While not many foreign visitors have heard of the Totonacs, they were one of the main groups thriving in Mesoamerica at the time the Spanish arrived. Sites like Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala, therefore, are among the most ‘recent’ pre-Hispanic ruins one can visit in Mexico.
But even though the cities were at their peak when Hernán Cortés and his men appeared, they were still vassals of the mighty Aztec Empire. As we’ll cover below, their strong feelings of resentment toward the Aztecs caused the Totonacs to join forces with the Spanish, thus altering the course of Mexican history forever.
Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala can both be visited together from Veracruz on the same day. While taking a tour is a common option, learn how to get there cheaply via public transport at the end of the article.
As Quiahuiztlán is the farther of the two sites from Veracruz, I decided to get it out of the way first. Getting off the bus along the highway (learn more below), it was about a thirty-minute walk uphill to the ruins.
Fortunately, the walk is not very steep, and one can enjoy views of the lush Veracruz countryside along the way.
Quiahuiztlán is located on a hill known as Cerro de los Metates and was established quite late as far as pre-Hispanic ruins go. Scholars suggest the site wasn’t inhabited until the Early Postclassic period (900-1200 AD). These were dangerous times which saw various tribes establish hilltop cities for better defense.
Notably, the Tototnac stronghold of El Tajín had been decimated by fire in the early 13th century. It’s surely no coincidence that Quiahuiztlán saw its population boom from around this time, reaching its apex from around 1200-1520 AD.
Notably, however, this period also saw the Totonacs come under Aztec control, and they were forced to pay regular tributes. Furthermore, they even had to provide the Aztecs with sacrificial victims!
In the 16th century, Hernán Cortés first arrived in Mexico near what’s now the city of Veracruz. And he’d set up base nearby in an area called La Antigua.
Eventually, Cortés and his men would set out to visit the hilltop city of Quiahuiztlán, which they’d from a distance while scouting out the area.
After buying your ticket and entering the main site, you’ll soon find yourself in the main plaza – likely the location where Cortés was received by local leaders.
As you’ll immediately notice, the plaza is lined with dozens of distinct tombs that resemble temples. Quiahuiztlán is home to over 70 in total, many of which are packed tightly together.
Interestingly, the Totonacs didn’t bury entire bodies, but only the deceased’s skull and the largest bones of the arms and legs.
These tombs are largely what Quiahuiztlán is known for – at least architecturally. Historically speaking, the city played a major role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
For it was here that a meeting took place between the Spanish and no less than twenty Totonac chieftains, during which the two sides formally agreed to fight together against the Aztecs.
All in all, Quiahuiztlán as we see it today is a small site. Aside from its dozens of tombs, the ceremonial center is home to a couple of small pyramids as well as a small ball court.
But in its prime, it was home to thousands of inhabitants, most of whom lived in homes of perishable materials along various levels of the hill.
From the edge of Quiahuiztlán, one can also enjoy a clear view of the Gulf Coast – provided it’s not overcast, which is often the case in the state of Veracruz.
Having visited dozens of pre-Hispanic ruins throughout Mexico, Quiahuiztlán and Tulum are the only two I can think of that offer clear views of the sea.
While Quiahuiztlán’s residents mostly lived atop this hill for safety, they also operated a small port along the coast.
Speaking of safety, you’ll notice an even higher hill looms above the site. Scholars believe the local population would’ve scaled the basalt hill to escape should any invaders break through their city walls.
Obviously, however, this didn’t prevent them from becoming vassals of the Aztecs.
But what would ever become of this city that aligned itself with the Spanish conquerors? While they would ultimately gain their freedom from Aztec control, the city – and much of the Totonac settlements along the coast – wouldn’t survive for very long.
The local population was largely wiped out by diseases like smallpox which the Spanish had inadvertently introduced to the region.
Somewhat bafflingly, despite Quiahuiztlán being well-known for its role in the conquest of Mexico, nobody bothered to look for it until the late 19th century.
The exact location was forgotten, and after decades of search, it wouldn’t be found until the 1940s. After that, no serious excavations would take place until as recently as the 1980s.
Cempoala (also spelled Zempoala) was the capital and largest city of the Totonacs at the time the Spanish arrived. It’s located near the modern-town of José Cardel, about 40 km north of the city of Veracruz (more below).
Cempoala is unique for having been at its peak when Cortés and his men encountered it. By that time, for one reason or another, most of the legendary cities throughout Mesoamerica had already been abandoned.
As you’ll immediately notice, the structures here have a distinct look to them – at least now that all the original stucco and decorations are gone.
Rather than use quarried stone, the Totonacs found it easier to simply take stones from the local river to build their city. As evident today, these smooth ovular stone were then held together with mortar.
Speaking of rivers, you’ll notice how the walls which surround the city are much too low for defense. Rather, they were built to help protect the city from floods.
One of the first structures you’ll encounter is a platform which archaeologists have dubbed the Temple of Death, as it was once decorated with dozens of stucco skulls. Some of these are now on display at the on-site museum.
At the top, you’ll find some type of pit or basin. And looking east, you’ll observe a large, spacious plaza – just one of several at Cempoala.
Next, continue north, where you’ll find a quadrangle packed with numerous interesting structures.
To the right is the Temple of the Chimneys, named after its hollow pillars which resemble chimneys. The pillars were once filled with wood which has long since decomposed.
In the center of the quadrangle is a large circular enclosure which was used for an especially brutal type of ceremony.
Here, a prisoner of war was given the opportunity to fight for his freedom, albeit in a two-on-one fight against local warriors. One can imagine how these events normally turned out.
Nearby, meanwhile is smaller circular altar used during the New Fire Ceremonies. These special ceremonies would take place every 52 years during an important cyclical reset of the Mesaomerican calendar.
The most prominent structure here is the Templo Mayor, a 13-tiered pyramid built over the course of multiple construction phases. It now takes on a noticeably lopsided appearance, with its wide staircase situated far to the right.
The Templo Mayor is one of the oldest structures of Cempoala and it once featured a sizable temple at the top. Now missing, it was here that Pánfilo de Narváez stayed while Cortés was busy trying to take the Aztec capital of Tenochitlan.
But who who was Pánfilo de Narváez?
First, a bit of backstory. Cortés and his men first arrived in Cempoala on their way to Quiahuiztlán. They were warmly welcomed by the chieftain at the time, Xicomecoatl – better known as the Fat Chief.
And it was here that the Spaniards first verbally agreed to help the Totonacs in their struggle against the Aztecs. In turn, the Fat Chief gifted the Spaniards with large amounts of gold.
Cortés would return to Cempoala at a later date, and the Fat Chief was eager to confirm that the conquistadors were still on their side. He offered them local maidens, though Cortés would only accept them on condition that the Totonacs smashed their stone idols and let the maidens be baptized.
So long as it was required to rid themselves of Aztec rule, the Fat Chief agreed.
Later, when Cortés (with the help of Totonac soldiers) had the Aztec king Moctezuma II cornered, he suddenly made an impromptu trip to Cempoala before finishing the job. But why?
Cortés was not officially authorized to carry out the conquest of Mexico, and the governor of Cuba at the time (Cortés’s superior) was determined to stop him. And so he sent over his lieutenant, Pánfilo de Narváez, to put a halt to the conquest.
Pánfilo de Narváez arrived in Cempoala and forced the locals to hand over the gold they’d gifted to Cortés. But upon hearing the news, Cortés showed up and blinded Narváez in a midnight attack, also killing several of his men.
Finished with the quadrangle, head all the way west. In the southwest corner of the site, you’ll find what archaeologists call the Great Pyramid.
While it consists of three tiers, it’s much wider than it is tall. Unlike the other pyramids mentioned above, this structure is climbable.
To its south is another small pyramid known as the Temple of Water. And to its immediate north is another pyramid with both a rectangular and circular portion.
Throughout Mesoamerica, rounded platforms or temples were typically dedicated to Ehecatl, the Wind God. And Ehecatl was considered one aspect of the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl.
While rounded structures were common throughout Mesoamerica, this particular pyramid bears a striking resemblance to certain structures at Tzintzuntzan in the state of Michoacán.
Before leaving, don’t miss the on-site museum, full of findings uncovered during excavations. If the story written down by the Spaniards is true, the Fat Chief voluntarily destroyed Cempoala’s idols. Nevertheless, a few have survived intact and remain on display for visitors.
The expansive city of Cempoala was once home to as many as 30,000 people. And today, even beyond the official archaeological site, one can see remnants of ancient pyramids across the road.
Most visitors to Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala will be basing themselves in the city of Veracruz. Officially, the city name is Heroica Veracruz, while the capital of Veracruz state is actually the city of Xalapa.
As the the place where the Spanish first set up base upon their arrival in Mexico, Veracruz is one of the country’s few coastal cities with an old colonial core.
As the state capital, Xalapa is home to the region’s prominent archaeological museum, which also happens to be one of the best in the country. But while in Veracruz, be sure to check out the Museum of The City, which contains artifacts from both the Totonac and Olmec civilizations.
Other highlights include the Baluarte de Santiago and the former prison of San Juan de Ulúa, which was unfortunately closed during my stay. Visitors also shouldn’t miss Veracruz’s central square and a walk down its Malecón.
But while Veracruz is indeed an interesting and historically important city, I didn’t feel it had enough to do or see to warrant its own detailed guide.
If your main concern is visiting Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala, also consider staying in the town of José Cardel (more below).
Before my trip to Veracruz, I spent a long time researching transport to Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala. But despite them being relatively close to the city, my searches yielded zero helpful results. The only thing I could find were organized tours going for no less than $70 USD!
Now having visited Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala, I have some good news. Visiting both sites on the same day can be done both cheaply and easily via public transport. Here’s how:
First, head to Veracruz’s main bus terminal and take an AU bus bound for Poza Rica. The buses depart at 6:00, 7:30, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:10, 14:10, etc.
If you’ve already done some traveling around Mexico, you might have taken an AU bus before. In many parts of Mexico, AU buses are considered first-class and will only pick people up and drop them off at official bus stations. Fortunately, this is not the case in Veracruz. To my relief, the AU buses along this route will pick you up and drop you off anywhere along the road.
With all the stops the bus makes, the ride to the area near Quiahuiztlán will take a couple of hours. Even then, the bus won’t go directly there. You’ll have to mark the location on Google Maps and tell the driver to let you off at the nearest point along the highway.
You’ll then have to walk about thirty minutes to the ruins and then back again when you’re finished. As Veracruz is one of the rainiest parts of Mexico, be sure to have an umbrella or raincoat with you just in case.
Finished with the ruins and back at the highway, simply wait for any southbound bus to pass by. You don’t even have to look for a bus stop. As mentioned above, I took an AU bus in the morning, but the next bus I happened to get on was run by TRV.
The bus should be headed to the town of José Cardel and eventually Veracruz. But there’s no reason to go all the way to José Cardel.
Mark the location of Cempoala in Google Maps, and then ask the driver to stop when the bus passes the intersection with the road ‘Carr. A Zempoala.’ You should see a Pemex gas station at the corner.
Don’t worry about having to walk all the way to the ruins this time. Regular colectivo (shared) taxis run down this road, and it should only be a few minutes before one passes you. It should only cost you about 15 pesos and you can get dropped off right by the ruins.
When finished with Cempoala, look for another colectivo bound for José Cardel. But I’d recommend confirming the price with the driver before getting in. If you happen to be the final passenger, the driver may suddenly act as if it was a private taxi all along and try to charge you more. But you can avoid this trick by asking the price in the beginning.
From José Cardel, you can simply hop on the next bus for Veracruz. Another option is to have the bus driver let you off at a place called La Antigua, which was the very first settlement established by Cortés. But despite its historical importance, there isn’t much to see there except the ruins of an old house.
Regarding the cost of the journey outlined above, my total transport cost for the day was $250 MXN, or about $12.50 USD. Both archaeological sites cost 65 pesos each, bringing the total cost of the day trip to just under $20 USD.
Obviously, this is a much better price than the $70 USD (or more) that many tour companies charge. With that said, if budget isn’t a major concern to you, or if you’re traveling with someone that has mobility issues, you might want to consider a tour like this one.
The best place to stay in Veracruz would have to be its historical center. Some highly-rated hotels in this area include Hotel Mar y Tierra and Hotel Baluarte, which only go for around $30-40 USD per night.
In my case, I wanted somewhere in between the historical center and the bus station, so I chose an Airbnb that was walkable from each. But frankly speaking, Veracruz is one of those cities that has a striking contrast between its historical center and everywhere else. While I didn’t experience any issues, I found much of the city to be dirty and grimy. Considering how Uber operates in the city, staying in the center is the best idea.
As mentioned above, another option is to stay in José Cardel, which would make your journey to both Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala a lot shorter. If you’ll then be traveling onward to Papantla to visit El Tajin, staying in José Cardel would give you a head start for that journey.