Archaeological Colima: La Campana & El Chanal Ruins

Last Updated on: 14th September 2023, 07:32 pm

Like the state of Colima as a whole, the archaeological sites of La Campana and El Chanal, both located in the state capital, are seldom talked about. But these were once the most extensive cities in western Mexico, and they remain in an excellent state of preservation. In the following guide, we’ll be covering exactly what you can expect to see when visiting the underrated El Chanal and La Campana ruins.

Despite having been extensively excavated, archaeologists still aren’t quite sure which civilization built these cities, other than the fact that they were probably Nahuatl speakers. While the region had been inhabited since at least 1500 BC, La Campana would reach its peak from around 700-900 AD, and El Chanal from 1100-1400.

Incredibly, what visitors can see of either site is roughly just 1% of their original sizes. Though there are still many mysteries surrounding the La Campana and El Chanal ruins, these were undoubtedly major cities in their primes. And they both prove that there were indeed large cities in western Mexico before the rise of the Tarascan Empire.

For more information on exactly how to reach the ruins, along with how to get to Colima and where to stay, be sure to check the very end of the article.

La Campana Ruins

As we’ll cover below, La Campana ruins are accessible from central Colima either on foot or by taxi. At the time of writing, the site is open Tue.-Sat. from 9:00-14:00 and costs $70 MXN to enter.

Entering the site, you’ll encounter Structures 1-3 on the left hand side past the entrance. For whatever reason, the only on-site map displays these three structures alone, despite the overall site being much bigger.

La Campana Ruins
Structure 1

Structure 1 is an interesting sloped building with a staircase leading to its uppermost portion. It once would’ve hosted a temple made of perishable materials, and human bones have been found buried within.

La Campana Ruins
Structure 2

In the center of this area stands Structure 2, a smooth pyramidal building that’s said to be representative of pre-Hispanic architecture in Colima. Not unlike Mayan pyramids, it features a staircase on each of its four sides leading to the top. As with Structure 1, a burial was found here, indicating a major religious significance.

Below Structure 2, meanwhile, is a feature that shows the high level of sophistication of La Campana ruins: a drainage pipe. Originally underground, it was built to prevent flooding by carrying away rainwater runoff.

La Campana Ruins
La Campana Ruins
Structure 3

Next comes Structure 3, a wide platform that clearly once hosted a myriad of buildings. Archaeologists believe that it once served as the priests’ living quarters. 

Next, it’s time to cross the wide avenue that was built to intersect the ancient city. The remainder of the site can be found on the eastern side of this avenue, but there are so many interconnected structures that navigation can be confusing.

Structure 4
La Campana Ruins
Structure 11

But just across from Structures 1-3, you’ll find Structure 4, a huge platform that hosts a plaza consisting of various altars and temples. 

In its center is Structure 11, a small temple first built as far back as the Classic Period (100 BC-500 AD), with later renovations taking place between 700-900 AD. It just goes to show how long La Campana thrived.

La Campana Ruins
Structure 5

The most remarkable building around here is Structure 5, a square pyramid which once hosted a temple at its top. At the time of my visit, unlike Structure 1-3, this pyramid was climbable, along with all of the other buildings throughout the site’s eastern half.

La Campana Ruins

From various parts of the ruins, you can enjoy clear views of a landmark that would’ve mystified the ancient inhabitants: the cone-shaped  Volcán de Colima.

At 3,820 m high, it’s one of the most distinct volcanoes in this part of Mexico and is currently one of the most active volcanoes in North America.

La Campana Ruins

After admiring the views of the surrounding structures from atop the pyramid, it’s time to explore further. You’ll soon encounter the ball court, which should be a familiar (and expected) sight if you’ve already been to other Mesoamerican ruins.

The ritualistic ball game, which involved players hitting a hard rubber ball with their bodies, symbolized the movement of the cosmos. Specific rules and customs surrounding the game, however, likely varied from city to city.

La Campana Ruins
The Ball Court

Continuing north, you’ll encounter more and more platforms. But rather than temples, some of these served as the bases for residential living quarters. 

Considering how close we still are to the ceremonial center, these thatched-roof homes were surely designated for priests and other members of the elite.

La Campana Ruins
La Campana Ruins
La Campana Ruins
La Campana Ruins

Exploring further, you’ll find yourself walking through a complex maze of alleyways and sunken plazas, some of which contain additional pyramidal platforms. At the base of one staircase is a well-preserved representation of a rattlesnake’s tail.

Rattlesnakes symbolized things like rain and lightning. Similar symbols can be found at Teotihuacan, which hints at an early Teotihuacano influence over western Mexico. 

La Campana Ruins

While informational signage is indeed abundant throughout the site, you won’t always find it at some of the more interesting-looking structures. As such, a lot of imagination is required.

In any case, La Campana is the type of site that rewards free exploration. You’ll find all sorts of interesting staircases at the edge of the acropolis, for example. And where I least expected it, I encountered a small portion of the ruins which still has some of its original outer mud coating intact.

La Campana Ruins
The Edge of the Acropolis
A small portion with some of its original coating intact

As you’ve surely noticed by now, the stones here look different from those of many other ruins throughout Mexico. Instead of being quarried, these round stones were gathered from local rivers. (The builders of cities like Cempoala over on the Gulf Coast also used round river stones.)

But the stone would’ve not been visible to the ancient inhabitants, as the buildings would’ve been coated over and then painted.

La Campana Ruins

At the northern part of the site, you’ll find one particularly large sunken plaza with an altar in its center. The plaza also contains the outline of a small circular platform. Its original function seems to be a mystery, but it’s perhaps where priests presented offerings to Quetzalcoatl.

Surely, this plaza would’ve been bustling with activity during the sacred holidays and festivals of pre-Hispanic Colima.

La Campana Ruins
La Campana Ruins

Not far away is a well-preserved tomb, originally protected by a clay figurine of a dog. In Mesoamerican mythology, a particular type of dog was said to aid the deceased’s journey through the underworld.

Various other figurines were found here, along with a funerary mask and a ceremonial brazier that priests would wear. Looking through the metal gate today, however, the tomb remains completely empty.

La Campana Ruins

Next, I made my way back toward to site entrance, passing by additional structures along the edge of the avenue that I’d previously missed. 

Among them are Structure 9, a pyramid where sculptures of frogs (a symbol of rain and Tlaloc) were discovered, along with Structure 6, another pyramidal building that was likely astronomically aligned. 

La Campana Ruins

All in all, La Campana ruins were a lot larger, more complex and more fun to explore than I ever expected. And to top it all off, I was the only visitor there the entire time. Being within walking distance of the city center (more below), it’s certainly a must-do activity in Colima.

But these aren’t the only ruins within the state capital.

El Chanal Ruins

At 4 km northeast of the city center, El Chanal can easily be reached by calling an Uber from outside La Campana ruins or from central Colima (see more below). 

As with La Campana, El Chanal is open Tue.-Sat. from 9:00-14:00 and costs $70 MXN to enter. Note that there is no combined ticket option, so you’ll have to pay twice to visit both archaeological sites.

The El Chanal ruins are a bit smaller than La Campana, but still surprisingly extensive and dense considering how obscure they are.

El Chanal Ruins

The ruins sit in the midst of a modern suburb, with local residents’ backyards being situated just on the other side of the boundary fences. Clearly, the city was much larger than what we see today, and some believe it may have been directly connected with La Campana via a long road.

El Chanal, however, would reach its peak from 1100-1400 AD, several hundred years after La Campana.

Just past the ticket gate is a plaza containing a square and circular altar. While we don’t know for sure, the circular platform may have been devoted to the wind god Ehecatl, who’s identified with Quetzalcoatl, or the plumed serpent.

In any case, we can be certain that many of the city’s most important rituals took place in this plaza.

If you proceed to tour the ruins in a counterclockwise direction, you’ll soon encounter the local ball court. Interestingly, this one appears to be considerably wider than that of La Campana.

El Chanal Ruins
El Chanal Ruins

Just nearby, meanwhile, are a myriad of stone platforms of varying sizes. They most likely hosted temples and perhaps residences made of perishable materials.

Rather abruptly, the archaeological site ends and turns into the local road. From here, it’s best to head back toward the El Chanal’s center.

El Chanal Ruins
El Chanal Ruins

The most prominent structure of these ruins is a small pyramid that’s the centerpiece of the ‘Plaza of Time.’ In pre-Hispanic times, this plaza would’ve been strictly limited to the elite.

In its center stands a pyramidal structure that probably hosted El Chanal’s most significant temple. At the time of writing, it can’t be climbed.

The pyramid in the Plaza of Time

At the northern end of the plaza (or left if you are standing facing the front of the pyramid) is a structure containing the bases of four stone columns. 

In 1945, archaeologist Vladimiro Rosado Ojeda discovered various glyphs carved into it. As they resembled known Mesoamerican calendar symbols found elsewhere in Mexico, it was concluded that the structure, and the plaza as a whole, had a relationship with measuring time.

El Chanal Ruins
El Chanal Ruins
The terrace with the glyphs

During my visit, I mistakenly thought the glyphs would be located on the pyramid itself and was unable to find them. But it turns out that they’re carved into the uppermost step of the long terrace with the columns.

In any case, you can see sketches of the hieroglyphs on the informational placard near the pyramid, with one of the symbols clearly depicting Tlaloc, the god of rain.

El Chanal Ruins

To the east of the Plaza of Time is another spacious plaza with few structures in it. But at its far end is a wide and low pyramidal terrace. There’s no informational signage here, but it surely would’ve hosted a temple or two.

Coming back west toward the site entrance, you’ll encounter a dense complex of structures containing various altars and water receptacles, further emphasizing the importance of water to the local community and religion.

El Chanal Ruins
Plaza del Agua

Additional Info

As mentioned above, for those who like to walk, La Campana ruins can be accessed from the city center on foot. But as the walk takes about 45 minutes, it would be a challenge during the humid summer months.

Ubers are abundant in Colima, and the drive from the center to La Campana should just take about ten minutes. When finished with La Campana, you can then take another Uber to El Chanal, which should take another 15 minutes.

El Chanal is located in a suburb/village of the same name. Perhaps it was just me, but I had a hard time getting reception in the area, and had to walk around the neighborhood for a bit to find a signal. But ultimately, I was able to call another Uber to take me back to the city center.

You could visit both archaeological sites and still have time leftover for sightseeing in the city center on the same day. You should have at least one more day in town, however, to visit the nearby Pueblo Mágico of Comala.

As is typically the case with historical Mexican cities, the closer to the center you stay, the better. But in contrast to other colonial-era cities, where the change between the historical center and the modern outskirts can be abrupt and unsettling, Colima’s outskirts still have a historical charm to them.

Top-rated hotels near the center include Hotel La Casona de Don Jorge and Hotel Juarez 70. Colima also has various Airbnb properties to choose from, while some visitors like to stay in the nearby Magic Town of Comala, about a twenty-minute drive from Colima.

If you’re not renting a car, Colima is easily accessible by bus. The nearest major city is Guadalajara, from which you can find direct buses that take a little over three hours.

If you’ve been making your way along the Pacific coast, you can easily access Colima from the city of Manzanillo, the state of Colima’s main coastal resort city. Direct buses between Manzanillo and Colima take about 90 minutes.

Arriving at Colima’s bus station, the center will be too far to walk. Fortunately, Uber functions very well here.

Colima does have a small airport, but the only connections seem to be Mexico City and Tijuana.

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