Written by Ishani Roy.
Mesoamerica (present-day central and southern Mexico) witnessed the rise and fall of many civilizations and rulers during the pre-Hispanic era. The civilizations that thrived here were the Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Toltec and Aztec civilizations.
These civilizations although distinct from each other in many aspects shared many common cultural traits. They had common writing methods, calendar, ball games and also similarities are pertinent in the way they built their monuments, temples and other buildings of importance.
After many years archaeologists have found many relics of these civilizations that determine the grandeur and splendor of these cultures. The pyramids built by these civilizations are engineering marvels and were built as a tribute to the planetary and animal gods. These sites are located in dense jungles and wide stretched desserts and are visited by many travellers every year.
1. Pyramid Of The Magician- Uxmal
Uxmal was the greatest urban and religious center in the Puuc hills of Yucatan during the late classical period. It flourished between the 7th and 10th century A.D. It was one of the largest and powerful Maya cities of the Yucatán peninsula. “Uxmal” means three times built and it signifies the different terminal classic architectural styles of this region.
The “Pyramid of the Magician” or the “Pyramid of the Dwarf” was built in the decorative Puuc style and is a three-level pyramid. Both the names were derived from the legend about a magical dwarf who was hatched from an egg and became an adult in one single day and also built the pyramid in one night.
The unique features of the “Pyramid of the Magician” are its rounded sides, height and steepness. The final structure was built upon 5 earlier structures that were built beneath the pyramid. It is an exemplary symbol of the astronomical knowledge pertained amidst the people of the most well preserved Maya city during the 6th and the 10th centuries.
The pyramid is built in alignment with the planet Venus and the stairs align with the rays of the sun during the summer solstice. Light and shadow sweep around the curvilinear surface of the pyramid creating different impressions during different times of the day.
There is a high contrast between the structures of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. Uxmal had become an abandoned city during the 10th century when the Toltec influence started and then was rediscovered when the local Spaniards arrived.
Apart from the Pyramid of the Magician, other eminent historic structures situated here are The Ball Court and The Nunnery Quadrangle.
How to reach the Pyramid of the Magician?
At first, you need to travel to Merida and from there you can opt from several different options to reach Uxmal. Travelling via bus is among the most budget-friendly travel options and the entire journey takes around 1 hour 30 minutes.
Daily and frequent busses are available from the ADO bus station. Other than busses you can also opt for a rental car or taxi service which are little expensive options as compared to bus travel. For getting a rental car you can get in contact with any of the travel agencies.
2. Temple of Kukulkan- Chichén Itzá
One of the new seven wonders of the world, the famous Chichén Itzá is a must-visit site if you are planning to travel to Playa del Carmen or in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. During the 9th century, Chichén Itzá was a regional capital of the central and northern Yucatan peninsula and was also a major commercial center.
The pyramid here is known as “El Castillo” or “Temple of Kukulkan”. It is named after one of Maya’s supreme Gods, the serpent God, Kukulkan. The pyramid depicts a feathered serpent bird and each of its four sides has 91 steps that rise nearly 80 feet.
The platform at the top is the final step which leads to the sacred temple of Kukulkan. On spring and fall equinoxes the setting sun turns the shadow of the steps into an illusion of a slithering serpent. In total the pyramid structure consists of 365 steps, depicting each day in a year of the Maya calendar.
The pyramid is made from thousands of limestone blocks and towers 100 feet high therefore truly depicting the marvel of ancient engineering.
One of the most amazing facts apart from the structural marvel for which visitors flock to see this wonder is to hear it sing. When you visit the pyramid, face one of the staircases and clap for a few times and then see the magic happen. You would be rewarded back by a sound similar to the chirp of Maya’s sacred serpent bird, Kukulkan. “Temple of the Warriors” is another pyramid at Chichén Itzá.
How to reach Temple of Kukulkan?
Cancun is the nearest resort town to Chichén Itzá. From Cancun, you can opt for multiple modes of transport. You can either make an arrangement of joining a tour group by booking with a tour agency online.
For a budget-friendly journey, busses are always available from ADO. You will have to take a bus from ADO to Valladolid and after that from Valladolid hop on a minibus that will take you to Chichén Itzá. The option for renting a car is also widely available.
3. The Great Pyramid- Calakmul
The Maya city of Calakmul which is often known as “City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids” and as “The Kingdom of Snakes”, is situated in the Mexican state of Campeche and hosts two of the largest pyramids which are located side by side to each other. Calakmul was one of the reigning cities and used to be under war most of the times.
The pyramids are located in Yucatan and inside them four tombs have been found which is most likely a part of the once ruling dynasty of the city. Dense jungles of the Petén Basin of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula surrounds Calakmul and therefore truly giving it a feel of a lost ancient Maya city.
This city was discovered in the year 1931 and today it has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Archaeologists are still looking for hidden facts and structures which can thoroughly describe the history that lies in the ruins of Calakmul.
How to reach the Calakmul pyramids?
Xpujil is the nearest town to the ruins of Calakmul. You will have to first reach Xpujil and then set a camp there for the night and leave for Calakmul in the following morning. To reach Calakmul from Xpujil you can either rent a car and drive to the location or hire a private driver.
It takes around 1 hour to reach Carakmul through the deep green jungle which is the Calakmul bio reserve where many tropical birds are preserved.
4. Pyramid Of The Niches- El Tajín
The Prehispanic city of El Tajin and one of the oldest UNESCO World Heritage sites is located in the Mexican state of Veracruz. El Tajin flourished between 9th to 13th century especially after the fall of the Teotihuacan empire and the rise of the Aztec empire.
The city had a wide cultural influence in the entire Gulf coast and Maya region. There are many buildings, temple, 60 ball courts and palaces in this city but among them, the most splendid is the Pyramid of the Niches which is also sometimes known as “Pyramid of Papantla”, “El Tajin”, and “Pyramid of the Seven Stories”. The pyramid is 20 meters or 66 feet high.
The name of the pyramid has been derived from the stacked rows of 365 niches which make up 7 stepped terraces and covers all the four sides of the structure. The 365 niches marks acted as a calendar and marked each day of the year.
A part of the niches collectively form a wide staircase at the eastern side and there are also many decorative niches that form a unique feature of the pyramid. The original structure was painted in red and the niches were black in colour.
How to reach the Pyramid of the Niches?
From Mexico City, you can take an ADO bus from Centro Norte to Papantla. You can also take a flight to Poza Rica. Then from either of the two places, you can hire a cab and reach the Pyramid of the Niches.
5. Pyramid of the Sun- Teotihuacan
Teotihuacán or “The City of Gods” situated 30 miles northeast of Mexico City was once a thriving influential cultural centre and is also sometimes believed to be one of the first great metropolitan cities of the western hemisphere.
The city once had as many as 200 pyramids out of which now only 3 stand. The city flourished between 100 B.C.E to 550 C.E. after which it was suddenly abandoned even before the Europeans came in. After many years the Aztecs then found the great monumental structures of the city which left them awestruck and they then named the site as Teotihuacán which means “the place where gods are born”.
The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest monumental structure in Teotihuacán and rises 216 feet high. It consists of 248 stairs that reach up to the top of the pyramid where archaeologists believe was once a temple. It is also believed that the pyramid was once used to conduct various rituals and ceremonies that were linked to magic.
6. Pyramid of the Moon- Teotihuacan
The Pyramid of the Moon built between 200 to 450 A.D. is the second largest pyramid in Teotihuacán. The Pyramid is a temple dedicated to worship the Great Goddess who is a deity of water, fertility, and creation. The pyramids were built in contrast with the nearby mountain of Cerro Gordo and it has many pyramids layered on top of the other and every layer has rooms that were used for burying.
The main building of the city is connected by a 40 meter wide and 2.4 km long road known as the Avenue of the Dead. The Pyramid of the Moon is situated at the northern end of this road and faces south while the Pyramid of the Sun stands about half a mile from the Pyramid of the Moon in the southern direction and faces west.
How to reach Teotihuacán?
You can reach by either bus, private cabs or through organized tours. If travelling through the bus, then at first take a metro from Autobuses del Notre Metro station in Mexico City to Autobuses del Notre bus terminal. Book your bus tickets at this terminal and then head to Teotihuacán.
7. Nohoch Mul Pyramid- Coba
The ruins of the Maya civilization have been found mostly in Coba in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The city of Coba flourished between 800 to 1100 C.E. The pyramid at Nohoch-Mul is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula and the second tallest Maya pyramid.
Starting from the Nohoch-Mul pyramid there are sixteen different roads that connect the nearby settlements where once there used to be a thriving population of 50,000 inhabitants. In Coba, the largest network of stone causeways has been discovered till date.
The 137 feet tall Nohoch-Mul pyramid means “great mound” and there are 120 steps which reach to the top where a spectacular view awaits the visitors of the surrounding area and that of the twin lagoons after which Coba has received its name.
Apart from the Nohoch-Mul pyramid, Coba is also home to The Ancient Pyramid, Pyramid of the Painted Lintel, Ixmoja and La Iglesia. These pyramids are all quite impressive. The ruins and the plants surrounding them gives the structures a mystical outlook.
How to reach the Nohoch Mul Pyramid?
Coba lies between Tulum and Valladolid and to explore the archaeological site of Coba entirely you will have to shell out a full day. From Tulum, Coba is around 30 minutes drive for which you can either take a bus or hire a cab.
9. Great Pyramid of La Venta- La Venta
The oldest pyramid in Mexico, La Venta is situated in the state of Tobasco and was built around 900 B.C.E. The pyramid was built by the Pre-Columbian Olmec people and is made of compacted clay. The original rectangular shape of the pyramid has now transformed to a round shape due to the softening of the clay through many years. The height of the pyramid is 110 feet.
The colossal heads and basalt altars found at this site has intrigued archaeologists for ages. Many artifacts belonging to the pyramid are now kept at Parque-Museo de la Venta museum which is nearby to the actual site.
How to reach Great Pyramid of La Venta?
From Mexico City you have to first reach Villahermosa. You can either take a flight or a bus to Villahermosa. After reaching Villahermosa the best option is to hire a car to the La Venta pyramid site.
10. Monte Albán Pyramids- Oaxaca
Monte Albán which means “White Mountain” was the capital of Oaxaca and the center for the Zapotec civilization from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. There are now many astounding architectural remains of terraces, pyramids and waterways at this site.
Monte Albán lies on a low mountainous range and rises above the plain at the center of the valley of Oaxaca. One of the impressive structures is the Great Plaza which remains anchored by mound platforms at its north and south ends. After the Zapotec civilization fell, Monte Albán was then captured by the Mixtec people.
How to reach Monte Albán Pyramids?
At first you would have to reach the city center of Oaxaca from where you can either opt for a bus or a private cab to Monte Albán.
11. Great Pyramid of Cholula- Puebla
The Great Pyramid of Cholula is an ancient Aztec temple hidden beneath a hill of overgrown grass and bushes is the world’s largest man made pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Cholula is also often known as the Great Pyramid of Tepanapa and was built 2000 years ago in the central American state of Puebla. The base of the pyramid is four times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza and also consists of a wide network of tunnels.
The pyramid was rebuilt several times by different civilizations but until the Spanish people came in it was already covered in dirt. The pyramid was used as a place of worship by the Aztec people for 1000 years after which they moved to a new location nearby.
The Aztecs believed that the pyramid was constructed by Xelhua who was a giant from their mythology. Due to lack of maintenance the pyramid which was made out of brick or baked mud succumbed to the effects of humid climates.
How to reach Great Pyramid of Cholula?
You can take a bus from Mexico City to Puebla and from there you can again take a bus or a private cab to Cholula which is around a 15 minute drive.
12. Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl- Tula
Tula also known as Tollan is an ancient capital city of the Toltec civilization which flourished between 950 to 1150 C.E. The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl or the Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the third largest pyramid in Teotihuacan.
The pyramid consists of six levels but most of the structure has succumbed to erosion and now only 33 steps remain in the front façade. The temple pyramid is a true symbol of the Tula architecture. The side of the five terraces are covered with painted human faces and jaws of serpents .
The stairs lead to the temple at the top which is dedicated to the God Quetzalcoatl. Though the pyramid is small it is significant structure of the Tula architecture.
How to reach the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl?
From Mexico City you can take a car to Tula which is around a 90 minutes drive or take a car from Querétaro which is a 2 hours drive.
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Written by Ishani Roy. Ishani is the Marketing Head at The Strong Traveller. Dr Instagram, she is a lifestyle and wellbeing writer, an avid reader, fond of minimalism and an ardent supporter of leading a sustainable lifestyle. Being a fitness enthusiast, she loves to work out when she’s not working. Apart from that, she also loves to check out delicious recipes from the internet while waiting for the perfect day to try that out by herself!