The history of Mexico is several thousand years old. It is one reason why Mexico is known throughout the world today and why it is unique and special as a tourist destination for many. Archaeological findings suggest that the first settlements took place as early as 20,000 BC. The first human discovery dates back to 9000 BC. Of particular interest is the period of the Preclassic, around 2000 BC, until the Late Postclassic, which ended around 1519. During this period, the various advanced civilizations of Mexico developed. The Olmecs, Zapotecs, Maya, Totonaks, Mixtecs or Aztecs, to name a few, still puzzle mankind today. This period was a flowering of architecture, religion and art.
They built huge ceremonial centers with temples and pyramids, rebuilt them every 52 years and used special paintings and decorations for temples and palaces. With the help of sophisticated cultivation methods, corn, beans and chilies were cultivated. Cultures lived according to ritual and solar calendars, worshipped nature gods, followed cosmology or amused themselves with ritual ball games. During this time, a highly intellectual glyphic script was also developed. The last ruling people were the Aztecs, whose roots can still be found in the population today.
Below are the 10 most famous pyramids in Mexico as silent witnesses of this past advanced civilization.
1. Pyramid of the Niches (El Tajín)
The archaeological site of El Tajín (“Lightning”) is located between the towns of Papantla and Poza Rica. It is surrounded by a picturesque tropical landscape. The most important archaeological site in Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico dates back to about 100 B.C. Its heyday was probably in the 6th to 9th centuries A.D. under the Totonaks. The settlement was (re)discovered only by chance.
The buildings have extraordinary shapes and decorations. Numerous detailed reliefs decorate the facades. The stucco has been painted and is protected from the hot and humid weather by being placed in niches. The showpiece is the 25m high Pyramid of Niches (pirámide de los nichos), a masterpiece of Mesoamerican architecture. It is characterized by the six platforms with the 365 square-shaped niches, which were probably meant to symbolize the solar year.
2. The Great Pyramid (Calakmul)
The Calakmul temple complex of the Maya is one of the largest and at the same time most remote in all of Mexico. Close to the border with Guatemala, the 30 km² large area stretches deep in the dense jungle and one can easily imagine oneself in the time of that era. In 2002, Calakmul was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In fact, unlike other Mayan sites, most of the pyramids can be climbed. Especially from the two largest pyramids you have the perfect panoramic view of the endless green jungle landscape.
The reason why Calakmul has relatively few tourists is mainly because it is relatively inconvenient to get there and is not on any of the typical tourist routes.
3. Nohoch Mul Pyramid (Coba)
The name “Coba” means “water stirred by the wind” in the Yucatec Mayan language and the ruins are located between two lagoons near the village of Coba. The ancient ceremonial site was built during the Classic Maya period (600-900 AD). During the Mayan heyday, Cobá was one of the largest settlements in the Yucatan, but for reasons still unknown, it was abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived.
The various partially restored structures are scattered throughout the jungle and it is interesting to see undeveloped ruins in their natural and rugged state with plants and trees growing on and around them. Visitors can climb and explore many of the ruins within the site, including the impressive Nohoch Mul pyramid, which towers high above the jungle treetops and offers absolutely breathtaking views.
Cobá is divided into five groups of buildings. The Nohoch Mul group includes the impressive 42 meter high pyramid with 120 steep steps, also called El Castillo, the castle. At the top of the pyramid there is a small room and a stone altar, which was probably used by the Mayan priests for rituals and blood sacrifices to the gods.
4. Pyramid of the Magician (Uxmal)
The most striking structure of Uxmal is in any case the 35-meter high Pyramid of the Fortune Teller or the Pyramid of the Magician with its rather unusual shape. According to research, this pyramid was created in several epochs, giving it the structure of an ellipse that becomes narrower and narrower towards the top, divided by platforms. At the top there is a temple, which was probably used as a place of worship. The narrow and extremely steep staircase to the top is decorated on both sides by masks depicting the rain god Chaac. At the end of the staircase it was also possible to enter the interior of the mighty pyramid. This pyramid was apparently used for cultic purposes in the past, hence the name of the structure, which, however, must not correspond to the original purpose.
The Mayan site of Palenque has not been fully explored to this day, which is why it is still a unique sight. Palenque is located in the middle of a jungle, which has been overlaid by nature. Just because the ruins are in the jungle, it makes Palenque very unique and one of the most beautiful pyramids in the state of Chiapas. There are many small trails to explore the area. If you are lucky, you can see monkeys in the wild, they claim, and there are waterfalls to marvel at. Again, the temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
6. Pyramid of the Sun (Teotihuacan)
The undisputed heart of Teotihuacán is the imposing Pyramid of the Sun. The famous stepped pyramid has a base area of 225 x 225 meters and, with a height of 63 meters, represents the third largest pyramid in the world. The largest pyramids in the world are the Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico and the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt. Built in two construction phases, the pyramid was built between 100 and 300 A.D. Originally, the mighty pyramid was plastered with lime and decorated with elaborate paintings of stars, jaguar heads and snakes, which, however, are no longer preserved today.
The name “Pyramid of the Sun” was given to the building by the Aztecs who settled there later, an earlier name has not been handed down. Since the altar is also no longer present today and there are no written records of the people in Teotihuacán, the deity important at that time cannot be determined in more detail. However, it can be assumed that it was an extremely important deity for the people, for example an early mother deity. The pyramid, which has been investigated since 1906, is not only a popular and mysterious image motif, but also of great interest because of its exact orientation. As a rule, an astronomical alignment is assumed, which could be connected with the setting of the sun – however, more exact findings are not yet known.
7. Pyramid of the Moon (Teotihuacan)
Highly recommended is the ascent to the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán, a stepped pyramid with a particularly aesthetically pleasing design. From the top you get a wonderful view over Teotihuacán and can just see the Pyramid of the Sun very well. In total, the Pyramid of the Moon is 46 meters high and has a base area of 120 x 150 meters. Furthermore, it is interesting that it was not only a moon pyramid, but a total of seven construction phases between 100 and 350 AD can be distinguished.
Tulum is famous because it is located directly on the beautiful beach on the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Since the temple of Tulum is one of the most popular destinations, there are a lot of tourists there, so it is recommended to go there early in the morning to avoid the tourist crowds. The Mayan ruins are located about 4.5 kilometers from the city of Tulum and can also be reached on foot from the city. The combination of beach and temple are very special here, which is why the Tulum is well visited, also the view makes it a real experience.
9. Temple of Kukulkan (Chichen Itza)
An impressive building with postcard character is the famous pyramid of Kukulkán. The pyramid is a total of 24 meters high, which from the number of steps makes a yearly calendar. This is because the four staircases each have 91 steps, or 364 steps. With the typical platform at the top, exactly 365 steps are reached, one for each day of the year. But even more extraordinary, the pyramid shows up twice a year at the time of the solstice. On March 21 and September 21, in the late afternoon, the shadow of a snake is observed slowly crawling up the stairway. The fascinating and particularly well restored pyramid of Kukulkán thus served astronomical purposes in former times and it is always remarkable how precisely the builders calculated every single stone.
The Cholula is the largest pyramid in the world. Although it does not look like a pyramid from the outside, that is because you can only see a grassy hill, with a church on top. In the past, the Spanish conquistadors built a church on top of the former pyramid, making it one of the largest structures built by man.
Today it is possible to visit the pyramid of Cholula through a system of tunnels and discover the interior. It is also possible to get to the highest point and you can also visit the church. The view is definitely worth it, because you can also see the city of Cholula de Rivadavia from the very top.