Whether you are in Mexico City for just a few days or you’re a business traveller with just a couple of hours to sightsee between meetings, you don’t have to miss out on experiencing the magnificence of the city’s pre-Hispanic history. Read on for my guide to three mesmerising archaeological sites located right in the metropolis.
I can’t imagine anyone coming to Mexico City and not seeing at least one of its archaeological sites. For some people they are a reason in themselves for coming to Mexico yet you don’t have to go further than Distrito Federal to see some mind-blowing examples of the country’s pre-Hispanic ruins.
The best known of all the Aztec sites in the city, the Templo Mayor, is located slap bang in the middle of downtown, and the site of Tlatelolco, the second most important Aztec settlement is just a quick metro ride away. You can even view ruins inside Mexico City’s subway system! Just look out for the small circular altar that was discovered during the construction of the underground as you pass through Pino Suárez metro station. Cuicuilco is the furthest from the city centre but is still easily visited in half a day and you get the luxury of feeling like you are in the countryside as an added bonus.
Each site is completely different and you can almost hear the ceremonial cries as you allow them to transport you back through the centuries. The fact that each one is located within the city renders you speechless as you are faced with the evidence of how dramatically times have changed.
Of the three archaeological sites I visited for my video post, Cuicuilco is the furthest from the city centre but is easily reached by Metrobus (see my tips section for how to get there). An important Mesoamerican site, and perhaps the oldest city in the Valley of Mexico, Cuicuilco is said to have been occupied from the Early Formative period (c. 700 BC) until its destruction in the Late Formative period (c. 150 AD) following the eruption of the Xitle volcano. Partly covered by lava, the circular pyramid is the site centrepiece and is reputed to be the oldest pyramid on earth with at least one archaeologist dating it at around 7,000 years old, although this is widely disputed.
The site was occupied by up to 20,000 people at one stage, yet all that is left of what is thought to be the first large religious and public centre in the Mexican highlands, is the remainder of eight buildings for public and religious use and a hydraulic system that would have been used for the inhabitant’s water supply. The architecture at the site is said to be heavily influenced by astronomical observations and the strategic positioning of one of the pyramids suggest that Cuicuilco is home to one of the early attempts by a pre-Hispanic civilisation to use building construction as a way of linking religion with cosmic events.
If you are able to dedicate half a day to visiting the site, then Cuicuilco offers a great escape from the city’s chaos. Surrounded by green landscapes with a spectacular view of the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in the distance, you almost feel like you have left the city for a day in the countryside.
I visited late in the afternoon just a couple of hours before closing and was surprised to find that I was the only person there apart from a few security guards manning both the entrance to the site and the site museum beside the pyramid displaying some of the artefacts found there.
In the eerie silence I tried to imagine its inhabitants going about their daily business all those years ago marvelling at the same spectacular sunset as it tinged the peaks of the ancient volcanoes a glorious red. A must-see for those interested in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic history and archaeological treasures.
The best known of all the Aztec sites, the Templo Mayor, is located right in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central plaza, and can be easily visited by anyone with a few hours to spare in the city centre. As I mentioned in my post on Xochimilco, it is hard to believe as you walk around the city, that the remains of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, are buried beneath your feet.
Before the Spanish demolished it, the centre of Tenochtitlán, described as the most impressive of all the Aztec cities, stood right where the Zocalo stands today and it wasn’t until 1978 when electricity workers came across an eight-ton stone-disc carving, that excavation began and its treasures were unearthed.
As you cross the square towards the site entrance, the sight and sound of the Aztec dancers transport you to pre-Hispanic times in preparation for your journey through the ruins, better enabling you to envisage life in Tenochtitlán.
The largest and most important of the empire’s temples, the Templo Mayor, lay just a few metres northeast of the present day cathedral. This temple was dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture, and its two pyramids built upon on a massive platform would have dominated the landscape.
As well as bringing blessed relief from the chaos for which the Zocalo is famed, your entrance fee into the Templo Mayor archaeological site allows you to wander around the excavation site where you can view several layers of open air ruins. I found it fascinating to stand right at the entrance, where I could view both the ruins and the present day cathedral at the same time, as you can see exactly where the Spanish used the stones of the demolished temple to build their cathedral as an everlasting reminder of their conquest.
Another must-see is the macabre wall of skulls, a terrifying reminder of the human sacrifice that once took place here.
Inside the museum you’ll find a vast collection of fascinating artefacts excavated from the area below your feet, including the huge stone disk measuring 3.25 meters (10.7 feet) in diameter, and featuring a decapitated and dismembered Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, famously discovered by the electricity workers digging for the metro, as well as various other mindblowing artefacts.
Check my tips section for links to more in-depth information on the site.
Representing three of the most important historical phases in Mexico’s history, Tlatelolco’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures) might just be one of the most emblematic squares in Distrito Federal, and at just 5 stops away from the Zocalo by metro, you can easily see both the Templo Mayor and Tlatelolco in half a day.
The second most important Aztec settlement and home to Mexico’s most important marketplace, Tlatelolco was the commercial heart of the Aztec empire, existing alongside political seat, Tenochtitlan, while maintaining independence from it until 1473. So impressive was the market they found here, Spanish captain Bernal Diaz del Castillo couldn’t help but marvel at its organisation and scale when he arrived in Mexico with Hernan Cortez.
However, that didn’t stop the Spanish destroying everything they found there and the city fell on 13th August 1521, an event commemorated by the sorrowful tribute you’ll find just outside the church that was built atop its ruins.
It is said that some 40,000 were killed or taken on that day and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas offers the perfect vantage point from which to ponder Mexico’s defeat and consequent rebirth. From here you can view an example of colonial Mexico in the Church of Santiago de Tlatelolco, built by the Spanish as an ever-present reminder of their conquest; the ruins of the Aztec sacred precinct, unearthed as a reminder of their shortcomings in wiping out completely Mexico’s pre-Hispanic heritage, and all around you, modern skyscrapers and residential buildings as an example of the independent mestizo nation of today.
Entrance to the archaeological site at Tlatelolco is free and you can view items unearthed by archaeologists at the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco for just $30 MXN ($2 USD).
Make sure to check out my tips section for further info on all the sites featured including how to get there.