try proper Mexican cuisine. Even if less information is known compared to places like Angkor Thom or Roman catacombs, you will be blown away. In Mexico, there truly is something for everyone. There is always the option of travelling across the borders and exploring the ruins in Peru, too! If you fancy a holiday in a lesser-known tropical paradise, why not check out São Tomé and Príncipe?