Culture

Ancient Mesoamerican Culture Comes Alive At These Top 10 Pyramids Across Mexico

Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations—the Olmecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Aztecs (or Mexica), Maya, and others—can be hard to keep straight, but they all shared a few common traits. Most of their archaeological sites include ball courts, they considered corn an essential crop, and they all built pyramids. 

Sadly, the pyramids in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan are long gone, but dozens of others throughout Mexico still stand. The following 10 sites, which were constructed over roughly two millennia (from around 900 B.C.E. to about 1000 C.E.), are among the most spectacular and culturally important in the country. Many are even located near Mexico’s major destinations, making it easy for visitors to spend a day exploring the country’s ancient past.

La Iglesia and El Castillo, Coba

The ancient Maya city of Coba, which peaked between 800 and 1100 C.E., is home to two impressive pyramids—the Iglesia and the Castillo (the second largest pyramid on the Yucatán peninsula). Half-ruined and covered in plants, both structures look as if they’ve recently been unearthed, creating a mysterious, almost magical atmosphere.

Getting There: Coba is just over two hours by car from Cancún and 45 minutes from Tulum. If you’d rather not drive, many tour operators offer excursions.

Castillo de Kukulcán, Chichén Itzá

The Castillo de Kukulcán, with its nine stepped platforms, is the centerpiece of Chichén Itzá, a Maya city that flourished from around 700 to 900 C.E. The pyramid functioned as an enormous calendar and was designed so that, on the equinoxes, the play of sunlight and shadow would create the illusion of a snake descending to earth. While visitors are no longer allowed to climb the steps or access the Temple of Kukulcán at the top of the pyramid, they can tour other ball courts, temples, and palaces throughout Chichén Itzá. 

Getting There: Given that it’s halfway between Cancún and Mérida, this UNESCO World Heritage site is often crowded with tourists and vendors. The plus is that you can experience Chichén Itzá as it was during its peak—a bustling city.

Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal

The Maya were never centralized in one capital, as were the Aztecs and the Toltecs. Instead, the civilization resembled ancient Greece, with competing, independent city-states that shared a language and religious beliefs even as they developed different styles of architecture and their own distinct characters. The contrast between Chichén Itzá and Uxmal is impossible to miss. The structures at Uxmal, including the Pyramid of the Magician, were built in the Puuc style, with highly stylized motifs and a decorative richness not typical of other Maya cities. 

Getting There: A drive of about 70 minutes, on two well-maintained highways, will take you from modern Mérida to ancient Uxmal.

Pyramid of the Inscriptions, Palenque

The buildings at Palenque, in the state of Chiapas, are impressive less for their size than for the elegance of their design. The 89-foot-high Pyramid of the Inscriptions is topped by a temple with piers covered in Maya hieroglyphs—hence the “inscriptions” in its name. Archaeologists estimate that only 10 percent of Palenque has been excavated and other wonders are surely waiting to be unearthed. 

Getting There: With the opening of the Palenque airport in 2014, it’s become easy to visit this once remote site. Interjet offers twice-weekly flights (on Wednesdays and Saturdays) from Mexico City.

Great Pyramid of La Venta

Located in the state of Tabasco, La Venta is home to Mexico’s oldest known pyramid, built around 900 B.C.E. The structure isn’t particularly tall at 100 feet and, since it was built of clay instead of stone, its original rectangular shape has been softened by the ages, making it appear more like a rounded hill. Still, it’s fascinating to behold, as is the sophisticated urban planning of La Venta, which served as a forerunner to Teotihuacan, Tula, and other ancient capitals. 

Getting There: You have to work to visit La Venta. The site is located in a wet, humid corner of Mexico about 90 minutes by car from Villahermosa, which is already off the beaten path. Bring insect repellent.

Monte Albán Pyramids

Situated along the Pacific, the state of Oaxaca was, and still is, the center of the Zapotec people. Monte Albán served as the capital for more than a millennium, from around 500 B.C.E. to 800 C.E., and traded frequently with Teotihuacan—another Mesoamerican city with a similarly large ceremonial center. Today, visitors can explore the site’s “truncated” pyramids, which look like raised platforms topped by temples, as well as several famous tombs and stone carvings. 

Getting There: Sitting five miles from the city center of Oaxaca, Monte Albán is easy to reach by bus or taxi.

Pyramid of the Niches, El Tajin

In the state of Veracruz, El Tajin is one of the most important sites from the so-called epiclassic (or late classic) period, dating from around 900 C.E. The city’s residents were avid ballplayers—more than 60 ball courts have been excavated here. You’ll also see one of Mexico’s most unusual buildings, the Pyramid of the Niches. The relatively short pyramid, 59 feet high, consists of six platforms, each lined with carved niches that were most likely used to track the days of the year.

Getting There: El Tajin is pretty remote, but if your travels take you to Veracruz, it’s a four-hour drive to the site.

Great Pyramid of Cholula

The largest pyramid in the world (in terms of volume) is not in Egypt, but outside the city of Puebla. Upon first glance, however, the Great Pyramid of Cholula looks like something else entirely, covered in vegetation and topped with a 16th-century church constructed by the Spanish. Visitors can access some of the restored sections of the pyramid, then explore the nearly five miles of tunnels excavated by archeologists throughout the surrounding ancient city. 

Getting There: Cholula is four miles outside of Puebla, which is famous for its colonial buildings, cuisine, and the recently opened International Museum of the Baroque.

Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan, which flourished from roughly 100 B.C.E. to 550 C.E., was one of the most influential cities in Mesoamerica, with a population of nearly 200,000 at its peak. Dominated by the enormous Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and a citadel, which sit along the 2.5-mile-long Avenue of the Dead, the site awed even the Aztecs, who wondered what vanished civilization could have created such a monumental city. 

Getting There: Located an hour north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan is a popular day trip (visit midweek for smaller crowds). Many tours stop en route at the Basilica of Guadalupe for a glimpse into another aspect of Mexican culture.

Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, Tula

The Toltecs stepped into the vacuum created by the fall of Teotihuacan, establishing their capital at Tula (or Tollan), which reached its peak between 950 and 1150 C.E. The most impressive structure here is the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, fronted by a colonnade and topped by imposing, 13-foot-tall statues of Toltec warriors, but you’ll also want to explore the vast ceremonial plaza, the palace, and the ball courts. 

Getting There: Tula is another easy day trip from either Mexico City (roughly 90 minutes by car) or the colonial city of Querétaro (just under 2 hours).

A Toxi-Tour Will Take Activists To Seven States In Mexico That Host The Country’s Most Polluted Spots

Things That Matter

A Toxi-Tour Will Take Activists To Seven States In Mexico That Host The Country’s Most Polluted Spots

ChilangoMX / Instagram

Like most countries that depend heavily on coal energy and on manufacturing to keep its productive wheels running, Mexico is deeply affected by the environmental damage that many industries cause. Added to local production, Mexico has also been the site of maquilas, factories set up by foreign investors who are lured by cheaper labour and by lax tax regimes, as well as by looser rules when it comes to environmental impact. Both industry and public opinion need to be better informed of the toxic hot spots in the country.

Mexico sits at an strategic political and commercial position, and industrial powerhouses such as the United States and Canada, whose companies have set shop in the other member of NAFTA, by far the most disadvantaged. 

The toxi-tour caravan will travel the country for ten days in total, December 2-11.

Participants include environmentalists and scientists from both Mexico and overseas. The objective is to raise awareness and to denounce the companies that cause most damage. Perhaps shaming is the first step towards change. Besides Mexicans, there are representatives from the United States, Europe and other Latin American Countries. 

The journey began in El Salto, Jalisco, where a polluted river has led to cancer and death.

Credit: Regeneración radio

In this site industrial pollution of the Santiago river has caused the death of more than a thousand people due to cancer and kidney failure. People from cities in the United States affected by pollution in places like Flint, Michigan, can surely relate. A river is generally a propeller for economic development and productive activity, as well as a source of an increasingly scarce commodity: water. However, this river is basically poisonous now and has brought death to those who live nearby. 

The caravan will visit sites were more than three million people have seen their health diminished by pollution.

Credit: Notimex

The rest of the Toxi-tour stops include Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato; Apaxco, México state; Atonilco de Tula, Hidalgo; Tlaxcala; Puebla; and Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. The journey will conclude in Mexico City on December 11. As you may lmow, Mexico City is deeply affected by high levels of pollution. Its high altitude and the fact that it is nested in a valley make it prone to elevated pollution levels that have damaged the upper respiratory tract in millions of its inhabitants.

In the photo we can see the cement manufacturing plant of Apaxco, which releases fine particles that have caused upper respiratory tract issues for both the workers and the people living near the factory. Imagine breathing grainy, minuscule cement dust day in, day out. Another big issue is the unlawful disposal of waste in landfills which end up pumping chemicals into the soil and rendering it sterile. 

The organizers have a pretty clear idea of who is to blame for the environmental crisis in these places.

As Mexico Daily News reports: “The Toxi-Tour will “denounce United States, Canadian, German, French, Spanish and Mexican companies” that cause environmental damage, said Andrés Barreda, a representative of the National Assembly of Environmental Victims, which organized the caravan.”

Yes, Mexican companies share the blame, but the fact that Global North companies have caused physical damage to the land and people of a previously colonized nation brings back memories of colonial times and trauma. So for these companies the lives of Global South countries are less valuable? It would appear that is the case. This is afforded of course, by corrupt authorities. The caravan will also get political and will engage local community leaders and people that have been affected or displaced by industry.

As Mexico News Daily reports: “In Tlaxcala on Friday, caravan members will learn about the community proposal to clean up the Atoyac–Zahuapan river basin, while on Saturday they will visit contaminated areas of Puebla city and speak with locals who have been dispossessed of their communal lands.”

Mexican history is a history of dispossession, and environmental violence is another way in which those in power have decimated the productive capabilities and future survival of communities that live and die by a deep attachment to the land and nature. 

Schools In Mexico’s Yucatan Have Made Mayan Language Classes A Requirement And Here’s Why That Matters

Culture

Schools In Mexico’s Yucatan Have Made Mayan Language Classes A Requirement And Here’s Why That Matters

Child-Aid.org

Sometimes there are big, big steps towards inclusivity in Latin America, a region that is still defined by colonial structures in which the indigenous is frowned upon and often looked down at. Indigenous languages, for example, are always at a clear and present danger of becoming extinct due to the imposition of Spanish (or Castillian, as people who speak other languages in then  Iberian Peninsula call it) as the main language and often the only way to be part of the productive force. However, the southern state of Yucatan is taking a big step towards acknowledgement of the original owners of a land that was never ceded. 

Schools in Yucatan have taken an important step towards real cultural inclusion and diversity.

The State Congress of Yucatan has just made it mandatory to have Mayan language instruction in primary and secondary schools. This is a great step towards true inclusivity in a state that has long benefited from Mayan culture when it comes to tourism and areas such as culinary tradition and art. According to census data, more than 570,000 people in Yucatan speak Mayan, so areas of the state are actually fully bilingual.

The census authority in Mexico has pointed out that the prevalence of Spanish has affected the numbers of people speaking Mayan. “Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the percentage of people that speak Mayan in the state has been decreasing constantly and drastically in recent years,” the agency INEGI warned, as reported by Mexico Daily News.

Change will not come quick, however, as reported by the same outlet: “One reason for going slowly might be a shortage of teachers. Education authorities said in September there was a shortage of bilingual — Spanish and Mayan — teachers. The state said it would attempt to remedy the situation by introducing a “seed group” of 20 primary-level bilingual teachers who would pass their skills on to at least another 40 teachers in a process that would fan out and prepare more teachers to help meet Mayan instruction goals”. 

Mestizo Mexicans have a contradictory relationship to the country’s rich indigenous past.

There is no denying that there is a systematic and everyday racism in Mexican society. From government programs that inadvertently look down on indigenous Mexicans to the actual word of “indio” being used as an insult in everyday vernacular, there are manifestations of this type of discrimination on a constant basis and oftentimes people are not often aware.

This is no doubt part of the colonial heritage in Mexico, particularly when we consider that there was actually a caste system in place with Europeans at the top and indigenous people at the bottom. This discrimination is alive and well, and can be seen in different facets of Mexican society.

At the same time, however, institutionally ancient civilizations, particularly the Maya and the Aztec, are seen as the foundation of the country and a source of pride. The history of these groups is taught in schools and when Mexicans travel abroad usually the first thing they brag about is the glorious indigenous past and how the Spanish destroyed it all. There is a sense of nationalism emanating from the past glory of these civilizations. Sadly, this doesn’t always translate into how indigenous communities are treated. That is why including Maya in the curriculum is a BFD! 

The Maya were amazing scientists, poets and overall a very advanced civilizations compared to their European counterparts at the time.

The Maya civilization was not only advanced in the material aspects of life such as irrigation and construction, but they also reached a very sophisticated level of conceptualization. For example, their number system included the zero, a feat that might seem very simple and almost banal, but that requires a high level of abstraction and a very high level of mathematical intelligence. They also had a deep understanding of astronomy and the ways in which the stars and the Earth’s rotation affect crops and daily life. Hey, maybe we can learn something from them in these times of climate change crisis.