The remains of a major Totonac settlement of around 30,000 people date back to around AD 1200 and sit on the outskirts of modern-day Zempoala, reachable by frequent buses from Cardel (M$20). The temples and buildings at this quiet, grassy site have undergone extensive renovation works, and most are studded with smooth, rounded riverbed stones, though many were originally plastered and painted. Zempoala once had defensive walls, underground water and drainage pipes, and human sacrifices were held in its temples.
As Hernán Cortés approached the town in 1520, one of his scouts reported that the buildings were made of silver – but it was only white paint shining in the sun. Zempoala’s chief – a corpulent fellow nicknamed el cacique gordo (the fat chief) by the Spanish – struck an alliance with Cortés for protection against the Aztecs. But his hospitality didn’t stop the Spanish from smashing statues of his gods and lecturing his people on the virtues of Christianity. It was at Zempoala in 1520 that Cortés defeated the expedition sent by Cuba’s Spanish governor to arrest him.
A smallpox epidemic in 1575–77 decimated Zempoala and most of the survivors moved to Xalapa.
As there is no labeling at Zempoala itself, have a look inside the adjoining museum first. Apart from interesting clay figurines, polychrome plates, obsidian flints and pottery used in ceremonies, there are photos and descriptions (in Spanish) of every major building on the site. Also, check out the clay figure of Xipe Totec – a deity in whose honor slaves and prisoner were sacrificed and skinned, the skin then placed on ill people to cure them of their ailments.
It may be possible to have a guide show you around for a tip. Roberto del Moral Moreno is the only one who knows some English. He charges approximately M$120 per tour. If he's not on-site, ask the caretaker to call him.
By the entrance, the Templo del Muerte (Temple of the Dead) once featured a tomb containing Mixtecachihuatl, the goddess of dead women.
The Templo Mayor (Main Temple), uncovered in 1972, is an 11m-high pyramid with a wide staircase ascending to the remains of a shrine. When they first encountered Zempoala, Cortés and his men lodged in the Templo de Las Chimeneas, whose battlement-like teeth (almenas) were thought to be chimneys – hence the name.
The circle of stones in the middle of the site is the Circulo de los Guerreros, where lone captured soldiers were made to fight against groups of local warriors. Few won.
There are two main structures on the west side. One is known as the Templo del Sol and has two stairways climbing its front in typical Toltec-Aztec style. The sun god was called Tonatiun and sacrifices were offered to him here on the Piedra de Sacrificios. The ‘fat chief,’ officially known as Xicomacatl, sat facing the macabre spectacle on the appropriately large altar.
To its north, the second structure is the Templo de la Luna, with a structure similar to Aztec temples to the wind god, Ehecatl.
East of Las Chimeneas is Las Caritas (Little Heads), named for niches that once held several small pottery skulls, now displayed at the museum.
Another large temple to the wind god, known as the Templo Dios del Aire, is in the town itself – go back south on the site entrance road, cross the main road in town and then go around the corner to the right. The ancient temple, with its characteristic circular shape, is beside an intersection.