Xochicalco: The Mayan City in the Valley of Morelos

Last Updated on: 11th December 2023, 06:24 pm

Located about 38 km southwest of Cuernavaca is one of Mexico’s most underrated archaeological sites. Formed during one of the region’s most tumultuous periods, Xochicalco’s downfall came suddenly after just 250 years as a city. Nevertheless, the ruins remain highly impressive, both in terms of their scale and level of craftsmanship.

Following our guide to the ruins, you can learn more about reaching Xochicalco either from Cuernavaca or Mexico City at the end of the article.

Xochicalco: A Brief History

Xochicalco, founded around 650 AD, was one of a number of major cities to emerge in Central Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacan. But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that it was founded by none other than a group of Mayan traders from coastal Campeche.

Arriving in the region, they took over many of the trade routes established by the Teotihuacanos. (Confusingly, the group was known as the Olmeca-Xicallanca, though Olmec society had largely fizzled out by as early as 350 BC.)

The Late Classic period (600-900 AD) was known for being an especially unstable era. Not only did it succeed the downfall of the mighty Teotihuacan, but other important cities like Monte Albán and Palenque fell around the same time.

This new power vacuum resulted in centuries of war and general unrest throughout much of Mesoamerica – especially Central Mexico. And it was in this environment that Xochicalco was planned and built.

The city was established atop and along a natural hill, while it was surrounded by numerous other hilltop fortifications. This was in stark contrast to Teotihuacan, which was an accessible, sprawling city that welcomed communities from all over Mesoamerica.

Furthermore, the worship of Quetzalcoatl, who gradually came to be seen as a warrior god, became increasingly prominent in this era.

Xochicalco would peak from 700-900 AD. And unlike most cities, which saw periods of gradual decline before their eventual abandonment, Xochicalco’s dissolution came suddenly. Likely as a result of an internal revolt, the city was burned around the year 900 and immediately abandoned.

Notably, evidence of violence and disorder is largely restricted to the area for the elite, while lower class dwelling places seem to have been simply abandoned.

But despite not having been resettled since its abandonment, the Spanish were aware of Xochicalco from early on, and it was mentioned in some of the earliest 16th-century records alongside Tula and Teotihuacan.

Later in the 19th century, Xochicalco was a favorite destination of explorers and visitors touring the region, among them Emperor Maximilian. The site also grew in popularity thanks to Guillermo Dupaix, who was commissioned by the Spanish monarch to document Mexico’s ancient sites.

In 1909, archaeologist Leopoldo Batres reconstructed the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, determining that Xochicalco was indeed Mayan. But his work was soon interrupted by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

Beginning 1934, Eduardo Noguero then began three decades of work studying and reconstructing Xochicalco, producing some of the first maps. The site then remained a focus of attention throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

National Museum of Anthropology Xochicalco
A local sculpture of the Mayan sun god Kinich Ahau
National Museum of Anthropology Xochicalco
A Xochicalco jaguar sculpture

The Main Plaza

While multiple entrances to the ruins existed in the past, there was only one option at the time of my visit. The following guide assumes you’ve started with the path leading you straight to plaza at the base of the Great Pyramid.

The plaza is known as the Plaza of the Two-Glyph Stele, and it was largely designated for rituals. As the name suggests, it’s centered around a stele featuring two glyphs that was erected on a shallow central platform.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

The glyphs represent two dates: 10 Acatl and 9 Ojo de Reptil, which may be connected to the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the most important deity worshipped at Xochicalco. 

Strangely, the stele and the glyphs appear rather crude, especially when compared with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent atop the Acropolis – a masterpiece of Mesoamerican art.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

You’ll find numerous other structures around the plaza, while you can also get a clear view of more Xochicalco ruins to the south. While inaccessible, look out for the city’s largest ball court in the distance.

Interestingly, the massive court is 110 m long – the same length as the main court at Tula. Tula, the Toltec capital, was first inhabited from 600-750 AD before being abandoned. It would then rise again from around 900 AD – right around the time of Xochicalco’s own abandonment. 

The details of the relationship between the two cities, however, remain a mystery.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

To the north of the plaza sits Xochicalco’s largest individual structure, the Great Pyramid. It consists of a four-tiered pyramid atop a three-tiered base, at the very top of which is a flat-roofed temple.

Normally, a Mesoamerican city’s main pyramid would easily be its most defining feature. But Xochicalco is a little different. Here, the main pyramid is largely overshadowed by the huge Acropolis behind it.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
The Great Pyramid

Around the Sides

From the Great Pyramid, you have two options. One is to head around to the left (west) and ascend a large staircase taking you straight up to the Acropolis. Another is to take a small uphill path taking you to another long plaza along the Acropolis’s east side. This is the path I started with.

Ascending the uphill pathway, you will find yourself level with the top of the pyramid’s three-tiered base. You can then proceed by heading north, checking out the various structures to your right and left.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Walking past an impressive but mysteriously unlabelled palace or courtyard, you’ll reach the Animal Ramp which, as the name suggests is covered in slabs engraved with animal designs. 

Entering Xochicalco from the east, visitors in ancient times would’ve needed to walk up this ramp to get to the main plaza and Acropolis.

No less than 252 slabs were discovered here, and looking closely, you’ll notice serpents, birds, butterflies and more.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Just across from the ramp, meanwhile, is a temple dedicated to a local fertility goddess. 

The on-site museum was closed at the time of my visit, but I was still able to admire some of the findings – at least virtually. By downloading an app called Xochicalco AR, visitors can enjoy 3D renderings of various objects on their smartphones.

In certain areas, you’ll see small podiums with QR codes you can scan via the app. While nothing can replace seeing the originals in person, the app is a cool idea that more archaeological sites should adopt.

Xochicalco AR 4
The Mother Earth Sculpture (in AR)

Continuing north, you’ll pass by a myriad of other structures that were surely quite elaborate in their day. Again, many of them are unlabelled.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

One notable exception, however, is the Eastern Ball Court. Note how the court here is I-shaped – more reminiscent of Mayan and Zapotec ball courts than others in Central Mexico.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

The long plaza to the east of the Acropolis will eventually come to an end, and you’ll have to make a left, taking you along the north side. You’ll soon find a staircase taking you down to a slightly lower level.

This area is home to a few notable structures, among them the Observatory. A hole in the top marked the zenith of the sun passing over Xochicalco each May and July, while the space was also used to observe lunar activity.

This discovery led archaeologists to determine that numerous buildings around Xochicalco were indeed oriented astronomically. Earlier scholars, in contrast, believed that Xochicalco’s elite were too interested in warfare and conquest to be bothered with astronomy.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Sadly, the Observatory was not accessible at the time of my visit. In fact, it’s been closed for several years already due to the devastating earthquake which struck Central Mexico in 2017.

What you can find around here, however, is the Northern Ball Court. In addition to the Mesoamerican Ball Game, fire rites related to fertility were likely carried out here as well.

On display in the center, meanwhile, are the court’s surviving rings which remain in excellent condition.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
The Cistern
The Temazcal

Returning to the higher level from which you came and continuing west, you’ll pass by several more notable landmarks.

Among them is a cistern used to collect rainwater. Xochicalco residents were able to move the water around thanks to a complex drainage system.

The water stored here was likely used to create the steam for the nearby Temazcal, a traditional sweat lodge used by Mesoamerican societies for purification. In this case, the ball players likely purified themselves before playing at the nearby court.

The Hall of the Polychrome Altar

Just nearby is one of Xochicalco’s most interesting structures, the Hall of the Polychrome Altar. The altar was originally decorated in blue and red geometric shapes, while much of the original stucco survives.

Notably, this is the only covered portion of the entire site, and it was in fact partially reconstructed by archaeologists. The reasons were two-fold: to preserve the altar and to demonstrate how Xochimalco’s original buildings would’ve looked in their prime.

The Acropolis

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Next, it’s time to ascend the nearby staircase up to Xochicalco’s highest – and arguably most interesting – level. It was here that Xochicalco’s elite lived and watched over the city and its surroundings.

While there are lots of different structures up here, let’s begin with the most important and most visually stunning: The Temple of the Feathered Serpent. 

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

This amazing temple was built in the talud-tablero style, or alternating flat and sloped sections, that was popularized in Teotihuacan. And thanks to Leopoldo Batres’ reconstruction efforts in 1909, we can enjoy the beautiful carvings in all their glory.

Carved into the temple’s base are eight plumed serpents representing Quetzalcoatl, one of Central Mexico’s most prominent deities. Notably, however, the figures depicted within the serpents’ coils are distinctly Mayan.

As mentioned above, Xochicalco was originally founded by a group of Mayan traders from Campeche, so this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. And as evidenced at sites like Chichén Itzá, Quetzalcoatl was indeed worshipped in the Mayan world.

But a careful examination of the timeline raises a number of interesting questions.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

According to many historians – not to mention local legends – Quetzalcoatl worship was introduced to the Mayans by the Toltecs of Central Mexico. But this wouldn’t happen until the 10th century.

As we know, Xochicalco had already fallen by around the year 900. So even before the rise of Chichén Itzá, Xochicalco demonstrates a clear fusion of Mayan and Central Mexican religious practices. 

But was this merely an isolated example, or did Xochicalco play a much larger role in the cult of Quetzalcoatl and its spread than we currently know?

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

In any case, even before the founding of Xochicalco, the Mayans would’ve had some knowledge of Quetzalcoatl (whom they called Kukulkán), as the deity was an important one at Teotihuacan. And we have plenty of evidence that Teotihuacan was in regular contact with the Mayan world.

And as mentioned, in regards to Xochicalco’s Temple of the Feathered Serpent, we see clear examples of both Mayan and Teotihuacano art styles.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

But style aside, what else do the carvings represent? Originally thought to depict astronomers, the figures along the base may actually be Mayan warriors. 

A glyph contains the date 9 Ojo de Reptil, Quetzalcoatl’s birthday. But it may coincidentally be the birthday of one of the Mayan rulers depicted above as well.

Additionally, the images on the above flat panel likely depict Xochicalco conquering its neighbors, along with a record of what they received in tribute. 

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Walking up the staircase and looking within, you’ll find that the structure is now largely hollow. In its center are the remains of an altar and two columns.

This represents the first phase of the temple built here. But it was later filled in, with an elaborate temple having been built at the top. The fill was later removed by archaeologists in 1993, however.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
The former residential area to the east

Nearby is a similar structure that shares the Temple of the Feathered Serpent’s dimensions, though nearly all of its decorations are missing.

Along the east side of the Acropolis plaza, meanwhile, are various structures that likely served as dwelling places. They would’ve originally been covered with flat roofs and archaeologists have discovered various stone figures inside.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
The Pyramid of the Stelae
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Near the southeastern edge of the Acropolis is the Pyramid of the Stelae. Interestingly, it mainly functioned as a palace but with a temple inside. 

Three large stelae were found within which contain details about Xochicalco’s rulers, including the lengths of their reigns and their various accomplishments.

National Museum of Anthropology Xochicalco

But the stelae have religious significance as well, with deities like Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl making appearances. The three artifacts are currently on display at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Before heading down, be sure to walk across to the western side of the Acropolis. The sprawling area consists of four large halls. And in contrast to the eastern side, the use of the rooms here was likely entirely ceremonial.

But despite how elaborate and complex this section is, archaeologists don’t yet seem to know the importance of the individual rooms. Nevertheless, it’s still a lot of fun to explore.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Heading Down

Back in the center of the Acropolis, you’ll find a massive, complicated multi-tiered staircase. After some additional plazas on the way down, it will eventually take you back to the level of the Plaza of the Two-Glyph Stele.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

While walking down, you can also enjoy a clear view of the Great Pyramid from behind. As mentioned, it’s largely overshadowed by the incredible size of the Acropolis right behind it.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Xochicalco could’ve been considered a ‘maximum security city.’ To access its many staircases, one would’ve had to walk through a narrow portico which could fit no more than a few people at a time.

Notably, human skeletons were discovered within some of these porticos, suggesting that a violent revolt around the year 900 did indeed spell Xochicalco’s end.

Be that as it may, Xochicalco remains relatively well-preserved and has continued to delight visitors centuries after its sudden demise.

Speaking of visitors, I had the site entirely to myself for most of my visit. It wasn’t until my walk back through the main plaza in the early afternoon that a few small groups began making their way in.

If you enjoy exploring ancient ruins in total peace and quiet, don’t omit Xochicalco from your itinerary.

Visiting Xochicalco Ruins
Visiting Xochicalco Ruins

Additional Info

There are a couple of different ways to get to Xochicalco by public transport from Cuernavaca. If you’re staying near the city center, the most common way is to take a bus with the Pullman de Morelos company.

The bus won’t go directly to the ruins, but to the nearest town called El Rodeo. At the time of my visit, the first bus left at 9:46 am and cost $72 MXN.

Note that El Rodeo doesn’t have a bus station and the driver will simply announce the stop. Few people will get off here so be sure to pay close attention.

From El Rodeo, you’ll need to take a taxi to the ruins, which should cost you about $50 MXN. I was lucky, as a taxi appeared just as I arrived.

I’m still a bit confused about this, but my driver offered to take me ‘all the way up the hill’ for a higher price. I declined, and the site entrance was an easy walk from where he dropped me off for 50 pesos.

Perhaps he was referring to the museum, which is down a road in the opposite direction from where the ruins entrance is. The museum was unfortunately closed during my visit.

At the time of writing, Xochicalco is open daily from 9:00-18:00 and costs $85 MXN to enter.

But what about getting back to Cuernavaca? Luckily, it’s even more simple.

There is a Lasser bus that passes the ruins hourly or so, and they’ll take you directly to Cuernavaca with no transfer! Furthermore, the ride only costs 21 pesos.

So why not just take this bus to the ruins in the morning? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m guessing most people recommend going with Pullman de Morelos because Lasser’s terminal is a bit out of the way.

But if you’re interested in using it in the morning, you can find the terminal to the northeast of Cuernavaca’s main market on Avenida Adolfo Lopez Mateos. It might be a good idea to ask in advance about the timetable, though.

Not every visitor has time to base themselves in Cuernavaca, the closest city to the Xochicalco ruins.If you’re staying in Mexico City and don’t want to deal with the hassle of public transport, consider visiting Xochicalco as part of a private tour.This highly-rated tour combines Xochicalco with some of the top highlights of Cuernavaca, the ‘City of Eternal Spring.’

Cuernavaca, home to roughly 350,000 people, is a mid-sized city. As long as you’re staying somewhere relatively central, most of the top highlights should be walkable.

The city is home to a plethora of different bus stations, and you’ll often be using a different one during each of your day trips, not to mention arrival and departure.

I stayed just off of Avenida Morelos, where a few of the stations happen to be located. The hotel was called Hotel Colonial and it suited my needs perfectly. In addition to the convenient location, I had a comfortable room with a private bathroom. The hotel is also home to a very friendly (but very vocal!) cat.

Other highly-rated options in the city include Mesón de las DeliciasHotel Casa Colonial, and for budget stays, Home Sweet Home.


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