Have We Just Found the Legendary Lost City of the Aztecs?

Aerial view of Mexcaltitán
Aerial view of Mexcaltitán | © Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones / Flickr
Stephen Woodman

Mexican historians have been speculating for decades whether this human-made island-city in the Mexican state of Nayarit is the true location of Aztlán, the ancestral homeland of the Aztecs. Some researchers argue that the street design resembles the ancient Aztec city which they abandoned as they set out on a pilgrimage to the region that is now Mexico City. Still barely touched by tourism, Mexcaltitán de Uribe is almost perfectly round and boasts bright streets arranged in a striking cruciform pattern.

Not many people would expect Mexcaltitán, home to fewer than 1,000 permanent residents, to have a connection to the hectic metropolis of Mexico City. But many researchers believe that the tiny village was the original home of the Aztecs, before they left en masse in 1091 for a more than 200-year journey that would take them through present-day Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Querétaro. This exodus finally ended in with the founding of Tenochtitlán in 1325, the city that was later rebuilt as Mexico City.

Mexcaltitán street plan

According to legend, the wandering Aztecs knew where to build their new city when they saw an eagle perched on a cactus. Today, this image, with the eagle now tussling with a snake, is a national symbol and appears on the Mexican flag.

Since the 1960s, researchers have wondered whether Mexcaltitán is the location of Aztlán, the long lost city of the Aztecs. Proponents of this theory point to the similarities between the layout of the streets in Mexcaltitán and Tenochtitlán.

Early Aztec manuscripts such as the Boturini Codex show the Aztecs setting out in canoes from an Aztlán surrounded by water. Today, visitors to the island still have to take a boat or canoe to reach Mexcaltitán. These leave from La Batanga, the dock area located about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the island.

Depiction of Aztlán in the Boturini Codex

The coastal state of Nayarit still receives relatively few visitors compared to the adjacent state of Jalisco, so tourism has scarcely made a mark in Mexcaltitán. Nevertheless, the island is an unforgettable experience for visitors. The island is around 1,115 feet (340 meters) long and almost perfectly round in shape, and a canoe ride around it takes only around 30 minutes.

The street plan of Mexcaltitán is both elegant and imbued with cosmic significance. Two vertical streets and two horizontal streets cross the circular island. They intersect to form a central plaza, which is associated with the sun, the great generator of light and life.

For at least two months in the summer, the streets flood with water and the residents of Mexcaltitán have to travel by canoe. Because of this, the town that may have once been called Aztlán is commonly referred to today as “the Mexican Venice.”

Boats in Mexcaltitán

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article