I was supposed to go to Taxco, but some last-minute schedule changes meant I had to come up with a backup plan. Puebla is closer, but I need at least two days to explore both the city center and Cholula. And so one alternative candidate came to mind. Why not Tlaxcala? The journey time is almost similar to that of Puebla, and the itinerary can fit in an easy daytrip from the capital. There was a problem, though. What is there to see in Tlaxcala? It doesn’t really figure that much in the tourist circuit, now does it?
Mexico City is the smallest political entity in the country in terms of land area, but it holds the status of being a federal district. In short, it is NOT a state. Just a little bit bigger than the capital, Tlaxcala is considered as THE smallest state in the United States of Mexico. But don’t be fooled by its meager size, for this proud state can hold its own against others way larger than it is, if we are talking about historical prestige and cultural heritage, that is.
The Olmeca-Xicalanca culture that flourished in Cacaxtla, one of several archaeological ruins housed by the state, reached the peak of its glory at the same time Tula and Xochimilco did. Cacaxtla had the advantage of location, though, because it controlled the trade route originating from the Gulf of Mexico. Such position meant constant friction with Tenochtitlán, and was exactly what the colonizing Spaniards took advantage of to pit these indigenous tribes against one another. Divide and conquer, works most of the time!
The twin ruins of Cacaxtla and Xochitécatl are the principal archaeological tourist zones, while the murals that you find on the walls of the former are the main attraction. Historians will always tell you how said murals stand out from the bulk of pre-Hispanic art pieces in the country by virtue of its mixed influences, mainly that of the neighboring Maya civilization. In fact, the most prevalent shade used in these paintings is what experts refer to as Maya Blue, a vivid hue that makes the figures seem to jump out from their 2D canvass.
The cost of the ticket is supposedly MXN65 (~PHP170), but again, I was not able to find out for sure because I always get in thanks to my UNAM ID. The info board showing the prices says that you need to pay MXN45 (~PHP120) for taking videos, but just like in Tula and other sites, this is rarely implemented. It always puzzles me because how are they to know if you are taking a photo or a video? Even if they did implement this rule strictly, do they have the manpower to police each and every tourist onsite? I don’t think so.
Getting here can take some time. From Mexico City, head to the TAPO from where buses going to the eastern provinces depart. You’ll reach Tlaxcala's main bus terminal in two hours, after which you transfer to a colectivo leaving from Platform 13 headed to San Miguel del Milagro. Tell the driver that you are going to the Zona Arqueológica so he can drop you off at the correct road, which also happens to be called San Miguel. From there, it’s a 20-30 minute climb uphill with sweeping panoramic views of the city below.
Ubiquitous in the background is a huge volcano, although I’m not sure if it’s the same one mentioned in local folklore blamed for the downfall of Xochitécatl. But a volcano of any other name will always be just as imposing, and this one graces us with its presence whenever we take a look at the horizon. Watching it covered in clouds while the sun sets behind them is like witnessing a miracle of biblical proportions. On the other hand, the panoramic views from Cacaxtla’s Gran Basamento put Windows’ wallpapers to shame.
As opposed to Tenochtitlán which opted for an imperial setup, the political orientation of Tlaxcala geared more towards that of city-states. Perhaps this explains the smaller scale of the ruins. Cacaxtla’s centerpiece is called the Gran Basamento, a huge platform which served as the primary venue for the city’s important sites, both civil and religious. It used to be surrounded by smaller pyramids, but only one appears to have survived the test of time, right there before you reach the entrance of the complex.
It is on the walls of this grand platform where the locals etched their murals, almost alive with the vivid primary colors they decorated them. The site itself looks like a huge covered court of sorts, but this is because they are still excavating. Excavation started rather late, more than 1000 years after the civilization’s collapse. This is why some of the murals that survived are still replete with their former grandeur thanks to natural preservation. Some of them are recreated in bright palettes of red, blue, and yellow at the museum.
The pyramid of Xochitécatl is visible from the Gran Basamento. The view is awesome because to its right is a cliff leading to the city down below, dotted with white houses lining the horizon. The juxtaposition is surreal, as if forcing you to witness the interplay between an ancient civilization and the modern one that thrived after it. The ticket for Cacaxtla already includes the entrance to Xochitécatl if used on the same day, and a 1 KM walkway connects the two sites. Unfortunately, it closes early at around 3PM on weekends.
Because I had no car, I was advised that I wouldn’t make it in time if I walked all the way to the pyramid. And so I just walked back to the museum for the culmination of my trip. The museum is really small, but the intense colors of the murals they reconstructed there are just too attractive to ignore. I can only imagine how surreal everything must have been back in the day, when those murals were affixed to the very walls of what was once a commanding platform surrounded by nothing but nature.
[NATIVITAS] 50 Shades of Maya Blue