Did you know? Mexico has five of the world’s most endangered heritage sites

articles Travel & Destinations

Tony Burton

Did You Know…?

Five places in Mexico are on the list of the world’s 100 most endangered heritage sites.

“The World Monuments Fund (WMF) is the foremost private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered architectural and cultural sites around the world. Since 1965, WMF has worked tirelessly to stem the loss of historic structures at more than 450 sites in over 80 countries.” ( World Monuments Fund website)

Based in New York, with regional offices and affiliates in Paris, London, Madrid, and Lisbon, the WMF partners local organizations and communities in research, planning and fund-raising projects to rescue and restore heritage sites.

Every two years, a panel of experts convened by the Fund issues a Watch list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world, sites where immediate action is needed if they are to be saved for posterity.

The 2006 list includes five sites in Mexico:

  • Chalcatzingo, Morelos
  • Mexico City Historic Center
  • Pimería Alta Misions, Sonora
  • San Juan Bautista Cuauhtinchan, Puebla
  • San Nicolás Obispo, Morelia, Michoacán

What follows is a brief overview of each of the listed sites, intended only to whet your appetite. More intrepid readers will wish to explore these locations in person. Please share your experiences and photos with us afterwards!

Chalcatzingo, Morelos

Chalcatzingo is one of the most important early archaeological sites in Mexico exhibiting a strong Olmec influence.

From about 1500 B.C. until 100 B.C., the Olmecs had a flourishing culture on Mexico’s gulf coast lowlands, in the states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Famous for their giant, larger-than-life stone heads and Mesoamerica’s first pyramid, modelled on a volcano, the Olmecs are often referred to as the mother culture of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilizations.

At Chalcatzingo, they left us temples, plazas and a ballcourt, as well as numerous magnificent stone reliefs. Despite its importance, the site, about 25 kilometers east of Cuautla, has suffered from decades of neglect, and is in urgent need of protection and conservation.

Mexico City Historic Center, Mexico City

The historic center of Mexico City covers 680 city blocks and boasts more than a thousand important buildings. It is one of the finest colonial city centers anywhere on earth.

The original Mexica (Aztec) city of Tenochititlan was built on a series of islands in a shallow lake. In the early sixteenth century, the Spaniards began to drain the lake and to erect their own grandiose city. The shrinking of the ground, due to drainage and the extraction of water for domestic use, has resulted in serious structural problems for almost all the old buildings. The difficulties were compounded by the massive earthquakes in 1985.

In recent years, private and public sector projects have injected huge sums of money into restoring some sections of the downtown core, but much more work and investment are still needed if the historic center is to be preserved for future generations. Progress has been slow, but it is now generally agreed that the city’s first priority must be to resolve its long-standing water-supply problems, to end further depletion of the underlying aquifer.

Pimería Alta Misions, Sonora

The Pimería Alta Missions are a series of eight missions originally built by the Jesuits between 1687 and 1692 in what is now the northern part of the state of Sonora, to reach the region’s indigenous, semi-nomadic peoples. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the missions were taken over by the Franciscans.

Today, the eight sites – Dolores, Cucurpe, San Ignacio, Caborca, Oquitos, Pitiquito, Tubutama, and Cocóspera – are in varying degrees of disrepair; some are in ruins. The Caborca mission was severely damaged by floods in 1997, only a decade after having been declared a national historic monument. Despite being abandoned for more than 150 years, Cocóspera still retains much of its original architecture.

Previous conservation efforts and repairs have often been inappropriate. The WMF hopes that listing the missions again (they were included on the 2004 list) will improve their chances of attracting the funds needed for a long-term protection plan.

San Juan Bautista Cuauhtinchan, Puebla

Not far from the city of Puebla, and about 15 kilometers west of Tepeaca, is the Franciscan monastery of Cuauhtinchan (sometimes spelt Cuautinchan), built in the 1570s. An atrium, pilgrims’ portal, garden, and cemetery complement the church and monastery. An unusual mural in the cloister depicts eagle and jaguar figures either side of the Virgin Mary. The elegant main altarpiece or retablo, a large triptych, is thought to be the oldest surviving work of its kind in Mexico. Excessive humidity has caused the retablo to shrink and crack.

The site has been a museum since 1992, but centuries of neglect have resulted in extensive damage throughout the religious complex. A comprehensive conservation project encompassing the buildings and the unique altarpiece would greatly enhance the site’s attraction to visitors. Tourism revenue might then help finance future work.

The small village of Cuauhtinchan (“house of the eagle warriors”) is best known in historical circles for the mid-sixteenth century Map of Cuauhtinchan, the subject of an extensive research project in the last few years.

San Nicolás Obispo, Morelia, Michoacán

This fine small visita, or mission church, was originally founded in the late 1500s. It has an elaborate artesonado ceiling, an intricate gilded eighteenth century altarpeice, and several other distinctive features. It is the only church in the region with a freestanding tower.

Originally an outlying village, San Nicolás de Obispo is now effectively one of the outermost western suburbs of the city of Morelia. Hopefully, the road to the church is now much improved from when Richard Perry and I made our first exploratory trip to San Nicolás de Obispo many years ago. My bones are still shaking from that experience, even though the vehicle survived!

The WMF report details how mid 1970s restoration efforts at San Nicolás Obispo did as much harm as good. The replacement of some of the original mud stucco by cement stucco caused moisture to be trapped, promoting faster rates of decomposition. Without urgent conservation, this fascinating monument will be lost for ever.


I am very grateful to Richard Perry for bringing the 2006 World Monuments Watch List to my attention.

Text © Copyright 2006 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Published or Updated on: March 14, 2008 by Tony Burton © 2008
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