Exploring the ruins of the Pre-Hispanic city and pyramids of Teotihuacan
If during a visit to the Mexico City area you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city then you should consider a day trip out to pre-Columbian ruins of Teotihuacan. This is a massive complex of ruins and was once one of the great cities of the Western Hemisphere. And its origins are a mystery.
Located fewer than 30 miles (50 kilometres) from Mexico City, Teotihuacan reached its peak between 100 B.C. and A.D. 650. It covered 8 square miles (21 square kilometres) and according to archaeologists, supported a population of a hundred thousand.
Around 1,400 years ago, it went into a period of decline, including a fire that caused great damage. However, even with the decline, the city was never truly “lost” — the Aztecs, who appeared several centuries later, made regular visits to the site.
What the city’s own inhabitants called the city and its structures is unknown. The current name, Teotihuacan, was given to it by the Aztecs and means “the place where the gods were created.”
Today, Teotihuacan has been recognized by UNESCO as a site of significant archaeological and cultural importance.
A Pit Stop
One of the disadvantages of taking a tour is that you become a victim of circumstance and will have little control over where you are taken. In Mexico this means usually your tour will include a stop at a gift store at some point during the day. This was the case on our visit to Teotihuacan – but it turned out to be okay.
Firstly, we were given a short presentation on the many uses of the agave plant from making paper, to threads and needles and of course alcoholic beverages (tequila and mezcal). This was actually very interesting! Next, we were shown craft works made from obsidian. For those not familiar with obsidian it is a dark, often black, shiny glass-like rock that is formed during volcanic activity. For Game of Thrones fans, this is what they referred to as Dragon Glass – useful if you ever come across a White Walker.
Finally, we were given a tasting of several liqueurs and mezcals. It was still quite early in the morning and our stomachs were relatively empty so the strong alcohol went straight to our heads. This was obviously the plan as we were then given time to wander the gift shop with defences weakened by alcohol!
The ruins of Teotihuacan are vast, and that is just what you can see. Much remains to be explored in this vast complex. This city was known about for centuries but it was not until the 1800s that it was excavated – until then it remained buried under soil and vegetation, the large pyramids appeared to be hills rather than man-made structures. A full exploration of the site did not fully occur until the 1960s and 1970s.
The first part of our tour took us inside one of the smaller pyramids. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, these are not hollow structures with multiple rooms. The pyramids themselves start relatively small and over time a new pyramid is built right over the top – so they get to be the large structures we see today. Some, of the pyramids at places such as Teotihuacan are seven or eight layers deep. As part of the excavation, some layers of these pyramids have been peeled away like an onion, so we were able to explore inside and see earlier incarnations of the pyramid. This work has also exposed some of the paintings that decorated these buildings, preserved by the burial process.
The main attractions at Teotihuacan are the two largest pyramids, the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun. Unlike our visit to Chichen Itza, the Mayan city on the Yucatan Penninsula, we were able to climb the steps on these pyramids.
We decided to start with the shorter climb on the Temple of the Moon. This temple measures 43m (150 feet) in height. Unfortunately, you cannot climb to the top but there is a platform which is reached by some very steep stairs. If you have big feet like mine it is a little precarious. It is not something that a person suffering from vertigo might enjoy. There is a plastic-coated rope you can use to steady yourself – but it is designed for the average Mexican, not a person of 6-foot plus. Another factor is altitude as Teotihuacan. The climb definitely gets the heart-pounding!
Having said all that the view is worth the effort. From the top of the steps, it’s possible to look right down the central avenue towards the largest pyramid, the Temple of the Sun. Just as enjoyable as taking in the view is coolly standing at the top of the steps watching younger, fitter looking people with shorter legs arriving at the top breathing heavily and dripping with sweat.
The Temple of the Moon is just the appetizer for the main course, the Temple of the Sun. This is the taller of the two pyramids. At roughly 210 feet high, the Pyramid of the Sun ranks as one of the largest pyramids in the world. It is about half as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. In 1971, archaeologists found a previously unknown entryway some 320 feet long that leads to a cave directly beneath the apex of the pyramid.
It is a short walk from the Temple of the Moon to the Temple of the Sun via the temple-lined Avenue of the Dead. Along the way, there are some more wall paintings to check out. There are 248 steps to the summit of this pyramid. It is quite a haul to the top, but there are some much-welcomed levels to stop and catch your breath along the way.
Once you have got to the apex of the Temple of the Sun and recovered, you are treated to some amazing views across the whole Teotihuacan complex, with the Temple of the Moon to the North, and views of the surrounding countryside and hills.
In Summary …
So, in summary, if you are in Mexico City you should take the time to do a day trip out to pre-Columbian ruins at Teotihuacan. The site is UNESCO listed and is one of the best cultural sites in Mexico.
It can be a full day trip, especially if you visit places along the way (our tour included short visits to the artisan shop and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe) and have lunch at a restaurant.
Planning your trip
Escaping the traffic of Mexico City is never easy. If you are feeling adventurous you could rent a car and make your way there under your own steam. Alternatively, you could rent a private vehicle or take an Uber.
The cheapest way to get there is by bus which you can catch at the Autobuses Del Norte bus station in Northern Mexico City. Buses leave about every 20 minutes, so just show up and you won’t have to wait long. The journey will cost you around $5 US. To reach the bus station you can Uber or take the metro and get off at the Terminal Central del Norte / Autobuses del Norte metro station on Line 5. From the metro stop, follow signs for Autobuses del Norte.
We decided on the easy option and booked ourselves on a tour, which picked us up from our hotel. Our tour was booked through the operator Wayak. Their website is easy to navigate and they are very efficient and easy to communicate with. The tour groups are small – our group consisted of 8 people, which gave us a lot of time to interact with our guide.
The cost of entry to the Teotihuacan site is nominal – around 75 pesos (under $4 US) and includes entry into the museum. Be aware that on Sundays entry is free to Mexican Nationals, so this is the busiest day of the week and we recommend you avoid this day.
What to take
- Teotihuacan is situated at 2121 metres (over 7000 feet) and is exposed. You need to take sunscreen and a hat – even in the winter months. Also, take plenty of water.
- If you plan to climb the pyramids you should take some good, solid shoes for walking in. Flip-flops are probably not going to work for you!
- In the summer months it can be rainy so take a waterproof jacket. Also, beware that the steps on the pyramids are likely to be very slippery when they get wet!
Best time to visit Teotihucan
Teotihuacan is best visited at opening time, around 9am, before crowds begin to build up in the late morning and afternoon. Visiting at this time also allows you to take advantage of the cooler weather.
Visitors from abroad should also avoid Sundays, the day on which the archaeological zone is often more crowded than normal because entry is then free for locals. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are generally the least busy days.
A visit to Teotihuacan usually takes between two and three hours, although keen archaeological explorers could spend longer, particularly if they stop for lunch.