Murals and Pyramids in Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley
Whether you recognize Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl as one of the more significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, or your interest is simply piqued by the sight of the hilltop ruins as you cruise by Huejotzingo on the Mexico-Puebla highway, these sister sites merit a closer look. Here’s why: Cacaxtla houses some of the best-preserved pre-Columbian murals in Mesoamerica, and Xochitecatl rewards anyone who climbs its pyramids with a panoramic views of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley and neighboring volcanoes.
Cacaxtla: A Confluence of Cultures
Located in the town of San Miguel del Milagro, the Cacaxtla site was initially surveyed by Spanish archaeologist Pedro Armillas in the 1940s. But its excavation didn’t begin until the 1970s, after looters dug a tunnel into its main building and found an elaborate painting of a “birdman.” They reported their discovery to local priest, who subsequently alerted Mexican authorities at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Official digging thereafter unearthed a grand platform, or gran basamento, which was built in various stages, the first as early as 300 BC. The structure appears to have been used by civic leaders for myriad activities, with distinct spaces dedicated to living, worship, and conducting business.
Experts at the INAH say that very little is known about Cacaxtla’s inhabitants, except that they were meticulous builders and warriors who organized their society into different social strata. The city was primarily home to the Olmeca-Xicalanca people, who prospered between 650 and 900 AD, thanks in part to their strategic location on regional trade and transit routes. It’s believed that their forebears migrated to the area from the Gulf Coast, where anthropologists suspect they came in contact with Mayans. This is due to the artistic style of, and Mayan imagery in, the Cacaxtla murals. However, writing and artifacts found at the site suggest other influences, including Mixtec, Zapotec, and Teotihuacan.
Visitors to Cacaxtla today can view its remarkable murals and construction first-hand by walking an interconnected series of wooden planks and stairs across the gran basamento. Eleven paintings have been found to date. The site’s focal point — and its most famous artwork — is the Mural de la batalla, or “battle mural,” which spans more than 72 feet along the base of a temple platform. The mural covers nearly 270 square feet of surface area, making it the largest ever recovered in Mexico. The painting depicts well-armed jaguar warriors defeating defenseless bird warriors, some of whom are naked and dismembered.
All of Cacaxtla’s paintings (and visitors) are shielded from the sun and rain by a 118,500-square-foot suspended metal roof, which the INAH claims is the second largest of its kind, right after the one protecting the Terracotta Warriors in China. In May 2007, a fierce hailstorm prompted the south end of the roof to collapse, forcing the INAH to close the site for nearly a year; fortunately, the ruins suffered minimal damage and the roof received steel reinforcements. During the repairs, the INAH discovered that the gran basamento — which is 656 feet long, 361 feet wide, and 82 feet high — was built, layer upon layer, in more stages (five) than they’d originally thought (three).
The site also maintains a modest museum of artifacts and scale models, as well as a gift shop, restrooms, and a mom-and-pop restaurant. Restaurante Cacaxtla serves delightful sangria and chilaquiles and affords patrons a wonderful view. The proprietor even lent our party of four several pairs of binoculars, so we could examine the volcanoes and valley floor from our table.
Xochitécatl: Pyramids With a View
A short drive — or a long precarious walk, which is discouraged — from Cacaxtla lies the even more prominent Xochitécatl. Built around 700 BC atop an extinct volcano, Xochitécatl predates Cacaxtla by at least four centuries, if not a millenium. The site appears to have been a purely ceremonial center for the surrounding area and, for us, has several interesting characteristics, namely loads of female idols and two exceptional pyramids.
With its long pathways of lava rock and sweeping valley views, Xochitécatl is a little reminiscent of Cantona, albeit far more compact and less remote. Its one-room museum contains a fine selection of the dozens of clay figurines that archaeologists recovered on the steps of the site’s main structure, the Pyramid of Flowers. (This is the pyramid you can see from the highway.) The figures represent women of all ages, many dressed in elaborate costumes, and some with babies in the womb, suggesting tributes to Xóchitl, a goddess of flowers and fertility. In addition, about a dozen stone statues representing humans and animals are on exhibit outside.
Just past the museum and to the left is the Spiral Building, a circular stepped pyramid (rare in Mexico) made up almost entirely of volcanic ash inside. A modern staircase enables visitors to go to the top without following the spiral in laps around the outside, the ancient way. According to the INAH, the building was probably a temple to a wind god named Ehécatl. In 1632, a Christian cross was erected on top; many sources say that the stone symbol has stood there for centuries, but during our visit it was notably absent. Apparently, the cross is removed for celebrations in the town of San Rafael Tenanyecac below. Marco A. Mena, the secretary of tourism in Tlaxcala, explains that this year the cross was taken down in April for a May 3 church celebration and returned to its perch on June 12.
Directly across the open plaza from the Spiral Building sits the larger, more traditional-looking Pyramid of Flowers. Built from rounded boulders, the pyramid is believed to have served as a place of ritualistic sacrifices; the bodies of nearly 30 children were found here. Perhaps the most memorable part of our visit to Xochitécatl was standing on this pyramid’s summit, from which we could enjoyed unobstructed view of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley and its Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and La Maliche. We suspect that, on a extremely clear days, Pico de Orizaba is visible in the distance, too.
Cacaxtla and Xochitécatl are located about 21 miles northwest of the Puebla capital, off the federal highway to Mexico City. (See map.) Both sites are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. General admission is 49 pesos per person Monday through Saturday and free on Sundays; if you buy a ticket to one site, you may visit the other on the same day for no additional charge. Parking in the lot outside Cacaxtla’s entrance costs 30 pesos; at Xochitécatl, it’s free. Bring water and wear sunscreen.
Post updated June 16, 2011.