Teotihuacán

Interested in climbing ancient pyramids?  How about learning more about human sacrifice?  You can do both at the UNESCO heritage site of Teotihuacán.

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

29512344_10216423424797912_4470616338848213182_n
Shrine at the entrance of Teotihuacán

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.

29542672_10216423425677934_2371328795754231089_n
Pyramid of the Moon

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 the29542306_10216423428277999_2689725515269700708_n 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.

29542139_10216423423157871_8171890151450919818_n
Pyramid dog

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.

29595414_10216423425277924_3846461615047256786_n
Pyramid of the Sun

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

29498022_10216423427117970_7594043930385492106_n
Nap time at the Pyramid of the Moon

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.

29683995_10216423424237898_3833493694926441684_n
Tequila

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.

 

Ciudad de México

If you’ve been contemplating a trip to Mexico City….Go! It’s a wonderful city with friendly people, great food, charming neighborhoods, and amazing museums.

Who would have thought that I’d end up loving a place I was so hesitant to visit?

You hear things about Mexico: drug cartels, corrupt government and police force, the time your cousin was escorted around the city in an armored car while on a business trip- and you think, these things are not a ringing endorsement for Mexico.  But when your friend tells you about a long weekend trip to Mexico City, you think: why not? And then you start reading up and you realize that Mexico City, with over 150 museums, art, culture, and tacos galore, sounds like an interesting vacation spot indeed. And it is.

Mexico City, home to some 22 million people (with another 6 million daily commuters, I am told), is the largest city in the Americas and it’s probably not the place you think it is.  For all of my hesitancy around scheduling a trip to this giant metropolis, I can’t wait to get back.

One of the joys of traveling to Central America is the ease in getting there. My flight from Houston, Texas to Mexico City was only 90 minutes.  And, to sweeten the pot, Mexico City is currently on the same time as my home.  (Mexico City does observe Daylight Savings Time, but they don’t spring forward until April 1st).  After reading about what a nightmare baggage claim can be in the Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, I decided to carry on.  Armed with my Samsonite under the seat carry-on suitcase and my Baggallini purse, I deplaned in Mexico City after an uneventful flight.  The only real excitement was the two Mexican gentlemen seated next to me, politely stifling chuckles while I sat, nose pressed against the window and mouth wide open at the sheer size of the city.  When you go, you’ll get it.  Once you descend through the haze (there is a pollution problem in a city this size), you’ll see what looks like a never ending city.  It simply sprawls on forever.  I’ve been to some big cities: Paris, London, Los Angeles….and these all pale in comparison. I was also mesmerized by the vibrant pops of purple that I could see from the air.  These turned out to be my newest obsession, the jacaranda tree.

A few points to note if you are planning a trip to Mexico.  US and Canadian citizens need a Passport to visit for up to 180 days.  No Visa is needed unless you plan to stay longer.  If you’re flying in from elsewhere, check to see what documentation is needed.  On the flight, you’ll be asked to complete an Immigration Form for entrance into the country.  This form is not unlike immigration forms I’ve filled out for other trips, except that you will be asked to retain one portion of your form.  It will be collected when you exit the country and it you don’t have it to hand in, you’ll be assessed a fine of 42 Mexican Pesos.

You’ll also want to exchange some money.  Several places in Mexico City did accept credit cards, but I found that the city operates on more of a cash basis than I anticipated.  You can exchange money at the airport (the exchange rate is great for those of you coming from the USA – about $16.80 Mexican to ever $1 US Dollar) or you can easily access a cajero automático, ATM, while out and about.  US Dollars were accepted some places but not with the frequency of a coastal resort town.

A note about plumbing: you cannot flush your toilet tissue in Mexico City.  The plumbing cannot handle it.  This isn’t uncommon in many areas of the world: Greece, parts of Italy, other countries in Central and South America.  (I wrote about it when I went to Ecuador.) You’ll find a small wastebasket next to the toilet.  Simply deposit your used tissue there and proceed with your day.  In some of the more rural stops, you may find that there is no toilet tissue or that you’ll be asked to purchase tissue for your visit.  Tuck a small pack of tissues or a tiny roll of Charmin To Go in your purse for these occasions.

The city of Mexico City is made up of 16 burroughs and has everything you’d expect to see in a bustling metropolis.  While I felt completely safe during my visit, there are a few precautions to take here, as you would in any city of size.

  1. Don’t take an unauthorized taxi.  Make sure that you are registering a ride with an authorized and marked taxi cab.  Criminals posing as taxi cab drivers is a thing here so do your due diligence and take a cab that is authorized or have your hotel arrange for a cab for you.
  2. Uber is a great way to get around the city.  We used Uber almost exclusively for our trip and had a great experience.  Simply fire up your Uber app and order a ride just like you do at home.
  3. Mexico City does have a subway and it’s rumored to be pretty convenient and fast.  Be alert and mind your bags and wallets.  As our hotel concierge noted, most of the crime in the tourist heavy parts of Mexico City is pick-pocketing.
  4. Police presence is everywhere in Mexico City.  From traffic cops to riot police, you will see law enforcement on the streets.

There are several great places to stay in this city.  We opted for the Hampton Inn and Suites – Mexico City Centro Histórico.  This beautiful hotel was a convent in its former life

29541337_10216416600547310_8852720000422163299_n
Hampton Inn and Suites

and the building and terrace are lovely.  It’s also right in the middle of the busy historic center of the city which means you’re within walking distance of some of the main tourist sites: Zócalo, the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Palace of Fine Arts.

29511932_10216423641323325_2406119180080985680_n
The Zócalo

We arrived late on a Friday afternoon and opted to spend our first evening getting to know our neighborhood with a stroll to the Zócalo (formally La Plaza de la Constitución), about a 2 block walk from our hotel.  Take care in crossing the streets in Mexico City!  Traffic is insane – both pedestrian and vehicular.  There are crosswalks, but they are not always respected.  The Zócalo is a large plaza that serves as a gathering site for the city’s many festivals, religious events and concerts.  It’s one of the largest squares in the world and it is the largest square in the Western Hemisphere.  (Get used to me saying that, by the way.  Everything in Mexico City is the largest, oldest and most visited in the Western Hemisphere).  Mexico City has an interesting Aztec tradition and the Zócalo is built right over one of the main ceremonial centers in the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

29597301_10216434270469047_7638582137254244461_n
Palacio Nacional

From the plaza you’ll be able access many shops and restaurants.  You’ll also get a great look at the Palacio National, the seat of the federal executive in Mexico City.  The National Palace has also been here since Aztec times and materials from Moctezuma II’s palace were used in crafting the building you see here today.  Go inside to see Diego Rivera murals.  (You can see more Rivera works in the Public Education building.  Simply show an ID and let the guard know you’re there to see the murals).

Also on the Zócalo, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielos.  In typical European conqueror style, Hernan Cortés ordered the building of the cathedral after his conquest of Tenochtitlan and he built it atop several sacred Aztec sites.  Like the Palacio National, stones from the original Aztec sites were

29570695_10216434269709028_675364630679238642_n
Ancient traditions on display at the Metropolitan Cathedral

used in the construction of the early cathedral.  At least the Spaniards recycled when conquering the native peoples?  The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (that’s a mouthful) was built in sections between 1573 and 1813 and is, are you ready, the oldest and largest Catholic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.  It’s also incredibly beautiful and a great place to check out several different styles of architecture at once, including the Churrigueresque style front entrance.  Please note, this is an active cathedral as it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Mexico City. Mass goes on quite frequently.  Please be respectful of the barriers put up so that those attending mass are not disturbed.  You’ll also want to ensure that you are somewhat covered up for a visit here – that means no shorts and no bare shoulders (I always tuck a large scarf into my bag for this reason).

Mexico City style note:  you will not see many shorts in Mexico City at all.  Even though the weather can get warm here (up to 85 degrees F), you will see people a bit more covered up.  Jeans are very popular and you’ll typically see longer sleeved tops and layers.  Skirts and dresses are commonly seen as well.  You’ll be fine here with a selection of pants or jeans (even cropped pants, ladies) or skirts with a few tops and a couple of cardigans or scarves.  Bring sensible walking shoes.  Mexico City’s streets are old and in some areas uneven cobblestone.  My final style note is to avoid wearing white athletic shoes…nothing screams American tourist more loudly than this.

A quick walk from the Cathedral and we ended up at our dinner destination for our first evening. The restaurant was not our intended destination, but after a long and mixed up conversation with the concierge, we ended up at La Casa de los Azulejos, an 18th Century tiled palace that was built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba.  The gorgeous home, tiled in the traditional blue and white tiles of the Mexican state of Puebla, is now home to Sanborns.  Sanborns is a drug store chain that you’ll find in Mexico, Panama and El Salvador.   It was opened by two California brothers who moved to Mexico and it featured the first soda fountain in the country.  During the Mexican Revolution, Sanborns became a meeting place for the troops of Emiliano Zapato.  Today, you’ll come to appreciate Sanborns as a department store with a consistent restaurant and clean bathrooms.

29512777_10216434269149014_3956791707056026192_n
Casa de Azulejos

From the Casa de los Azulejos, it’s a short walk and an a harrowing street crossing to get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes or the Fine Arts Palace.  This building was begun in 1905 and finished in 1930 in the Art Deco style.  The building features murals by artist Diego Rivera, a stained glass curtain by Tiffany & Co. and it’s sinking.  All of Mexico City is actually sinking and you’ll see evidence of it around town.  From cracked foundations to added stairs to monuments, the city is fighting a never ending battle….all because Mexico City and its ancestor, Tenochtitlan, were built in a lake bed.  You can catch performances here from Ballet Folklórico de México, but the building itself is best viewed from across the street at the Sears.  I kid you not.  The Sears department store, which very much looks like a grand department store from the golden days, has a coffee shop on the 9th floor with a fantastic view, I am told, of the Palace.  Go early.  The coffee shop is tiny and there will be a wait – we didn’t get there in time.

On day two of our trip to Mexico, we visited the Pyramids at Teotihuacán in the morning and then returned to the neighborhood of Coyoacán in southern Mexico City.  Coyoacán is a Nahuatl word meaning the place of the coyotes.  Built upon a pre-Hispanic village of the Tepanec people it is now a Bohemian neighborhood with lots of restaurants, colorful squares, restaurants, and museums.  One of the highlights here is the Frida Kahlo museum: Casa Azul.

29510919_10216423477639233_2979257385220940121_n
Casa Azul

The Blue House was Kahlo’s childhood home and it is the home where she died.  It was donated as a museum in 1958 and houses several of her works.  I can appreciate the work of Frida Kahlo, though I wouldn’t want it hanging on my wall.  Frida’s life was both interesting and tragic and that is reflected in her works.  As a child, she accompanied her epileptic father, a photographer, perhaps instilling a love for art. After a horrible bus accident, she was bed ridden, eventually forced to wear a leather corset and sit in a wheelchair to offset the medical issues from the accident.  Kahlo married muralist, Diego Rivera, and by all means it was a stormy relationship with affairs on both sides.  One of the rumored affairs for Frida was Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.  (He’s got a museum here, too).  The grounds and gardens are gorgeous and are worth a visit even if you’re not a Frida fan.

This museum is very popular.  Book your tickets online before you go so that you can wait in the shorter line.  If you want to take photos inside the museum, you will need to purchase an additional photography pass in order to do so.  Your entrance here also gets you into the Diego Rivera house and museum, Anahuacalli.

After museum going, we were hungry and we stumbled into a bakery called Pan de Gabriel.  We visited a bit with the man manning the register, who explained to us that the bakery was a vegan bakery.  Not at all what I’d expect in Mexico City.  Everything in the bakery was made without gluten, sugar, dairy or eggs and it was still delicious!  After a chat with the bakers, who were thrilled that we were giving Mexico City a chance and that we loved it, and a visit with a couple from New York, we were off on another Uber ride back to the historic center for dinner.

Dinner at El Huequito Bolivar is soooo worth it.  Mexico City is know for its tacos and this taqueria specializes in tacos al pastor.  For those of you not in the taco know, tacos al pastor feature spit-grilled pork mixed with fruit and – most traditionally pineapple – and chile.  El Huequito marinates its pork in their specialty orange salsa and it’s delicious.  Be careful of the salsa.  On this trip to Mexico I tasted three salsas hot enough to kill me and I’m used to eating spicy food! Enjoy some tacos and a refreshing bottled coke, margarita or beer here.  (You know not to drink the tap water in Mexico, right?  Not to worry – refreshments, including safe to drink bottled water are easy to find).

After dinner, my friend and I were both craving a sweet so we wandered back towards our hotel to a bakery we had seen before: Pasteleria Ideal. Let me just interject here that Mexico City knows how to do baked goods better than any place else I’ve ever been – and that includes Paris where pastries are serious business.  Residents of Mexico City love pan dulces or sweet breads and nowhere was that more apparent than in this bakery on a Saturday night.  The place was packed!  Upon venturing inside, we see a veritable smorgasbord of pastries laid out on a series of tables in the back of the bakery.  People grabbed restaurant serving-sized trays and a set of tongs and began piling the baked goods high!  When you had what you wanted, you proceeded to a station where your goodies were wrapped and weighed.  Take your receipt to the counter to pay and off you go with pounds of delicious sweets.  I’m not sure if this is a weekly indulgence for most in Mexico City, but I’m thankful that we’d been walking enough to have a pastry.

Day 3.  Tired feet after two days of walking and climbing pyramids, we decided to take advantage of something that was suggested to us: The Turibus.  The Turibus is just what it sounds like: a double decker tour bus cruising the streets of Mexico City and it’s a great option for safely seeing the sights.  For approximately $9 USD, you can ride the Turibus and its five circuits from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM to see the sights and to hop off at any of the sights you want to explore more.  With unlimited hop on/hop off rights and a gorgeous day, it seemed like a good way to see a bit more of the city while giving our feet a rest.  Buy tickets at the major Turibus stops (like the Zócalo) or buy them right on the bus.  Simply show your wristband the next time you want to hop on a Turibus.  The buses also have Wifi and recorded information about the sights.  Listen over the speaker in Spanish or plug in a set of headphones to listen in other languages.

29513043_10216434756561199_4420047116847458862_nWe hopped off at the Angel of Independence, a beautiful monument to independence on Paseo de la Reforma that was built in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of Mexico’s War for Independence.  The sinking sculpture, more steps have been added to the base, is a sculpture featuring the four bronze figures of law, justice, war and peace, as well as Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.  It’s also a gathering place for the many walkers, roller bladers and cyclists out on a Sunday morning when Paseo de la Reforma closes down.  Several people were out enjoying the weather and a few were out peacefully protesting the concerns they had about the Mexican government.

After a stop at the world renowned Anthropology Museum, we walked over to Chapultepec Park, the largest city park in Latin America and one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere.  Bosque de Chapultepec is the green space in Mexico City and it is enormous (think Central Park in NYC).  The park houses several museums, the zoo, the botanic gardens, and a lake among other things.  We took a stroll through the park that sees more than 250,000 visitors per day.  The park has been inhabited since pre-Columbian times and is a great place to spend an afternoon.  Stop for a paleta or refresco at one of the many vendor stands and enjoy performance art, a paddle boat ride on the lake, or some time at the zoo.

29542545_10216434265988935_5333102421975190399_n
Bosque de Chapultepec

A ride back to the hotel on the Turibus and a quick dinner and I can’t believe my time in Mexico City has already come to an end.  Allot yourself plenty of time to get back to the airport.  Depending upon traffic, it may take anywhere from 30-60 minutes.  Check-in and security at the airport were surprisingly easy.

¡Adiós, Ciudad de México!

If you’ve been contemplating a trip to Mexico City….Go! It’s a wonderful city with friendly people, great food, charming neighborhoods, and amazing museums.