La Quemada

… quarto amigos standing in front of the La Quemada ruins…

When I first heard about the ruins at La Quemada near Zacatecas I was immensely curious to visit.  There is quite a bit of mystery surrounding these ruins and to this day, no one is quite sure who built them.  Adding to their mystery is that there are no other ruins – in any direction – for hundreds of miles.  It is possible that the building was a northern outpost of the Aztecs or La Quemada may have been built by the Toltecs or even the Tarascan Empire of Michoacan.  The early Spaniards believed that the La Quemada is the legendary Chicostomoc where  the Aztecs stopped for some time as they headed south towards  Mexico City to establish their capital at Teotihuacan.  It is possible that the ruins were built by local peoples who have not yet been identified.  The site has many features found in other Mesoamerican sites like a large ball court but it also has some unique features as its pyramid is of a design not seen anywhere else.

Regardless of who the builders were, the site is quite impressive.  It is located, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.  It is situated about 25 miles south of Zacatecas between modern day Malpaso and Villanueva, just off of the main highway that leads south.  However, in ancient times, these cities and highways were not around and this valley is quite remote from the other empires of the time.

La Quemada lies in the Malpaso valley, a dry and dusty place but its river has been dammed since ancient times creating a large lake just east of the ruins.  Despite the dry climate, the land in the Malpaso Valley is agriculturally productive when irrigated by the river and nearby lake.  Every major ancient ruin that we find in the world today is near an area of agricultural production.  In order to have the capacity to build large buildings and pyramids, it is necessary to grow and store large amounts of grain and other storable food products.  We can only imagine what this valley looked like fifteen hundred years ago filled with small huts and workers toiling in the fields and the ruling class in this grand city looking down on them.

The city appears to have been inhabited from 200 or 300 AD.  Most of the larger buildings and pyramid were built between 500-900 AD.  The name “La Quemada” means the “burnt place.”  When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, they found evidence of burning at La Quemada and assumed that the residents had met with a perilous fate.  Modern archaeology agrees that the city was sacked and burned and several bastions and defensive fortifications on the hill suggest that the inhabitants of the city tried to fight off an invading force.  The city was abandoned by 1000 AD., and ever since, local people have looted stones from the buildings to use for local houses.  The removal of building stones was accelerated after the Spanish colonization in the 1600’s.

… surveying the Great Chamber…

La Quemada lies along a hill, its edge and in the valley floor below.  The pyramid, great chamber and ball court are on the lower level and several levels of buildings are terraced up the hill side with the religious temple on top of the hill.  In the photo above, we are standing in the Great Chamber.  While it has no ceiling now, this used to be a great hall.  The stone pillars held a ceiling made of earth and fiber plaster and were whitewashed with lime.  The pillars were also whitewashed and were probably elaborately decorated.  The building  was probably ornately decorated and was likely used for religious purposes.

Wide stairways lead up from the lower level through the terraced city towards the top of the hill.  It really is amazing that a city, so far removed from anything else could be built here and with such elaborate stairways and buildings.  As most of the buildings in Mesoamerica were plastered white and then painted, I try to imagine the bright streets of a Greek ocean front village, like you might see in Santorini, to get an idea of what this place may have looked so many years ago.  Just moving all of these stones up the hill, leveling and grading the hill and then emplacing the stones must have taken years.  We know that the Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs practiced sacrifice and slavery so we must assume that slave labor contributed to these buildings.  I chuckle when I think of the motivational poster that has made its way across the internet lately: it features a photo of the great Egyptian pyramids and is captioned, “Slavery, it gets stuff done.”

It was a really “fun” day at La Quemada.  Once we paid our entry fee to the park, we were allowed to roam freely all over these 1,000+ year old buildings without supervision.  It was nice to not have to heed to a travel guide or park ranger.  We were respectful of the ruins and tried to have a minimal impact but it really is something to walk into rooms that were occupied by an ancient people over a thousand years ago.  In the photo below, Jeff and Kathrine make their way through a maze of buildings on the side of the hill.

About half way up the hill side we began to get an idea about the size of this place.  Looking down to the valley floor we could see the Votive Pyramid and the Malpaso Lake (below).   The Pyramid is quite large, over 5 stories tall.  It is unique in its design giving even more mystery to this place.  The Pyramid was also plastered and white-washed and then painted with elaborate colors; it must have been some spectacle out here in this valley.

We still had ruins above us to climb and we surveyed the entirety of the place.  Luckily, the ruins up the hill were harder to pilfer from and many of the buildings are intact less their roofs and finish.  The plaster that covered these walls has long since washed away in a thousand years of rains.  But remarkably, many of the tall walls remain intact.  In the photo below, you can see the elaborate building that went into making this city.

When we finally reached the summit of the city way up on the top of the hill, we stopped for a break and to enjoy the view.  Jeff made one of his famous one hand self portraits that he did so many times on this trip (below).  Through years of practice, he was able to accurately (most of the time) capture all of the action despite not having the use of the camera view finder.

From our view at the top of the hill, I captured a photo of the lower area.  You can see the pyramid on the left.  The ball court can be recognized by two parallel walls extending from the open area to the right of the pyramid.  Many of the buildings are on the hillside directly below the hill’s edge and the cactus in the photo.  For some scale, if you look closely, you can see Jeff and Katherine in some of the buildings on the right side of the photo.

La Quemada is a magical place.  If you are ever in Zacatecas or just passing through, I highly recommend a visit.  Give yourself at least a half day if not the whole day to see all of the buildings and sites.  I am not sure if the park is always this empty of visitors; perhaps it is because we came in the winter.  But it was nice to have the place to ourselves.

On the walk out, we noticed that the ants placed rocks in little walls around their ant holes.  Christiane commented, “Look, the ants are Toltecs too.”


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