Recently, my friend Taliya came to visit Mexico City and I spent a few days showing her around. She asked me what was an absolute must-do and without hesitation I said “the pyramids of Teotihuacan.” I’ve been to Teotihuacan three times now and it never ceases to amaze me. If you’re planning on visiting Mexico City, you must put this ancient, mystical city on your list.
Past Visits and Latest Archeological Findings
I first visited these majestic pyramids over four years ago on my very first trip to Mexico City. Needless to say, I was blown away by the sheer size and scale of these pyramids. I was also fascinated by the site’s history and the many unanswered questions that remain today.
The second time, I visited Teotihuacan as a guest of Kansas City Southern Railroad’s anniversary celebration. We took an elegant vintage train from the city to the pyramids and were invited to see the site’s latest archaeological finding, a tunnel discovered beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. We even got to descend into the depths of the tunnel, entering a space that had been sealed off nearly 2000 years ago. It was such a cool experience!
Within the tunnel, many ancient artifacts were found including large spiral seashells, cat bones, pottery, jade and quartz masks, elaborate jewelry, crocodile teeth, sculptures, fragments of human skin, obsidian knifes, and hundreds of metallic spheres. All of these artifacts were placed deliberately, as if in an offering to appease the gods. One of the most remarkable findings in the tunnel chambers was a miniature mountainous landscape with tiny pools of liquid mercury representing lakes. Also, the walls and ceilings of the tunnel were found to have been embedded with mica. This shiny mineral provided a special brightness to the tunnel, giving the effect of standing under the stars. Today, scholars continue to analyze and debate the significance of these new discoveries.
A Little History
From downtown Mexico City, it it takes about an hour and a half to get to Teotihuacan. But I promise you it’s well worth the trip. Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas with a population estimated at 125,000 inhabitants. During its heydey (about 150 BC-750 AD), it was one of the largest cities in the world with more inhabitants than Ancient Rome. Teotihuacan was a powerful center of religion, trade, and politics for cultures all over Central America. By about 550 AD it was abandoned after being destroyed by fire. While the cause of the fire remains unknown, many scholars think the city was burned to the ground during an uprising against the ruling class.
One thousand years later, the Aztecs discovered these magnificent ruins. They were in awe of these vast pyramids and named the site Teotihuacan, meaning the “birthplace of the gods.”
A Few Fun Facts
Today, scholars have found evidence that the builders of Teotihuacan had extensive knowledge in mathematics, geology, astronomy and engineering. Here are a few of my favorite facts about Teotihuacan:
- The geographical layout of Teotihuacan is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities as a representation of the universe. Along the Avenue of the Dead, the pyramids align perfectly to the orbit’s of the planets. Also, the Pyramid of the Sun is positioned at the center of the site, reflecting the sun’s position in the solar system.
- Archaeologists found large quantities of Mica at Teotihuacan. They used slabs of it on the Pyramid of the Sun, as flooring near the Avenue of the Dead, and as lining for the walls of underground tunnels.
- Teotihuacan means City of the Gods but can also be interpreted as “the place where men become gods.”
- Only priests were allowed to climb the steep steps of the pyramids for rituals and ceremonies.
Tip: I’d highly recommend spending some time at Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum before you visit Teotihuacan. It’s an excellent museum and it will give you much greater insight into this fascinating civilization. Also, if you’d like, you can easily secure an English or Spanish-speaking guide while there to provide you with many more fascinating details.
When to Visit
My third and most recent visit to Teotihuacan was by far the most beautiful. We went on a warm, sunny mid-September day with bright blue skies and big, fluffy clouds. The fields surrounding the pyramids were covered in yellow, white, and purple wildflowers and the whole valley was in bloom. It was a stark contrast to my last visit in the spring when there wasn’t a blade of grass in sight. While Teotihuacan is impressive any time of year, if you get the chance, go in the fall. The scenery will blow you away and there will be far less people than in the summer.
Make it a Day Trip
If you want to visit Teotihuacan I would recommend setting aside the majority of your day to do so. The Avenue of the Dead, the main street of the site, runs for more than two miles and contains three major pyramid complexes. Walking from one end of the avenue to the other and climbing the steep pyramids takes several hours and requires a decent level of physical fitness. So wear comfortable clothes and shoes and be prepared to break a sweat! Also, if you have fair skin don’t forget to pile on the sunscreen and wear a hat. Between the altitude and the added height of the pyramids you’re dangerously close to the sun!
At Teotihuacan you will be approached by many indigenous artisans selling their wares. They sell a variety of items but obsidian products are their speciality. Teotihuacanos were known for their skillful use of this volcanic glass and today local indigenous people carry on the tradition. They sell many obsidian products such as knifes, spheres, and discs that you can hold up to your eye and look directly at the sun. On my previous visits, I purchased an obsidian knife and a turtle made out of obsidian with a shell of various ornamental stones. This time, I couldn’t resist a mask of made of obsidian, onyx, jade, and mother of pearl. I currently have it displayed on a shelve in my apartment and I love it!
Some words of advice: Barter with the vendors! Knowing you’re a tourist, they will try to sell you their products at inflated prices. Whatever price they quote you, propose a price substantially lower. Often, you can walk away with whatever you had your eye on for half the price they initially told you. Another tip, don’t buy the first thing you see! The quality of the products differs from vendor to vendor so it’s best to shop around a bit. Also, the vendors can be a bit overwhelming at times. As you can see in the photo below there are dozens of them eager to catch your attention. If you’re not interested just say “gracias!” and keep moving.
Temple of the Feathered Serpent
Taliya and I began our tour of Teotihuacan at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This temple has intricate stone carvings depicting Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, Tlaloc, the rain god, and conch shells, a luxury good at the time. It’s amazing how intact the pyramids are thousands of years after their construction.
Pyramid of the Sun
Next, we made our way along the Avenue of the Dead to the Pyramid of the Sun. At a height of more than 200 feet (63 meters) and a base more than 730 feet (225 meters) long on each side, it is the third largest pyramid by volume in the world. Sitting on the edge of the Pyramid of the Sun, you’re afforded a bird’s-eye view of the entire site. Gazing out across vast monuments, staggering mountains, and lush green fields, you can’t help but feel the energy of this mythical place, filled with ancient wisdom and secrets of the past. It’s an indescribable feeling and one you must experience for yourself!
Pyramid of the Moon
Less than half a mile south of the Pyramid of the Sun is the majestic Pyramid of the Moon. At a height of 150 feet (46 meters), it’s quite a hike to the top. The steps are also incredibly steep, requiring you to walk very slowly and with reverence. If you’re like me, you’ll be panting by the time you’ve reached its peak. But the view is, as they say in Mexico, vale la pena (worth the pain).
So if you’re planning on visiting Mexico City, put the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan on your list, you won’t want to miss them!
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