Cavernous "Passage To The Underworld" Found Beneath Church In Mexico

One ticket to the bowels of the underworld, please.


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

San Pablo Church In Mitla, near Oaxaca, Mexico.

In, around, and beneath the San Pablo Church lies the centuries-old historical site of Mitla.

Image credit: Aleksandar Todorovic/

Under a set of church structures in Mexico, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of an underground labyrinth that they suspect was once believed to be an entrance to the underworld. 

The discovery was made at the archaeological site of Mitla near the city of Oaxaca by a team from the Mexican National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH), the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Association for Archaeological Research and Exploration, and the ARX Project.


Mitla is considered to be the most important historical site for the indigenous people of the Zapotec culture whose civilization thrived in the Valley of Oaxaca from 700 BCE until the Spanish conquests in 1521 CE. 

The site of Mitla likely originated in the Classic period (roughly 250–900 CE) but grew to its greatest size and significance later during the Post-Classic period. Around the late 16th century CE, after the Spanish had welcomed themselves to the Americas, a Catholic church and other structures were plonked on top of the site.

seismic tomography scan image
Seismic tomography scan of the Church Group revealing areas of low velocity (in blue) that could indicate the presence of underground chambers or natural cavities.
Image courtesy of ARX Project

Using three different types of geophysical scanning, the team of archaeologists revealed a subterranean complex of tunnels that exists beneath the set of structures known as the Church Group. Along with a series of passageways, the scans detected a significant void, some 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 feet) beneath the ground, suggesting the presence of a large chamber. 

Both local tradition and documents from the colonial era indicate that Mitla was considered by the ancient Zapotecs to be an entrance to the underworld, or Lyobaa, suggesting these tunnels were believed to be a gateway to the land of the dead. 


Although it's still uncertain, it appears that the sealed entrance to this complex may lie through the main altar of the church.

“In 1674, the Dominican father Francisco de Burgoa described the exploration of the ruins of Mitla and their subterranean chambers by a group of Spanish missionaries. Burgoa’s account speaks of a vast subterranean temple consisting of four interconnected chambers, containing the tombs of the high priests and the kings of Teozapotlán,” the ARX Project said in an announcement of the findings in May 2023.

“From the last subterranean chamber, a stone door led into a deep cavern extending thirty leagues below ground. This cavern was intersected by other passages like streets, its roof supported by pillars. According to Burgoa, the missionaries had all entrances to this underground labyrinth sealed, leaving only the palaces standing above ground,” it added. 


This is just the first geophysical survey of the site. The researchers are set to return to the location in September 2023 for another round of surveys, hoping to reveal more hidden layers of its long-lost past. 

Stay tuned for more journeys into the bowels of the underworld!


  • tag
  • archaeology,

  • Mexico,

  • Mesoamerica,

  • underworld,

  • pre-Colombian history,

  • Zapotec,

  • Classic Period