Interested in climbing ancient pyramids? How about learning more about human sacrifice? You can do both at the UNESCO heritage site of Teotihuacán.
Located approximately 25 miles northeast of Mexico City, the ancient city of Teotihuacán is definitely worth a visit. This amazing anthropological site can be accessed by bus (buses leave Mexico City about every 30 minutes or so from Terminal del Norte) or you can do as I did and hire a driver. For about $50 US per person, my friend and I hired a
guide to pick us up at the hotel, drive us out to Teotihuacán and drop us back into Mexico City – very convenient and a lot less crowded and hot than a bus. Your hotel concierge can help you arrange this service.
Headed out on the highway north, you get another look at just how populous and crowded Mexico City really is. Hillside after hillside of colorful houses stacked side by side line the roadway. Once you get out of the city traffic, the drive to Teotihuacán is a pleasant one. It can take approximately 90 minutes to get there – mostly due to the traffic in Mexico City itself. We left our hotel early, approximately 7:30 AM, for our trek to the pyramids. Upon arrival, I was glad we chose a morning (rather than afternoon trip). Mornings are cooler and less crowded. Temperatures at Teotihuacán were in the low 80s during our visit in March and the sun is unrelenting at the site. Very little shade is to be found so make like a tourist and pack a sun hat and/or parasol to shield you from the sun. The elevation in Mexico is higher than you might imagine so make sure you’re getting enough water (restrooms are available towards the entrance gates at Teotihuacán).
You’ll find three entrance gates into the site. The first gate allows you to walk the Avenue of the Dead and explore la Ciudadela, the second gate is closest to the largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, and gate number three enters the site closer to the smaller of the two pyramids, the Pyramid of the Moon. It is absolutely possible to walk the entire site, but you can also ask your driver to drop you at any of the three gates. With limited time, we opted to be dropped off at the Pyramid of the Sun and picked up at the Pyramid of the Moon.
You will need to purchase a ticket to enter the Teotihuacán. This can be done at any of the gates and the cost in March of 2018 was 70 pesos for an adult visitor. Shops and vendors selling everything from water and snacks to hats to obsidian fetishes line the walkways. Vendors will try their best to get you to buy something and it’s normal for you to bargain a little to get the best deal.
Once inside the complex at Teotihuacán, I was amazed at how large the square was. Numerous ruins have been excavated and are on display for you to view up close. Carefully preserved and brightly colored murals are also on display in a museum on site. Anthropologists and historians are not quite sure who built Teotihuacán or what its original name was. Teotihuacán was the name given to the site by the Aztecs and the city was already in ruin upon their arrival. The city was probably established around the year 100 BC and had started its decline around 600 AD. This means that the city was up and running during the time of the Mayan empire and in fact, Mayan texts show reference to the city of Teotihuacán.
While you are here and if you are able, I would highly recommend climbing one of the pyramids. (If you have more time and money, take a hot air balloon ride over the site). Both the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon were probably used as some type of religious and/or sacrificial site. There is a lot of interest in the Pyramid of the Moon by researchers because of its strategic place at the end of the Avenue of the Dead. I
suspect at some point, for preservation purposes, climbing the pyramids will no longer be allowed as pieces of the stairs are already beginning to break off, but today it is expected that you will climb up one or, if you are superhuman, both pyramids. You get to put your feet on history, literally, and the view of the archeological site from atop the pyramid is pretty spectacular. Be warned that these pyramids are large. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. The stairs are very steep and in some places very narrow. The steps are not all consistent in size either. I’m fairly tall and long legged and there were a few stairs that were a challenge for me. (But, just when you think about stopping you see a woman twice your age and half your height making it up….) There are ropes on some of the steeper parts of the pyramid that you can hold while climbing. Because of the uneven nature of the ground here, I’d recommend you wear a sturdy pair of sneakers or trail shoes.
After climbing our way up the Pyramid of the Sun, I began thinking about a few things. 1. I need to get back to my workouts. 2. The people of Teotihuacán were in damn good shape. 3. The view is spectacular. 4. I probably just walked over the bones of people that were sacrificed to the gods.
That’s right, the builders of Teotihuacán worshipped many gods and from all accounts had rituals that involved human sacrifice – including, on occasion, children whose bones were said to be scattered at the corners of the pyramids. It’s kinda disturbing and it’s kinda fascinating, these human sacrificial rituals. I’ve read that many times those that were sacrificed were warriors from enemy tribes, but sometimes someone from your village was chosen as a sacrifice. Depending upon what each god required in the form of sacrifice you might be decapitated, have your beating heart pulled out of your chest or just be struck over the head. I’m currently looking for a good book to read to learn more about human sacrifice in these tribes.
The history of the Central and South American tribes is captivating and is worth more than the passing mention it gets in history classes. People living in the Americas before the reign of the European conquerors were part of large and complex societies with far more development in math, science, farming and warfare than we tend to think. If you’re looking for a good book, I’d highly recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
While Teotihuacán seemed by all means to be a vibrant city with estimates of 125,000 inhabitants (making it the 6th largest city in the world during its time), the city suffered some decline and the inhabitants eventually left. Drought and ecological decline resulting in malnutrition of the population may have played a part, but there is also archeological evidence that a fire was systematically set in the city – set intentionally to the places that housed the upper class citizens.
At this point in the day, my quadriceps are burning and both my friend and I are ready for a snack. Our driver, Mario, takes us down the road to a restaurant and tequila distillery called Mi Mexico Lindo. Here we enjoyed a nice plate of tacos and a taste of the house sweet, almond flavored tequila. (It’s five o’clock somewhere!) . After you enjoy a meal, if you are so inclined, you can tour the facilities and taste the liquors made from the agave plant: tequila, mezcal, and a special little fermented drink that’s been around for hundreds of years: pulque.
After your visit to Teotihuacán, make some time in Mexico City to follow up with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropolgía. This enormous museum has a world class collection of artifacts from pre-Hispanic Mexico. Organized in 12 ground level halls, you can get much more insight on the indigenous peoples of of Mexico, including the Aztecs. You can buy tickets ahead of time on the museum’s website or purchase at the museum. Note that there is a separate ticket line for tourists, especially on Sundays when the museum is free to Mexican residents.