The remote and scenic ruins of La Quemada stand on a hill 45km south of Zacatecas. The exact history and purpose of the site are extremely vague and many suppositions surround the area – one theory is that it was where the Aztecs halted during their legendary wanderings toward the Valle de México. What is known for sure is that the constructions were destroyed by fire – and thus they came to be called La Quemada (meaning 'burned city').
La Quemada was inhabited between about AD 300 and 1200, and it is estimated to have peaked between 500 and 900 with as many as 3000 inhabitants. From around 400 it was part of a regional trade network linked to Teotihuacán, but fortifications suggest that La Quemada later tried to dominate trade in this region. A recent study suggests that during the settlement's peak its inhabitants engaged in cannibalism of their enemies, the remains of whom they hung up ceremonially.
Of the main structures, the nearest to the site entrance is the Salón de las Columnas (Hall of the Columns), probably a ceremonial hall. Slightly further up the hill are a ball court, a steep offerings pyramid and an equally steep staircase leading toward the site's upper levels. From the upper levels of the main hill, a path leads westward for about 800m to a spur hilltop (the highest point) with the remains of a cluster of buildings called La Ciudadela (the Citadel). There are memorable views down into the valley from here. To return, follow the defensive wall and path back around to the small museum, which has an interesting collection of artifacts recovered from the site and a good video summary of what is known. Relatively unknown, la Quemada receives few visitors and the ruins, which are half covered in swaying, silver-tipped grasses, are wonderfully evocative. Note that there's very little shade. Take water and a hat and be on the look out for rattlesnakes, which have been seen at the site.
From Zacatecas's Plaza del Bicentenario, board a combi bus for Villanueva (M$40) and ask beforehand to be let off at las ruinas; you'll be deposited at the turnoff, from where it's a 2.5km walk to the site entrance. Returning to Zacatecas, you may have to wait a while for a bus – don't leave the ruins too late. Alternatively, hire a taxi to take you here, which will cost around M$800 to M$900, including waiting time.