Sunday, November 1, 2009

Zacatecas Part 5: Ancient ruins of La Quemada

La Quemada, enigma of the north. One of my goals during our stay in Zacatecas was to visit La (ciudad) Quemada, which in Spanish means "the burnt city." This refers to a massive fire, traces of which were found by early Spanish visitors to the area. Carole and I, along with our Irish and German friends Denis, Julika, and Verena, visited the La Quemada site on our last full day in Zacatecas. La Quemada lies about 25 miles (approximately 56 kilometers) southwest of Zacatecas, about 1/2 way between Malpaso and Villanueva. From Zacatecas' El Centro, the trip takes about 40 minutes one way.

Above, Carole walks along one of the broad steps leading from a lower level of the ruins to the palace complex above on the ridge. The steps were perhaps 4 feet wide and 30 feet long, which suggests an area created for grand processions. The day was gorgeous and sunny, with fluffy white clouds punctuating a deep blue sky. In the distance lies a shining lake created by damming the Malpaso river.

Map of La Quemada ruins. The map above shows La Quemada strung out along a ridge that rises in a south to north axis about 1/2 mile long (see the map orientation). For a satellite photo of the site, click here. In the photo above, the dark green square on the left is the Chamber of Columns. Immediately above the Chamber of Columns is a lighter green square that is a large plaza. Just to the right of the plaza is the long slender rectangle of the Ball Court. At the right end of the Ball Court is the small square representing the Votive Pyramid. Above the Votive Pyramid, the main complex of rooms, terraces, plazas and small pyramids rises to the top of the ridge. Off to the far right is a defensive bastion built in the late stages of occupation. Apparently, the people of La Quemada were under attack in this period. Some archaeologists believe the traces of fire found by the early Spanish, and still evident in some places, indicate a violent end to the life of the city.

The Chamber of Columns is the first ruin you encounter. To the right of the Chamber, you can see the grassy plaza area. The Chamber of Columns sits on the first and lowest of a rising series of plateaus at the extreme south end of the ruins. The telephoto shot above was taken from the top of the ridge, looking toward the southeast. You can see the cultivated areas in the photo just above the Chamber. These were probably also cultivated in early times. La Quemada lies in a long, wide valley extending southwest from Zacatecas. The valley is watered by the Malpaso river, the damming of which has created a large lake just to the east of the ruins, which you can see in the first photo of this posting. The general area is fairly dry, but when irrigated by the river, it has been agriculturally productive for thousands of years. Early crops included maize, beans, squash, maguey, amaranth, tomato, and fruits. Archeological evidence indicates that the farming was done in communal terraces, with water carried up from the river below. In addition cultivated food, the whole area is thick with natural food plants such as the nopal cactus.

Massive columns dot the interior of the great Chamber. The size of this room, with its massive stone columns, is another indication that the area was a major religious/ceremonial center. The earliest settlements in the area were established around 200-300 AD, with the major occupation and building occurring between 500-900 AD. By 1000 AD, the site was abandoned. From at least early Spanish times people have speculated about the people and culture represented here. Early Spaniards, such as Fray Juan de Torquemada in 1615, held that La Quemada corresponded to the legendary Chicostomoc, a place where the Aztecs tarried for 9 years on their way to settling in the Valley of Mexico far to the south. Others have held that the ruins were a northern settlement of the great Empire of Teotihuacan, or perhaps one of the Toltec outposts. Some suggested that the Tarascan Empire of Michoancan may have created a bastion here against marauding Chichimeca nomads. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the ceremonial center may have local roots, created by the indigenous people of the area for religious and later defensive purposes. No one knows the origins for sure, and La Quemada's position as the only major site for hundreds of miles in every direction gives it an extra aura of mystery.

Rhyolite stone columns rise massively against the sky. In the photo above, I was impressive by the size of these columns. It is hard to say how much taller they were originally, but as you can see from how they tower over me, they were constructed to support a large and very heavy structure. The stone structures were covered by a layer of "barro" (earth) and a vegetable fibre plaster, and then whitewashed with lime. If the whole complex was whitewashed and painted, it must have presented a magnificent sight when approached from afar, as it rose up the ridge from the flat valley against the azure sky.

La Quemada served as the local "Home Depot" for a thousand years. After it was abandoned somewhere between 900-1000 AD, the site was scavenged for building materials for the next 1000 years. This accelerated after the Spanish settled the area in the last half of the 16th Century and looked for easy sources of materials for their towns and haciendas . Approximately 15% of the site was destroyed by these activities, aside from natural deterioration. Above, workers haul cement to stabilize the walls of the Chamber of Columns.

Flowers graced the broad level area of the plaza next to the Chamber of Columns. We visited in late September, just at the end of the rainy season, and wildflowers bloomed everywhere. I haven't been able to identify this lovely little 5-pointed star flower.

Main ceremonial complex looms in the distance. In the photo above, you are looking north from the plaza next to the Chamber of Columns. The ridge along which the main section of terraces and palaces were built rises above the plateau on which the Chamber of Columns sits. The whole area glowed golden in the afternoon sun.

Broad stairway leads from the Ball Court to the main ceremonial complex. The walls lining either side of the Ball Court can be seen at the base of the stairs to the right of the tree at the bottom. There are several great staircases in the complex, all impressively built with flat stones. The lake formed from the Malpaso River shimmers in the distance. Beyond the lake, the highlands on the east side of the Malpaso Valley rise up to a rolling plateau.

View from the top of the ceremonial complex. The complex drops off down the hillside, level by level. Just below are rooms of palaces and ceremonial areas. The next level down, in the center of the photo, has a series of smaller rooms. I speculated that some of these circular and oval rooms may have been storage areas for food or other goods. Below those rooms, in the distance, you can see the Chamber of Columns. To the left of the Chamber, slanting down toward the left side of the photo, is the long Ball Court.

The Ball Court, looking north toward the Votive Pyramid at the far end. Ball courts are features found in major Mesoamerican ruins from Nicaragua to northern Arizona in the US. They were not just sports stadiums, but had major religious and ceremonial significance in various cultures of Mesoamerica for over 3000 years. While the specific rules of the game are unknown, it may have been played somewhat like volleyball or racquet ball, where the aim is to keep the ball in play. In some versions, only the hips could be used to strike the ball. The court's shape of a long, narrow "I" is a characteristic of the Epic Classic period (750-950 AD). Because the Ball Court is placed within the ceremonial complex, it undoubtedly had religious significance and quite possibly was associated with human sacrifice. Numerous polished clay floors have been found under the court, along with evidence of human burials. The walls lining the sides of the Ball Court were originally much higher but the stones were looted over the centuries for building materials.

Life goes on, even in this abandoned ruin. I happened to glance down to see this pair of mating grasshoppers near the Ball Court. Carole calls this "insect porn." Whatever else has happened over the 17oo years or so since humans first settled this area, insects like these have carried on with their lives. The remote ancestors of these grasshoppers may have witnessed great pyramids under construction, heard the screams of human sacrifice, seen the plumes of fire that ended La Quemada, and even hopped over the feet of newly arrived conquistadors. Today they carry on under the close inspection of a visiting Gringo, lending a sense of permanence to a place that has seen innumerable changes.

The Votive Pyramid peeps above a ruined palace. The surrounding plain, dotted with nopal cactus, stretches out to the eastern highlands which rim the Malpaso Valley. There is a sense of vast distances here, and silent open space that I found particularly affecting.

The Votive Pyramid is noted for the unusual steepness of its sloping sides. The Votive Pyramid is the best known structure of La Quemada, probably because it is so photogenic. The original structure was covered by a smooth mud plaster. Over the centuries this washed away revealing the stones and the mud mortar connecting them underneath. At some point the Pyramid began to collapse. The stairway you can see above, on the south side of the Pyramid, used to reach to the top of the structure, but most of it was destroyed in the collapse. Originally, a small temple or altar graced the top of the Pyramid, possibly the site of human sacrifice.

The Ball Court ends at the Votive Temple. One can imagine members of the losing team ascending the steps to the sacrificial altar. The photo was taken from the top of the ceremonial complex, looking southeast.

Wild flowers exuberantly explode from the side of a ruined wall. Another example of the continuity of life, even in a place that experienced disaster and ruin. According to Carole, these may be white marigolds.

The northern bastion, evidence of a desperate defense. Just beyond the top of the hill containing the main complex, the ridge dips and then rises again to another promontory. On top of this was a fortress with steep walls. The fortress ruins can just be seen on the top of the hill. The fortress used the natural stone features like those seen above as part of the defense. Snaking off to the right is a stone walkway connecting the main complex with the bastion. This area was developed very late in La Quemada's history, which suggests that this long-occupied center of agriculture and trade was under attack. Who were the attackers? No one knows, but they were probably the same that ultimately put La Quemada to the torch, giving it a name to replace the one no one now knows.

A road to nowhere. Above you see a telephoto closeup of the stone stairway spiraling around the back of the promontory to the bastion above. The Malpaso Valley stretches off to the north. If the attackers were nomadic Chichimecas coming into the area, they may have arrived from this direction, hence the location of the bastion.

An ancient road complex is a unique feature of La Quemada. Directly below are palace grounds and the remains of another pyramid. This level ends in a steep wall and cliffs just beyond the small ruins running across the top of the photo. These walls and cliffs drop down 150 feet or so to the fields you can see in the upper part of the photo. The dark green of the fields shows densely packed nopal cactus. A close examination of these fields reveals dark lines extending toward the top of the photo, and another veering off toward the upper right corner. These are the remains of ancient roads constructed with stone slabs and clay between 600-900 AD. The roads connect the main ceremonial and defensive complex with more than 200 ancient ruins which were outlying communities. More than 170 kilometers of these ruined roads have been detected, extending throughout the Malpaso Valley. These roads are a unique aspect of La Quemada in pre-Hispanic Mexico, and for centuries survived the traditional ploughs. Unfortunately, modern tractors have begun to obliterate the old roads.

Stairway to heaven. Another set of steep stairways rises up the wall toward the platform containing the palace and small pyramid seen in the previous picture. Vegetation grows through some of the crumbling walls. In their original whitewashed state, these walls would have gleamed splendidly in the bright sun of Zacatecas, broadcasting a message power and prosperity.

A view from below. At the base of the great walls, on the Ball Court level, one can appreciate the immense effort and level of organization needed to build this great complex. With no draft animals, no wheeled vehicles, and no iron tools, it must have taken careful planning, and a highly organized and skilled workforce to create something of this size and magnificence.

This ends Part 5 of my series on Zacatecas. I hope I have been able to share the sense of the awe which inspired me when I first came upon the wonderful ruins of La Quemada. If you ever visit Zacatecas, I strongly encourage you to take time to visit these lovely, lonely ruins.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts, comments, and questions. You can leave them either in the comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, please include your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. This just keeps getting better and better. Nice pics, excellent narratives, what's not to like?

    Unfortunately, I end up reading your posts when I should be doing other things!

    I've solved the riddle of the fire. The visiting ball club got tired of losing and getting roasted.

    Thanks again for sharing your creative endeavor even though they trigger a flaming case of envy (I'm fine).

    The piece about Zapata and Villa was great.

    Con abrazos para usted y tu esposa.
    PS - I've never seen grasshoppers doing pushups. Amazing!

  2. wow what a beautiful place i wish i could visit it someday. thanks for sharing. check out philippines travel destinations

  3. As usual, wonderful pictures with a great narrative!

  4. Jim, have a look at a plant called Devil's Claw for the flower ID. The dry fruit is quite a nuisance to livestock. In Texas the flower is also blue and the leaves match.

  5. Wow, lots of interesting history and some great photos. Thanks for checking out my blog on Chalchihuites...I'd love to see La Quemada. There is a lot more that's intact, if I make it down that way again I will definitely visit that location.

  6. The purple flowers are Sloanum elaeagnifolium, which is in the nightshade family. Specifically, they are in same genus as potatoes and eggplants.

    Don't eat the berries, they have a toxic concentration of solanine, the green potato poison


  8. Xinemi- I tried to respond to your question, but my reply to the email address you gave me bounced back. I hope you see this, since I have no other way to contact you.

    Sorry, Jim

  9. Dear Jim,
    The flower is in the night shade family. Try silverleaf nightshade.

    Nice blog.
    Jim in Texas

  10. Hi Jim,

    Very impressive images indeed. I will be driving from Torreon to Zacatecas and also visit Real de Catorce the weekend after this. Sorry to bother you with an utter triviality: Would you know of a place to stay near la Quemada? Any ole posada will do perfectly fine.

    All the best


  11. Well I'm late to the blog, and others have informed you that the plant is indeed silver legend nightshade.
    I found your blog by googling rough rider room portales nm.
    Kayla Krattiger Clovis NM

  12. Excelenet article and fotos, muchas gracias these were my first ancient ruins,1978 this got it all started, we are not alone,.. but sort of knew that from experience on masonboro island camping out early 60's. anyway this was south of zacatecas a cool city, and these are always older than what they say and these existing strutures are 1700 years old, this is road to Pacific coast in Colima closest pacific beach to us here in carolinas by road, NOW easy 35 hours of driving


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim