Atop a desolate plateau with views for miles around, Xochicalco is an impressive and relatively easy day trip from Cuernavaca that shouldn’t be missed. It’s large enough to make the journey worthwhile, but not so well known as to be overrun with tourists. Note that a video permit costs M$35.

A Unesco World Heritage site and one of central Mexico’s most important archaeological sites, Xochicalco (so-chee-cal-co) is Náhuatl for ‘place of the house of flowers.’ The collection of white stone ruins, many still to be excavated, covers approximately 10 sq km. They represent the various cultures – Tlahuica, Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztec – for which Xochicalco was a commercial, cultural and religious center. When Teotihuacán began to weaken around AD 650 to 700, Xochicalco began to rise in importance, achieving its peak between AD 650 and 900, with far-reaching cultural and commercial relations. Around AD 650 Zapotec, Maya and Gulf coast spiritual leaders convened here to correlate their respective calendars. Xochicalco remained an important center until around 1200, when its excessive growth precipitated a demise similar to that of Teotihuacán.

The site’s most famous monument is the Pirámide de Quetzalcóatl. Archaeologists have surmised from its well-preserved bas-reliefs that astronomer-priests met here at the beginning and end of each 52-year cycle of the pre-Hispanic calendar. Site signs are in English and Spanish, but information at the excellent, ecologically sensitive museum, situated 200m from the ruins, is in Spanish only.

From October through May, the site sometimes offers a nighttime light show (M$7) on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s quite a spectacle, but call ahead because the shows are not regular.

From Cuernavaca’s market, colectivos with ‘Xochi’ on their windshield (M$14) depart every 30 minutes for the site entrance. Larger buses from the Pullman de Morelos terminal make the same trip, directly, but only on Saturday and Sunday. On arrival, you’ll need to walk to the museum to buy tickets. The last return colectivo leaves around 6pm. Alternatively, take a taxi (M$30) from the site to the nearby town of Alpuyeca, where there are frequent colectivos back to Cuernavaca.