Mexico - Cultural Destinations | Travel | Smithsonian
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Mexico - Cultural Destinations

Mexico - Cultural Destinations

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Mexico was home to some of the world’s great ancient civilizations. The Olmecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mayans and Aztecs left their imprint on this vast land, with such powerful influences that still are felt today in everyday life. Visiting the ancient cities and temples of Mexico fills the visitor with wonder at what these pre-Hispanic cultures were able to achieve.           
Mexico has 37,266 archaeological sites throughout the nation, 174 of which are open to the public. The excellent tourist facilities at the site allow visitors to learn about the historical and cultural development of Mexico’s ancient civilizations.

On the highland valley of Mexico City, the nation’s capital, you can visit Aztec ruins at the Templo Mayor and see the most important structure of ancient Tenochtitlan. You can also check out the large round pyramid in Cuicuilco, which was buried by the lava flow of the Xitle volcano more than 2,000 years ago.

Near Mexico City is Teotihuacan, the most important ceremonial center in Mesoamerica. There you can see the pyramids of the Sun and Moon, two large structures located on the Calzada de los Muertos. In the state of Hidalgo you’ll find Tula, Toltec ruins with 4-meter (15-feet) high stone statues called atlantes. In Morelos, you can visit an ancient Aztec site, located at the top of the Cerro del Tepozteco, in Tepoztlan, as well as the enigmatic archaeological zone of Xochicalco.

In Tlaxcala, you can admire the frescoes at Cacaxtla, and in the state of Puebla you can explore Cantona, one of Mexico’s most urbanized pre-Hispanic cities. Also in Puebla is Cholula, where you’ll see the remains of what might be the largest pyramid in Mesoamerica, which is 65 meters (214 feet) high.

In Mayan territory, in Mexico’s southeastern region, some of the best archaeological sites are located in the state of Chiapas: in Palenque, you can see the tomb of King Pakal; in Bonampak, you can marvel at a structure that has extraordinary murals; and you can also visit Yaxchilan, in the Usumacinta river valley. In Campeche, you can check out the site at Calakmul, which covers an area of 70 km2 and has the highest number of Mayan ruins. In the state of Quintana Roo, near Cancun, you can visit Tulum, a walled city overlooking the Caribbean Sea. In the state of Yucatan, you’ll find incredible temples, buildings and ball courts in the ancient cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan, among others.           

In Oaxaca, in Mexico’s southern region, lies Monte Alban, the ancient capital of the Zapotecs, which once had 35,000 inhabitants. The 190 tombs discovered there offer clear examples of the Zapotecs’ beliefs in life after death. In the state of Oaxaca you can also visit the Mixtec and Zapotec ruins at Mitla, which means Place of Death.

On the Gulf coast, in the state of Tabasco, you’ll find La Venta, one of the most important Olmec sites, which is known for its colossal head sculptures. In Veracruz, you can visit the Totonac ruins of El Tajin, where you’ll see the world-famous Piramide de los Nichos. In Zempoala, you can check out one of the first pre-Hispanic communities that conquistador Hernan Cortes came in contact with. There you can admire stone rings used to calculate astronomical cycles and you can also marvel at the remains of a mural.

In the north, an area known as Baja California’s central desert, pre-Hispanic people developed the magnificent art of cave paintings. The anthropomorphous and zoomorphic figures at such sites as San Francisco have been discovered in hundreds of caves. Another example of these paintings can be seen on the walls in Tecate and the Huasteco Canyon, in southern Monterrey. In Zacatecas, you can visit La Quemada, a site fortified by a large wall and abandoned in 1200 AD after it was burned down. In the heart of the Chihuahua sierras lies Paquime, one of the northern region’s most important archaeological sites.

In western Mexico, in the present-day territory of Michoacan, the Tarasco Empire founded such cities as Tingambato, Ihuatzio and Tzintzuntzan, where you can still find the remains of circular and rectangular constructions known as Yacatas. The Yacatas are examples of the religious architecture that existed prior to the Spanish conquest.

The INAH or Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History) is the government agency in charge of the conservation of Mexico’s cultural heritage. Established in 1939, INAH’s primary responsibilities are investigating new archaeological finds and preserving the nation’s myriad of cultural traditions.  More than 850 researchers are on staff, and experts are hired as needed for special projects. Metropolitan, regional and rural museums boost community pride while providing visitors information about geography, history, folk art and culture. 

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