Zona Arqueológica de Cañada de la Virgen (photo by Mauricio Marat; all courtesy INAH)

In San Miguel de Allende, 150 miles north of Mexico City, tourists flock to stroll the city’s colonial streets and peruse the art galleries that conjure the city’s bohemian early-20th century past. A short drive away, however, lies the more than 1,000-year-old Cañada de la Virgen, an ancient ceremonial site built by the Hñähñu (Otomí), who were conquered by the Aztecs. On September 20, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) designated the site a national archaeological zone, protecting it from encroaching development.

Cañada de la Virgen is the Spanish name for the elaborate Otomí site, which was likely populated between 600 and 900 CE. A central axis aligns it with the sunrise and sunset, the locations of Cañada de la Virgen’s pyramids are calibrated with the stars, and a water engineering system collected and dispersed rainwater for the ceremonial cityscape. INAH says that an elite group of priests resided at the site, with the rest of the population living in the surrounding region.

A panoramic view of the settlement (photo by Mauricio Marat)

Cañada de la Virgen’s design is similar to that of Teotihuacán, the massive ancient urban center outside of Mexico City which still baffles archaeologists in its rise and fall. INAH drew a connection between the two sites, adding that the similarities between them likely indicate population movement before or after the collapse of Teotihuacán.

In recent years, budget cuts have limited Mexico’s capacity to protect archaeological sites. The last, the Las Labradas Archaeological Zone in Sinaloa, was dedicated in 2012.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.