Taking its name—which translates as “the place of twenty waters”—from the aqueducts and irrigation systems that fed its fertile farmlands; Cempoala was once one of the region’s most important pre-Columbian cities. Inhabited by the Totonac, Zapotec, and Chinantecas people, the scattered ruins date back to 1200 AD.
A walking tour of the archeological site reveals a number of notable temples, shrines, and residences. Climb up to the top of the Sun Temple—a giant pyramid that bears a resemblance to the Sun Temple at Tenochtitlan—for a panoramic view over the ancient city. Visit the Temple of Charity, decorated with hundreds of stucco skulls in homage to the God of Death; admire the Chimney Temple, so called for its series of unusual pillars; and check out the frescos still visible inside the Cross Temple.
Things to know before you go
- Cempoala is often visited on a day trip from Veracruz City and can be combined with nearby sites such as the Quiahuiztlan archaeological site and the historic city of La Antigua.
- The archeological site is outdoors with little shade, so dress accordingly and bring sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water.
- Flat grassy lawns mean that access is possible for wheelchairs and strollers, although entrance to the temples is limited.
How to get there
Cempoala is located in the modern town of Zempoala, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Veracruz City, or about a 60-minute drive. Buses depart daily to the town from Veracruz, but it’s most convenient to visit as part of a tour.
When to get there
Cempoala is typically open daily, all year-round. The ruins rarely get overly crowded, but it’s worth making an early start during the summer months to avoid the hottest part of the day.
Guided Tours of Cempoala
Like many of Mexico’s archeological sites, visiting Cempoala with a guide provides insight into the significance of the site and its unique history. Learn about the sophisticated irrigation systems put into place to grow cotton, maize, and agave; making Cempoala a hugely important agricultural center. As you explore the long-abandoned city, hear about the Totonac people and how they became allies with Spanish Conquistador Cortés—only to fall prey to the smallpox virus brought over by the Europeans—ultimately leading to their demise.