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Xochicalco is a pre-Columbian archaeological site in the western part of Morelos. Situated 38 km southwest of Cuernavaca and about 122 km by road from Mexico City, Xochicalco stands atop an artificially leveled hill.

Xochicalco Archaeological Zone was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

Xochicalco attracts numerous visitors, especially during the early summer months when the sun’s rays pierce through the caves at a perfect angle, casting a unique illumination and lending an air of mystery to the surroundings.

Xochicalco’s main temple is adorned with intricate reliefs depicting the worship of Quetzalcoatl. The hieroglyphs shed light on its extensive connections with regions such as Oaxaca, Veracruz, and significant parts of the Maya territory.

Geography & Environment

The region’s challenging farming conditions suggest that the site was strategically chosen for its defensive advantages and its position along major Mesoamerican trade routes. The region is characterized by semi-arid conditions.

The Best Time to Visit

The ideal time to visit Xochicalco is during the dry season, from November to April. During these months, the weather is generally pleasant, making it easier to explore the ruins without the discomfort of rain or extreme heat.

Origin of the Name

The name Xochicalco comes from the Nahuatl language and means “in the house of Flowers.” This name likely reflects the site’s cultural and religious significance, possibly associated with floral symbolism in local rituals and mythology.

History & Timeline

History Facts and Chronology

Xochicalco’s history likely begins around 200 BCE with the initial occupation of the site.

It wasn’t until 650 CE that Xochicalco was founded by the Olmeca-Xicallanca, a group of Mayan traders from Campeche, establishing it as a significant center along Mesoamerican trade routes.

During the next few centuries, Xochicalco developed into a significant urban center.

During this time, most of the monumental architecture visible today was built. Xochicalco’s architecture and iconography show influences from Teotihuacan, the Maya area, and the Matlatzinca culture of the Toluca Valley.

Xochicalco thrived in the transitional period between Teotihuacán’s decline and the rise of Tula. Xochicalco rose to prominence following the decline of Teotihuacán, stepping into the economic and political void left in its wake.

Xochicalco may have played a part in the fall of the Teotihuacan empire.

Xochicalco was home to between 10,000 and 15,000 people, many of whom were engaged in craft production and long-distance trade. Xochicalco was an important fortress, trade, and religious center.

The poor farming conditions in the area indicate that it was probably built for defense and trade purposes.

Xochicalco’s ascendancy owed much to its strategic positioning, facilitating robust trade networks with regions spanning Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, the Maya territories, and the coastal realms along the Mexican Gulf and Pacific.

Perched atop several hills, meticulously crafted through the art of terracing and fortified with ditches.

Xochicalco boasted a rugged yet strategic landscape. Watchtowers stood sentinel while the imposing Citadel, adorned with pyramidal structures, palatial edifices, and ceremonial ball courts, commanded attention.

Its architectural narrative, rich with motifs of warfare, celestial observation, and intricate cosmogonic symbolism, elevated Xochicalco to a pinnacle of Mesoamerican cultural convergence and the genesis of militaristic city-states.

Around 900 CE the city was burned and destroyed.

The evidence of this violent end is found in the layers of burning and destruction that cover the deposits from the city’s main occupation period. Evidence of burning and rapid abandonment is found in many of the excavated structures.

Despite the destruction, a small population continued to live on the lower slopes of the hill. The site was later recolonized around 1200 by the Tlahuica peoples, ancestors of the modern Nahuatl-speaking populations in Morelos.

Modern History (Rediscovery)

  • 1777: The ruins of Xochicalco were first described.
  • 1810: Alexander von Humboldt illustrated and described the site.
  • 1910: Leopoldo Batres restored the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.
  • 1940s-1960s: Major excavations and restorations.

In 1976, a project began to map the site and excavate various structures. In 1988, the INAH initiated excavations of monumental architecture, resulting in the construction of a new museum to display the findings.

Today, Xochicalco stands as a testament to the complex history of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, offering visitors a unique glimpse into the past through its well-preserved ruins and artifacts.

Xochicalco Archaeological Zone

Situated atop three hills, the site’s layout was carefully orchestrated, with terraces, causeways, and stairways. The ditches and imposing walls, underscored its fortified character, rendering it impervious to intrusion.

At the summit, religious and administrative structures interlinked, with the Acropolis serving as the ruler’s abode. The Ceremonial Plaza housed the iconic Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, a hub for religious ceremonies.

Residential complexes, from noble “palaces” to humbler abodes, dotted the landscape, while ballgame courts and an observatory added layers of functionality.

Artistic prowess shone through intricately carved reliefs, echoing Teotihuacan and Maya influences. The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent stood as a beacon of architectural splendor, while an observatory within a cave showcased celestial mastery.

Xochicalco boasted a vibrant civic-religious hub at the Central Plaza, while La Malinche featured the South Ballgame Court and a grouping of round altars. The Main Plaza, with its political significance and monumental structures like the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, commanded reverence.

In the East Complex, the East Ballgame Court and the Ramp of the Animals offered further insights into the site’s cultural depth. Meanwhile, the West Complex, positioned above the Observatory cave, housed structures dedicated to astronomical exploration, encapsulating Xochicalco’s multifaceted legacy.

Observatory Cave

Xochicalco’s many caves, excavated by its inhabitants, served multiple purposes beyond providing construction materials. Among these is the remarkable Observatory cave, where the sun’s movements were meticulously tracked.

This cave features a corridor leading to a spacious chamber with an 8.7-meter chimney, hexagonally shaped and slightly inclined to allow sunlight to project a hexagonal image onto the cave floor. The interior was adorned with painted stucco.

From April 30th to August 15th, the sun aligns with the chimney.

On May 14/15 and July 28/29, when the sun reaches its zenith at noon, it casts a direct beam of light into the cave. This celestial event likely had religious significance, and the cave was used for related ceremonies.

The site was also used for religious ceremonies.


Xochicalco’s sophisticated drainage system highlights the ingenuity of its people. Designed to collect and store rainwater in cisterns, these systems were essential during the dry months, which span roughly seven months each year.

Pre-constructed pipes, resembling modern designs, were used to channel water. This advanced system not only addressed practical needs but might also have played a role in religious practices dedicated to the rain deity.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

In 1909-1910, archaeologist Leopoldo Batres restored the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, reconstructing it despite the loss of many original stones used by landowners for their haciendas and sugar mills.

Initially, the structure featured a porticoed room of 10 by 11 meters. It was later expanded and covered to create the pyramid, becoming Xochicalco’s central axis.

The base of the pyramid has sloping walls topped by a parapet, and above it was the temple, now only marked by a single row of stones. The basalt and andesite carvings were intricately fitted without mortar.

The pyramid’s slopes are adorned with carvings of feathered serpents. On the east, south, and north sides, six serpents are depicted with feathered crowns and undulating bodies decorated with snails, culminating in tails resembling rattlesnakes.

Smaller serpents are found on the west side. These carvings feature seated figures with Maya-influenced headgear, loincloths, bead necklaces, and elaborate headdresses, indicating the importance of precious discourse.

Key glyphs and dates, such as “9 Eye of Reptile,” surrounded by smoke volutes, signify the 52-year cycle known as the new fire.

The front carvings include significant calendar adjustments and portray figures like “2 Movement,” a priestly figure associated with the universe and the ballgame, reflecting both historical events and celestial observations.

The parapet on the east side features eight rectangles, each with a seated priest holding a censer and a day sign, indicating their origins. These represent a council of 28 representatives from different towns.

The carvings include various day signs and toponyms, showing a blend of unique glyphs and place names.

The north side parapet features rectangles with seated figures, each associated with a toponym and the symbol of an eclipse observed on May 1, 664 CE. These toponyms include depictions of everyday and mythological elements like a coyote with a feather or a person crossing a river in sandals.

Overall, the intricate carvings and glyphs on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent provide a rich narrative of Xochicalco’s historical, religious, and astronomical significance, illustrating the city’s cultural and political importance during its peak.

The Steles of Xochicalco

These steles feature intricate carvings that represent gods, cosmological symbols, and important cultural narratives, Xochicalco’s rich religious and mythological traditions.

The presence of calendrical glyphs suggests the importance of time and ritual in Xochicalco society. These artifacts underscore the city’s significance as a center of cultural and spiritual life, as well as its connections to other regions through trade and shared religious practices.


The Xochicalco Site Museum is the world’s first ecological museum. The museum’s construction and research into the indigenous city were part of a government program to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.

The museum was inaugurated on April 10, 1996.

The museum occupies an area of 12,676 square meters, lacking urban services such as potable water, drainage, and electricity. Therefore, it had to be designed as a self-sufficient building in terms of services and climate control.

The museum is composed of three zones:

  • Access, parking, and exterior gardens.
  • The entrance courtyard and three interior gardens.
  • The introduction lobby, exhibition halls, administrative area, and restaurant.

The museum can accommodate around 600 people, 70 cars, and 14 buses simultaneously.

The museum’s ecological features include rainwater collection from the roofs, natural lighting through skylights with mirror ducts, and controlled interior temperature through double walls and ceiling vents.

The museum’s architecture blends with the surrounding landscape, minimizing its visual impact and allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the archaeological site.

Inside, the triangular-shaped halls and perpendicular lighting system guide visitors through the history of the ceremonial center, utilizing natural light to reduce the need for artificial illumination.

How to get there & Transportation

From Mexico City:

  • Travel by car will take 2 hours, depending on traffic.
  • By bus to Cuernavaca and the to the ruin’s area.

From Cuernavaca:

  • Travel by car will take 40 minutes.
  • By bus or colectivo (shared taxi) towards Alpuyeca or Miacatlán.
  • Request a stop at Xochicalco or take a taxi from Alpuyeca or Miacatlán.

Tourist Information

  • The site and the museum typically open from 09:00 to 17:00.
  • Access to the observatory is only allowed after noon.

The terrain can be uneven, so comfortable walking shoes are recommended.
Bring water, stay hydrated, and protect yourself from the sun.

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