Between the abandonment of Teotihuacan and the emergence of the Aztec Empire, central Mexico was dominated by another powerful group: the Toltecs. But we still know relatively little about them. The Aztecs sung the Toltecs’ praises, considering themselves to be their heirs. And they even repeatedly visited their former capital of Tula to learn (and take) all that they could. Consequently, not a whole lot remains today. Nevertheless, Tula still makes for a fascinating day trip. While the ruins may lack the ‘wow’ factor of Teotihuacan, the old pyramids and their enthralling Atlantean statues continue to draw in visitors hoping to learn more about the mysterious Toltecs.
Who were the Toltecs?
The Toltecs were the dominant civilization of central Mexico from around 900 to 1150 AD. Like the Teotihuacanos before them and the Aztecs after them, we know that the Toltecs worshipped gods like Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc and various other nature-related deities. And, unsurprisingly, their main religious structures were built as pyramids. In addition to religion, Toltec society placed a heavy emphasis on militarism, with warriors being lauded all throughout Toltec art and sculptures.
Archaeologists have determined that the site of Tula, the Toltec capital, long predates the civilization’s rise. It was first settled as early as 600 AD, back when Teotihuacan was still the main city in the region. Mysteriously, Tula was abandoned some 150 years later. The Toltecs then settled at the spot around the year 900 and began to build their pyramids, palaces and ball courts there.
At its height, the city probably had a population of around 30 – 40,000. That’s roughly one-sixth the size of Teotihuacan, and the difference in scale between the two ancient cities is obvious. But the Toltecs’ power and influence was not solely limited to Tula or even just to the central Mexico region. As we’ll go over further down below, clear Toltec influence is evident all throughout the ancient Mayan capital of Chichen Itza.
Not only did the Toltecs bridge the gap between the Teotihuacanos and the Aztecs, but they served as an important link between the civilizations of central Mexico and the Yucatan. These two regions otherwise had little to do with one another historically, but we likely have the Toltecs to credit for bringing Quetzalcoatl worship and other new ideas to the Mayans.
Like their predecessors at Teotihuacan, we don’t exactly why Tula was eventually abandoned. It was possibly a combination of things like scuffles with neighboring tribes, a volcanic eruption, or a drought. What we do know is that by the mid-12th century, Tula was empty for the second time.
The Aztecs would go on to idolize the Toltecs. But instead of preserving things as they found them, they looted many of Tula’s valuables and religious artifacts to venerate in their own cities. As a result, the Toltecs remain one of the least understood civilizations of ancient Mexico, despite their significance as an important bridge between cultures. As excavation work around the ruins of Tula continues, there’s still hope that there are more secrets waiting to be decoded.
Tula is much smaller than Teotihuacan and can be fully explored in a few hours. Let’s go over some of the main highlights below:
Pyramid E and the Atlantean Statues
Entering the archaeological zone, you’ll first encounter the ‘Temple of the Morning Star,’ otherwise known as ‘Pyramid E,’ from behind. The most significant feature here is the set of four towering pillars which have since become known as the Atlantean statues.
The statues are believed to have once held up a long-lost temple made of wood. Their modern name, then, is a reference to the Greek Titan Atlas, who was responsible for holding up the sky. These figures were probably never meant to be seen by the general public, with access to the temple being strictly limited to priests and high ranking officials.
The Atlantean statues have become something of the de facto symbol of Toltec culture as a whole. Now exposed to the world, these pillars tell us a lot about whom they worshipped, how they fought and how their warriors dressed.
But where does the name ‘Temple of the Morning Star’ come from? The morning star is another name for Venus. And it was the creator god of the Teotihuacanos (and probably even the Olmecs before that) who was said to have turned into Venus after recreating humanity. The references to Quetzalcoatl at Tula are numerous, yet also much more subtle than his depictions at Teotihuacan.
Looking at the sides of the columns, we can see what weapons each warrior is carrying. They’re rather atypical of what we normally picture today when thinking of a warrior’s tools. Some statues carry what’s known as an atlatl, a spear thrower which helps increase the velocity of a throw. Others carry bladed weapons. The somewhat unusual shape of the objects has led some people to theorize about futuristic laser guns, but it’s probably safe to say that the Toltecs weren’t that advanced.
The carvings on the pillars are believed to represent the ancient Toltec kings. The most prominent ruler named himself Quetzalcoatl after the Toltecs’ favorite deity. Interestingly, the Mayans at Chichen Itza also had a king named Kukulkan, the Mayan name for the ‘Plumed Serpent.’ It’s even speculated that the two kings may have even been the same person!
Notice how the statue on the left is a different color from the others? That’s because it’s actually a recently-made replica. Don’t worry though – the original is doing just fine. In fact, he can be visited by the public at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Around the site
Tula covers a much smaller area than Teotihuacan, and it doesn’t require any special strategy to explore in full. But with some of the structures in poor condition, you might end up missing some things if you don’t look carefully.
The Great Pyramid
The “Great Pyramid,” also known as ‘Pyramid C,’ reveals the strong influence that the Teotihuacanos had on Toltec culture. It clearly resembles structures from that city like the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. Unfortunately, though, Tula’s Great Pyramid in far from great shape. It’s one of the most damaged structures at Tula, but there’s still enough left of it to get a sense of both its architectural style and former size. Archaeologists believe that there’d once been some kind of wooden temple at the top like at Pyramid E.
This pyramid is actually climbable, but not from the front. A little trail on the other side will lead you to the top from where you can see excellent views of the Temple of the Morning Star together with the Burnt Palace.
The Burnt Palace
Located just next to the Temple of the Morning Star, the Burnt Palace is a large complex that was probably used for government administration. As the name suggests, the Burnt Palace, or Palacio Quemado, was ravaged by a massive fire at one point. It consisted of three main halls and overall. the structure is huge. Remains of ritual offerings as well as intricate relief carvings have recently been found here. One section shows a Toltec king (possibly dressed as Tlaloc) leading a group of warriors.
Located at the opposite side of the plaza from the Temple of the Morning Star is this large structure known simply as ‘Edificio K.’ It was likely used for ceremonies and rituals carried out by the Toltec elite. We also know that even the Aztecs dwelled in the building after the Toltecs has already left the scene.
Also known as the ‘Serpent Wall,’ this border likely marked the outer boundary of Tula’s sacred space. The entire wall is covered in intricate murals. Most notably, there are numerous depictions of skeletons being devoured whole by large serpents. Other images include local animals like pumas, and of course, major deities from the Toltec pantheon.
The area is currently under excavation, so new finds could be just around the corner.
The Ritual Ball Courts
The ancient city of Tula contained not just one, but two ball courts for the classic Mesoamerican ball game. The game involved teams hitting a rubber ball back and forth. But in contrast to today’s popular sports, players could only hit it with their hips – no hands of feet allowed. Aside from trying to knock the ball into the opponents’ territory, a more challenging goal was to pass it through a stone disk with a hole in the middle that was equipped to either wall.
The game, practiced by civilizations throughout Mesoamerica, didn’t just function as a sport or recreational activity. It was also a ritual, with the game itself symbolic of the procession of the cosmos.
Arriving at the Tula ruins, a ball court is the very first thing you’ll encounter. Situated behind the Atlantean statues is the well-preserved, yet relatively small court pictured above. On the opposite side of the city is the more spacious court pictured below. The design and layout of these ball courts in Tula are one of the main features archaeologists bring up when noting the similarities between the Toltec capital and Chichen Itza in the opposite end of the country.
The Mayan Connection
As mentioned above, one of the most mysterious and baffling aspects of Tula are the similarities between it and the former Mayan capital of Chichen Itza. The Mayans are one of Mexico’s greatest native civilizations. From as far back as around 500 BC, all the way up until the arrival of the Spanish, the Mayans built impressive pyramids and complex city-states.
Mayan culture was prevalent throughout the Yucatan peninsula and much of modern-day Guatemala, along with other neighboring Central American countries. They’re also known for things like their writing system and extremely precise and complex calendar.
Generally speaking, Mayan civilization thrived independently of the cultures in central Mexico. They were, however, partly influenced by Teotihuacan, and it’s even believed that a king from there took over the city-state of Tikal in the 4th century. But Mayan civilization would continue to thrive long after Teotihuacan’s decline and abandonment. And the case of the twin cities of Tula and Chichen Itza is the only such case in Mesoamerica where two distant cities share so much in common.
The most striking architectural similarity is how closely Chichen Itza’s main pyramid resembles that of Tula’s. The Temple of the Warriors, it’s called, features pillars laid out in front of and on top of the pyramid in a very similar manner to the Temple of the Morning Star (Pyramid E). Furthermore, both structures are oriented just east of true north.
The two sites contain chacmool sculptures of a similar style. These statues were used to place offerings to the gods. And like Tula, Chichen Itza also contains a tzompantli, or skull rack, on which the heads of sacrificial victims were placed. And as mentioned earlier, the ball courts of both cities are very similar in layout and design.
But who influenced who? While there’s no doubt that the Mayan civilization long predates the Toltecs, most archaeologists believe that it was the Toltecs who influenced Chichen Itza, and not the other way around. The reason is that similar architecture can be found at some other minor Toltec sites in central Mexico. In the Yucatan, on the other hand, what we now recognize as the Toltec style is solely limited to Chichen Itza.
What we don’t know is exactly how everything played out. Did the Toltecs invade and take over? It’s possible that the 10th century kings Quetzalcoatl of Tula Kukulkan of Chichen Itza are the same person. References in both Toltec and Mayan documents mention a traveling ruler around that time. It’s hard to say, though, if the ruler was an invader or he’d had been banished from Tula. On the other hand, carbon dating suggests that Chichen Itza’s main structures may even predate the arrival of this mysterious king. Ultimately, nobody really knows exactly how or why these two capitals became sister cities, but the multitude of different theories are fascinating.
***I have yet to visit Chichen Itza myself, so I haven’t been able to see the similarities with my own eyes. Once I make it there in the future, I hope to update this article with some side-by-side comparison shots.***
Tula does not make for the easiest day trip from Mexico City, but it’s certainly doable. You can reach the ruins from the Autobuses del Norte bus station.
Entering the station, turn left and walk all the way down to the end. The booth selling tickets for Tula happens to be just next to the one for Teotihuacan. Understand, though, that unlike Teotihuacan, Tula is a modern-day city which just happens to have ruins in it. You won’t arrive at the ruins but will have to walk or ride through the city to get to them.
The ride takes around 90 minutes one way and there are 1 or 2 buses every hour.
The challenging part is getting to the ruins from Tula’s bus station. It is walkable, but there’s a very important detail you need to be aware of. The south entrance, which happens to be closest to the bus station, is no longer in use. And during my visit, there was no sign or any indication that there was another entrance. Most visitors probably arrive and get the impression that it’s permanently closed.
The entrance you need to reach is another 15 – 20 minutes walk along the same road. It’s a busy road and a rather uncomfortable walk, but there is just enough space to avoid getting hit by oncoming traffic. Eventually, you’ll see a sign for the ruins on your left-hand side.
Even after walking along that road, though, you may find that the old ticket gates appear to be smashed and abandoned. Just keep walking and you’ll eventually find the parking lot and real entrance. There is a local museum also located at the entrance, which was unfortunately closed due to earthquake damage during my visit.
With all that said, it may be best to take a taxi from the bus station. However, you’ll have a hard time finding one on the way back. The walk back could be even more confusing if you didn’t walk there in the first place.
After paying the entrance fee and entering the site, you’ll first come across a nice little botanical garden area. Keep walking along the road, past the vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs, until you eventually see the backside of the Atlantes in the distance. When finished, you’ll want to leave the ruins the same way you came.
Tula isn’t the nicest or most convenient city, so you’d definitely want to make your base in Mexico City and get to the ruins as a day trip instead.
Mexico City’s public transportation system is very efficient, so generally speaking, you’ll be fine if you base yourself nearby a metro station.
I stayed at a basic, no frills hotel called Hotel Costazul. I would recommend this place to people looking for an affordable private hotel room in a convenient location. Located in Centro, it’s a fairly easy walk to the Zocalo and right by a couple of subway stations.
The best way to get to Mexico City would be to fly. The main Benito Juarez International Airport services flights from all around the world.
Coming from within Mexico, many budget airlines service Toluca International Airport instead. Some cheaper flights from abroad also go to the nearby city of Puebla.