Mexico is worldwide known for its ancient cities that once stood tall and magnificent. Built by masterful native architects and artists today lie in ruins – awaiting for our eyes to see their grandeur of times past.
Chichen Itza is one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world but Mexico City has wonders worth of sightseeing and marvel upon. Here’s a list I’ve compiled of ancient ruins if you’re ever at the Mexican capital and wish to delve into the experience of indigenous cities.
If you don’t mind walking, a bit of sun, and wandering amongst millenia-old buildings then this is for you!
Location: Northeastern Mexico City metro area.
Native food: Yes
Built not by Aztecs but by a multicultural population of Huuastec and Otomi people, it became the most powerful city of its time, much more than Mayan cities. Two major pyramid-temples and dozens of smaller ones await you. Plus, the exquisite palaces that still stand are a delight. It is a huge place, after all it is the actual downtown of one of the most massive cities in the world.
Location: Southern Mexico City’s Pedregal area.
Native food: No.
There is a spirited debate concerning its antiquity, some say 8000 years old but mainstream scholars have it at 3000 years old. Famous for its round pyramid, one of the oldest structure in the Americas. No texts survive so we don’t have any info on Cuicuilco’s history. Nowadays surrounded by shopping malls, expect traffic.
Location: northern Mexico City, in Tlalnepantla municipality.
Native food: No.
Founded by Xolotl the Great, it was once the capital of the Chichimec Domain. Part of it is enclosed by government, but the other part you can literally walk into it. Main structures are the towering pyramids and a palace complex. Mainly local tourists know of this place.
Santa Cecilia Acatitla
Location: Northern Mexico City, Tlalnepantla municipality.
Native food: No.
Firsthand, it is hard to reach it, located in a maze of streets but nothing Waze or Google Maps can’t handle (I’ve been to places that aren’t in the satellites yet!). Once you get there the reward is the ONLY native pyramid temple intact. Lots of photo-ops. A small museum houses the artifacts found there. Don’t go late, locals say it can be dangerous during the night.
Location: Near downtown area and Reforma Avenue.
Native food: No
The ancient ruins share its place with a colonial church and mid-20th century apartment buildings. Thus known as the Three Cultures Plaza. The place is well organized but there is literally no parking area or usual tourist-trap vendors. Local tourists and couples do hang in there. In Tlatelolco Hernan Cortes fought the definitive battle that meant the defeat of the Triple Alliance, aka wrongly-named Aztec Empire.
Pino Suarez subway station
Location: Downtown southern area.
Native food: No.
Inside this station of Mexico City’s subway is a drum-like temple built by the Mexica Aztecs in honor of the spirit of the wind, Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl. It is definitely not touristy, as this subway station is used by local commuters. The ancient city of Tenochtitlan is under modern Mexico City, this means most buildings remain down there, but not visible, except a few like this one.
Native food: No
When the Spanish Centre was digging to build an underground parking garage of their own they stumbled with the Mexica Aztec university, known as Calmecac. This ancient school was where people studied priesthood, sciences, and military. Not only the ruins are down there but artwork that was found as well. Once done, you can check for contemporary art upstairs.
Native food: Yes
Last but not least the proper capital of the Mexica Azteca. Decimated by the Hispanics, they never imagined countless pyramids would survive under the main temple, since they were built like Russian dolls. One can walk around them seeing each period. The walk culminates with the museum. Outside there are restaurants, yes, but if you want authentic Aztec food try crickets with chilli.
Mexico City metro area is gigantic. Not only it spans over a large area but it’s also over-populated. There is a Federal District, locally known as DF — Mexico City proper. Surrounding it is the other metropolitan area in the State of Mexico.
Outside the DF limits there are 22 municipalities, to explain each one is a hard task (perhaps for another post). Each has its goodies and its bad sides, as with any place.
The northern municipalities of Mexico City’s metro area is the more vast, it encompass Teotihuacan pyramids for instance. We could divide it in Northeastern and Northwestern, all beyonf the Guadalupe Sierra mountains. Tepotzotlan and Cuautitlan are here. Before the mountains there are other municipalities as well.
Then you have the western municipalities, more posh and upscale. They’re best attractions are the pine forests. Yes, in Mexico we have forests, sorry to dissappoint Hollywood.
On the East, behind the airport we have small towns that also have ancient ruins and yearly fairs.
Finally there’s the Chalco region and volcanoes, where the main attractions are obvious although there are also beautiful colonial towns and breathtaking landscapes.
If you’re interested in Mexico, check out my novel set in Ancient Mexico. Till Stars Shut Their Eyes, a romance and political thriller based on true events.
There are places, especially here in Mexico, where the past live side by side with today. It is after all a place filled with millenia-long history.
Sometimes museums are more valuable for what they are than for what they contain. Streets are wortht to walk to follow the steps of past people than to where you are actually going. It is surreal to smell the same kind of flowers the ancient indigenous poets smelled than the sight of it. With it’s huge problems Mexico has many wonderful things that not even we Mexicans could cope with its magnificence.
If you’re interested in Mexican history and the lives of who inhabited it, check out my novel Till Stars Shut Their Eyes, based on a true story in ancient Mexico.
I did this long exposure photography while I was lying near where the cars passed in order to obtain this light effect.
Once an imperial boulevard during the times of the Second Mexican Empire led by Emperors Maximilian of Hapsburg and Carlotta of Belgium, today it is a financial and posh street. It has become the most important street in all of Mexico.
The independence column houses the remains of men and women who led the Mexican Independence War.
Commonly called the angel by Mexicans in general, in reality it’s the semi-nude Greek goddess of Victory.
This building was designed by a man based solely on postcards from European Gothic cathedrals. So, in many instances he had to guess, since he was not an architect. Nowadays, upon examination, experts say it has not only Gothic elements but many colonial Mexican and native elements alike.
Such a mix beautifies this building, confirming that a good mixture can become something of worth.
San Miguel de Allende is located 4-hour driving north of Mexico City.
Photo and text by Miguel Omaña.
An ancient Mexican native altepetl (capital city) whose origin spans back to the time of the Toltecs, the prestigious city of the Eastern Lands of the Valley of Mexico, and where monumental artistry flourished. Today it is under the lascerating erosion of oblivion – and yet it is still there, as many places in modern Mexico and Central America. I continue to visit the sites that appear in my novel, this is another one.
Coatlinchan shared power with the Toltec main city.
During the heyday of the Toltecs, Coatlinchan was linked to Tollan Xicocotitlan (today known as famously tourist site of Tula in the state of Hidalgo), the epicenter of all things Toltec. Although there’s the idea that Tula was the political High Capital of the Toltecs, the reality was that rulership was shared under a then innovative system for sharing power which included Coatlinchan and gave status to the city.
Coatlinchan was part of beginnings of the Triple Alliance political system.
After the fall of the superpowers of this world – Teotihuacan, Tikal, and Calakmul – the overwhelming political vacuum forced the orphan new nations to survive by trying a different political system. The era of the imposing one-capital gave way to the Triple Alliance scheme. Three cities elevated each as a capital, but working in joint efforts. Apparently this project was successful since it appeared not only in Central Mexico but also at the Maya world in the Yucatan Peninsula and at P’urepecha land in Michoacan (Perhaps even in the Chalchihuite-Altavista region).
Henceforth Tula, Coatlinchan, and Colhuacan (nowadays in the Iztapalapa borough, Mexico City) comprised the Triple Alliance of Central Mexico. The lives of those Three Heads (as it was also called) were so intertwined, that the list of their rulers is confused from one another. The problem with the Triple Alliance system is that one polity tends to gain more voice than the other two. In this case it was Tula, who was regarded as the center of all things artistic, cultured, and civilization. This made the alliance fragile.
After Tula falls, Coatlinchan goes on.
After many eerie omens, Tula collapsed. The reasons are countless, but this left Coatlinchan alone with its sister city Colhuacan. Although Colhuacan enjoyed more proximity with Tula’s elite, they retained the glory of safekeeping the continuation of the lineage of Toltec families. What Coatlinchan kept was something that with times proved to be far more valuable, prestige over the cities, towns, and people of the Eastern Lands. These territory was East of the later known as Lake Texcoco, an interconnected set of five great lakes. Its elongated size spanned from the north in what is today the state of Hidalgo down south to the state of Morelos.
Turbulent times as northern immigrants descend to the Valley.
The fall attracted a continuous influx of immigrant contingents that arrived from the vast Northern lands. They were the first humans to be affected by what we now know as desertification caused by the climate change phenomenon (also known as global warming). Whatever the origin or cause, global warming forced thousands to leave each year to seek fairer climates. One of those who arrived changed the destiny of this part of the world, Xolotl. With a massive group following him from the Tampico, Tamaulipas area, Xolotl Amacui took political control of Central Mexico. Way before Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg or George W. Bush’s shock-and-awe, in matter of months Xolotl’s men-at-arms seized the land in-between the limits of Michoacan to the Gulf of Mexico. This time is turbulent for Coatlinchan, and literally there is no dynastic link between the before and after of Xolotl. This only happened to cities or capitals where its rulers refused to be under the rule of Xolotl. Whatever the case, Xolotl spared the city and its inhabitants.
The Chichimec Domain era, Coatlinchan brights again.
The high capital was now Tenayuca (today Tlalnepantla, state of Mexico), and from there the Chichimec Dominion ruled sternly but ironically not to impose their way of life, but that which existed before them. Xolotl, his son Nopaltzin, his grandson Tlotzin Pochotl, his great-grandson Quinatzin Tlaltecatzin, and his great-great-grandson Techotlalla – each implemented major modern reforms to establish civilization ideals as the highest the people should pursue. These reforms found dissent amongst other Chichimec immigrants which were established in the Eastern Lands. A struggle that put Coatlinchan in the political spotlight, since the rebellion was to be crushed within its territory.
The uprise of a lover named Yacanex.
Swiftly Coatlinchan allied with Tenayuca to contain the uprise led by Yacanex of Tepetlaoztoc. A manwho also rose because he wasn’t permitted to marry Atotoztli of Colhuacan, who was already given to Huetzin of Coatlinchan as wife. Tenayuca, Coatlinchan, and Colhuacan quickly movilized to hide Atotoztli in Coatlinchan from the rebel Yacanex. This infuriated Yacanex and his thousands of followers from the area of Atenco. They took their fight against Coatlinchan, after all, this city represented the interests or failures in the Eastern Lands. In painted chronicles we can see Huetzin of Coatlinchan (son of the Tlatoani of Coatlinchan) against Yacanex. The war lasted many years, and in each combat Coatlinchan and its allies winning.
Then came Azcapotzalco to rule them all.
After the war, Coatlinchan remained standing, its sister city Colhuacan did not. This city was the last of the Toltec Triple Alliance, and so important elite intermarried with them, connecting many genealogical links to Coatlinchan, including that of a then minor city called Mexico Tenochtitlan (pronounced meSHIco tenochTItlan), and a rising star called Texcoco. But the rising star rose much faster because one of its sons was famed poet warrior Nezahualcoyotl. Texcoco slowly but surely shadowed Coatlinchan. The era of the Chichimec Domain was long gone, but Azcapotzalco desperately made all that was possible to retain its importance. Tezozomoc of Azcapotzalco declared itself the sole heir of the rulers of Tenayuca — which he was a heir, but not the sole one. The new Huey Tlatoani (High Ruler) established military garrisons in Coatlinchan in its bloody war against Texcoco. The fiery bravado with which Azcapotzalco ruled made the Mexica Aztecs one of their finest pupils. But the students learned so good, that it superseded the teacher.
The ultimate Triple Alliance is forged, without Coatlinchan.
When the Mexica Aztecs destroyed Azcpotzalco in their war of independence, the Triple Alliance was once established over the ruins of the Tepanec ruins. Sadly, the new Triple Alliance did not include Coatlinchan. The reason was that Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, Itzcoatl of Mexico, and Tlacaelel of Mexico reached a compromise with the surviving Tepanecs. After all, they were afraid one day they could turn against them. So instead of Coatlinchan, the only Toltec Triple Alliance city, Mexico Tenochtitlan and Texcoco chose Tlacopan (today Tacuba district, in Mexico City) as the third head of the alliance in order for the Tepanecs to be represented in the new Triple Alliance the world now wrongfully knows as the Aztec Empire.
Coatlinchan was so prestigous, that even Tlaloc refused to leave.
Coatlinchan survived in times of these “Aztec Empire”, contrary to what the extremely biased chronicles of the Mexica Aztecs want us to know, this city was never touched in war or other form except when Nezahualcoyotl fought the Tepanec fighters shielded in Coatlinchan during the reconquest of his nation in times of Maxtla. The city flourished artistically under the poet warrior tlatoani. Coatlinchan built a gigantic statue of Tlaloc (or perhaps his wife Chalchiuhtlicue), the manifestation of rain. After all, Coatlinchan was and still is surrounded by fertile land, and the city depended on rain and dreaded hail.
After our holocaust, Mexico gained independence from the Hispanics and struggled to find an effective political system. Dictators came and went. And after Porfirio Diaz, Mexico was ruled by the surviving revolutionaries of the Mexican Revolution. Their new government wanted to modernize the nation, especially in education. So they did a controversial move in such endeavor, they collected masterpieces from each city and ancient indigenous nation to be displayed in one unique site in an upscale area of Mexico City. One of such masterpieces was the Tlaloc of Coatlinchan. Its inhabitants refused the move, but the government with monumental machinery carried the Tlaloc who also refused to go from Coatlinchan, for it poured a heavy rain during its entire trip and rare technical problems appeared. But not even Tlaloc was safe from the modernization the Mexican government wanted.
What of Coatlinchan today?
The rain ceased once the colossal statue rested in its new home, outside of the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City’s famed Reforma Avenue (across from where the President lives). Perhaps after all Coatlinchan is still so prestigious, that its major treasure was taken to be showcased to millions of foreigners and tourists from around the world. The irony is those tourists nowadays take #selfies for their Instagram accounts with the mighty giant of Coatlinchan, but nobody visits now the city that made the statue, started the idea of the Triple Alliance, and dodged wars. Totally understandable, since today’s rulers have no interest to boost efforts for people, here in Mexico or abroad, to know such cities as Coatlinchan. It is of relatively complicated access, and has no infrastructure to receive visitors. Coatlinchan once shone, in the best of Mexican history, and now lies dark in the best of globalized society.
To get my novel, where the city of Coatlinchan appears, you can find it here or at online book retailers.