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The Ruins of Xochicalco


The Ruins of Xochicalco


Photo by Christopher Minster

The Ruins of Xochicalco, Mexico:

The ancient ruined city of Xochicalco is a stunning archaeological site located in the Mexican state of Morelos not too far from Mexico City. The site was inhabited roughly between 200 and 900 A.D. Highlights of the excavated city include an excellent museum, the acropolis, the ball court, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and the Observatory.

The Ruins:

Xochicalco was a medium-sized city linked to many cultures including the Maya and the early Aztecs. Xochicalco means “House of the Flowers” and the city thrived on trade. It was strategically located along key trade routes and as such soon became a true cultural melting pot: it is not easy to describe Xochicalco as belonging to any one particular culture, as artifacts and architecture from different cultures have been found there. The city was well-fortified and would have been difficult to attack. Although lost for centuries, the city was rediscovered and excavated and today is a fascinating place to visit. Some of the ruins are off-limits, such as the ancient tunnels which used to link the major buildings, but most of it can be seen and explored.

History of Xochicalco:

Xochicalco was founded sometime around 200 A.D. By 700 A.D. it was an important city, thriving with trade and humming with culture. It was a military state, governed by warriors. The patron of the city was Tlaloc, God of Rain. In about 900 A.D. the hieroglyphs go silent, indicating that the city was destroyed and/or abandoned: other archaeological evidence suggests it may have been burned. The city was known to locals, however, and later cultures venerated it, treating the ruins as a sacred site. By the time of the Spanish colonial period, however, the city was lost.

The Museum:

The Xochicalco site is home to a wonderful museum which houses some of the more important artifacts found at the site. Since you’ll have to go through the museum to enter the site and buy your tickets, it makes sense to go there first. The museum was designed by a famous Mexican architect: there are no lights anywhere as the whole building is illuminated by natural sunlight. The museum has all the information necessary to understand the site, including maps, lineages of leaders, gods, information on the ball game, etc.

The Observatory:

One of the highlights of the ruins is the Observatory. The Observatory of Xochicalco is an underground, cave-like room: a hole in the ceiling provides light. During the summer months of late April to August, sunlight comes directly through the hole, illuminating the room. On May 15 and July 29, the sun is directly overhead and illuminates an image of the sun located on the cave floor: these days were obviously very important to the Xochicalco priests. On those days, the Observatory is packed with tourists.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent:

The most impressive building at the ancient site, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent occupies a lofty place of honor in the old city. The most important spiritual site at the ruins, the Temple was only visited by priests and nobility: commoners may have come nearby to see spectacles or religious ceremonies. It's decorated with beautiful, elaborate stonecarvings. The feathered serpent depicted on the temple is Quetzalcoatl, one of the greater gods of ancient Mexico. Some experts speculate that the Temple of the Feathered Serpent may have been built specially to commemorate a momentous meeting of cultures at Xochicalco to synchronize the calendars the different peoples used.

The Ball Court:

Many American ruins sites have a ball court: a large, rectangular space where a ceremonial ball game was played. The one at Xochicalco is in particularly good shape. Players tried to keep the ball from hitting the ground and scored "points" by knocking the ball through a stone hoop, making good plays or hitting certain objects on the court. The game was for religious and ceremonial purposes, not recreational ones: priests would watch the game for signs and omens.

The Acropolis:

On a high hill near the center of the city rests the acropolis. Currently a maze of half-walls and rubble, the acropolis was most likely once the home of the rulers – spiritual and/or political – of Xochicalco. Many of the stones here were taken away years ago by locals wishing to build homes and factories, unfortunately. There were once two distinct floors: now only parts of one remain. On the eastern side, walls of rooms are still clearly visible and on the western side there are remains of large halls which probably had ceremonial uses.

Visiting the Ruins:

Getting to Xochicalco from Mexico City or Cuernavaca is an easy affair. Buses go there regularly: consult with locals about when and where to catch the next bus. Also, most tour agencies can set you up with a van tour and a guide: guides are highly recommended for the ruins, as there are few signs posted in the ruins itself outside of the museum (and the museum signs are mainly in Spanish only). It is possible to combine a visit to Xochicalco with a trip to the nearby colonial town of Taxco, known for its jewelry shops. Plan on about a half-day to see the ruins. There is a small gift shop there but no real restaurant.

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