Considered the first great city of the Valley of Mexico, Cuicuilco even predates the foundation of Teotihuacan. But no, you don’t have to travel to some small, obscure village to find its remains. The unique circular pyramid of Cuicuilco, in fact, stands right in the heart of Mexico City’s urban sprawl.
In the following guide, we’ll be covering what to expect from a visit to one of the region’s most overlooked yet important archaeological sites. At the very end, you can learn how to reach the ruins from either central Mexico City or Cuernavaca.
Cuicuilco: A Brief History
Situated along the southern shore of Lake Texcoco (since filled in by the Spanish to create Mexico City), the area around Cuicuilco was settled since at least 2100 BC. But it wasn’t until around 1000 BC that the local inhabitants built the base of the Great Pyramid.
Over the next few hundred years, the main temple platform became rounded, after which additional tiers were added, making it a proper pyramid.
Cuicuilco then quickly became the most dominant city in the Valley of Mexico and remained so for several hundred years. They controlled vast trading route and influenced much of the region’s ceramic styles.
But as nearby Teotihuacan began to grow, Cuicuilco gradually started to decline around 200 BC. And around the turn of the millennium, the area around the Great Pyramid was largely abandoned. The pyramid, however, was still maintained and used as a pilgrimage site.
But how did Cuicuilco’s decline come about? While we don’t know the exact details, the region was likely struck by a series of volcanic eruptions, which gradually depleted local agricultural space, and earthquakes – a threat that still plagues the region to this day. (My initial attempt to visit Cuicuilco in 2017, in fact, was unsuccessful due to the site being closed because of an earthquake.)
The final straw came around 400 AD, when there was a massive eruption from the nearby Xitli Volcano, enveloping the entire area in lava. Interestingly, many of the surviving Cuicuilcans likely fled to Teotihuacan, thus influencing the culture of that great metropolis.
The once-glorious city then remained largely forgotten until its accidental discovery in the 1920s. At the time, workers were quarrying the hardened lava for construction in the capital when they discovered a number of ancient artifacts.
It was then suspected that a local hill in the Pedregal area, long believed to be natural, may have actually been manmade.
In the early 1920s, American archaeologist Byron Cummings excavated the area, confirming that it was indeed a pyramid. But the rock covering it was so hard to dig through that he controversially used dynamite to break it.
Early archaeologists had originally suspected Cuicuilco to be as old as several millennia! Later excavations, however, confirmed that Cuicuilco was not nearly as old as first thought.
Nevertheless, it’s still among the oldest sites discovered in the Valley of Mexico, and surely played an important role in the development of Mesoamerican culture as a whole.
The Great Pyramid
Visitors to Cuicuilco will be pleased to know that the ruins are free for all. Entering the site, you have two options to reach Cuicuilco’s main structure, the Great Pyramid. You can either head straight or take the longer scenic path to the left.
Either way, along the half-kilometer journey, you’ll pass plenty of cacti and maguey plants, not to mention volcanic rock.
Cuicuilco’s unique pyramid consists of four tiers and stretches out to 116 meters in diameter. In its prime, it once stood as high as about 26 meters.
Built as a truncated cone of basalt stones, the Cuiculcans utilized construction techniques that had been innovated by the Olmecs. The stones were placed very deliberately and without the use of mortar. The interior, on the other hand, was largely comprised of sand and rubble.
Over the course of nearly a thousand years, the pyramid went through at least eight stages of construction, with each new phase being built over the last.
The last phase was built around 1800 years ago, and remains remarkably well-preserved for its age – not to mention the fact that it was buried beneath lava!
Approaching the structure, you have the option to head straight to the top (it is indeed climbable) or walk around it. I decided to start by encircling the pyramid.
Along the southwest part of the pyramid, you’ll find an assortment of stones placed in a rather crude circle. Interestingly, Byron Cummings, who was a specialist in American Southwest archaeological sites, had named it a ‘kiva.’
If you’re familiar with the ruins of the ancient Puebloan people, nearly all their cities had kivas, or round pits where ceremonies and meetings took place. But this circle is clearly much too small.
What, then, was it? We still don’t know, but scholars suspect everything from an astronomical observatory to a ceremonial altar to a temazcal (steam bath). It may have also symbolized the caves at the heart of many Mesoamerican creation myths.
The structure was probably created around 200-250 AD, and the interior was covered in abstract geometric shapes with red ochre. Notably, they’re some of the oldest paintings of their kind ever discovered in Mesoamerica! But they’re so faint that they’re very difficult to observe today.
On the southeastern side of the pyramid, meanwhile, archaeologists discovered a tall, narrow stele during excavations in 1996. (But part of it had been observed decades prior by Byron Cummings.)
Standing at 4 meters tall, one side of the andesite stele is inscribed with numerous small circles. While we don’t know for sure, it may have been an ancient method of keeping track of time.
The stele has since been reburied where it was originally discovered, and is thus no longer visible to visitors.
As you encircle the pyramid, be sure to take a look down into the trenches dug out by archaeologists. This helps you get a sense of the pyramid’s original size.
As mentioned, the ground level is much higher now due to the flow of lava in antiquity, and the pyramid surely would’ve appeared much more imposing in ancient times.
Notably, the pyramid once featured a large ramp on its east side (the current ‘back’ of the structure). The ramp on the west was then later built in accordance with changing solar alignments. On the other hand, some sources indicate that both ramps existed until Cuicuilco’s final days.
At The Top
Returning to the west side of the pyramid, ascend the ramp to the top. As the pyramid grew over time, this ramp gradually had to be built higher and higher. It’s final phase, in fact, would’ve been around a meter higher than what we see currently.
In the very center of the pyramid’s top level is a large oval opening consisting of three tiers. It appears that different altars were built during different phases of the pyramid’s construction, and that the positions of the new altars gradually shifted.
Archaeologists have identified at least seven altars thus far, though the entire structure has yet to be excavated. Interestingly, some were painted red and others brown.
But with the central pit inaccessible and with a metal roof obscuring much of the view, it’s hard to get a sense of what this space may have originally looked like.
Today, it’s rather surreal to look at what would’ve been the most sacred part of this millennia-old city amidst a backdrop of high rises, elevated highways and billboards. It certainly makes one reflect on our modern notion of ‘progress.’
Also of note here is the long and narrow trench which entirely cuts through the pyramid’s uppermost tier. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be an explanation for it on any of the informational placards.
The Cuicuilco Museum
Just next to the pyramid is the on-site museum which is well worth a quick visit. The information, however, is entirely in Spanish.
The signs cover the basic history of the region, as well as details about the daily lives of the Cuicuilcans. On display are various figurines discovered during excavations, representing a wide variety of influences from the Olmecs to the Teotihuacanos.
Highlights include a stone sculpture from the Formative Period (800-200 BC) – one of the only of its kind from this era – and an andesite sculpture of the Fire God dating from 200-250 AD. You’ll also find a large collection of ceramics.
The museum also features a room commemorating 100 years of archaeology at Cuicuilco. While we talked about Byron Cummings above, the first-ever archaeologist to examine the site was Manul Gamio, the one to discover the top of the pyramid. He then invited Cummings to visit from the US.
Around this room, you’ll find some fascinating original photographs of some of Cuicuilco’s early excavations.
Behind the Pyramid
Just behind the pyramid on its east side, you’ll find a path taking you down to a lower level. It’s here that you’ll find what archaeologists call Structure E-1.
It’s the remains of a temple platform dating to 150-250 AD – fairly late in Cuicuilco’s history. It would’ve been placed in front of the wide ramp that once existed on the pyramid’s eastern side.
Shortly before the area was entirely covered in lava, the Teotihuacanos – who used Cuicuilco as a pilgrimage site – left numerous jade objects, figurines and ceramics here.
From down here, one can truly get a sense of how massive Xitli’s eruption was, with much of the ancient city still buried deep under volcanic rock.
One of the most overlooked things to do when visiting Cuicuilco is taking one of nature trails that surround the pyramid. Just near Structure E-1, you’ll find the start of a trail that will ultimately lead you back to the entrance.
The trail, lined with trees and cacti on either side, has been dug out of the hardened lava. And in certain parts, the sights and sounds of bustling Mexico City will gradually fade away, giving visitors a brief moment of peace.
Across the Road (Cuicuilco B)
As one might expect, Cuicuilco was more than just the area around the Great Pyramid. But what happened to the rest? Leaving the main site and crossing the busy Insurgentes Avenue, you’ll be able to get an idea.
The ruins in this area were first discovered in 1957 by archaeologists Angel Palerm and Eric Wolf, who identified seven ancient structures.
Then, during following decade, in preparation for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the Pedregal area was chosen to house a new sporting complex. During construction, workers discovered an additional four more.
As you can tell, the discovery of the ruins did not halt the construction of Villa Olimpica, which remains a local sporting complex to this day. On the contrary, seven buildings were destroyed altogether to make room for it.
All that’s left now of Cuicuilco B are three platforms and a residential group, which sit awkwardly in a fenced-in area surrounded by football fields. Amazingly, some are said to be as old as 1000 BC!
Apparently, there are even more ruins located deeper in the heart of Villa Olimpica, though official permission is required to enter.
If the Villa Olimpica fiasco weren’t depressing enough, additional structures around the area were destroyed more recently to make room for modern office buildings and a shopping complex.
While the Spanish colonizers get rightfully criticized for their destruction of ancient monuments, they did at least replace them with beautiful structures that people are still enjoying hundreds of years later. But not only are the modern buildings around Cuicuilco ugly in the present, they’d be lucky to last several decades – let alone centuries.
Cuicuilco remains obscure, and even many Mexico City residents have never heard of it. While perhaps overly optimistic, maybe increased awareness about the site will help preserve the little that’s left.
While pretty far from the city center, reaching Cuicuilco from elsewhere in Mexico City is fairly straightforward. The subway does not run in this area but the MetroBus system does.
To get to the ruins, take Line 1 of the MetroBus and ride it south down Insurgentes Avenue to Villa Olimpica station. From there, just walk north for a few minutes and the entrance gate will be on your right.
From wherever you are in the city, apps like Google Maps or MoovIt should be able to tell you the best way to reach Line 1 of the MetroBus.
While very few people probably visit Cuicuilco as a day trip from Cuernavaca, I found myself with an extra day and decided to give it a shot, which would allow me to free up a day during my later stay in the capital.
Buses run by the Pullman de Morelos company will take you to their small station outside the Hotel Royal Pedregal, which is a fairly easy walk to the ruins.
Just note that Pullman de Morelos operates two stations in Cuernavaca, and these buses only depart from their ‘Casino de la Selva’ station.
Rather than a coach bus, these buses are sort of like ‘luxury’ minivans. And they cost a whopping $185 MXN for the hour-long journey!
The trip there was comfortable enough, but the return bus was another story. The bus was completely full, and the driver did not turn on the air conditioning despite it being such a hot day. I’ve had plenty of 30-peso colectivo rides that were more comfortable.
Anyway, once you arrive at Hotel Royal, the ruins are just about a 20-25 minute walk east. For some strange reason, both Google Maps and Maps.me will tell you the walk is over 50 minutes, which simply isn’t true.
Perhaps their AI thinks some stretches of the road are impassable for pedestrians, but there are indeed sidewalks the whole way.
The tricky part is that once you’re near the ruins, you’ll find yourself on an overpass overlooking them. But look carefully and you’ll see a staircase taking you down to the lower level. Once down there, it’s just a few more minutes of heading south to reach the site entrance.
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.