July 20, 2011

The Culture and Controversy of Cuicuilco

Mexico City is built on the remains of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Before Tenochtitlán, there was another ancient city, the oldest in the entire valley. Cuicuilco was Mexico's Pompeii; a thriving, important place, with pyramids pre-dating Chichén Itzá and Teotihuacan, and a population of 20,000 people. Then the Xitle volcano erupted.


Parts of Cuicuilco are still visible now, but most is under the lava; and Mexico City is creeping on top of the remains.

In Aztec times, the lava plains were a wilderness. Miscreants were banished there, to die of exposure or to be bitten by the rattle snakes, which lived in the area then. Today, this is El Pedregal de San Ángel, or simply El Pedregal, an upper class residential district of Mexico City. Mansions cling to the mountainside, overlooking the major northern boulevards of the capital; hemmed in, to the east, by the University.

In the 1940s, this entire developement was designed and built by Luis Barragán. His vision was to create modernist houses in harmony with the landscape. Outcrops of volcanic rock, frozen in time since its post-eruption cooling, became garden walls; smoother plains became walkways and roads.

El Pedregal

He called this the Gardens of El Pedregal. Experts have called it 'a turning point in Mexican modern architecture'. The complex was accessed through the Plaza de las Fuentes (Plaza of the Fountains), with fountains that intermittantly cast water high into the air. Prominent artists were brought in to add their talent to the aesthetics of the place. Chucho Reyes advised on colors; Mathias Goeritz created sculptures; Xavier Guerrero allowed the use of his specially formulated, rust-free paint. But the houses themselves were pure Barragán.

El Pedregal

This is where the great and the good of the Mexican upper classes lived and still live. The years have lost much of the original architecture, under layers of expansion and home extensions. Mansions got larger and even the iconic Plaza de las Fuentes is now just a side-street, edged with sprawling housing plots.

However, those interested in how it once was can visit Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Arquitectura (National Museum of Architecture), in the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, on Avenida Juárez and Eje Central, in Lázaro Cárdenas. There is a permanent exhibition of Barragán's El Pedregal.

The Gardens of El Pedregal isn't the only modern development crowding in and on top of Cuicuilco. In 1997, Mexico made legal history, when members of the public sued the president and other dignitaries, over the construction of a shopping center and entertainment complex there. (Cuicuilco: Public Protection of Mexican Cultural Patrimony in an Archaeological Zone.) Building ultimately went ahead, but it left safeguards in law against future destruction of the site.

El Pedregal

So what is all of the fuss about? Cuicuilco was certainly the oldest human settlement in the Valley of Mexico; it is possibly one of the most ancient in the entire country. The foundations of the city were laid around 700 BCE. It is believed that, at the time, it was the most important civic-religious center in the Mexican Highlands. Beneath the lava there are pyramids, which could well dwarf those on the surface. Some have theorized that they might have been the largest man-made pyramids in the world.


Little is known about the people who built Cuicuilco, though the exchange of trade goods shows that they interacted with the Olmec. Archaeology has pointed towards a hierarchical society, with chiefs at the top and slaves at the bottom. These were a deeply religious people, who buried their dead with ceramic grave goods. Skulls have been found, with teeth filed into sharp spikes. These were a people fearsome to behold.

The artwork from Cuicuilco was exquisite. A new era of ceramics was born here, starting around 600 BCE. Their pottery was unique to the age and highly prized in distant cities, amongst other tribes. This wasn't merely bowls and cups. They were idols made in the image of deities, demonstrating remarkable craftsmanship.

An artist's impression of Cuicuilco in its heyday

Their city must have been spectacular. Terraces, plazas and many residences have been uncovered. They had engineering knowledge - irrigation ditches fed their fields and brought water from the lake into the city; canals ran like arteries through their streets. There is evidence of warfare or attack. Fortifications surrounded them.

But mostly what would have been seen, from a vantage point on the highlands, were the oval and conical shapes of the farmer's cottages. For miles around the ceremonial center, there were the fields. Corn, maize, beans, squash and tomatoes were amongst the crops cultivated here. Smaller temples, some with up to five altars, dotted the landscape between the massed agriculture.

Cuicuilco sprawled, the mega-city of its day, much like its modern counterpart, Mexico City. Thousands of people were attracted into its midst, generations of them adding and building and expanding. Their gods grew and changed in prominence. By the end, the fire deities had presidence; but that didn't stop the volcano erupting.

Eruption of Xitle by Gonzales Camarena

Xitle blew twice, once in 50 BCE and once in 400 CE. This cinder cone volcano still stands above Mexico City, in the Ajusco range to the south-east. The pyroclastic flow of lava, from both major eruptions, covered substantial parts of the city of Cuicuilco. The final one led to its abandonment. From hereon, the culture of the population can be seen spread out across Mexico; while the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was founded further down in the valley, beside and upon the lake.

For those campaigning against further modern development of the area, the importance of the history is at the forefront. This was one of the most prominent early cultural centers in Meso-America; yet too few digs have been untaken by archaeologists.

However, there is a small, but very vocal group who want work to stop because it's disturbing and obscuring the lava plains. They have pointed out that examining the extent of the previous eruptions might be of vital consideration for future crisis management. After all, if Xitle blows again now, Mexico's capital city is now right in its path. The homes of many of Mexico's richest residents, including the President, is on top of the area buried before.

There are also some who say that the Cuicuilco people never quite went away. There are pervasive stories of the ghosts of priests and sacrificial victims, in the homes of those living atop the lava plains. Perhaps they have an urgent message, from personal experience, for those intent on ignoring the huge swathes of volcanic rock. Or maybe they are just stories.


Cuicuilco is open to the public, as both an archaeological site of historical importance and a nature reserve. As well as the interest in the site itself, its heights afford a stunning view over Mexico City. Tourists and locals alike are often found strolling across it, climbing onto the summit of its remaining pyramid.

During the spring equinox (around March 21st), there is a sudden boom in visitors. The area becomes once again a place of religious pilgrimage, as people gather to greet the dawn. The sun's rays, on that morning, from the top of the pyramid is believed to refresh the spirit and bring blessings upon their lives in the following year.


Whatever your beliefs, Cuicuilco is a beautiful place to meander upon. It is recommended to anyone visiting Mexico City.

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