Xochitecatl - View of the Pyramid of the Flowers

Xochitécatl: The Ruins Of An Ancient City Surrounded By 4 Volcanoes In Mexico

Xochitécatl, meaning “Place of the Flower Lineage” is Cacaxtla’s sister site, another set of ancient Mesoamerican ruins nearPuebla City. It was dedicated to Xochitl, the Goddess of flowers and fertility. (Joyce Kelly,An Archaeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico).

Open to the public since 1994, and close to a major city, the archaeological site of Xochitécatl still stayed off the beaten track. When we stopped, I realized that, as in Cacaxtla, we were the only visitors.

Xochitécatl Pyramid of the Flowers - View from Cacaxtla
The view of the Pyramid of the Flowers from the neighboring Cacaxtla

We saw its largest terraced pyramid, the Pyramid of the Flowers, from the main building in Cacaxtla. At the time we also noticed a trail that connects the two sites. But it was too sunny for us to walk that distance, and a gate separated the two sites that seemed locked.

So after we explored the murals, on the way back to our hotel we asked our taxi driver to take us up to the much older, “other ruins”.

Xochitécatl, the Ancient Site Built on Top of a Volcano

Xochitécatl sits on top of a volcano. The ancient people of Mesoamerica built it on the summit of an extinct volcano that rises about 200 meters (656 feet) above the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley. Sitting in the center of this Valley, it has a perfect view of the three surrounding mountains, Popocatépetl, Iztaccihuatl, and La Malinche.

Xochitécatl - View of the volcano Malinche
View of the volcano Malinche from Xochitécatl

Surrounded by volcanoes, and sitting on top of one, people knew their life in this place depended on them. “Permission from the volcanoes was required in order to live in Xochitécatl.” reads an inscription on the spiral pyramid.

Popocatépetl is an active volcano, and it is erupting even now, covering the neighboring cities, including Puebla, in a powder of volcanic ash. But people learned to live with it. They’ve seen it all before; the volcano had over 15 major eruptions since the Spaniards arrived in 1519.

People live with the surrounding volcanoes, active, dormant or extinct. They also came up with legends explaining their existence.

The Legends of the Surrounding Volcanoes

The romantic love story of Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl is Romeo and Juliet-like, thousands of years before Shakespeare. The Princess Iztaccihuatl and Popocatépetl are in love but the king, her father, doesn’t approve and sends Popocatépetl to war. When word of his death comes, Iztaccihuatl dies of grief. But Popocatépetl returns and when he finds her dead takes her body outside the town. Kneeling beside her, he wants to die, too. The gods grant his wish and turn them both into volcanoes. Restless and angry still, Popocatépetl keeps erupting.

The legend of La Malinche is a similar love story, without the disapproving parents though. Called Matlalcueitl in Nahuatl, Lady of the Blue Skirt, the mountain is named after the virgin Matlalcueye. She was in love with Cuatlapanga, a warrior who also went to war. I know, it was a warlike society. Though no one brought home word of his death, he took so long to come back, that the waiting Matlalcueye died of sorrow. Hurt in battle, Cuatlapanga returned, and, like Popocatépetl, he found his beloved dead. As he cried at her grave, both turned into mountains.

Matlalcueye is the high mountain, and her warrior a smaller one. The name Malinche for this volcano became popular in the 17th century, in honor of the woman who helped Cortez as an interpreter. I know, I wouldn’t use this name, but it’s Mexico. The legend of the mountain and its original name still survived the centuries.

Waking through Xochitécatl

From the parking lot we walked up to the small site museum, but as usual, we left exploring it for the way out. We continued on the path that leads to the ruins of Xochitécatl.

On the trail, walking up to the site

Two pyramids and a few platforms mark the ancient center of the site. Unlike most other sites, archaeologists think Xochitécatl was a ceremonial center since they found no evidence of living quarters.

The ancients started the construction of this center in the Middle Preclassic period of the Mesoamerican civilization, around 800 BC. Expanding the existing structures, and adding more between 550 and 400 BC, Xochitécatl became a powerful center by 350 BC, controlling a large part of the surrounding area.

But Popocatépetl didn’t allow the people to live there past 150 AD. During one of his powerful eruptions, he forced them to abandon the site.

They didn’t stay away for good though. A few centuries later, in 600 AD, they reoccupied the area and used the site as a secondary ceremonial center to Cacaxtla. They lived here for another few centuries, but in 950 AD they abandoned both centers.

Although they stopped living here, they still came back at certain times of the year, using Xochitécatl for rituals until the Colonial times.

Xochitecatl - View of the site from the top of the Pyramid of the Flowers
View of the site from the top of the Pyramid of the Flowers

I was contemplating this history as I walked on the trail leading to the ancient structures. Though the closest structure to the entrance is the Spiral Pyramid, we walked to the farthest point, the Pyramid of the Flowers.

The Pyramid of the Flowers

The most impressive building in Xochitécatl, the Pyramid of the Flowers is one of the largest in Mesoamerica, similar in size to the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan. One of the oldest structures at the site, it shows signs of a long sequence of construction.

Xochitecatl - View of the Pyramid of the Flowers
View of the Pyramid of the Flowers from the Serpent Building. On the side, it drops to the bottom of the Valley below.

Built in phases, they started it in 800 BC; they kept adding to it until Colonial times. The pyramid rises in tiers and faces West, away from Cacaxtla.

As I climbed it, I passed through an ancient doorway on top, two stone columns connected by a lintel on top, still standing. It was once part of a temple. More stone columns lay on the ground or stand only at half-height.

Xochitécatl - On top of the Pyramid of the Flowers
The stone “doorway” and other columns on top of the Pyramid of the Flowers

I walked to the far side, where I had a perfect view of Cacaxtla, then came back to the front and stood in the “doorway”.

The view the plaza below, the Spiral Pyramid and the volcano La Malinche farther away made me feel like I was on top of the world.

Like the site, they have dedicated this pyramid to Xochitl, the Goddess of Fertility and Flowers.

Evidence for this is the number of offerings archaeologists found, over 2000 figurines of clay, most of them representing women, most of them pregnant or new mothers. Some look like women with dressed babies in their open bellies. Others are infants in cradles, and mothers carrying their babies or older children.

They also found a sculpture with the head of a human, but the body of a rattlesnake. This might be a representation of the goddess Xochitl, who, according to legend, could transform into a snake.

Xochitécatl - Pyramid of the Flowers
Front view of the Pyramid of the Flowers, with the above-ground stone basin in front of the stairway

Two stone basins sit in front of the stairway. I read two different interpretations of their significance, but I think they are both only guesses. Since the whole site seems dedicated to women and childbirth, I go with the thinking they used the basins for childbirth, or in relation to childbirth.

An interesting fact I read about this pyramid is that on September 29th, the sun rises directly over Malinche, viewed from the top of the Pyramid of the Flowers. Since the pyramid faces the volcano and seems to be its mirror image, this shows a connection between the two.

After spending time on top, I walked off the Pyramid of the Flowers and headed over to the Serpent Building.

The Serpent Building

A low platform facing the plaza, the Serpent Building dates from 700 BC.

A monolithic stone basin sits on top of this structure, and in it, they found the remains of a large sculpture of a serpent, hence the name.

Xochitécatl - On Top of the Serpent Building
On Top of the Serpent Building

They also found two other stone sculptures, both men, one dressed as a jaguar, on top of this building.

The building was a square platform, only accessible through the stairs on the North, from the Plaza. Later they expanded it to the East, adding another structure to it, and they eventually blocked the original stairway and built a new one.

The Platform of the Volcanoes

The platform is in the middle of the central plaza, and, like the other structures, dates from the Early Preclassic. This structure is another one they dedicated to women. When archaeologists excavated the site in the 1960s, they of over 200 female figurines here.

What is interesting though is the figure archaeologists identified as representing the goddess Tlazolteotl. This goddess differed from Xochitl. The patron saint of adulterers, she was also the goddess of purification, steam bath, and midwives. As a purification goddess, she forgave sins and cured diseases caused by sexual misdeeds.

I find it interesting that a culture would have such a goddess though it makes sense if the men were always at war. Not as important as Xochitl, they have revered her enough to have a Platform dedicated to her.

The Spiral Pyramid

We left this circular stepped pyramid for last. Built around 700 BC, it sits on the Western side of the ceremonial center. A beautiful design, of a conical shape, it is an unusual shape in Mesoamerica. Even more interesting, it had no stairway that leads to the top. In ancient times, they climbed it by following the spiral form to the top.

Xochitécatl - Spiral Pyramid
The Spiral Pyramid

Its conical shape resembles Popocatépetl, and it is considered a representation of the volcano. However, the ancient Aztecs dedicated these spiral pyramids to the God of Wind, Ehécatl. In his human form, he wears a conical hat, which might relate to the shape. He is one of the Creator Gods, sometimes interpreted as a form of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent who can take the form of wind and fly in front of Chac, the Rain God.

Since the wind blows from every direction, they associated Ehécatl with all the cardinal directions. They built his temple as a circular pyramid to reduce the air resistance, so he can fly around it without obstacles.

But why would they build a temple dedicated to the Wind God here? The Aztecs believed that the wind contained the breath of life, and because of this they also associated Ehécatl with fertility.

A Christian cross sits on top of this pyramid that was once the Temple of Ehécatl. The Spanish placed it there in 1632, 90 years after the Conquest, maybe to celebrate the occasion.

But in the end, it became a symbol of the fusion of two religions, the ancient indigenous and the new Christian ones. The current inhabitants of San Rafael Tenanyecac still hold ceremonies reflecting a mix of the two religions in the shadow of this cross, on top of the ancient temple.

Xochitécatl - The Wooden Cross on top of the Spiral Pyramid
The Wooden Cross on top of the Spiral Pyramid

To climb this pyramid, we didn’t follow the circular procession going around it. In modern times, they built a metal stairway that makes climbing it easy. Standing by the huge white cross, we had a 360-view of the surrounding Valley, with all the volcanoes around.

A Quick Stop at the Museum before Leaving the Site

After exploring the site, we stopped at the small museum where they displayed artifacts found at the site. Many of them are representations of women.

Xochitécatl - In the Museum
In the Museum

A few larger figures sit outside, in front of the museum.

Our taxi driver waited for us while we explored the site. He drove us back to our hotel by the airport and promised to be available any time we were in town and needed him. I promised to do that, and we parted as friends.

We would leave in the morning, but I felt good about this trip. We had a great experience visiting ancient sites, colonial buildings and a beautiful city.

Life in the Shadow of a Volcano

A week after we returned we saw the news that Popocatépetl erupted, covering the city of Puebla and its vicinity with a powder of ashes. I saw photos of people covering their faces with surgical masks as they walk on the white powder of ashes from the volcano. But they still go about their business though they stay indoors as much as possible.

We only saw Popo smoking, but those who live in his shadow, know they can only live there as long as he allows them to. It is a good reminder to live your life to the fullest and enjoy every moment.

A Few Basic Facts About Xochitécatl

  1. What is Xochitécatl?

    An ancient ruin in Mexico, Xochitécatl is one of two sites included in the Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl Archaeological Site, the other one being the better-known Cacaxtla.

  2. What does Xochitécatl mean?

    The meaning of the word Xochitécatl is “Place of the Flower Lineage”. The compound word originates in the Nahuatl language, derived from xochitl = flower, and tecatl = person

  3. Where are the ruins of Xochitécatl?

    The ancient site of Xochitécatl, along with Cacaxtla, are in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico, in Puebla Valley. Built on top of an extinct volcano, the ancient site is surrounded by several active ones.

  4. How old are the ruins of Xochitécatl?

    The oldest structures at the archaeological site date from 800 BC; However, the ancient city was built in phases, new buildings being added up until 350 BC. After a powerful eruption of the nearby Popocatepetl volcano, its ancient inhabitants abandoned the city in 150 AD. By 600 AD they returned though, adding new buildings to the site until 950 AD.

  5. What are the main structures worth visiting in Xochitécatl?

    The largest structure at the site is the Pyramid of the Flowers. A huge terraced pyramid, it is similar in size to the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan.Another striking structure is the unusual shaped Spiral Pyramid, most likely dedicated to the Wind God, Éhecatl.Smaller structures include the Serpent Building and the Platform of the Volcanoes.

Xochitécatl, an Ancient Site Surrounded by Volcanoes
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