Cacaxtla mural

How to Visit Cacaxtla to See Its Fascinating Ancient Murals

I knew about the murals of Cacaxtla for years before I actually saw the ruins they adorn. But if it wasn’t in the Yucatan it could wait, I thought. So it waited, until we finally visited them during a trip toPuebla City. Considering their importance, reaching the ancient site of Cacaxtla wasn’t as easy as visiting the ancient Maya ruins in Yucatan. The site is remote, not yet a tourist destination, so, while offering a pleasant experience, it isn’t easy to reach. Your best bet is to hire a taxi from the Puebla airport, as long as you speak at least some Spanish. If you don’t, hope to find someone who can help you. The following was our experience.

Getting to Cacaxtla

Though when we visit most sites in Mexico, we rent a car, we thought we didn’t need one during our trip to Puebla Valley. One of the major cities in Mexico, Puebla has enough infrastructure, including public transportations and taxi service. We explored Puebla city and the great pyramid of Cholula without ever needing to rent a car.

But reaching Cacaxtla without one proved tricky.

Language Barrier

If you expect people in and around Puebla to speak English, you’ll be in for a surprise. Since the city is not a tourist destination, no one seems to speak or understand English. At first it was a pleasant surprise for me. I always like to travel to places where locals don’t cater to English-speaking tourists.

So I thought I would use my Spanish. I was happy for the chance. But as soon as I tried, I was in for another surprise. No one understood me. People in Puebla speak with a different accent than Yucatecans.

Humbling experience. Though I’m far from fluent in any Spanish dialect, in the Yucatan I understand people and can communicate with them.

In and around Puebla I felt I landed in a Mexican Telenovela, where everyone spoke so fast, I couldn’t keep up. Still, I could get by, but not enough to explain to someone we wanted to go to Cacaxtla, and needed to hire a taxi driver who would wait for us. There were no buses to Cacaxtla that we could find. Most people we asked never even heard about the site.

Surprised, we kept trying and trying, until I finally figured out that we were mispronouncing the name. Even if you think you pronounce a place name correctly, try a few different versions, or write the name down if you see that no one understands you. It took me a while to figure this out.

When we realized most people didn’t know what we were talking about, we had a change in plans. For our last night in Puebla, we booked a hotel near the airport. We got there in the morning, thinking we would take a taxi from there; Cacaxtla was, after all, closer to the airport than to the center of the city. Besides, we thought the hotel clerks by the airport would speak fluent English and help us.

“Habla Ingles?” we asked the girl at the counter.

She shook her head, “no, sorry.”

But she looked around in the lobby, where two people sat waiting for a room. One of them knew enough English to understand what we wanted, though he’d never heard of the ruins of Cacaxtla before.

Local taxi drivers are the best

He called us a taxi and talked to the driver who agreed to wait for us and bring us back. Indeed, he took us to the ruins, waited for us, then even drove us to Xochitecatl, the other site we wanted to see, where he also waited. And all this, for a quarter of the cost of what we expected to pay compared to the prices in the city (Puebla).

Visiting Cacaxtla

Though not as hot as Yucatan, the sun was beating down on us as we walked on the path. The hat I bought the previous day came in handy. We expected rain, at least that’s what the weather on the internet was saying. Instead, it was as sunny as Phoenix, though thankfully without the extreme heat.

Cacaxtla small pyramid
A small pyramid in Cacaxtla

We didn’t have too long to walk before we got to the first structure, a small pyramid, closed, behind a fence. But even from where we stood we saw the structure we came here for.

Walking towards the Gran Basiamento in Cacaxtla
Walking towards the Gran Basiamento

On the Gran Basamento – the Platform

It was a lot bigger than I expected. Though we saw a few people, they all worked at the site, we were the only visitors. And nothing stopped us from climbing the structure. I’m not sure what I expected. As usual, I went along with no expectations, without understanding the size of the ruins. But I thought it would be something a lot smaller. I was wrong.

The site under the roof of the Gran Basiamento
Under the roof of the Gran Basamento

The platform we climbed on was huge.

This platform was the base for the most important buildings of the city of Cacaxtla, including the main religious and civic buildings, and the homes of the priests and other members of the higher class.

When they discovered this platform, they built a huge sheet-metal roof above it to protect it. Installed in 1986, this roof is one of the largest in the world, second only to the one at the archaeological zone of Xian, in China.

Climbing the Platform Offered Respite from the Sun

Though we got on the platform and walked through it, we were restricted to wooden stairways and walkways to keep the structures and murals protected. In most of the building, the ancient stucco even covered the floor, so the walkway was a great way to keep our feet away from it.

Besides exploring a new city, we walked in the shade of the huge roof, protected from the afternoon sun. It was eerie to walk on this mound, the only two people under the enormous roof. The sound of men working at the base was fading as we walked farther away from the entrance.

What Were We Walking on?

This great foundation, and the buildings it incorporates were all made by hand, using adobe, like the ruins in and around our part of the world, in the US Southwest. But you’ll never see something like this anywhere else.

Cacaxtla, meaning “Place of Packed Frames” in Nahuatl, flourished between 650 and 900 AD. It incorporates at least eight phases of its construction that we know of.

The city was the capital of the region inhabited by the Olmeca-Xicalanca people (not to be confused with the Olmecs). Their origins are not clear, but archaeologists think they may have been Maya settlers who came into this area around 400 AD.

After the fall of Cholula around 650 AD, Cacaxtla became the only power in this part of the Valley of Puebla. Their reign ended around 900-1000 AD when the Toltecs came into the Valley and overtook them.

Following the Walkway through the Gran Basamento

Though we could glimpse the whole enormous platform as soon as we stepped under its roof, we followed the walkway clockwise.

First, we came across the Building of the Columns. This is one of the earlier constructions at the site, with two bases of cylindrical columns, hence the name.

The building of the Columns
The building of the Columns

Walking on, we reached the Palace, a complex of rooms around patios, like the Patio of the Altars. This building is from one of the last stages of the palace’s occupation.

The Murals of Cacaxtla

Following the pathway, I reached the first mural we came to see.

The First Mural I See at Cacaxtla, in the Red Temple

Almost without warning, I came to the Stairway Room. Looking down into it, I saw my first mural of this site, an unmistakably Maya design of people, deities, animals, corn. All these images against a bright red background looked as vivid as if they abandoned it a few years, not centuries ago.

The Red Temple of Cacaxtla
The Red Temple

As it turns out, this structure dates from 600 AD, the oldest discovered at this site so far. I was standing there, stunned, staring at this ancient wall art. In all my years of visiting Maya sites (over twenty) I have never seen murals in such vivid colors. I knew they existed here, in Cacaxtla, it was the reason we came here, but I still didn’t expect this.

Close-up of the mural in the Red Temple
Close-up of the mural in the Red Temple

Porticoes and More Murals in the Temple of Venus

Looking down into a few rooms on the north side, I noticed two identical rooms with interesting porticoes. They, too, looked as if they were built a decade ago. But it is another one of the early structures of Cacaxtla, dating from 600 AD.

The Venus Temple in Cacaxtla
The Venus Temple

Walking on, we came to the Temple of Venus. It got its name because of the Venus symbols painted on two of its pillars. Two figures, a male and a female, both painted blue, adorn the pillars. The male has a scorpion tail.

The Famous Battle Mural of Cacaxtla

The longest and most impressive mural in Cacaxtla is the Battle mural. It is also the most famous one. I kept watching it from afar, but I found it much more impressive than I expected when standing in front of it. At 72 feet (22 meters) long, and almost six feet tall, a great part of it is intact.

View of the famous Battle Mural
Battle Mural view

Protected by plastic sheets placed in front, it is hard to make out all the images, and I wasn’t not sure I wanted to. The figures are unmistakably Maya; I recognized the features and even the design. Still, as colorful and amazing as it is, I found it hard to look at it.

Cacaxtla - Battle Mural. Segment
The Battle Mural. Segment

The mural depicts warriors dressed as jaguars and birds, fighting each other in a gory battle. Divided into two parts by a central stairway, most of it looks undamaged by age. I am sure if I took my time I could make out all the warriors, spears, obsidian knives, spilled blood, dismembered captives. But as spectacular as the figures look in their gory details, their color impressed me even more. Not as vivid through the glass, I could still tell they were exquisite, dominated by the Maya blue I love.

The Most Spectacular Murals Were on Two Doorways

We climbed a few stairs on the side of the battle scene and on this elevated level we found more murals. They are my favorites, even brighter than the rest if that’s possible.

Cacaxtla - doorway murals
Doorway Murals

Painted on the walls of a central doorway, they showcase two figures on a vivid red background. Behind the doorway, more murals fill the back wall, but it was hard to see them since we couldn’t get close. However, the figures on the doorways steal the show.

The mural on the south side was the first one discovered in Cacaxtla. It shows a figure wearing a bird costume. He holds a serpent ceremonial bar and stands on a bearded feathered serpent.

The mural on the South doorway
The mural on the south doorway

On the north side of the doorway, another figure wears a jaguar skin and holds a bundle of blue lances. He stands on a catlike reptile.

North Doorway Mural
The mural on the North Doorway

These two figures are clear, but the door jambs also have paintings on them, on a blue background. To top it all, the South door also has a carved wooden column.

All the murals in this room, called Building A, date from 700 to 800 AD.

End of the Tour of the Gran Basamento

Past this Building A, we climbed a few more stairs and followed the walkway to the end. I noticed two more rooms, but after the last colorful murals, everything seemed bland.

But as I looked out, the beauty of the area around the ruins became clear. The view of the valley and the mountains in the distance is exquisite.

View of the Valley of Puebla from the Palace of Cacaxtla
View from the Palace

The stairway leads down from this point, and a path continues either back to the entrance or farther, through a gate, to the neighboring site of Xochitécatl. We noticed the gate closed to the long path leading to the other site, so I didn’t even descend the platform in that direction.

Instead I wanted to go back and spend more time looking at the murals on the doorways in Building A. We retraced our steps and went back the way we came.

How Did these Murals Survive Centuries?

The murals of Cacaxtla are the most extensive and best-preserved in Mesoamerica. As much as I heard and read about them, seeing them so clear, with their colors still so vivid, blew me away.

How is this possible, I wondered?

I knew they were buried under newer structures, like most Maya temples. The ancient Maya never tore down a temple or a building even if it was one of an occupied city. Instead, they enclosed it in a newer one.

Here, they took great care of burying the old building with the murals. They covered them with fine sand to protect them before burying them and building a new structure on top.

This was an ancient Maya practice; they usually did this with all ancient temples, in the Yucatan and other parts of the Maya Kingdom. I’ve seen other well-preserved murals and stucco, none seemed quite as clear. Though the murals of Bonampak are larger and more artistic, the ones in Cacaxtla look clearer. I didn’t expect to see them so far from the main Maya areas, but the visit was definitely a treat.

The Discovery of Cacaxtla

The site lay buried for centuries, until 1974, when looters discovered it. They dug a tunnel into the mound, hoping to find artifacts. Instead, they ended up in front of the mural on the doorway of Building A.

I’m not sure what went through their head, but I hope they realized they stumbles on something special. But even if they didn’t, they could not remove the mural without damaging it. Lucky for us, they didn’t want to. Instead, they alerted INAH, the Mexican Archaeological Society, who appointed archaeologists to excavate the site.

As they worked on it, starting with the original tunnel dug by the looters, one of their first priorities was to secure and protect the murals inside the mound. That’s why they built the huge roof, covering the site. They also added covering on the sides by the murals closer to the edge.

Leaving the Mound

Though we spent almost two hours under the roof on the mound, we did not see other visitors. We watched the workers leave, their workday over. The site would close in another hour, and while I was tempted to sit there until it did, I remembered our taxi driver waiting for us. I also wanted to stop at the museum by the entrance.

As we were descending the stairs, I noticed a couple walking up towards the mound. They greeted us, as the only other visitors to this spectacular site. When I signed the guestbook and looked at it, I noticed we were the only foreigners on its pages.

In the Museum

Once off the structure, we rushed towards the entrance. I stopped at the museum, where I was the only visitor.

Small artifacts, clay figures, masks, pots, and scary-looking obsidian knives found at the site sat in glass cases. Their names and explanations were only in Spanish. Replicas of the murals were painted on walls of the museum.

As the only visitors there, I felt self-conscious making any noise. I walked on tiptoes, whispered and silenced my camera so even the click of taking a picture would not disturb the quiet of the place.

Leaving Cacaxtla

It was sunset by the time we got in the car. We spotted our driver waiting for us when we walked out of the museum. As he started his engine, he asked if we wanted to go back to the hotel.

“Or would you like to see the Church of Saint Michael just up the road?”, he added.

I considered it for a second, but then we decided we visited enough churches for a trip. In the morning we were still in Puebla, where we saw plenty, all dating from the 16th and 17th century.

Instead, I wanted to see the other ruins, Xochitécatl, before they would close. I could not pronounce its name but asked him to take us to the “otras ruinas” instead.

Sure, no problem, he answered, and drove up on the hill towards the site.

By the time we reached the site, we had less than an hour before closing time. Our driver assured us we didn’t need to worry, he would wait as long as we needed and let us out in front of the site.

Back at the Hotel

After walking around and climbing a few structures at Xochitécatl, we drove back to our hotel.

We felt lucky to have found such a reliable and friendly driver and added another 100 pesos to his fare. Grateful, he told me we could call him any time we were back in the area and needed a taxi. We kept his phone number, just in case.

After getting settled in the room, we walked over to the small restaurant for dinner.

The guys we met earlier in the lobby who helped us translate, were sitting at a table. When they saw us walk in, they invited us to dine with them.

Dinner with New Friends

We had a pleasant evening with our newfound friends, whose English was better than our Spanish. They haven’t been in Cacaxtla, didn’t even know the place existed. When we showed them some of our pictures, I could tell it intrigued them. I hope they will visit sometime. They need to be in the vicinity for one or two days weekly.

We talked about places in Mexico they liked, their hometown that was a few hours away, andOaxaca, the town one of them grew up in and we visited. It felt good to speak English after a few days of struggling with Spanish. Edgar, a pilot, was fluent, and even his friend could follow the conversation.

“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” we asked him.

“From the Internet.”

I laughed. “Duolingo? I’ve been struggling with it for months and I thought it should be easy for me, I already speak a few languages.”

“Well, the trick is to practice it every chance you get,” he said.

Of course. It also helps if you are outgoing and not worried about striking up a conversation with strangers.

Our plane was leaving early in the morning, so we said our goodbyes, feeling we made another couple of friends on this trip, besides visiting a few amazing sites.

Cacaxtla mural
Mural in Cacaxtla, Mexico
Murals of Cacaxtla, Mexico


  1. What is Cacaxtla known for?

    The ancient ruins of Cacaxtla are known for the best=preserved murals in Mesoamerica, dating from between 600-800 AD.

  2. Where is Cacaxtla?

    The archaeological site of Cacaxtla is near the southern border of the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico. The closest city however, is Puebla City, in the state of Puebla.

  3. How to get to Cacaxtla?

    The easiest way to get to Cacaxtla is to fly into Puebla city. From there, you can rent a car, or hire a taxi to take you to the ruins. The site is closer to the airport than it is to the city of Puebla, or any other city in the area.

  4. Nearby sites:

    The ancient ruins of Xochitecatl are near Cacaxtla. The two ruins are connected by a footpath you can take when the gate is open. One entrance fee covers both ruins. If the gate is locked, you need to drive over, a few minutes away.

About the author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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