The archaeological zone of La Quemada is the largest known pre-Columbian settlement in southern Zacatecas. It is located 56 kms to the south of the city of Zacatecas, on Federal Highway 70. A modern, on-site museum has a scale model showing more than 50 terraces and about one square km of constructions.
The buildings of La Quemada were built on a hill 800 feet high. Settled and developed between 300 and 1200 A.D., the site has features similar to other Mesoamerican cultures. Its civic and religious edifices were built to impress visitors, with architectural features considered daring and unique for their time. Examples include the Hall of Columns and the Votive Pyramid.
First occupied from about 200-300 A.D., its population peaked after 500 A.D., before the site was abandoned shortly after 900 A.D. Little is known about the first settlers here. 18th century historians conjectured the site’s construction might have been made by the transient Chicomostoc culture. But the constructions are clearly too extensive, and the quality of architecture too high, for La Quemada to have been a temporary settlement.
A network of “roads”, built of slabs and clay, extends from La Quemada to some 200 minor sites on the Malpaso valley floor. The site was built at different times, successive stages covering parts of previous constructions. Among advanced construction projects undertaken between 650 and 850 A.D. was the Chamber of Columns, one of the largest roofed structures yet found anywhere in Mesoamerica. Only the columns remain today.
At Altavista, visitors are not limited to touring the buildings but can also enjoy the views and participate in activities related astronomy like eclipses and equinoxes. This site is also known as Chalchihuites, a word of Nahuatl origin meaning precious stone. Among the outstanding buildings are the Hall of Columns, with the remains of 28 columns; the Gamio Staircase, which probably gave access to the upper story of the Hall; the Pyramid of the Sun; the Temple of Skulls; and the Labyrinth.