Cacaxtla (pronounced Kah-kahsh-tlah) is perhaps Tlaxcala's main attraction. It's a pre-Hispanic hilltop site 19km (12 miles) southwest of the city with some of the most vivid murals in Mexico. The site was uncovered in 1975. What the archaeologists found -- vivid murals in red, blue, black, yellow, and white, showing Maya warriors (from the Yucatán) -- revolutionized our understanding of settlement patterns in central highland Mexico. Since then, more murals and at least eight construction phases have been uncovered.

Scholars attribute the influence of the site to a little-known tri-ethnic group (Náhuatl, Mixtec, and Chocho-Popoloca) known as Olmec-Xicalanca, from Mexico's Gulf Coast. Among the translations of its name, "merchant's trade pack" seems most revealing. Like Casas Grandes, north of Chihuahua City and Xochicalco between Cuernavaca and Taxco, Cacaxtla appears to have been an important crossroads for merchants, astronomers, and others in the Mesoamerican world. Its apogee, between A.D. 650 and 900, corresponds with the abandonment of Teotihuacán, the decline of the Classic Maya civilization, and the emergence of the Toltec culture at Tula.

How those events affected Cacaxtla isn't known. The principal mural is a vividly detailed victory scene, with triumphant dark-skinned warriors wearing jaguar skins, and the vanquished dressed in feathers and having their intestines extracted. Numerous symbols of Venus (a half-star with five points) found painted at the site have led archaeoastronomy scholar John Carlson to link historical events such as wars, captive taking, and ritual sacrifice with the appearance of Venus; all of this was likely undertaken in hope of ensuring the continued fertility of crops.

The latest mural discoveries show a wall of corn plants from which human heads sprout, next to a merchant whose pack is laden with goods. The murals flank a grand acropolis with unusual architectural motifs. A giant steel roof protects the grand plaza and murals.

Xochitécatl is a small ceremonial center on a hilltop overlooking Cacaxtla, about 1km (2/3 mile) to the east and in plain sight of Cacaxtla. It was probably inhabited, at least in the classical period, by the same people living in Cacaxtla. A curious circular pyramid stands atop this hill, 180m (590 ft.) above the surrounding countryside. Beside it are two other pyramids and three massive boulders (one about 3m/9 3/4 ft. in diameter), which were hollowed out for some reason. Hollowed boulders appear to have been restricted to the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley. Excavation of the Edificio de la Espiral (spiral pyramid), dated between 1000 and 800 B.C. (middle formative period), encountered no stairways. Access is thought to have been by its spiral walkway. Rounded boulders from the nearby Zahuapan and Atoyac rivers were used in its construction. Cone-shaped platforms in this part of Mexico are thought to have been dedicated to Ehecatl, god of the wind. The base diameter exceeds 55m (180 ft.); it rises to a height of 15m (49 ft.).

The stepped and terraced Pyramid of the Flowers was started during the middle formative period. Modifications continued into colonial times, as exemplified by faced-stone and stucco-covered adobe. Of the 30 bodies found during excavations, all but one were children. Little is known about the people who built Xochitécatl. Evidence suggests that the area was dedicated to Xochitl, goddess of flowers and fertility. The small museum contains pottery and small sculpture, and a garden holds larger sculpture. From the top of the hill you are afforded an excellent view of Popocatépetl and, on a clear day, can make out the snowcap of the Pico de Orizaba.

Admission to both sites is 42 pesos, plus 35 pesos for a video or still camera. Both sites are open daily 9am to 5pm. To get there and back in a taxi, you will have to contract the taxi on an hourly basis (100 pesos per hour) so that he'll wait for you. Before doing that, ask at the tourism office to find out if any set tours to Cacaxtla are running.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.