Tehuacán el Viejo is arguably one of Central Mexico’s most obscure archaeological sites. And frankly speaking, sites like Cholula, Cantona and Cacaxtla are all more essential day trips from Puebla. With that said, Tehuacán el Viejo’s main plaza and pyramid are impressive enough to warrant a visit for true archaeology enthusiasts.
Little is known about Tehuacán el Viejo’s history, though it likely thrived during the Postclassic Period (900–1521 CE). The site wasn’t written about until the early 20th century, while no serious excavations took place until the 1990s.
As we’ll cover below, Tehuacán el Viejo is noteworthy for its remarkable sculptures. And with only a fraction of the site excavated, there are surely a lot more exciting future discoveries in store.
For tips on reaching the ruins as a day trip from Puebla, be sure to check the very end of the article.
The First Group
The ruins consist of two main sections, the first of which is made up of palaces and a plaza. In stark contrast to nearby Cantona, Tehuacán el Viejo does not appear to have been pre-planned, but gradually expanded as the inhabitants saw fit.
In this semi-arid region, securing access to water was of vital importance. As such, the builders constructed an elaborate system of rain water receptacles and drainage pipes to transport water throughout the city.
Upon entry, you’ll encounter a building group that archaeologists believe was both residential and ceremonial. Little more than foundations remain.
But who were the people that lived here? Tehuacán el Viejo and its surroundings were settled by a group known as the Popoloca, who occupied parts of modern-day Puebla and northern Oaxaca states.
While the Popoloca people spoke a language distinct from Nahautl, the region’s dominant language, their sculptures and architecture reveal that they worshipped many of the same deities prevalent throughout Mesoamerica.
One of the most interesting sections of the first group is the palatial complex at the edge of the hill. Again, only foundations remain, but you can get a clear sense of its size.
The complex featured dozens of rooms, while it occupied a strategic position from which the ruling elite could observe any potential invaders.
Today, one can now enjoy a clear view of the modern city of Tehuacán, Puebla state’s second-largest city with over 250,000 people.
As you’ll notice, this complex and numerous other sections are partially covered in some type of yellow plaster.
While no signage explains why, it’s doubtful that the original stucco has survived all these years. Rather, it seems to have been added by archaeologists to demonstrate how the city may have looked.
The centerpiece of the first building group is the spacious Plaza of the New Fire, dedicated to the cyclical calendar renewal which took place every 52 years. While the most studied calendar system in Mesoamerica is that of the Maya, a very similar calendar was utilized throughout the region.
The cycle of 52 years was significant because this was how long it took for the 365 and 260-day calendar cycles to reset at the same time.
And to mark this important event, various Mesoamerican societies held what was known as the ‘New Fire Ceremony.’ While today we typically celebrate new cycles for the potential we hope they bring, Mesoamerican societies saw cyclical resets as times of great danger.
During the ceremony, all the fires in town would’ve been extinguished, after which a ceremonial fire would’ve been lit atop the temple. This was believed to ensure a safe transition from one era to the next.
Notably, this plaza is home to thirteen columns representing the Lords of the Night and nine columns symbolizing the Lords of the Day.
Just behind the plaza, meanwhile, is a round temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, also known as Ehecatl.
Before heading to the Central Group, don’t miss the chance to take in the great views of the Tehuacán Valley. Incredibly, the Tehuacán Valley is where crops like maize, squash and beans were first domesticated – not just in Mexico but in the entire world!
The Central Group
Next, it’s time to head over to the Central Group, home to the Great Temple. The journey consists of a walk down a peaceful nature trail for several minutes, after which the base of the large Acropolis will come into view.
In the center of the plaza stands a pyramid that’s both known as the Great Temple and the Temple of Skulls. While certainly not among Mexico’s largest pyramids, its size is still pretty impressive for such an obscure site.
In front of the pyramid are several wide but low altars. Surrounding the entire plaza, meanwhile, are large, long structures from which one could’ve gotten a clear view of the ceremonies taking place within.
While the pyramid itself is off-limits to visitors, the large platforms surrounding the plaza can indeed be climbed. After taking in the views of the front and sides of the pyramid, you’ll find an even more elaborate series of structures behind it.
As with the first section, no signage around here indicates what these structures were used for. But the elaborate complex behind the pyramid appears to have been residential.
But whatever happened to the people that lived here? They were eventually displaced upon the arrival of the Spanish, resulting in the establishment of the modern city of Tehuacán.
Tehuacán el Viejo at Museums
The National Museum of Anthropolgy
Tehuacán el Viejo is home to an on-site museum, though it was closed for renovations at the time of my visit. But during my time in Mexico City, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter several important pieces from Tehuacán on loan at the National Museum of Anthropology.
Tehuacán el Viejo may not be the most impressive archaeological site in Central Mexico, but its stunning sculptures reveal what a sophisticated city it once was. The level of detail in the ‘Lady of the Skirt of Stars’ sculpture, for example, is stunning.
Symbolically, she simultaneously represented both creation and death.
Other noteworthy sculptures include a pair of warriors, one of which is adorned in jaguar skin. The other, meanwhile, is a female warrior with the wings of an eagle on her back. Both figures wear skull necklaces while their own faces also appear skull-like.
The creepiest statue from Tehuacán el Viejo, discovered by an altar in front of the main pyramid, would have to be that of Xipe Tótec. He was a common deity in Mesoamerica, representing concepts like spring and vegetation.
He’s depicted here naked and bald with only the whites of his eyes showing. Looking closely, you’ll see that he’s actually wearing flayed skin as part of a ritual meant for a bountiful harvest.
Museo del Valle de Tehuacán
In addition to the on-site museum at the archaeological site, central Tehuacán is home to a museum dedicated to the Tehuacán Valley as a whole. Frankly speaking, the small museum doesn’t have enough to see to warrant its 65-peso entry fee.
Nevertheless, there are a few noteworthy pieces on display, such as ceramic figurines that were presented as mortuary offerings. Other interesting pieces include woodcarvings and masks that were found deposited in a cave.
Tehuacán is easy to reach from Puebla, with buses running about every thirty minutes from Puebla’s CAPU. Both the AU and ADO companies run this route, whith each company running one bus per hour. The journey, however, is fairly long, taking about two hours one-way.
Arriving in the city of Tehuacán, you’ll need to catch a colectivo (shared minivan) to reach the ruins. Head to Av. Independencia and wait until you see a minivan marked #23. Flag it down, and the ride should last about 20 minutes. But it would be wise to let the driver know where you’re headed as soon as you get in.
As the ruins are in a remote area, I was concerned about finding transport back to the city center. Fortunately, the staff working at the archaeological site were very helpful and called a colectivo driver who came and picked me up on his way.
The city of Tehuacán is also a base from which you can visit the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve (learn more in a future guide). To see both the ruins and the reserve, however, you should spend at least one night in town.
I recommend Ken Tehuacán, which has comfortable rooms and is conveniently centrally located.
The most beautiful part of Puebla is undoubtedly its Centro Historico. And this is also where you’re going to find most of the city’s cultural landmarks. What’s more, is that there are plenty of hotel options to choose from here, such as the highly-rated Hotel Boutique Casareyna (high-end), Hotel Diana (midrange) and Hotel Centro Historico (budget).
But would there any reason to not stay in the center? Yes, and for two main reasons. First of all, Puebla is not just a destination in its own right, but the city is one of the best bases for day trips in all of Mexico.
Secondly, the main bus station, CAPU, is unfortunately located quite far from the center. While I originally wanted to stay in the historical district, I realized that there were at least five day trips I wanted to go on that would require a visit to CAPU – not to mention my arrival and departure days.
And so I found an Airbnb within fifteen minutes on foot from the station. In the end, I’m really glad that I did, as it saved me a lot of time and hassle.
Unfortunately, however, the whole area around the bus station is not the most charming, to say the least (though it did at least feel safe). Compared with the historical center, it felt like another world.
While I didn’t have the best experience at my Airbnb due to bad internet and an unresponsive host, you may want to consider Hotel Central, located right next to the station.
Puebla has no tram network, and the drive between the center and CAPU is at least 20 minutes (only if traffic is perfectly smooth). Deciding where to stay, then, all depends on how many day trips you’ll be taking, and how extra early you’d be willing to depart to ensure you don’t miss your buses.