There’s a lot to get up to in Mexico, from fun cities to beautiful coastal areas to cultural festivals, and everything in between. Ultimately though one of the most intriguing things about the country is its ancient history. The very fact that this land was home to empires long before the age of exploration brought European and African peoples to the “New World” is extraordinary, and may give some of you history-loving travel buffs the urge to explore what’s left. So let’s get to it, shall we? These are some of the best chances you have today at exploring the ruins left behind by the Aztecs and other old world cultures.
Temple of the Moon (and Sun)
The Aztecs are probably the most famous of the ancient Mexican civilizations, though many today have an improperly gaudy vision of them. This is thanks in large part to video games. Save the obligatory few chapters in school history books, the Aztecs are perhaps best-known to younger generations through the Sid Meier Civilization series and like games. More recently, an online casino game has also built a theme around the Aztecs and their famous ruler, Montezuma. All of these games tend to present the Aztecs as colorful, idyllic, and almost Egyptian-like.
This all obscures the fact that the Aztec civilization was very real, very mighty, and very much its own thing. But at Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City you can get the idea. It’s here that you’ll find the “Avenue of the Dead,” running down the bulk of an ancient city that’s been uncovered. Among the ruins are the Temples (or Pyramids) of the Sun and Moon. They’re solid, impressive, and astounding structures. The Temple of the Moon in particular may be the most impressive ancient site in Mexico.
Many are aware that present day Mexico City is in fact built on the same ground that was once Tenochtitlan, the famous capital of the Aztec civilization. However, it’s not strictly true to say that Mexico City is an evolution of the same city, so much as a modern metropolis built on top of the archaeological site. Most of Tenochtitlan is lost to the ages (or at least thoroughly buried under a gigantic modern city).
But Templo Mayor has been preserved at least to some extent, and marks the best glimpse of the old world civilizations you can get while actually in the city. Strictly speaking, this temple (which was built to the god of the rain and agriculture) was rebuilt several times and semi-permanently destroyed during the Spanish conquest. But the site of the temple, as well as clear remnants of its base, are now a preserved historical site in the middle of the city.
The last of the major Aztec sites, Calixtlahuaca is well west of Mexico City, but still in the state of Mexico. It’s closest to the modern city of Toluca, and represents – more or less – the ruin of an entire town that is believed to have had its own culture and kings, once upon a time. Today, its monuments are numbered rather than names, and range from raised temples to defensive walls to organized residential areas, all of which can be discerned fairly clearly. It’s typically a little bit out of the way for travelers, but the history buffs will eat it up.
Contrary to popular belief, the Aztecs actually aren’t that old a civilization by global standards. However, that isn’t to say there weren’t people in the Americas long, long ago, before the Romans and in the time of the Egyptians. The Olmecs were among these people, believed to have been an organized, ruling civilization from sometime around 1400 BC forward for several centuries. And, as the Aztecs and Incas did thereafter, the Olmec people left behind pieces of their culture.
Most notably, this means the Olmec Heads, or Olmec Colossal Heads. These are more or less exactly what you’re probably imagining: giant sculpted heads in the image of the Olmec people, or at least as they saw themselves. The heads are generally helmeted, which actually led to speculation that they were ballplayers, though a more modern theory is that they were rulers of the Olmecs – dressed as ballplayers!
Chichen Itza may be the most famous monument to ancient culture in Mexico. It was built by the Mayans and is effectively the “New World” version of a pyramid – or at least, the structure you’re probably thinking of is. Chichen Itza was actually an ancient city near present day Tulum, and the main monument at its center – El Castillo – is the pyramid-like structure often given the name Chichen Itza. While there may well have been equally striking buildings throughout ancient Mexico at various points in history, none are so well-preserved as El Castillo, which makes it a must-see if you’re interested in historical tourism.
Have you visited the ancient ruins of Mexico? What was your favorite feature?