Located roughly 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, Teotihuacan is an essential day trip if you’re visiting Mexico City.
Considered Mexico’s most important archaeological site, Teotihuacan thrived as a civilization roughly between 100 and 700 A.D. There’s still a great deal of mystery surrounding the people who lived here. The design of Teotihuacan is considered representative of their view of the universe – the site is meticulously laid out under geometrical, astronomical and symbolic principles. To one end of the ceremonial center is the Moon Pyramid, to the other end is the Citadel, and to the side is the Sun Pyramid, the third-largest pyramid in the world.
Teotihuacan is clearly a sacred site. Its inhabitants were considered quite religious; the site contains more temples than any other site in Mesoamerica. The different sizes of the temples may allude to a social structure divided by class. Between 500 and 600 A.D, it was home to as many as 200,000 inhabitants.
At the height of its civilization, Teotihuacan spread its artistic and cultural influence throughout Mesoamerica. Centuries after its fall, the Aztecs considered it a sacred place where the sun, moon and universe were created. The word Teotihuacan translates as “City of the Gods” in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.
To get there from Mexico City you can drive, take a bus, join a tour or hire a taxi. The trip will take about an hour depending on traffic. The pyramids are an impressive sight as you draw close. Before we entered the site, our little group was given a demonstration of how the agave plant produces a very colorful dye. This was once used to paint the pyramids at Teotihuacan red, creating quite striking, colorful structures.
We also sampled a variety of tequila drinks that derive from agave (not cactus as many believe), and were shown some of the tools carved from the obsidian rock of the area. Items traded from Teotihuacan were often shaped out of obsidian, a key element in its rise to power. After the visit to the gift shop, we had a fantastic buffet lunch. We didn’t get to the site itself until noon, an unfortunately common practice with many tours.
A climb atop the Moon or Sun Pyramids provides a fine opportunity for photos and contemplation. I climbed up to the top of the Moon Pyramid, paused to look out at the Sun Pyramid across the Avenue of the Dead and reflected on what the area must have looked like 1,500 years ago when it was a thriving metropolis.
As you depart the Moon Pyramid you can make your way down the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), so named by the Aztecs because they thought the buildings lining the avenue were tombs. An impressive, well-preserved mural painting of jaguars still survives along the avenue. Be prepared to weave your way through (or negotiate with, if you choose) a seemingly endless supply of hawkers.
The Sun Pyramid, at a height of 75 meters and width of 225 meters (and 248 steps – but who’s counting), will be your greatest challenge for climbing. A cave in the shape of a four-leaf clover was discovered in its interior.
The Temple of Quetzacoatl has finely carved decorations of serpent heads on its front. There is a smaller pyramid on top called the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, where several warriors’ skeletons have been uncovered.
It’s best to get to Teotihuacan early in the morning if you can. Bring a hat, water, a camera and good walking shoes. Avoid coming midday to avoid the heat and the crowds, and the late afternoon to avoid the frequent thunderstorms.