Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque
Photo by Jay T.

The 'Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System' encompasses a 16th-century canal system that is unique in the Americas.

The system was initiated by Franciscan friars. It carried water from the Tecajete volcano near Zempoala to the city of Otumba, over a distance of 48 km. Spanish engineers and local craftsmen worked on the construction, using European and indigenous techniques.

Community Perspective: To see the aqueduct above ground you’ll need a car. A good viewpoint lies just outside the town of Santiago Tepeyahualco. It can be combined with a trip to Teotihuacan but beware of bad roads. An alternative visit can be made to the towns of Otumba and Zempoala, the endpoints of the system.

Map of Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque

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Malta - 12-Feb-22 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque by Clyde

I visited this WHS in December 2021 (the aqueduct proper) and in January 2022 (Otumba and Zempoala). After a magical hot air balloon ride experience over Teotihuacan, I drove for a few kilometres on the highway to the Father Tembleque Aqueduct.

Coming from Teotihuacan it's a very easy drive and the best panoramic views are indeed from the highway. However, just when you get to about 500 metres from the aqueduct, suddenly there is no paved road, so you either park in a quiet side street or do some offroading while paying attention not damage the car if you don't have much clearance. I opted for the latter as we had our valuables in the car and slowly but surely we made it to the aqueduct. As others have said, the aqueduct is a fine construction and was vital for the local populations at the time, but it is less impressive than others in Mexico such as in Morelia, Zacatecas or Queretaro and especially others in Europe (Segovia, Pont du Gard, Evora, Pontcysyllte, etc.). It isn't large either, so I made an extra effort to walk from one end to the other, crossing the Papalote River and enjoying the ancient volcano landscape. Half way through there are also railway tracks underneath the aqueduct. Along the aqueduct there are three arcades: the first with 46 arches, the second with 13 arches, and the third with 67 arches, with the tallest arch being slightly less than 39 metres high.

In Zempoala, the aqueduct canals split into two 16th century square cisterns which provided water to the key complexes in Zempoala, such as the Main House or the seeming out of place and huge Todos los Santos Ex Convent. Next to one of the sides of the former convent, behind the convent wall in the main road, there's also a very small garden dedicated to Father Tembleque and the aqueduct. Having visited both Zempoala and Otumba, I would argue that the water cistern here together with the ex convent, are more accessible and offer more than Otumba's minor sites. So if you don't care about UNESCO WHS plaques and you only have time for one of these towns (without missing the aqueduct proper), I'd recommend choosing Zempoala over Otumba.

In Otumba, there are replicas of the aqueduct in every other roundabout or square. There's a statue of Father Tembleque in front of the big Convent of La Purissima Concepcion and the rear side of the convent's perimeter is an overgrown empty water reservoir with modern glass walls separating it from modern-day traffic, a UNESCO WHS plaque facing the busy side street and a small painted description on one of the stone walls of why the aqueduct hydraulic system has been inscribed on the WH list. Further on, towards the town's dirty and almost abandoned outskirts lies a small water tank, now occupied by stray dogs as their kennel. Not seeing any dogs upon my arrival, I ventured inside the water tank (nothing worth writing home about) and apart from a foul smell, I also risked being attacked by stray dogs resting inside: one was "on guard" and the other was laying on the ground feeding cute baby puppies. In Zempoala and on the way to Otumba, I had already noticed other similar water tanks but without the stone cross on top.

In the central section of the aqueduct's underground canal system, a number of haciendas are connected to the water canal before the hydraulic system enters the municipality of Otumba, such as the Hacienda of Santa Inés and the Haciendas of San Miguel Ometusco and Zoapayuca in the municipality of Axapusco. The town of Otumba marks the southern end of the hydraulic system, once more integrating several diverter tanks and water storage tanks. Their provision can still be understood in some architectural structures, such as the House of Culture, the House of Viceroys or
the Convent of La Purissima Concepcion. Having seen more than enough, I decided to skip the "tour" inside the Gonzalo Carrasco regional museum and drove back to Mexico City.

Not only is it surprising that the Father Tembleque Aqueduct made it on the WH list, but it also got inscribed under three criteria! So, mostly because there was no UNESCO WHS plaque near the aqueduct proper, on my long way back to Mexico City from Las Pozas almost a month later, I decided to stop at the pueblo magico of Zempoala and at Otumba to see more aspects and minor structures of the aqueduct. Well, let's say that in both towns the vast majority of people visit without any knowledge that there is anything of OUV to see (not that there is!). Same applies to the locals, some of which weren't even aware that Otumba and Zempoala had minor components inscribed on the WH list or where to find them. In a nutshell, even though the aqueduct is one of the least interesting WHS in Mexico, it doesn't make sense to skip visiting the aqueduct. I would have surely given the site a rating of 0.5 stars at best without visiting the aqueduct proper.

Els Slots

The Netherlands - 21-Jan-22 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque by Els Slots

I didn’t want to come back from a visit to the Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque with the same story and the same photos as all reviewers before me. So, after digging through the nomination file and looking at the official map, it became clear to me that the two endpoints of the hydraulic system, the towns of Otumba and Zempoala, also are part of the core zone. And luckily there are buses all day long from Mexico City to Otumba. They are run by the same company that goes to Teotihuacan from Area 7 at Terminal Norte bus station. They have a cute map on their website which suggests that you can reach Zempoala with them as well.

After a drive of about 1.5 hours, the bus dropped me at the town entrance and I walked on to the central square. The first (and maybe only) eye-catcher in Otumba is the Church and Convent of the Immaculate Conception, also built under the auspices of Padre Tembleque. The church seems much too big for the town. It has a spacious plaza in front: as in many places in early colonial Mexico, services for the indigenous people were often held in the open air.

Beforehand I had looked up a few places on the map where remains of the water supply to Otumba can still be found. The most striking one is a water tank on the outskirts of town. It is located on a street named after Padre Tembleque. You walk all the way down the street to where the row of houses ends and the fields begin. A large pack of street dogs also has their playground there, but fortunately, they only paid attention to each other. I felt a real sense of accomplishment when the characteristic stone building, with a cross on the roof, came into view. I was so stunned to even find an information panel in Spanish and English next to it, that I forgot to look inside the structure.

My next stop was the Gonzalo Carrasco Regional Museum. Carrasco was a 19th-century painter who lived in a beautiful house at Otumba's central square. I was enthusiastically welcomed by an elderly female guide. They probably don't get foreign visitors here often, but how would I tell her that I wasn't coming for the 19th-century residence at all, but for the water cistern? I couldn’t, so I just went through all the rooms with her. They have beautiful wooden floors and wooden built-in furniture. A lot of stuff was imported from Europe. At the end of the tour, the guide wanted to take a picture with me, as proof that she had a visitor from Holland. 

My last stop, after a delicious lunch in a local restaurant along the main road, was the "final reservoir". I discovered this location on Google Maps, where it is called ‘Aljibe Terminal’. It is located somewhere at the back of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. During my search for it, I really noticed how big this religious complex is, it borders 4 streets. The reservoir turned out to be a large stone trough. It also has an information panel, and even the official UNESCO plaque is present here.

Many (including myself) have wondered how Mexico came to nominate this relatively obscure site, which isn’t the oldest, the largest, longest, or otherwise technically most remarkable aqueduct in the world. The nomination file is very thorough and focuses on water management, which never seems to fail to impress the jury. But I actually think the Roman Catholic Mexicans like to believe in the romantic story of Padre Tembleque, whose missionary work was difficult because he couldn't master the native language. But he had a bigger task ahead of him: to heal the people of Otumba by giving them access to clean drinking water.

Read more from Els Slots here.

Larry F

United States - 29-Nov-21 -

Time of visit: November 2021

Duration of visit: 1 hour

Mode of transportation: by rental car, from Queretaro en route to Puebla

Review and experience

Padre Tembleque Aqueduct is a unique WHS monument, and relatively unfrequented given it's slightly out of the way for most visitors. Rather than making a day trip from Mexico City and/or Teotihuacan, we took a slight detour en route from Queretaro (after several days in San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato) to Puebla. 

While the structure is impressive and the lack of visitors provided a quiet refuge after a lengthy and congested drive, I found the OUV of the aqueduct more limited in depth than most other WHS I have visited. Criterion (ii) is likely the most appropriate among Criteria (i), (ii) and (iv), considering it truly is an interchange of several cultural traditions, though that argument can be made for many cultural sites throughout Mexico constructed in the colonial times. I think it would have been equally if not more interesting to have featured a Mesoamerican aqueduct as a stand-alone WHS, as for example, the Aztecs built extensive water management systems, and I found featuring this aqueduct as a stand-alone site somewhat Euro-centric. All said though, the site was visually impressive and the history behind it interesting. I am also grateful for its being listed as a WHS, as otherwise it would have been very unlikely that we made a detour to visit!

Tactically, it was a little confusing getting to the location. GPS is relatively accurate, though it's easy to miss the dirt road that leads to the aqueduct. There is a nice security guard at the entrance, but otherwise no facilities (water, restroom, designated parking spot). Given a lack of gates, I imagine this site is open 24 hours, which is a nice bonus!

Frédéric M

Canada - 19-Aug-20 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque by Frédéric M

Like everyone else here, I visited this site as part of a day trip from Mexico City coupled with Teotihuacán. I solely visited the 66 (or 68 as the information board next to the arches states) arches of la Archería Monumental de Tepeyahualco. This construction is highly impressive, but it still makes a short visit. I spent about 30 minutes walking around and under the arches. There is little to do once you've reach the site other than gazing at it. As most interesting facts about its history and significance have already been mentioned by previous reviewers, I will tell you more about the journey to get there which is also part of the fun.

I reached Teotihuacán by public transport and arrived just after opening. I highly advise anyone to do the same as we were only two tourists atop the Pyramid of the Sun. With such an early start, I was done with the ruins in early afternoon. I thought it would be easy to find a taxi at such a popular site (how wrong I was!). All taxis in the parking lot were waiting for customers and could not take me in. I thus left the parking lot and then walked north from the roundabout on the road linking all entrances to the ruins. Interestingly, the sidewalk on the left side of this street is lined with interpretive panels about the World Heritage. I hailed many taxis driving by, but all refused to take me to the aqueduct. The fact that it was in another state appeared to be a problem for some of them (Teotihuacán is in the state of México, while the aqueduct is in the state of Hidalgo).

I desperately ended up in a restaurant on that road, asking the owner if he could call someone to take me there. We negotiated a price and the guy soon arrived. I was surprised to be taking part in a family excursion, as his wife and his baby were also taking place in the car. Moreover, that car was probably built way before I was born and unexpectedly survived until now. He had to ask a couple of times to passersby, but we managed to make it to the arches. I had interesting discussions with them, and he took a different road on our way back to show me other villages and the countryside. He dropped me back at Teotihuacán where I could take the bus back to Mexico City.

In sum, you might need to struggle to reach this Spanish empire masterpiece, but it is definitely worth it. One last word: don't go around asking for el Aqueducto del Padre Tembleque. From my experience, most people won't know what you are talking about. However, los Arcos are well known by locals. And, that way, you'll be sure to visit the most impressive stretch of this 48-km long linear site.

Jay T

USA - 17-Jul-19 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque by Jay T

It's not that aqueducts aren't impressive, but I have much stronger memories of my conversation with my taxi driver on the way to and from the Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System in January 2017 than I have of the actual aqueduct itself. After my visit, I'm still not sure exactly what it adds to the list. The Romans were constructing aqueducts with skill across Europe (see Segovia) many centuries before the technique was brought to the Western Hemisphere; I'd be more impressed with recognizing indigenous water management techniques. What constitutes the importance of this aqueduct to UNESCO, though, is the use of adobe, an adaptation of local building techniques, which enabled the construction of the picturesque span over the valley near Tepeyahualco. This main span is what draws most visitors, and it is the section I chose to visit. A sign near the parking area gave me some background about the route of the aqueduct, and a path allowed me to walk next to the tall arches. All told I didn't need much more than a half hour to visit this site; the remainder of my trip I spent in a fascinating but fretful conversation with my taxi driver, who used to live in the United States, about the future of Mexican immigration to the US after the presidential inauguration that week.

Logistics: The Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque requires private transporation, but can easily be paired with a visit to nearby Teotihuacan; I chose to hire a taxi to take me to the aqueduct in the morning and then drop me off at Teotihuacan to spend the remainder of the day.

Carlo Sarion

Philippines | New Zealand - 01-May-19 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque by Carlo Sarion

The Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System wasn't really part of my original itinerary, but having hired a car I knew I was going to regret not to visit the site. Thus, I decided to combine the site with Teotihuacan on a day trip from Mexico City in April 2019. This site encompasses a water catchment area, springs, canals, distribution tanks, reservoirs and the arcaded aqueduct bridges. UNESCO recognises that the hydraulic system was an outstanding work of engineering in the Americas at the time, and a perfect example of interchange of values and influences between Europeans and Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. We only planned to visit the aqueduct bridge, simply because this was the more obvious and representative element of the site. 

With the help of a GPS navigation app, we were able to get to the aqueduct from Teotihuacan in 40 minutes. The drive was smooth and there was a portion of the highway near the site where you could see the entirety of the aqueduct. I reckoned that it would be a challenge to reach this site by public transportation. A dirt road welcomed us as we approached the aqueduct. For some reason, arriving at the site made me feel like we were in an isolated, neglected area. I was kind of expecting that the government of the state of Hidalgo would put a little museum or even a ticket/guest booth after the site was inscribed, but there was none. We parked our car at the edge of the aqueduct (no parking lot by the way) and were greeted by a lone, obviously bored police officer in tattered uniform. We thought he was going to apprehend us for parking near the aqueduct, but he just took our plate number for registration. Apparently, he's the guardian. 

We walked alongside the aqueduct and stopped when we got to the railway. We took several photos and enjoyed the surrounding landscape. My friend headed back to the car as he couldn't tolerate the heat, but I continued and even thought of going down to the creek. I ditched this plan when I felt that the police officer was following me. I continued strolling along the aqueduct and noticed the tiny "altar" containing a figure of Mary perched in the middle of the highest arcade. After about half an hour, I decided to go back and when we were just about to leave the place, we saw a shepherd herding livestock under the aqueduct. I thought it was such a pretty sight.

I believe that the site adequately satisfies criteria I, II and IV, although I would say that the site's strongest point is justifying criterion II. Obviously, the Spanish colonialists had to make use of the indigenous labor and integrate the architecture with traditional methods and materials. Overall, I enjoyed the short time we were there, although the government could've done a better job in preparing and maintaining the site. I know the "ruggedness" adds to the level of authenticity but the fact that most of UNESCO WHS of Mexico have been manicured to cater to travelers, why couldn't they do the same to the aqueduct? I bet the lonely policeman would be happy if they do.

Phil Thompson

UK - 14-Jul-15 -

Recently visited this site - before it made the list and consequently information at the site is pretty thin on the ground. The structure is quite impressive, and the length is even more so. I visited probably the most impressive bit - same picture as previous poster has put up. Getting here, as long as you have your own car is quite straightforward, and it was on our way from the coast to Teotihuacan. See this place in the evening, then night stop at Teotihuacan and then as long as it sin't a weekend get to see the pyramids all on your own at 08:00.

Hopefully now being added to the site they will do something to clean up the river passing through the valley - just needs a bit of tidying really. there were lots of locals there, picnicking and a few on horseback, not sure why they were there.

Ian Cade

UK - 01-Feb-15 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque by Ian Cade

As a spectacle the aqueduct is pretty impressive but the story behind it reveals an interesting aspect of the European settlement of the Americas.

For me the most interesting thing was how early in the European settlement this piece of infrastructure was built. It was started in 1553 (only 30 years after the conquest of Tenochtitlan) as such the impressiveness is somewhat amplified by its age. It shows how European authorities attempted to shape their environment, in a way that the native groups hadn't done before. There are also traces to show how native slave labour was used in the construction as there are apparently seals highlighting the works of indigenous masons, I had a quick look but couldn't find them.

The whole structure is rather long (48km), most of it runs underground but there are three above ground arcades as they cross valleys, we visited the largest of these just outside the town of Santiago Tepeyahualco.

It is actually only about 30km from Teotihuacan, however the slow progress over cobbles in town and the lack of an eastbound access point to the highway make it a slightly longer journey than it seems on paper. Amazingly the gravel track beside the aqueduct was even fitted with two newly constructed road bumps; it was nice to see that nowhere was immune to this peculiar addiction of the Mexican road system.

A visit can be over and done with in five minutes, but the main aqueduct we visited was interesting and tells a rather fascinating story in the European conquest and settlement of the Americas.

[Site 6: Experience 3]


United States - 18-Jan-09 -

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque:

We found this quite by accident. I was amazed by the work and the enormity. It was incredile. Unfortunately, there was no one to tell us about the site and no signs. So now I am left to search the internet to explain what I saw.

Site Info

Full Name
Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System
Unesco ID
1 2 4
Structure - Civic and Public Works

Site History

2015 Name change

From "Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque, Renaissance Hydraulic Complex in America" to "Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System" at inscription

2015 Revision

Originally a serial nomination of 3 sites, reduced to 1 at the recommendation of ICOMOS by the State Party on 16 February 2015

2015 Inscribed


The site has 1 locations

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque


The site has

Human Activity
Individual People
Religion and Belief
WHS Hotspots
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World Heritage Process