Thursday, December 1, 2016


Artistic rendering of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which is now known as Mexico City. 

I have always had a fascination with large man-made stone structures which were constructed in honor of the gods of man.  I believe this fascination began when my mother took me in 1962 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see the first traveling exhibit of the remains of Pharaoh Tutankhamen tomb in the United States. I was spell bound by the exhibit and had to learn more about the Egyptian culture that built magnificent pyramids to honor their deceased kings who were believed to have been living gods.

One of the many stunning objects found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

King Tutankhamen (or Tutankhamen) ruled Egypt as pharaoh for 10 years until his death at age 19 around 1324 B.C. He was barely known to the modern world until 1922 when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the boy Pharaoh's tomb which had remained sealed for more than 3,200 years. The tomb’s vast hoard of artifacts and treasure which were intended to accompany the king into the afterlife revealed an incredible amount about royal life in ancient Egypt and quickly made King Tut the world’s most well-known pharaoh.

The innermost coffin of King Tutankhamen was of pure gold.

The ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation and consequently their pyramids were constructed as burial tombs or chambers for their rulers with the hope they would be reincarnated, unlike the pyramids of Mesoamerica which were constructed primarily for ceremonial purposes. So after my introductory digression, let's get back on tract and visit the pyramids, temples, and churches of Mexico and beyond.


Mesoamerica was a region and cultural area in the Americas extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica within which pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Palenque, also anciently known as Lakamha, was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. 

Despite the reputation of Egypt’s Great Pyramids at Giza, the Americas actually contain more pyramid structures than the rest of the planet combined. Pre-Colombia civilizations including the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec all built pyramids in honor of their gods and as ceremonial centers.  In many of their great city-states, temple pyramids formed the center of public life and were the site of much holy ritual including human sacrifice.  These civilizations and others flourished for nearly 4,000 years before the first contact with Europeans.

Monte Albán is a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Founded around 500 BC the city lost its political pre-eminence between 500-750 AD and was soon abandoned thereafter.

Fast forward a couple of decades when I was personally "introduced" to the massive pyramids and temples built by the pre-Hispanic indigenous people of Mexico and Mesoamerica.  I was attracted to these structures which fired my imagination and curiosity to know more about who, why, and how.  This fascination is still with me as my husband will confirm since he has had to visit my "old folks and their rock piles" for many, many years while living in Latin America.

Some of my favorite Pre-Columbian pyramids, temples, and archaeological ruins include the following:

El Castillo Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico was built by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries AD. El Castillo is 79' in height with 91 stair steps on each side. El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkan, the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity closely related to the god Quetzalcoatl, known to the Aztecs and other central Mexican cultures of the Post classic period.

Mesoamerican peoples built pyramids from around 1000 B.C. up until the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. The earliest known pyramid stands at La Venta in Tabasco, Mexico. Built by the Olmecs, the first major Mesoamerican civilization, it dates to between 1000 B.C. and 400 B.C. Pyramids were generally built of earth and then faced with stone, typically in a stepped shape topped by a platform or temple structure.

The Palace complex at Palenque, Mexico includes several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards and was built by several generations during the 4th century AD. The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies.

Tulum is a 13th century Maya site which may have formerly been known by the name Zama which means City of Dawn because it faces the sunrise on the Caribbean Sea. Tulum had access to both land and sea trade routes which made it an important trade hub and had a population of 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants.

Mitla is the second most important archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca and the most important of the Zapotec culture. While Monte Albán was most important as the political center, Mitla was the main religious center. Mitla was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. 

Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city, which was likely to have been called Yax Mutal, which is was found in a Guatemalan rain forest. It is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. This amazing site is part of Guatemala's Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, Mexico was the burial monument to one of Palenque's great leaders and contains the second longest glyph (a hieroglyph/sculptured figure or relief carving) text known from the Mayan world (the longest is the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan: see below). The Temple of the Inscriptions records approximately 180 years of the city's history.

The Pyramid of the Magician is the central structure in the Maya ruin complex of Uxmal and is the most distinctive Mayan structure on the Yucatán Peninsula. The pyramid is considered unique because of its rounded sides, considerable height, steep slope, and unusual curved base. At its height, Uxmal was home to about 25,000 Maya. 

Restoration efforts began in Uxmal in the mid-19th century. The Pyramid of the Magician was regularly repaired and maintained during this period. In the early 1970's a major conservation project was undertaken by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Conservation efforts are still underway and, as with El Castillo in Chichen Itza, visitors to the site are now prohibited from climbing the pyramid.


Copan, Honduras was one of the most densely populated cities in the Maya world. Among the monuments they constructed was the “Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway.” It’s a pyramid-like structure that has more than 2,000 glyphs embellished on a flight of 63 steps which is the longest ancient Maya inscription known to exist.

Hanging out with the "old folks and their rocks" in Copan, Honduras and other Mesoamerica archaeological sites was not difficult duty and I loved it all!  


What makes Mitla in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico unique among Mesoamerican sites is the elaborate and intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs that cover tombs, panels, friezes and even entire walls. These mosaics are made with small, finely cut, and polished stone pieces which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. These ancient cut-stone mosaics are believed to date back to the last two or three centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. No other site in Mexico has this amazing feature. Simply incredible!

The Temple of the Jaguar was built around 732 AD in modern day Guatemala and is probably Tikal’s finest and most dominating monument with its nine tiers reaching 121 feet which represent the nine levels of the underworld. One of my favorites!

The Mayans would never believe how popular Tulum has become with its fantastic location on the blue water shores of the Caribbean Sea!

This is my husband's idea of climbing pyramid steps, but I think it's cheating!  

Exploring pyramids, temples, and churches is a real workout! Thank you for your company and now let's visit the churches of Mexico.


I hope you have enjoyed visiting some of my favorite pyramids and temples in Mexico and beyond.  Now it is time to visit the churches of Mexico and Mesoamerica.  We will begin with  a mini-introduction to the history of the church and Catholicism in Mexico which I believe is important for our basic understanding and appreciation of these impressive man-made structures.

One cannot understand Mexico and Mesoamerica without understanding the history of the Catholic Church in this vast region. Initially Catholicism helped spur the conquest of the New World with its emphasis on missions to convert the indigenous peoples. It then became a means to control many aspects of the colonial economy which continued through the independence movements of the different Spanish-American colonies. 

Artistic rendering of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma and Conquistador Hernán Cortés meeting in Tenochtitlan before it all fell apart for the nationals!  

Tenochtitlan, located on an island near the western shore of Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, was the capital city and religious center of the Aztec civilization. The traditional founding date of the city was 1345 CE and it remained the most important Aztec center until its destruction at the hands of the conquering Spanish led by Hernán Cortés in 1521 CE which led to the final collapse of the Aztec Empire. 

Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, and Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, were the two primary players in the conquest and collapse of the Aztec empire in 1521 AD.        

The Colonial expansion under the crown of Castile was initiated by the Spanish conquistadors and developed by its administrators and missionaries. The motivations for colonial expansion were trade and the spread of the Catholic faith through indigenous conversions.The Spaniards were committed to converting their American subjects to Christianity and were quick to eliminate any native cultural and religious practices that hindered this goal.  However, most initial attempts at this were only partially successful. Native indigenous groups simply blended Catholicism with their traditional beliefs.

Chamula is located in the Chiapas highlands and is inhabited by the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people whose language is one of the Mayan languages.  Along the walls of the San Juan church are wooden statues of saints many of which are wearing mirrors to deflect evil. The local form of Catholicism is a blend of pre-conquest Maya customs, Spanish Catholic traditions, and subsequent innovations.


Up through the Mexican Constitution of 1824 any other religion other than the Roman Catholic faith was prohibited. Things changed in Mexico, however, under the Constitution of 1857 which did not mandate that the Catholic Church be the nation's exclusive religion. Mexico thus became a secular country and has allowed freedom of religion ever since. Catholic Christianity, however, remains the dominant religion in Mexico representing about 85% of the total population as of 2010. Mexico is also the largest Spanish speaking country in the world.

This is one of my favorite photographs taken while living in San Miguel de Allende which shows only one of the twenty nine (!) churches found in the city.

At some point in our wandering nomadic life I realized my great appreciation for the magnificent Catholic churches which were erected by the Spanish who had brought their Christian religion to Mexico. After the conquest and subjugation of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Spanish had massive churches built with local labor in honor of their one God. These churches, both big and small, were and still are the foundation of what was to become the strongly Catholic nation of Mexico and many other countries in Latin America as well. I find these churches truly awe-inspiring regardless of your faith.

La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the current parish church of San Miguel, is unique in Mexico and the emblem of the town. The church was built in the 17th century with a traditional Mexican facade. The current Gothic facade was constructed in 1880 by Zeferino Gutierrez, who was an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect. It is said Gutierrez's inspiration came from postcards and lithographs of Gothic churches in Europe. However, the interpretation is his own and is more a work of his imagination than a true representation. I can personally attest to taking dozens of photos of it while living in San Miguel.


Atrium and facade of the Temple of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Ocotlan de Morelos. This area was a significant population center at the time of the Spanish Conquest and for that reason an important Dominican monastery was established here in the 16th century. The complex still exists with the church still being used for worship and the cloister area used as a museum. 


Antigua is a beautiful city surrounded by volcanoes in southern Guatemala.
It is renowned for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of them which were restored following a 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s 200-year reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital. Notable architectural examples include baroque La Merced, a squat, yellow-and-white church. It’s an integral part of the city’s famous Semana Santa, a holy week with parades and rituals.


The Church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is a Baroque ecclesiastical building complex in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Begun in 1575, they were constructed over a period of 200 years between the 16th and 18th centuries. The rooms that formerly constituted the monastery now house the Cultural Center of Oaxaca, which was founded with the help of Oaxaca-born artist Francisco Toledo. This museum includes an important collection of pre-Columbian artifacts including items from the nearby archaeological site of Monte Albán.


The Temple and former convent of Santo Domingo, located in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico whose construction was started in 1549 is one of the greatest expressions of baroque style in Mexico and includes one of the most decorated facades with figures of mermaids and indigenous angels.  And if that is not enough, it's pink! 


The Cathedral of San Jose in Antigua, Guatemala has had quite a history.
The original church was built around 1541, but suffered damage from numerous earthquakes throughout its history which resulted with the first church building being demolished in 1669. The cathedral was then rebuilt and consecrated in 1680. By 1743 the cathedral was one of the largest in Central America. However, the devastating 1773 Guatemala earthquakes seriously damaged much of the building. San Jose has undergone much restoration work and been partly rebuilt over the many succeeding years. Here's hoping that the gods will bless San Jose with better luck in the future.


I find this church stunning in its simplicity. To me it represents the strength and beauty of Yucatan, Mexico. We saw it while driving home to Merida from a visit to Izamal which is known as the "Yellow City." Izamal is a place of pilgrimage for the veneration of Roman Catholic saints. Several of the saint statues in Izamal are said to perform miracles. The Maya language is the first language in the homes of the majority of the people in Izamal.


The Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Panajachel, Guatemala was built by the religious order of the Franciscans during the Spanish conquest of Guatemala for the purpose of converting the indigenous population to the Catholic faith. The Church of St. Francis of Assisi is also quite a survivor. The sixteenth century building has managed to remain through the centuries despite several earthquakes that have shaken the area. Although it has been repaired and rebuilt on numerous occasions some parts of the original structure still remain.


The Church of Our Lady of Carmen was a magnificent Catholic church in the city of Santiago de los Caballeros of Guatemala (now commonly known simply as "Antigua" or "La Antigua") which was widely destroyed by the Santa Marta earthquakes  (named after her feast day when the earthquakes struck) in 1773. Despite the almost total destruction of the temple, its facade is still in good condition and it has been admired ever since as an example of Guatemalan "earthquake baroque."

This unusual and striking church is located on the outskirts of the Spanish colonial city of Zacatecas and unfortunately I have never been able to determine its name. It stands out vividly in our memory, however, because this photo was taken from our car window as we were leaving Zacatecas on the morning of September 11, 2001 shortly after we had heard of the attack on America. It reminds me of the terrible feeling of loss and grief we felt that horrible and tragic morning, but I also found it inspirational.

Credit for the above beautiful photo goes to Yolanda Nanez Landa Zamora of Zacatecas.  Muchas gracias.

Thank you for joining me on this visit to the pyramids, temples, and churches of Mexico and Beyond.  I have had a wonderful time re-visiting some of my favorite places and I hope you have also.  As always, I look forward to your company, suggestions, recommendations, and comments.  Until next time, safe trails and happy travels. Saludos,  Laura


                                  Memories are only a click away!
                  Life imitating Mayan sculptures in Copan, Honduras 

For serious Mayan history buffs you can binge at the following:



  1. You dazzle, as always. Thank you for this. Such excellent info and wonderful writing.

    1. My sincere thanks, amiga! With your incredibly full plate of fabulous projects and activities your taking the time to leave a comment is especially appreciated.

  2. What a wonderful post, Laura. So full to the brim of in-depth information. And your photos are stunning, as always. Felicidades!

  3. Hermana, Thanks for another lovely and educational blog. You've clearly covered a lot of ground over the years. We have only seen a few of your sites ourselves in person, but did in particular love Uxmal and an early evening Sound & Light show there. xxxooo Hermano Guillermo