When one thinks of the Olmecs, the massive stone heads found in states like Tabasco and Veracruz typically come to mind. But while the largest Olmec cities were indeed located along Mexico’s Gulf Coast, their trade networks and political power spread much further. The overlooked site of Chalcatzingo, located in Central Mexico’s state of Morelos, is a perfect example of the far-reaching influence of the Olmec civilization.
While none of the trademark Olmec heads have been discovered here, you will encounter a plethora of ornate stone carvings in the typical Olmec style. Throw in gorgeous scenery and a lack of tour groups, and Chalcatzingo makes for a must-visit day trip from Cuernavaca.
To learn more about reaching Chalcatzingo via public transport, check the very end of the article. But first, a bit of history.
Chalcatzingo: A Brief History
Chalcatzingo was inhabited since at least 1500 BC, and it’s easy to see why. The area is home to natural springs, fertile soil and an abundance of medicinal plants.
What’s more, is that the site is overlooked by two hills – Cerro Chalcatzingo and Cerro Delgado – both about 300 m tall. In traditional Mesoamerican religion, hills and mountains were considered abodes of the gods. What’s more, is that they both likely contain caves, long regarded as portals to the underworld.
In its earliest days, Chalcatzingo’s local culture was largely influenced by the Tlatilco civilization, the dominant culture of the Valley of Mexico. And Tlatilco culture was in turn influenced by the Olmecs, who operated vast trading networks from early on in their history. (Learn more about Olmec history in our guide to Parque Museo La Venta.)
The Olmecs, however, wouldn’t establish a base in Chalcatzingo until around 700 BC. And then, over the next couple hundred years, they left behind dozens of rock carvings in the traditional Olmec style.
With that being said, Chalcatzingo’s inhabitants continued producing ceramic objects that were more typical of Central Mexico.
The question remains, then, whether Chalcatzingo was largely comprised of Olmec inhabitants or if it was mainly an outlying vassal state. Either way, Chalcatzingo served as an important trading center between Central Mexico and the Gulf Coast during the height of Olmec power.
Chalcatzingo, however, would begin to decline around 500 BC, as cities like Cuicuilco were on the rise. The Teotihuacanos would later settle in the area, building a ball court and pyramid which can still be seen today.
While the city would never again rise to prominence, it would remain inhabited for centuries, and it even served as a pilgrimage site up until Aztec times.
Finally, after the Spanish conquest, the site was abandoned for good and largely forgotten. But given the region’s fertile soil, farming villages soon sprang up nearby. Over time, locals came to realize that the area around the twin hills was a treasure trove of mysterious carvings.
This became especially apparent after a rainstorm in 1932 washed away much of the debris, prompting archaeologist Eulalia Guzman to visit from Mexico City.
But serious excavations wouldn’t begin until the 1950s, when it was determined that the site was indeed Olmec. Work continued over the next few decades, though no new major studies have taken place recently.
As you’ll see during your visit, the site is immediately surrounded by modern farms, and one wonders what additional remnants of ancient Chalcatzingo remain buried beneath private property.
The Bottom Level
Just near the ticket gate, you’ll encounter a sunken plaza with pyramids on two of its sides. The larger of the two is 9 m high by 35 m wide and is notable for its rounded edges. But this structure, and those nearby it, were not constructed by the Olmecs.
Well after Chalcatzingo’s decline, the area was inhabited by numerous groups. And if you’re at all familiar with Mesoamerican history, you’ll know that after the Olmecs, the most dominant city in Mesoamerica was Teotihuacan, which lasted from around the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD.
Chalcatzingo, of course, was much closer to Teotihuacan than it ever was to the major Olmec centers. And as it still served as a strategic location for trade, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Teotihuacanos settled here.
While we don’t know the exact details, the Teotihuacanos likely established this pyramid sometime in the 5th century AD. But as the Olmecs were the first civilization to have built pyramids in Mexico (the first ever being at La Venta), Chalcatzingo’s pyramid may have replaced an earlier structure.
It’s also worth noting that the square altar in the center of the patio resembles ones found at the major Olmec cities of La Venta and San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán.
Another hugely significant Olmec innovation was the Mesoamerican ball game, an activity that would be commonplace throughout the region (and beyond) for millennia. Fittingly, Chalcatzingo contains a ball court, though it too was likely constructed by the Teotihuacanos.
The court remains in excellent condition. And with clear views of both hills, it’s surely one of Mexico’s most scenic.
Also around Chalcatzingo’s lower level, you’ll find a few other unlabeled stone platforms that were probably built around the same time.
It’s not long, however, before you’ll encounter authentic Olmec artifacts. While, as we’ll cover below, the real highlights are along Cerro Chalcatzingo, you’ll find numerous carved stelae to the northeast and north of the Ball Court.
One of the highlights here is a cracked stele of a reddish hue. Despite the damage, one can clearly see that it depicts a figure in motion. Also nearby is an interesting round altar.
Another piece, officially known as Monument 21, depicts a woman next to an ornate column, standing above what appears to be an Earth Monster.
The column possibly represents the World Tree, which linked the four corners of our world together with the underworld and the heavens. Similar imagery was later utilized by numerous other Mesoamerican cultures like the Mayans.
But perhaps the most remarkable piece around here is a large Olmec altar known as Monument 22. Comprised of multiple stones, the entire thing together represents the face of an Earth Monster, a prominent symbol of concepts like fertility, agriculture and creation in Olmec culture.
Underneath it, burials of high-ranking individuals were found together with numerous offerings.
Interestingly, while the artistic style and visual motifs are undoubtedly Olmec, no other altar like this one has been discovered elsewhere in the Olmec world.
Cerro Chalcatzingo - East
Finished with the bottom area, Chalcatzingo’s most significant carvings can be found along Cerro Chalcatzingo. Facing the hill with your back to the pyramid, there are two main paths at either end.
In this guide, we’ll be covering the left (east) portion first.
Among this area’s most significant carvings is the ‘Procession of the Warriors,’ also known as ‘Fertility Dance,’ or simply Monument 2. But as you’ll notice, a relatively large staircase leads up to it.
As mentioned earlier, numerous groups occupied the site after the fall of the Olmecs. And well after Teotihuacan itself fell, the Aztecs took over the region, establishing their capital at nearby Tenochtitlan (current Mexico City).
The Aztecs were keen on paying homage to the great civilizations that came before them, and accordingly used Chalcatzingo as a pilgrimage site. And it was the Aztecs, archaeologists believe, that built this staircase.
As for the scene itself? While rather faint, we can see three people walking and one individual seated.
Two of the walking people are holding staffs, or perhaps some kind of weapon. They wear jaguar masks, symbols of the Olmec elite, along with headdresses. The seated individual also wears a mask, albeit on the back of his head.
Next, take the path leading you further east, where you’ll find a plethora of carved reliefs under protective shelters. As you’ll notice, many of them depict jaguars, sacred animals which the Olmecs commonly used to denote royalty.
But below the jaguars, one can often see humans being scratched and trampled on!
What could all these scenes of jaguars attacking humans mean? Did the animals represent royalty and the humans enemies of the Olmecs? Or was there a deeper symbolic – perhaps even metaphysical – meaning involved?
With the Olmecs long gone, we can only speculate.
Yet another large carving around here depicts jaguars devouring humans, this time from behind. The large boulder appears to have fallen from its original position.
Supposedly, there is even a monument depicting a human head at the top of Cerro Chalcatzingo. Exploring the area to see how far the path went, however, I encountered a wall of stone which signaled a dead-end.
From the eastern edge, one can get a clear view of Cerro Delgado, which is said to contain caves featuring post-Olmec paintings. But that area too seemed to be off-limits.
But if you return the way you came and take the path leading up the right (west) side of Cerro Chalcatzingo, the best is yet to come.
Cerro Chalcatzingo - West
As you make your way higher up the path, be sure to turn around for stunning views of Chalcatzingo and its surrounding hills. On clear days, it’s even possible to make out the Popocatépetl volcano.
Before long, you’ll reach the uppermost area, home to Chalcatzingo’s best-known carving, El Rey. But first, let’s examine some of the other carvings to the left, which can be quite challenging to make out.
Spread across several different boulders, the subject matter here includes things like a squash surrounded by various leaves and flowers, an animal atop a scroll, an animal with a scroll emerging from its mouth, and an animal beneath a raincloud.
Now let’s focus on the main event. Monument 1 is commonly known as El Rey, which means ‘the King.’ But interestingly, the ruler depicted here may actually be female. On the other hand, some scholars suggest this may be an early depiction of a rain deity.
Whoever it may represent, the figure is seated within what appears to be a cave, or perhaps a monster’s mouth.
Blowing out of the cave are what appear to be plumes of smoke. Above the cave are plants, while at the very top of the elaborate scene are rainclouds. Archaeologists suspect that the scene could depict some sort of rainmaking ritual.
Caves, of course, have long been regarded as portals to the underworld in Mesoamerica, not to mention numerous other world cultures.
The cave depicted in this scene, however, has yet to be found. But some suspect that the entrance may actually be beneath the large boulder. One can only imagine what lies within, as the area has surely remained untouched for thousands of years.
Chalcatzingo is a remote and largely unknown site, and reaching it from Cuernavaca by public transport can be a challenge. But it is indeed possible, and if you’re a fan of Mesoamerican archaeology, the journey is well worth it.
While relatively straightforward, you’ll need to ride in no less than three separate vehicles on both the way there and back. The basic journey looks like this: Cuernavaca > Cuautla > Jonacatepec > Chalcatzingo. Now let’s break down each step in detail.
From Cuernavaca, you’ll first need to take a bus to Cuautla, the second-largest city in the state of Morelos. In my case, I went to the main market area, where the Estrella Roja company operates buses for this route.
While I’m not sure of the exact timetable, buses are supposed to leave frequently throughout the day. I arrived at the market at around 7:50 and the bus for Cuautla departed almost immediately.
While the two cities appear close on a map, the ride lasted a little over two hours due to the mountainous roads. At the time of my visit, a ticket cost $47 MXN. (You should also be able to catch a bus for Cuautla at the Pullman de Morelos station, but these buses will be more expensive and less frequent.)
Arriving in Cuautla, your next mission will be to find a colectivo (shared minivan) to the town of Jonacatepec. You can find these minivans right outside the station exit, and they will have ‘Axochiapan’ or ‘Tepalcingo’ written on the windows. The station has a few different exits, so keep trying if you don’t see the colectivo stop at first.
It would be a good idea to tell the driver in advance that you want to get off at Jonacatepec. And during the ride, keep your eye on your phone so you know to get off in the right town. The ride from Cuautla to Jonacatepec should take around 30 minutes and costs about 18 pesos.
Jonacatep just has one main road running through it. And it’s along this road that you’ll find a colectivo with Chalcatzingo written on it. The ride costs 10 pesos, and I’m under the impression that the driver simply rides back and forth between the two towns repeatedly, regardless of how many passengers (if any) are on board.
Chalcatzingo is also the name of a modern town, so you still have another step before reaching the ruins. You’ll be dropped off at the main square, from which it’s about a 20-minute walk to the ruins.
Getting back to Cuernavaca after your visit, repeat the same steps mentioned above in reverse. There are a few things to keep in mind, however, during your return to the city.
Back at the Chalcatzingo main square, you may not see a colectivo for Jonacatep anywhere in sight. But keep waiting and one should eventually appear within 10-15 minutes. Then wait along the same road for a Cuautla-bound vehicle.
Back in Cuautla, note that there are two different services run by the same Estrella Roja company departing from the same place. One of these buses is a nicer bus which leaves fairly infrequently (80 pesos), while the other is a cheaper bus (47 pesos) that leaves more often.
Confusingly, you’ll see two ticket vendors sitting right next to each other, but one vendor only sells tickets for one of these buses. Be sure to talk to both ticket vendors to confirm the soonest departure time.
Cuernavaca, home to roughly 350,000 people, is a mid-sized city. As long as you’re staying somewhere relatively central, most of the top highlights should be walkable.
The city is home to a plethora of different bus stations, and you’ll often be using a different one during each of your day trips, not to mention arrival and departure.
I stayed just off of Avenida Morelos, where a few of the stations happen to be located. The hotel was called Hotel Colonial and it suited my needs perfectly. In addition to the convenient location, I had a comfortable room with a private bathroom. The hotel is also home to a very friendly (but very vocal!) cat.