• Marco

Trekking out to Teotihuacan

Updated: May 30

Teotihuacán. City of the Gods. Or the birthplace of the Gods. Or the Place of Reeds. Or... actually, nobody has a clue what the builders called this city. They're long gone, and they didn't leave any notes. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.



Ever since I was old enough to understand history and documentary programmes, there were places around the world that held me fascinated. Places I had to try to visit. The Pyramids, of course. Niagara Falls. Uluru.


And the astonishing legacy of the Aztecs, their capital, Teotihuacan.



Who Built Teotihuacan?


Spoiler: the Aztecs never built Teotihuacan. The city was first settled some time around 200BC - the earliest building remains have been dated to then. Its culture rose to a peak sometime around 450AD, with a population of at least 125,000 (by some estimates up to 250,000). By 550, it lay largely in ruins - with no evidence of invasion or attack, the prevailing belief is that the civilisation collapsed on itself.


We don't know what these people called themselves, but by the time the Aztecs settled in the ruins, they'd been gone for many centuries.


Teotihuacan is astonishing in so many ways:


  • At its peak in the 5th century, Teotihuacán may have held a quarter of a million people. It was the fifth or sixth largest city in the world.

  • The site is enormous - possibly extending to 32 square miles. Most of it is still unexcavated.

  • The main avenue, "Avenue of the Dead", is 4km long. It leads from the Pyramid of the Moon, past the Pyramid of the Sun and ends close to the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.

  • The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. At 66m / 215' tall, it's more than half the height of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

  • There are one, two and higher story houses in the city.

  • The German author of "Chariots of the Gods", all round fruitcake Erich von Daniken, argued that aliens lived there long before humankind even evolved.


Pyramid of the Sun, from the Pyramid of the Moon


Getting To Teotihuacan


Mexico City to Teotihuacan is only a short trip, and there are a number of ways to get there. You can take your own car; travel with an organised tour; or, as we did, join a small tour group and take public transport from Mexico City. Buses leave from Autobuses Del Norte station and take about 50-60 minutes. Uber each way is also an option.


There are guides available at the entrance, but their quality is variable. You won't lose anything by taking a punt on one, and you can actually make sense of most of the site with a guide book alone. But a guide is probably worthwhile.



The Site at Teotihuacan


It's difficult to overstate the extent of this place. It's easily the largest archeological destination I've seen; far bigger than Herculaneum or even Pompeii. From the top of the Sun Pyramid you get some sense of scale:


Moon Pyramid (right) and Avenue of the Dead, from top of Sun Pyramid

The Moon Pyramid peaks at about the same level as the Sun, but it's built on a higher base. The Sun pyramid is taller. And you can climb it.


I had mixed feelings about this. Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a vast amount still to learn about its history, collapse, inhabitants, culture and architecture. The daily waves of hundreds, thousands of people marching up and down like so many soldier ants can't be good for it.


On the other hand, you're fairly restricted to the areas you can visit, and there seems to be little damage done to the Pyramid itself. One of the early archeologists tried to find the Royal Tombs they were convinced lay inside... by blasting with dynamite. They blew several metres off the pinnacle.


Alas, no treasure.


Overview of the site layout. Image from Scientific American 1967 ((Wikipedia)

The climb to the top is organised fairly well. you queue one way and come down the other. There are ropes to hold onto at the steepest points. It's not easy, but neither is it desperately challenging. Take your time, don't be afraid to stop for breath at each level, and you'll be fine.



The View From The Top of the Sun Pyramid


It's pretty special:



Walking the Avenue of the Dead


I suppose it's an article of faith that if you visit Teotihuacan, you need to walk the Avenue of the Dead. It's a long way, but you really should do it. The "Avenue" probably only runs as a road for maybe 1km. After that it's a case of climbing up and down over walls, skirting around ruined buildings, and petting the local stray dogs (who were very friendly 😀)


If you don't, you'll miss the best part of the site (apart from the main Pyramids).


Modern-day Teotihuacános

All the guide books and blogs I read say this, but I'll repeat it: there is not a spot of shade on site. It's also commonly a degree or two warmer than Mexico City. So bring water, cover your head and wear sun screen!


Mr Global Traveller here had a small Panama hat, and skipped the sunscreen. It was partly cloudy at times and didn't feel that hot. A few days later I couldn't sleep for the skin peeling off the back of my neck - idiot 🙄 Don't be like me!



Temple of the Feathered Serpent


At the very end of the Avenue has perhaps one of the best-preserved (or restored) areas. The Temple sits in a square courtyard, surrounded on all sides by a high wall. There are 4 altars set on additional small pyramids on each side, 3 at the back wall:


Feathered Serpent Temple. Image & model by Wolfgang Sauber. (Wikipedia)

The Temple takes its name from the numerous snake carvings around the temple pyramid itself:


Snake carvings on the temple pyramid
Steps up the Feathered Serpent Temple pyramid


Summary


As a global heritage site, there's no way you can pass this place up. It covers 1500 years or more of history, and was right at the centre of prehistoric Mesoamerica. It's easy to get to from Mexico City, and it's pretty cheap as tours go.


Go if you ever get the chance - just remember the hat and sun screen!


We took the "Small-group Teotihuacán Pyramids from Mexico City" tour, booked via Viator/TripAdvisor. Tickets were US$35 each. As I say above, you can do this visit cheaper but I think this was a good balance.


It was very slightly rushed by virtue of having to tag with the slowest members of the group, but that's inevitable. Guide was excellent and very friendly. Recommended.




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Mexico Travel Blog | marco@jocksaway.com