The Mysterious Ruins of La Quemada: Who Built Them?

Last Updated on: 25th December 2023, 09:50 pm

Located about 56 km south of the city of Zacatecas is one of Mexico’s most overlooked and mysterious archaeological sites. Was La Quemada merely an outpost of a mightier civilization further south, or was it perhaps the capital of its own forgotten empire? Whatever the case may be, the ruins of La Quemada make for a fascinating visit that combines exploration with light hiking.

Below we’ll be covering La Quemada’s history, followed by a detailed guide to exploring the ruins. At the end of the article, you can learn more about reaching La Quemada in addition to the best places to stay in Zacatecas.

La Quemada: Who Built It?

While many ancient cities throughout Mexico have ambiguous pasts, La Quemada is among the most mysterious of them all. Not only is its architectural style and layout different from other major archaeological sites, but given its isolated location, we’re still not entirely sure who built it. That’s not to say that archaeologists don’t have their theories.

La Quemada was inhabited from at least 400-1200 AD, meaning its history overlaps with that of multiple Mesoamerican civilizations further south. Accordingly, some have theorized that it started as a northern outpost of Teotihuacan. While this could be true, La Quemada would thrive for centuries after Teotihuacan’s downfall. So who would continue to occupy it?

Others point to the Toltecs, the influential Central Mexican empire that sprung up around the 10th century. And there are indeed commonalities between La Quemada and Toltec architecture, such as the Hall of Columns. But that still doesn’t explain who founded La Quemada, not to mention why its overall layout and architectural style are so distinct.

Most of Mexico’s greatest civilizations, of course, sprung up in what we now call Mesoamerica, a historical and geographical region that was home to the Olmecs, Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs and more. But Zacatecas lies just beyond Mesoamerica in a region that was largely comprised of semi-nomadic Chichimecas. Was La Quemada, perhaps, a rare settlement established by the Chichimecas, despite them largely being nomadic hunter-gatherers? 

Notably, the northern part of Zacatecas is home to another major archaeological site known as Altavista that’s attributed to the Chalchihuites culture. And some of the earliest pottery found at La Quemada does indeed show Chalchihuites influence. But the two cities would grow more distinct as time went by.

In any case, the existence of both Altavista and La Quemada reveals that this region was indeed home to thriving cities in pre-Hispanic times. What’s more, is that archaeologists have discovered an elaborate road network connecting La Quemada with over two hundred smaller settlements spread out across the Malpaso Valley. In total, the roads add up to a total of 170 linear km!

One wonders, then, if the Malpaso Valley was the heartland of a forgotten Mexican civilization with La Quemada as its capital.

Interestingly, other theories about La Quemada suggest that it may have been part of the Tarascan Empire based at Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán. But this is doubtful. During the colonial period, Spanish historians even believed this to be Chicomoztoc, the mythical origin place of the Aztecs. While this theory is no longer widely believed, ‘Chicomoztoc’ remains an alternative name for the site.

Speaking of names, the modern name of La Quemada was chosen by archaeologists who discovered that the city met its demise due to a great fire. But who might’ve started it? We’ll likely never know. But clearly, La Quemada had already built up an elaborate defensive system before it was burnt down.

In modern times, thorough excavations began in the 1920s and have persisted up to the present. And who knows what future findings will reveal to us regarding this ancient city’s mysterious origins.

Exploring the La Quemada Ruins

For those coming by public bus (learn more below), the ruins entrance will be about a 20-30 minute walk east from the main highway. At the time of writing, the site is open daily from 9:00-18:00, with entry costing $75 MXN.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Even before entering the site, you’ll get a preview of the ruins during the walk over. As you can see, the ancient city was largely built atop and along a natural hill, with manmade terraces being carved out to host various small plazas.

if you’ve been to other ancient ruins throughout Mexico, it’s immediately apparent how unique this layout is. In any case, the hilltop setting certainly came in handy for protecting La Quemada against its enemies, whomever they may have been.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The structures of La Quemada were entirely constructed with rhyolite, a volcanic rock extracted from a nearby hill. This choice of stone is another element that gives the ruins a distinct look when compared with others in Mexico.

But as with pretty much all ancient pre-Hispanic cities, the stone would not have been exposed in its heyday. Instead, it was once covered over with stucco plaster and painted.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The Hall of Columns

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Beginning at the southern end of the site, one of the first structures you’ll encounter is also one of La Quemada’s most impressive. The Hall of Columns is a 41 x 32 m space that once would’ve been entirely covered by a large wooden roof.

But the massive stone columns have been left exposed ever since the fire that caused the city’s abandonment. 

In this space, the elite of La Quemada would’ve carried out important rituals – perhaps agricultural rites – on significant dates. In front of the hall, meanwhile, is a spacious plaza that likely would’ve hosted rituals accessible to the public.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Remarkably, archaeologists believe that this hall predates the columned palace of Tula, the capital of the Toltec Empire (which, interestingly enough, is called Palacio Quemado because it too burnt down). 

La Quemada was directly connected by road to the Toltec outpost of El Cerrito, so it’s possible that this hall did indeed inspire that building.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

And it was Tula’s Palacio Quemado that directly inspired the Temple of the Warriors all the way over at Chichén Itzá! It’s amazing to consider how certain ideas could traverse such long distances, especially given Mesoamerica’s lack of horses.

Much closer to La Quemada, meanwhile, another columned building can be found at the site of Altavista in the northern part of Zacatecas.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The Ball Court

Continuing north, the next major landmark is the ball court. While, overall, La Quemada has a unique look and feel amongst Mexican ruins, ball courts were a universal feature at pretty much all pre-Hispanic ruins.

Played throughout Mesoamerica, the ancient ball game was a ritual, sport and symbolic act all in one.

The court’s surviving walls were originally much higher than the low ones we see today, which is likely the result of looting over the years. Notably, archaeologists have discovered a number of human burials beneath the floor of the court.

The Votive Pyramid

Yet another commonality between La Quemada and ancient Mesoamerican sites to the south is the fact that it contains a pyramid.

This pyramid, however, is noticeably thinner, steeper and all-around smaller than most others. While surely coincidental, it more closely resembles the Nubian pyramids of northern Sudan than it does others in the Americas.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The pyramid now stands 12 m high, but archaeologists believe there was a temple at the top, likely built with wood. A wooden statue, in fact, was also discovered atop the structure, though it was supposedly lost in the 18th century.

While we don’t know a whole lot about it, the Votive Pyramid was likely the single most important structure at La Quemada. And as you’ll discover shortly, you’ll be able to enjoy excellent views of it from along the upper terraces.

The Staircases

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

From this point on, your tour of the La Quemada ruins will take place along and atop the hill. And to get there, you’ll have to take one of two staircases. 

If you’ve walked up to the Votive Pyramid, you’ve already passed the first one near the ball court. The second one, meanwhile, is known as the Solar Staircase and is right next to the pyramid.

Archaeologists believe that its placement was meant to mirror the trajectory of the sun over the course of the day. As such, this 75-step staircase was considered sacred and was likely used by priests during La Quemada’s important ceremonies.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Palaces & Plazas

Walking along the side of the hill, you’ll encounter various rooms built on terraces that were likely residences of the ruling elite. Looking at the masonry and shape of the buildings, I couldn’t help but notice more similarities with Chaco Canyon in the state of New Mexico than with your typical Mesoamerican site.

While the two regions were indeed loosely connected via ancient trading routes, the true extent of the relationship remains unknown.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Up to 25 structures have been identified around here, with many of them having been built in the 7th century AD or earlier. Later on, a massive protective wall that was three meters thick and four meters high would be built to protect the palace complex.

While we don’t know exactly who the city was protecting itself from, it’s clear that La Quemada’s final few centuries were anything but peaceful.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
The Ossuary

In the center of the palatial complex is the Ossuary, which refers to a place where human bones are kept. It’s here that archaeologists discovered the bones of various individuals that were ritually sacrificed.

But oddly enough, many of the bones were relocated here from other areas, and archaeologists still aren’t entirely sure why.

Also notice a carving of snakes on one of the stones on the floor, which is believed to delineate the sacred space beyond.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
The ossuary
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
A narrow alleyway
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
Looking down the southern staircase
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
A dense complex of structures where the elite probably lived
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La plaza de Los Maestros

At one edge of the complex, you’ll find the Plaza de los Maestros. It originally featured a central altar surrounded by pyramidal platforms, though very little remains today.

Next, you’ll want to ascend to the next level of the hill, though to get there, you’ll have to backtrack and walk past the Escalera del Sol. On the way, be sure to turn around to enjoy the spectacular views.

At the next level up, you’ll encounter the Plaza de los Sacrificios, another sunken plaza with an altar in its center and the remains of a small pyramid.

It was here that an interesting statue was discovered of a woman carrying a baby on her back. It’s now on display at the on-site museum (more below).

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Plaza de los Sacrificios
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Atop the Hill

Next, an uphill path along a ridge will take you to the citadel some 700 m away. From here on, the visiting experience feels more like a proper hike than a typical visit to an archaeological site. Be sure to wear good shoes for this outing.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

On the way, be sure to look down to your left, where you’ll notice some remnants of unexcavated ruins. Now called Terrace 18, this area was constructed around the 6th century AD and was abandoned by 850. 

In addition to residences and a temple, it contained one of La Quemada’s three ball courts. Despite being an important part of the ancient city, it remains off-limits to visitors.

Overlooking Terrace 18

Continuing along the trail, you’ll soon encounter yet another sunken plaza to your right. Very little of its structures remain, though can see remnants of a wall on one side.

And speaking of walls, look out into the distance and notice the outer boundary wall of this hilltop city. It reveals the great lengths the inhabitants would go to protect themselves.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The Citadel

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Finally, you’ll reach the citadel and the northernmost edge of La Quemada. It was largely occupied between 700-800 AD, and it contains a number of architectural features found elsewhere throughout the site.

For example, it contained its own smaller Hall of Columns. But rather than stone columns, the ones here were made of pine and are now missing.

Within the Citadel’s plaza, however, you can still clearly see the remains of a small pyramid as well as a three-tiered altar.

Based on findings, archaeologists believe this area was dedicated to the god Tezcatlipoca, who, according to Mesoamerican mythology, was Quetzalcoatl’s brother and antagonist. Tezcatlipoca symbolized night, magic, and obsidian. And he would later commonly be depicted as a jaguar by the Aztecs.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Past the citadel, you’ll encounter yet another staircase taking you downward. It’s here that you’ll find the city’s third known ball court.

It’s smaller than the first one near the Votive Pyramid. It also isn’t as long or narrow, nor is it I-shaped.

Similar courts have been found at other ruins in the northern part of Zacatecas and near modern-day Durango, with the style showing influence from the Chalchihuites culture.

Also around here are the remains of an observation tower.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Looking off into the distance, you can also see how far the original boundary wall of La Quemada extended. And it wouldn’t be surprising if more sets of ruins were discovered around the nearby hills in the future.

Next, it’s time to head for the exit. But rather than walk back up to the Citadel, you’ll find an alternate path taking you along the base of the hill.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The Museum

As mentioned, the ruins of La Quemada feature an on-site museum. As it’s located near the main entrance, you can, of course, visit it before your tour of the ruins. But I typically like to save these museums for last.

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

The modern museum contains a number of interesting artifacts discovered throughout La Quemada, along with an interesting summary of its past – at least the little that we know.

Unfortunately for non-Spanish speakers, the signage is in Spanish only. But you’ll at least be able to enjoy the photographs, scale model of the ruins, and other eye-catching exhibits. 

La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas
La Quemada Ruins Zacatecas

Additional Info

If renting a car is not an option, reaching the La Quemada ruins by public transport is fairly straightforward. At least once you know what to do.

Very little information on reaching La Quemada exists online. Before my visit, the only source I was able to come across was Lonely Planet, which stated that minibuses depart from the bus stop in front of Plaza Bicentenario.

But this is no longer accurate at the time of writing. Rather than the bus stop outside the plaza, you’ll have to walk about five minutes southwest from there. Then, make a right turn on De La Union street, where you should find a number of minibuses lined up along the road.

The spot is clearly marked on Google Maps as ‘Combis Zacatecas–Villanueva.’ You will want to hop on a bus headed toward Villanueva (they probably all do), but make sure to tell your driver to let you off near ruins.

The ride from the city to the nearest bus stop to the ruins should take about 30-40 minutes. From the main highway, you’ll then have to walk 20-30 minutes to reach the site entrance.

Coming back, simply return to the highway and flag down the next Zacatecas-bound bus at the bus stop.

It’s worth noting that sadly, the beautiful state of Zacatecas has recently seen increased cartel activity, including a war between two rival cartel units. Most of the time, this journey should be smooth and safe, and I had no troubles of any sort during my two-week stay in the city.

But supposedly, there may be occasional roadblocks along the Zacatecas-Villanueva highway, so it would be wise to stay up to date about any potential disturbances before your visit.

Zacatecas is not particularly large, and you’ll be fine staying anywhere within the historical center.

Popular midrange options include Hotel Casa Faroles and Emporio Zacatecas, both of which are located in beautiful colonial-era buildings.

As I was on a budget, I stayed at Hotel Plaza Bicentenario, which, as the name suggests, was right next to Plaza Bicentenario. Though I’d originally booked a room overlooking the plaza, I didn’t realize that my room would be right next to a noisy market.

Fortunately, as I was staying for a couple of weeks, the kind owner moved me to a quieter (and even larger) room for no extra fee.

Another popular budget option at the opposite end of the center is OYO Hotel Meson de la Concepcion.

Wherever you stay, note that Zacatecas stands at 2,440 m above sea level and is one of Mexico’s coldest cities. If you’re visiting in winter, you may want to check whether or not your hotel has heating, though many of them probably won’t.

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