Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

On our last full day in Mexico City, we planned to visit Teotihuacan in the morning and do the food tour in the afternoon. After reading several blogs, I understood that a half-day was sufficient to visit the city. Our food tour was to start at 130 pm.

Pyramidal platforms at Teotihuacan

The ancient city of Teotihuacan lies about 50 kilometers away from our Airbnb apartment in Roma Norte. We planned to leave early to beat the morning commuter traffic. But even the best-laid plans go awry. And so it was that we didn’t leave until just past 8 am. We took an Uber taxi to the gates of Teotihuacan. By the time we got to the ruins, it was a quarter past 9 am.

As we walked past one of the front entrances, we saw a security guard and asked where we could hire a guide. He called out to a gentleman that was standing a short distance up the road. Manual was a government certified Teotihuacan archeologist and guide. He agreed to take us to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, which are what most people visit. He agreed to take us to the Cuidadel, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, and the royal palaces near the Pyramid of the Moon. We had about 3.5 hours to get it all done.

Teotihuacan was one of the earliest ancient cities, likely established around 100 BCE. At its most powerful, it was the largest of the cities in the Western Hemisphere, covering an area the size of Imperial Rome. Although the ruins of Teotihuacan remained untouched for the most part since its decline around 550 AD, very little is known about the people who created this massive city. It has been well established that they did not have pack animals, horses, wheels or metal tools to help them. Yet, they were ingenious and skillful enough to build mega pyramids. Intriguingly, no evidence has been found about what language they spoke, what they called their city and left behind no written legacy. Glyphs have been found in some areas but have not been helpful.

The name Teotihuacan, or the “City of Gods” or the “City where men became Gods” is of Aztec origin. The Aztecs discovered the ruins during their rein around 1300 AD and later. The Aztec rulers considered the ruins a scared site and often went on a pilgrimage to revere them.

View from the Cuidadel towards the Pyramids

How and why the city came into existence is still an unanswered question. One theory states that the comtemporary city of Cuicuilco was laid low by a massive volcanic eruption of Popocatepetl. The volcano destroyed farms, blocked rivers and damaged towns. People fleeing the area moved into Teotihuacan and were absorbed. Mapping studies show that, at its peak, nearly 85 to 90% of the living population of the area resided within its borders! That would have been a staggering 150,000 to 200,000!

No one person has been identified as the titular head of Teotihuacan. No royal motifs or burial tombs have been found unlike the Pharaohs of Egypt. The society seems to have leaned towards a more Utopian style eschewing individualism. Despite this, there seems to have existed social classes based on occupation like the elites, warriors, priests, and commoners like farmers, jewelers, artisans, pottery makers, etc. Whether ruled by king, Emperor, or a council of elites, the society seems to have been well ordered and well administered. No other kind of society could have the means, the skills, or the precision to build as the Teotihuacans did.

The city of Teotihuacan was laid out as an orthogonal grid plan. A long avenue bisected the city, known as the Calzada de los Muertos or the Avenue of the Dead. At 130 feet wide and about 4 miles long, it ran south from the Pyramid of the Moon which lay at its northern tip. All along the sides of this vast avenue lay many pyramidal plazas. On the East side of the avenue, centrally, stood the gigantic Pyramid of the Sun facing West and further south, lay the massive Cuidadel or citadel with the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent behind it.

From the Pyramid of the Moon, see Pyramid of the Sun mimicking the mountains

Numerous structural complexes have been found on either side of the avenue. The area closest to the Avenue is dedicated to the Pyramids, the temples and the royal housing. The next outer concentric space contained homes for the intermediate elites. The outermost circle of barrios or apartment complexes, about 2000 of them were multifamily, one-story dwellings, all laid out in standard architectural fashion. Members of the same ethnicity, class and occupation lived together here. In fact, Teotihuacan is the only city where the commoners had homes built along the upper classes’ lines. Pottery and household items studied revealed that people of different ethnicity lived here together. Mica was used extensively in buidling the pyramids and treasures of shells were found here. All of which indicate that the Teotihuacanos entered into trade relations with far flung areas, ranging from modern day Arizona to the north to El Salvador in the south, and between both coasts.

Just like its apperance, the sudden disappearance of the city and its people from the map after 550 AD is puzzling. Many different factors are thought to have contributed. A widening gap between the rich and the miserable, natural drought affecting harvests, increased burning and looting around this time, closing trade corridors and outposts. Eventually, the city fragmented into multiple rival city-states, causing the final destruction of the megapolis.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest of the three pyramids and the third-largest in the world. Its alignment is at 15.25 east of true north. This meant that it faced the sunset on two specific days, August 11th and April 29th, which are separated by 260 days. The number 260 is hugely important as it coincides with the number of days in the Teotihuacan ritual or sacred calendar. Archeological measurements of this Pyramid’s dimensions, using Teotihuacan Metric Units or TMU, (each unit is the length between the tip of the outstretched finger to the heart, a distance of 83 cm) coincides with 260 TMU. There is a cave in the middle of this Pyramid that was considered sacred to the Teotihuacanos.

Narrow steps up the Pyramids

The Pyramid of the Moon is a much smaller structure. It was about 105 feet at its heighest, which is another important number in the local calendar (260 +105 days from the solar calendar make 365 days). Also, there are 105 days between April 29th and August 11th, which is the time of the sun’s transition to the summer solstice. The dimensions of the Pyramid in TMU also equal 105. It is believed that the Pyramid of the Moon was used as a site for various ceremonies. During this, the Gods were worshipped by offering both animal and human sacrifices. Many human bodies, both intact and decapitated, have been found underneath this Pyramid. Along with a wide variety of treasures.

The cuidadel was a wide-open area that could comfortably accommodate the citizenry during essential rituals. There are 13 small pyramids built across the cuidadel. Behind the central Adosado pyramid lies the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. It is believed that this platform was built at a later time to block access to this Pyramid. It’s unclear if this was due to a change in ideology or religion. The sculptures on the other three sides of the Pyramid have all been chipped away. But the one on the inner-most side remains, fortunately, for us, intact.

The central Pyramidal steps are bound on either side by repeating high relief sculptures of the serpent with the feather head and the crocodile with a headdress. These are set along the body of a snake that is seen in profile. The serpent head with feathers represents Quetzlcoatl. He is the God of the winds and the sun, the God of death and resurrection. The other sculptures of the crocodilian God is said to represent Tlaloc, the God of rain. The serpent is essential as its shedding represents rebirth and it’s coiling represents eternity.

Feather serpent/ crocodile headdress/ serpent profile

Our guide gave us a lot of this information on the tour. First, he asked us to take a few minutes to use the restroom before setting out. We bought some sombrero hats as it was a hot morning already. Armed with sunblock, hats, and water, we set off. Manual drove us in his van to the closest parking areas. Driving helped immensely as we covered a lot of ground in a short time.

Our first stop was the immense citadel or cuidadel. As we stood at the foot of the Adosado pyramid, we felt small and insignificant. The sun was glaring down at us as we stared at the steep steps of this pyramid. Many blocks of bricks had been laid tightly together to form the long narrow steps. It seemed a nearly vertical climb. For someone with vertigo or a fear of heights, this can be a bit of a challenge. We slowly climbed to the top, and stood looking at the beauty of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. The central stairs were flanked by stepped platforms in the talud-tablero style. A talud is an elevation or a slope, and resting upon it is a tablero or a panel that is perpendicular to the ground.

Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent
Talud-tablero style, slope and panel

This Pyramid was famous for the ceremonies performed by priests here. Many young males were found buried underneath, some in full warrior regalia, likely offered as sacrifices to the Gods. Similarly, objects made of obsidian, pyrite discs, imported shells, water pots have also been found in these underground chambers.

The view from the top of the Adosado platform brings to focus the immensity of the cuidadel. Like a football arena of the modern day, the dozen strategically placed pyramid platforms would have seated royals, and elites, visiting guests of honors, and priests. And enough space to fit the common citizenry as well.

Looking out over the Cuidadel

One of the unique aspects of both the bigger pyramids is that their morphology mimics the surrounding mountains’ natural undulations. This distinction is seen in photographs of the Pyramid of the Moon silhouetted against the Cerra Gorda mountain behind it. Very original!

We spent almost an hour here as Manual laid out the history of the area and the orientation of the city. Next, he took us back to the parking lot and drove us to another gate to access the Pyramid of the Moon and the royal palaces. En route, he stopped at a small establishment that made all things agave. The owner showed us how to cut and obtain the liquid from the plant, the other uses of the agave plant as in sewing, paper for writing, fiber for clothing, etc. He also had some artisanal items for sale.

Manual took us next to see the apartment complexes. They were quite well laid out, and many had the outer walls still intact. The inner walls were all covered with stucco, and limestone and murals were painted on them. Faint colors of red are still visible today.

Apartment complex

The next two buildings, the Palace of the Jaguars and the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, were important and, as such, were built in proximity to the Pyramid of the Moon. The Palace of the Jaguars contains a mural of a jaguar wearing a serpent headdress, with beads all along its back and holding a conch shell dripping with blood. It is thought that this represents the warrior class using the conch shell as a call to arms and the blood likely representing their captives. This palace may likely have been a war room of sorts, for strategy and conquests.

Palace of the Jaguars mural

The adjacent Quetzalpapalotl Palace is thought to have belonged to the ruling class of the Teotihuacanos. The courtyard that our guide took us to see was a square center with pillars on all four sides framing the walkways. The pillars showed intricate bird carvings inlaid with obsidian and mica. Originally thought to represent feathered butterflies, but now thought to be the owl, which represents the upper echelons of Teotihuacan society. The owls are portrayed with their eyes, the beak, the feathers, chest, and seated on a decorative base. Inlaid obsidian used to enhance their eyes at one time. The lintel above the pillared portico is in red and shows repeated motifs. The whole area displays the grandeur and wealth of the royals of the time.

Courtyard at the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl
Owl iconography

This palace is believed to have been built over the Temple of the Feathered Conches. But archaeologists discovered this structure underneath and have since made it accessible. Feathered conches are seen along with murals of brightly colored green birds (eagles or macaws?) watering a ripening plant, possibly maize? Surprisingly, these ruins were well maintained, considering they had been built over.

Temple of the Feathered Conches
Mural at the Temple of the Feathered Conches

From here, we moved onto the Pyramid of the Moon. The Cerra Gorda looms large as one walks towards this pyramid from a distance. But this close the mountain was hidden behind the Pyramid. Standing at its base, and looking up at it, I was happy to see a central barrier with a rope to help people maintain balance.

We climbed our way to the top of the Pyramid. We were a bit winded, as it took us about 15 to 20 minutes to do so. But once we reached the top, the view was spectacular! The enormity and the grandeur of the central Avenue of the Dead became immediately apparent. We looked towards the Pyramid of the Sun and saw how its outlines mimicked the mountain behind it. We could imagine the Pyramid of the Moon washed in a limestone outer coat and painted red. It would have been as alluring as moonbeams. How many times had priests and captives climbed this vital structure, one knowing it was time to kill and the other dreading the upcoming death? Of course, some considered being sacrificed to the Gods an act of honor. Either way, the very steps we stood on had once been slick with the sacrificial blood, made as offerings to the Gods, thus ensuring good rain and a great harvest. It made one feel a bit repulsive, but these were also people who lived in tune with nature and their surroundings, knew well to guard the very terrain upon which they lived. We, with our modern jet setting ways, have a chokehold on our planet. Who then, are we to judge these cultures and their offerings?

Pyramid of the Moon, from Avenue of the Dead

By now, it was almost time to leave for our hour-long ride to Mexico City. Before we left, we walked the Avenue of the Dead to stand and stare at the Pyramid of the Sun. People were flocking to climb this one. But we did not have the time to climb up and down. It was already past noon, and the sun was hot. It would have made the climb much more difficult. I was thoroughly disappointed with my poor planning. To leave the city of Teotihuacan without climbing its biggest Pyramid was a huge mistake. But we had already committed to the food tour and could not get a refund. And it was not a small price to forego easily.

There we stood, taking in the majesty of the Pyramid, taking photos, and then slowly walked past the shops to the entrance 2. It took a while for us to connect with an Uber, but we were finally able to locate one. I have written the story of our food tour here.

Few thoughts before your trip to Teotihuacan:

  • Uber taxis conveniently take you there and back from Mexico City. It takes about an hour with traffic or less, depending on your starting point. Buses are also available.
  • Start early! Although the official time is 9 am, I have read reports of people getting in sooner, after 8 am.
  • There are five entrances to the site. We walked in through Entrance 1, which led to the Cuidadel, drove to Pyramid of the Moon through Entrance 3, and walked out at the Pyramid of the Sun, Entrance 2.
  • Restaurants are available in the area although, we did not try them. Food stalls and vendors are on-site as well.
  • Carry water and stay hydrated.
  • Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunscreen.
  • Wear loose-fitting, breathable clothes and anti-skid, comfortable running or hiking shoes.
  • I recommend hiring a guide. Even though I had read extensively before the trip, having a guide made a lot of difference. Carry cash to pay the guide.
  • Use the restrooms prior to hitting the sights.
  • Don’t plan another essential activity on the same day, if you enjoy visiting historical ruins. Teotihuacan needs at least about 6 hours to explore comfortably.
  • You can reach our guide, Manual Contreras, at 55 2499 0025.

Teotihuacan has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

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