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The Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajin was likely used to track the days of the year.
Follow in the footsteps of Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mexica, and Maya at these 10 pyramids across Mexico.
Mexico’s pre-Columbian civilizations can be hard to keep straight, but they shared a few common traits. Most of their archaeological sites include ball courts, they considered corn an essential crop, and they all built pyramids.
Their handiwork can now be found throughout Mexico, offering a window into the country’s ancient past. Read on for everything you need to know about Mexico’s famous pyramids, including 10 of the most spectacular, culturally important ones in the country.
The short answer is: Nobody knows. Sadly, the pyramids in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán are long gone, but dozens of others across Mexico still stand.
Pre-Columbian cultures like the Olmecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Aztecs (or Mexica), and Maya created these impressive structures. For the most part, each civilization had a specific building style, though they all used materials like clay, stone, and mortar.
The most significant pyramids were constructed over roughly two millennia, from around 900 B.C.E. to about 1000 C.E.
Several top pyramids are located along Mexico’s eastern coast. Others are clustered inland, around Mexico City and farther south in Oaxaca. Find 10 of our favorites this Google map (pictured below), then keep reading for even more info.
Coba is just over two hours by car from Cancún and 45 minutes from Tulum. If you’d rather not drive, many tour operators offer excursions.
Given that it’s halfway between Cancún and Mérida, this UNESCO World Heritage site is often crowded with tourists and vendors. The plus is that you can experience Chichén Itzá as it was during its peak—a bustling city.
A drive of about 70 minutes, on two well-maintained highways, will take you from modern Mérida to ancient Uxmal.
With the opening of the Palenque airport in 2014, it’s become easy to visit this once remote site. Interjet offers twice-weekly flights (on Wednesdays and Saturdays) from Mexico City.
Located in the state of Tabasco, La Venta is home to Mexico’s oldest known pyramid, built around 900 B.C.E. The structure isn’t particularly tall at 100 feet and, since it was built of clay instead of stone, its original rectangular shape has been softened by the ages, making it appear more like a rounded hill. Still, it’s fascinating to behold, as is the sophisticated urban planning of La Venta, which served as a forerunner to Teotihuacan, Tula, and other ancient capitals.
You have to work to visit La Venta. The site is located in a wet, humid corner of Mexico about 90 minutes by car from Villahermosa, which is already off the beaten path. Bring insect repellent.
Sitting five miles from the city center of Oaxaca, Monte Albán is easy to reach by bus or taxi.
In the state of Veracruz, El Tajin is one of the most important sites from the so-called epiclassic (or late classic) period, dating from around 900 C.E. The city’s residents were avid ballplayers—more than 60 ball courts have been excavated here. You’ll also see one of Mexico’s most unusual buildings, the Pyramid of the Niches. The relatively short pyramid, 59 feet high, consists of six platforms, each lined with carved niches that were most likely used to track the days of the year.
El Tajin is pretty remote, but if your travels take you to Veracruz, it’s a four-hour drive to the site.
Cholula is four miles outside of Puebla, which is famous for its colonial buildings, cuisine, and the recently opened International Museum of the Baroque.
Located an hour north of Mexico City, Teotihuacán is a popular day trip (visit midweek for smaller crowds). Many tours stop en route at the Basilica of Guadalupe for a glimpse into another aspect of Mexican culture.
Tula is another easy day trip from either Mexico City (roughly 90 minutes by car) or the colonial city of Querétaro (just under 2 hours).
This story originally appeared online on August 15, 2019. It was updated on May 7, 2020, to include new information.
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