The Archaeological Monuments Zone of Xochicalco comprises a pre-Hispanic fortified city, that came into existence during the transitional Epiclassic Period (ca. 700-900 AD).
The apogee of Xochicalco came after the fall of Teotihuacán and the waning of other large empires such as Palenque and Tikal. The newer societies were much more militaristic and their cities were usually located in elevated defensive positions.
The architecture and iconography of Xochicalco shows affinities with both Teotihuacan and the Maya area and it is probable that the city of Teotihuacan was a multicultural city, although it also does seem to have had a connection to the Tlahuica culture. The main ceremonial center is atop an artificially leveled hill, with remains of subsidiary buildings, mostly unexcavated, in the surrounding area.
Map of XochicalcoLoad map
Visit January 2014
I had planned to visit Xochicalco by public bus, but got discouraged after reading that the 38km trip can take up to 1.5 hours and one can only hope to be let off at the entrance gate to the site. As I had a lot of pesos left anyway, I decided to splurge on a taxi that would take me straight from the hotel to the site. So I sat first class in the back of a brand new radiotaxi, covering the distance in 40 minutes. The site lies in a barren, hilly area – actually the city was built on top of those hills.
As Paul Tanner has pointed out in his review below, the museum and the entrance to the archeological site are some distance apart. You have to go to the museum first, as that’s where the tickets are sold. Entrance now costs 59 pesos (3,20 EUR). I arrived at 9.30 a.m. and was the only visitor; it would stay that way all 2 hours that I spent there. I believe this area suffers a lot from US visitors staying away because of reports of drug violence in Mexico, I was also the only visitor at my hotel in Cuernavaca – the Hotel Casa Colonial which is recommended everywhere from Lonely Planet to Michelin. The museum itself wasn’t that great, it has only 2 or 3 pieces to remember. For example the “Red Man”:
I then walked uphill to the site entrance, some 500 meters on a path with fine views of the site from a distance. Its location does look like Monte Alban, if I remember that well enough from a visit 17 years before. I was glad I had a site map in my guide book, as the ruined city is a bit of a maze. There's a sign here and there, but just as at all other archaeological sites I visited in Mexico during this trip they are confusing to say the least. I did manage to find all structures, but the first were disappointing. The site is mostly in ruins, so you'll see a lot of stone walls and rubble.
The only exquisite building left is the Temple/Pyramid of the Feather Serpent. It has a relief all around it, where the figures (humans and animals) are still very clear-cut. What's left of the Rampa de los Animales is now under protective covering: the stones with the animal drawings on them aren't easy to see and most of them are faded anyway. It was a great idea however, of these rulers of Xochicalco, to welcome visitors with a decorated access path like this!
I then roamed around the structures some more. Although it was relatively early in the morning, the sun is very hot up here as there is little vegetation. It’s just like walking around an Ancient Roman or Greek excavation on a summer day. You really need to bring water with you, it’s not available at the site.
Finally I arrived at the Observatory. It’s located in a cave at the back of another ball court. It opens daily at 10 a.m., and at first I saw noone there. But when I approached a man suddenly appeared from within the cave – he’s a guide, I also saw him at the entrance. You need his help to get in, as it is pitch dark inside and he has a flashlight. The cave is fairly large and has a high ceiling. At the far end, a sunbeam comes in from above. It wasn’t really the right time of the year nor the day to see anything spectacular. So I looked at a small circle of light. "Please, take a picture of it," the guide said. And so I did...
I visited this WHS in December 2021. After we were forced to change plans and sleep in a motel close to Xochicalco instead of Cuernevaca, we woke up early to be the first visitors of the morning and also avoid any possible disruptions from the nearby demonstrations and protests. Not only were we the first visitors but we were also the only visitors till we left a couple of hours later.
Xochicalco's heydays came after the fall of Teotihuacan and it has been speculated that Xochicalco may have played a part in the fall of the Teotihuacan empire. The architecture and iconography of Xochicalco show affinities with Teotihuacan, the Maya area, and the Matlatzinca culture of the Toluca Valley. The absolute highlight of this WHS is without any doubt the Temple of the Feathered Serpent with fine stylized depictions of the Feathered Serpent deity in a style which includes apparent influences of Teotihuacan and Maya art. I was also surprised by the number of huge pyramids, platforms and ball courts as well as residential or cerimonial buildings which lack the intricate decorations of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent but are still worth viewing as an impressive series of complexes which once made up a sizeable city with a population of around 20,000 people.
Most if not all stelae and statues can be seen at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and although the small museum of Xochicalco (usually included in the entrance ticket) was closed due to COVID restrictions, its main pieces were on loan and displayed in Mexico City's Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP) building as part of the Greatness of Mexico (La Grandeza de Mexico) exhibition which in January 2022 was transferred to the National Museum of Anthropology as a temporary exhibition when the permanent exhibition halls were suddenly closed supposedly due to a rise in COVID cases.
The Rampa de Animales has a tent-like structure for protection against the elements which makes it quite hard to appreciate the ramp made up of stone slabs with carved animals such as birds, snakes, butterflies and mammals. Adjacent to this ramp is a small temple in which a female goddess statue was found which probably was believed to be the Goddess of the Earth, the place where all animals breed. Unfortunately, entering the astronomical observatory was not possible due to COVID restrictions, but researches believe that the vertical shafts of the underground chambers here were used to observe and measure the solar zenith passage (on 14th-15th May at Xochicalco) functioning as part of Mesoamerican calendar system. Recent studies also suggest that these were also used to observe the moon and predict eclipses.
Time of visit: November 2021
Duration of visit: 2 hours
Mode of transportation: by rental car, day trip from CDMX
Review and experience
My initial expectation of Xochicalco was just "a little known Mesoamerican pyramid site," especially after damaging our rental car en route in Cuernavaca and feeling grumpy because of the very dumb mistake I made, but I left impressed and with a new understanding and appreciation of the Epiclassical Period that I hadn't previous read about (unless I fell asleep during this section of the lecture in university).
The UNESCO OUV text provides a great summary of the significance of Xochicalco, and I whole-heartedly agree with its OUV and basis of inscription. Its uniqueness lies in that Xochicalco is a well-preserved site from an interesting and messy period of Mesoamerican history. During this period, the Epiclassical Period, large Classical Period cities of Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Tikal, Palenque, and Calakmul had begun to collapse. Furthermore, despite its proximity to Teotihuacan, the strong presence of Mayan influence so far north fascinated me. Its position on top of a hill was refreshing, both from a militaristic history that carried significance to the site but also for the beautiful perspectives of the valleys below. I didn't get a chance to visit Monte Alban, but from the layout shown in the National Museum of Anthropology, I'd imagine it's somewhat akin to that site.
Given our expectation for the site was low, we were continually impressed on our visit. The site just kept on growing and growing as each path led to another part of the complex, and under a strong sun, we felt like site was extending on its own to punish us for expecting so little of it! Nevertheless, we loved the experience - the pyramids were impressive, the residential and religious complexes were well preserved and told a fascinating narrative, and some of the carvings were just so beautiful! We didn't get a chance to visit the Observatory as COVID restrictions closed it, but we wrapped up our visit very, very happy, and learned to never again expect so little of a WHS Mesoamerican pyramid site!
I visited Xochicalco on my Mexican trip in March 2019. Unlike other Mesoamerican WHS, this archaeological site does not stand out for its impressive pyramids or other major constructions. It is rather a well maintained and cohesive ensemble of buildings which forms a complex with a high density of constructions.
As described by others, I traveled by public bus from Cuernavaca. I first visited the nice museum and then walked to the site. It sits atop a mountain with great vistas on the surrounding valleys. The defensive aspect of this city built in troubled times stand out and, alike previous reviewers, I found it similar to Monte Alban. I had a map of the site (I don't remember if they give it at the museum or the tourism office in Cuernavaca), but the path is well marked and many interpretive boards allow you to understand what you witness. Few buildings stand alone as exceptional (probably only the finely ornate Pirámide de Quetzalcóatl). I asked an adorable Mexican family to take a picture of me in front of this temple and befriend with them. Even thought the rest of the site is not artistically or architecturally jaw-dropping, this site still forms a coherent ensemble. Ball courts, plazas and ruined buildings are to be seen. It is a great half day trip and a pleasant dive in the history of a lesser known civilization.
When I visited in 2019, the observatory was still closed following the 2017 earthquake (alike many buildings in the states of Mexico, Morelos and Guerrero). At around lunch time, I was done with my sightseeing and headed back to the bus stop. The family I befriended with was there eating fruits and they shared lunch and chatted with me while I waited. People working there for the parking watched for buses and told me which one to take.
Cuernavaca is finally a fairly nice city with a WHS monastery (the Cathedral, still closed because of the earthquake). One last place I would recommend in the city is el Salto the San Antón, a beautiful 40-m waterfall located a little west of the center. It is bordered by columnar jointing, an infrequent geological formation in this part of the World.
There was just something very enjoyable about the place. Its setting on top of a hill, its immaculately maintained grounds and impressive ruins provided a wonderful morning break from Cuernavaca.
Despite my limited efforts I had somewhat slipped into the trap Paul describes below, with idea that pre-hispanic Mexican cultures were either Aztecs or Mayans, so it was very enlightening to discover something of a hitherto unknown culture. My quick trip through the onsite museum helped pick out the most interesting parts for me, and helped me interpret the various structures and ruins.
Clambering over the pyramids and moving from one plaza to another it was very easy to feel that this place was once a real city, rather than just a series of archaeological ruins. The pyramid of the Plumed Serpent was a real highlight. I also visited the observatory, which was dark, hot and very humid.
There was something rather special about my first sighting of that defining Mesoamerican structure; a ball game court. I know there are religious aspects to it that I don't currently comprehend, however it was so identifiably a sports stadium, I couldn't help but get that pang of excitement I get from walking into a modern day arena.
After a very pleasant walk around I was heading back on the surprisingly well signposted roads back to Cuernavaca having had a very enjoyable morning getting to know a culture I previously had no knowledge of.
[Site 7: Experience 7]
Xochicalco was the third ruin I visited while in Mexico. As part of my quest, I visited several more. However, I still have a fond memory of the sight and feel it is deservedly listed as WHS.
Key reason for me that make the sight special is it's location. Built on top of a hill it feels like a fortress meant to protect its inhabitants. I was reminded of the Acropolis or a medieval castle. This is very different from most other ruins I saw in Mexico, apart from Monte Alban.
I also enjoyed the gardens greatly. Not sure why, but it seems they had a good gardener and the sight feels a bit like a park.
Getting to Xochicalco is fairly straightforward. Good busses run hourly from Mexico City (South) to Cuernavaca. And similarly from Cuernavaca to the sight itself dropping you off at the entry to the museum.
Getting away from Xochicalco cost me 2.5h. Everyone told me the good bus that took me there would show every hour. It didn't show for two hours. My guess is that the drivers, don't really like taking the detour. So they skip on the stop and go directly to Cuernavaca. Instead, take the 3rd class bus to Cuernavaca from up the hill. It will not drop you at the right bus station in Cuernavaca and you have to make your way through the city to get to the Mexico City bus.
While You Are There
Cuernavaca is fairly nice and has itself a WHS.
Bring water and sun screen.
Not sure where to write this... Anyways Xochicalco site is closed since 2 days because of a protest of local farmers. People trying to get close to the gates are sent away with machetes. My guide didn't know anything about it, so I got there this morning (March 22nd 2014) and I witnessed the unpleasant scene. Against more than 100 people, there wereonly a couple of police patrols. Hopefully the situation will be cleared soon, but I've missed the visit to the site, since my next days are fully booked. Anyways I could "admire" the Unesco logo in the washrooms (luckily these people let us use the toilet when they realized my 6-years-old kids needed it). Pretty disappointing for our first day in Mexico!!! Also 2 tourist buses were sent away when I was there (one of Mexican seniors and the other of Japanese tourists). I think this should go in the news section, not sure if the news is reported in any local Mexican website, it should! Also the access to the museum was blocked and the site employees were outside the area, descouraging the tourists from getting closer to the gate. Bad luck!!!
10 out of Mexico’s 27 inscribed sites are pre-Hispanic – Xochicalco isn’t among the “top ranking” but has its interests and is certainly worth visiting if you are in the Cuernavaca area. Non-experts might tend to think of Mexico as being the home of just the Aztecs and Mayas but there were in fact many more different “civilisations” than these, spread over many centuries. Each of the sites demonstrates continuity and development among and across them and also the different social and agricultural etc practices imposed by the wide variety of living conditions across Mexico’s terrain - think 2000 years of Europe from BC to c1500!
Xochicalco dates from around 800 AD and appears to have been primarily religious and ceremonial in purpose. It is particularly noted for its enormous ball court (photo1) with Mayan influences (the “Ball game” had considerable ritual significance in most “Mexican” civilisations) and the Observatory, where caves can be entered to reach a vertical shaft through which the sun shines for 5 weeks on either side of the summer solstice. There are also some fine carvings on the “Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent” linking to both Mayan and Teotihuacan civilisations.
The ticket office (which you must visit first) and museum are set quite a walk down from the site and those with a car should be aware that you can drive up to another car park after getting your ticket/visiting the museum and you will just have to show your ticket at the second entrance – there is no need to walk from the signed museum exit, just return to its car park! Entrance fees were 48 pesos in Mar 2008 (approx US$4.50). Guidebooks which state that “over 60’s get in free” are incorrect – this concession has now been limited at all (??) Mexican historic sites (except to my knowledge at El Tajin!) solely to Mexican citizens and registered foreign residents!
You will need 1 ½ - 2 hours to see the site and museum. There is quite a lot of climbing and the site is at altitude but there are some fine views (photo 2). The Observatory closes at 5pm (the rest of the site at 6) – if you arrive in mid afternoon numerous unofficial “guides” will appear to “take you” to it quickly before it closes! There is no need to use them of course but there can be a queue to get in as the resident guide there closes an iron gate when he has a “caveful” so, if you want to see it, gauge how much time there is and how busy the site seems. The caves are at the far side of the site slightly downhill and to the left after you have climbed to the highest plateau (photo). The Observatory isn’t signed until that far side. The museum, in common with other pre-Hispanic site museums we visited (other than the magnificent Museum of Anthropology in Mexico DF), only describes its exhibits in Spanish but the signs around the site itself are in English as well (but interestingly not in any local language unlike at El Tajin and Monte Alban – a sign of the relative strength of indigeno culture remaining in various areas of Mexico?).
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