It sounded so easy: take a "Xochi" bound bus from the station near the market of Cuernavaca, but when the bus takes a left in the village of Xochitepec, I know my information is not correct. I get off and, since it is getting late, I charter a taxi that takes me directly to the entrance of the ruins of Xochicalco, one of the finest ruins of this part of Mexico. To my surprise, my driver, who has lived here his entire life, has never visited the ruins, the pride of his forefathers. In fact, in the local Nahuatl language, the name Xochicalco means "in the house of flowers". I get my ticket, walk through the well organized museum, and then a couple of hundred metres to the entrance of the ruins. It is only here that I am advised that, after an earthquake a year before, several sections of Xochicalco are closed. I walk to the southern entrance, next to walls: Xochicalco used to be a fortressed city, started by the Olmeca-Xicallanca, and flourished after the downfall of Teotihuacan, between 650 and 900 CE.
From a small grass-covered plateau, I walk the steep stone stairs to the big Square of the Two Glyphs. On this large field, I see two smaller pyramids on left and right, a stela and beyond that, the Great Pyramid. I walk to the edge, from where I see the ball-court of the south. It is officially off-limits, but when I ask the guard, he whispers that since there are so few tourists, I might as well go. So, I step over the yellow line marking the area that I am not supposed to visit, and walk down the sloping ramp to find the wide ball court. It is rectangular, and has two large stone rings in the middle, on both sides of the court. Play was very serious, between two teams, involved a heavy rubber ball, use of hips by the competitors, and used to settle disputes: the outcome was supposedly divine. There are two more ball-courts in the Xochicalco complex. I also have a look at the ruins of a nearby palace, before retracing my steps up the ramp. While I expect the guard to be waiting for a tip, he does not even look at me when I return to the main plaza, which I explore before climbing the steep stairs of the Great Pyramid, the construction itself consisting of enormous steps, or terraces. It is not allowed to climb to the top of the pyramid, so I walk around it to the east of Xochicalco.
Here, I find the animal ramp, a lightly sloping ramp with slabs of stone of which animals are carved out: mammals, birds, serpents. This slope, too, is closed, as is access to the eastern ball-court. Walking past two smaller pyramids brings me to the cistern, and the northern ball-court, also off-limits, which has much steeper walls surrounding it, and walk up to the acropolis of Xochicalco. I have now reached the upper part of the ruins: this used to be the residential area. Once I am around these ruins, I reach a viewpoint from where I see the Great Pyramid and other parts of the Xochicalco complex, the southern ball-court, and the Rodeo, a small lake further southwest. It is time to climb the Temple of the Three Stelae, an important temple where the residence of the highest ruler or priest was probably established. From here, I look over the Great Pyramid. Just a few steps from here is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The outer walls of the temple are covered in exquisite carvings, representing large serpents, and deities. The feathered serpent is a symbol of the god Quetzalcoatl. Another explanation holds that snakes had a celestial meaning for the Mayas; who had considerable influence on the Xochicalco culture. The afternoon is drawing to a close, and the few visitors have already left when I walk down the stairs to see the Great Pyramid and the upper section of Xochicalco from below, before returning to the northern ball-court. Unfortunately, also the observatory is closed: it is a cave in which the sunlight falls through a hole, and which was probably used for rituals devoted to the rebirth of the sun which only shines into the cave 105 days a year. When I walk down to the crossroads below Xochicalco to catch a bus back to Cuernavaca, my head is spinning with images, and the impressive history of a highly developed culture. I sincerely hope my taxi driver will one day come up here to admire Xochicalco as well.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Xochicalco (Mexico). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Xochicalco. Read more about this site.