Ancient ruins tour of the Americas: from Aztecs to Zapotecs in Mexico

Journeys to Ponder — By on June 18, 2010 at 3:36 pm
This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the possibilities for an “ancient ruins tour of the Americas.” It is also one of a series of articles on career break ideas.
Tula Mexico

Toltec statues at the Tula ruins

The Americas are awash in the ruins of ancient civilizations. So if you’re looking for a career break journey with a theme, one option to consider is an “ancient ruins tour of the Americas.” This trip could take you, at the very least, through the United States and Mexico, much of Central America, and the Andes nations of Peru and Bolivia. We’ll focus on one section of this larger itinerary at a time, beginning today in central and southern Mexico.

There were numerous ancient civilizations in what is now Mexico and it would require several weeks or months to explore all the ruins they left behind. Although some of the Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula are justly famous, they only scratch the surface of the Indian ruins that are scattered throughout the country. Therefore, this leg of the journey doesn’t even touch the Mayans, but it still enables you to explore several ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, as well as to experience contemporary life in Cuernavaca, Puebla, Oaxaca and other enticing Mexican destinations.

Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Puebla

There are several ruins in the region around Mexico City, so you can use this as a base for the start of your journey. If you begin in the Mexican capital, good sites include the excavated ruins of Templo Mayor, which was an Aztec temple, as well as the National Museum of Anthropology, which houses remnants of various Indian civilizations. Among the museum’s archaeological treasures is the 25-ton Aztec calendar stone.

The most famous ancient site in the area, though, is at Teotihuacan, 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. A World Heritage Site, Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world in the 6th century, with a population exceeding 150,000 people. Today, visitors can marvel at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, or walk down Calle de los Muertos and glimpse the palaces and temples that once lined this two-mile long boulevard.

Then, about 50 miles to the northwest of Mexico City is Tula, where the ancient Toltec capital of Tollan was located. There is a small archaeological site here, but it includes a step pyramid that is intriguingly topped by four enormous 15-foot high statues of Toltec warriors.

When you depart the Mexico City area, you should head next to Cuernavaca and Puebla. Cuernavaca is 50 miles to the southwest and is a popular escape from Mexico City due to its pleasant climate. Nearby are the ruins of Xochicalco, a city that gained prominence after the decline of Teotihuacan and which seems to have been influenced by several Mesoamerican cultures. It is famous for an underground solar observatory and for the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, a pyramid with a carved snake around its base.

teotihuacan

View of the Teotihuacan ruins.

The other nearby city to explore is Puebla, about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. The historic center of this colonial city is itself a World Heritage Site and the Museo Amparo has a large collection of pre-Columbian art. But if it’s ancient ruins that you’re after, you’ll be spending time at the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest pyramid built in the Americas. You won’t feel the same awe as at Teotihuacan, since much of the pyramid site is covered by a grassy hill, but parts of it have been reconstructed and there are five miles of excavated tunnels to explore.

Veracruz, Oaxaca and Villahermosa

East of Puebla, on Mexico’s Gulf coast, is the city of Veracruz. From here you can visit El Tajin, a city that was apparently abandoned in the early 13th century and thus was never discovered by Spanish explorers. Also a World Heritage Site, it is considered to have some of the most unique architecture of any of the Mesoamerican ruins and its most famous structure is the seven-story Pyramid of the Niches. Another nearby site that was discovered by the Spanish is Zempoala, which may have been the first community to be contacted by Hernan Cortes. Today there are remains of temple pyramids, along with stone ceremonial circles that were likely used for astronomical purposes.

A few hours further south is Oaxaca, yet another charming colonial town with an historic center that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The main ancient attraction is at Monte Alban, the former sacred capital of the Zapotecs. The site is built atop a leveled mountain and has a large main plaza surrounded by a variety of temples, small pyramids and more than 170 tombs. Also in the Oaxaca area is Mitla, which was built on the valley floor and is most known today for its mosaic tiles and geometric stonework.

If you continue journeying east, you’ll soon reach the Mayan lands of the Yucatan Peninsula. But on the way you should stop in Villahermosa to see the ceremonial Olmec site of La Venta. This is most well known for the discovery of 17 massive stone heads. These heads can weigh several tons each and are thought to have been carved as early as the 9th century B.C.E.!

Six cities and at least 10 ancient ruins, and we haven’t even touched the ancient Mayans yet. So, coming soon: the next leg of the journey will explore the Mayan ruins of Mexico and Central America.

Photo credits: Luidger via Wikimedia Commons (Tula ruins) and Fabioj via Wikimedia Commons (Teotihuacan).

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