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Teotihuacán – An Enigma Enshrined in Stone

Sometimes you stumble upon the coolest places when you are just looking to kill time.

First Stop Mexico City

As so many friends have raved about Mexico City, we had decided to explore the City and surrounds for 10 days in November 2019. It also served to break up the trip from Vancouver to Buenos Aires.

After a few days of CDMX, we decided to visit the archaeological site of Teotihuacán or the Pyramids as it is often called.

What exactly is Teotihuacán?

Well that is like asking ‘which came first the chicken or the egg’?  or ‘why do cats purr’? It seems like a simple question on the surface, however when you start digging deeper – the answer is evasive or even non-existent.

At first glance the Teotihuacán archeological site (which was named a UNESCO World heritage site in 1987) is the remains of what was once a flourishing enormous city. This city once contained more than 5,000 structures and was approximately three and a half miles long and two miles wide,

The earliest structures have been dated to around 200 BC. By 500 AD the city had grown to an estimated population of 125,000 to 150,000, making it one of the most populated cities on the planet at that time (I have read the 6th largest). After this peak, Teotihuacan experienced decline, parts of the city show evidence of burning down. By 800 AD, the city appears to have been abandoned. But why, what happened?

Just knowing this made us realize that Teotihuacán is lot more complicated than it would appear on the surface.

An Overview of the Site

Teotihuacán (listen to pronunciation) is the name given to the site by the  Aztec  meaning “Place of the Gods”. The original name of the city has not been deciphered from the archaeological record and therefore remains unknown.

The City was laid out as a grid along north-south and east-west axes and dominated by two massive stone pyramids, today called the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.

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At 600 feet wide at its base, the Pyramid of the Sun occupies a similar footprint to Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Cheops, although it is squatter (only 200 feet vs 480 feet). The Pyramid of the Sun is the 3rd largest Pyramid on earth and the largest structure ever built in the Americas.

When I first saw the pyramid in the distance from the Posada (our hotel) – I thought meh, however as soon as we got up close and personal it was like holy shit!

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Both the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon were originally capped with temples. Underneath the temple crowning the Pyramid of the Sun was concealed a 400-pound stone statue of the fire god Huehueteotl.

The site’s main drag, known as the Avenue of the Dead, is over a mile in length. Starting in the north at the Pyramid of the Moon it runs south, past the Pyramid of the Sun, to the mysterious monument: Quetzalcoatl – the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, located in a large plaza called the Ciudadela.

All those Nagging Questions

For all the secrets revealed by the vast richness of the archaeological remains at Teotihuacán, many fundamental questions still remain a mystery.

Wandering around Teo invoked the same sort of questions as when we visited the sites of ancient Egypt, of Peru and of course Machu Pichu.

Questions such as:

  • Who were the people who lived and worked there?
  • What did they believe in?
  • What kinds of knowledge and knowhow did they possess?
  • How far did their influence spread?
  • What kinds of technology did they possess?
  • What kind of society was required to build such colossal monuments?
  • Why did they build them – for the ruling class to wield power over the masses, for appeasing the gods or both?
  • What was the meaning of the symbology used?
  • Why was the city abandoned?

Even if you had a time machine and were able to observe the people and place in action, you probably still would not understand the answers to all of these questions.

Digging Below the Surface

Many of Teotihuacan’s secrets lie hidden beneath the surface, well away from the selfie sticks and vendors.

Excavations at Teotihuacán have revealed a number of burials, including more than 200 bodies in and under the Temple of Quetzalcoatl complex alone.

Below the Temple of the Moon

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Below the temple of the moon excavators discovered a royal tomb containing a male occupant. He was not alone! The royal was surrounded by burial offerings including the remains of humans and animals, which evidence suggests were buried alive.

The tomb offers an insight to the function of the Pyramid of the Moon. The presence of a dead Royal is consistent with the wider Mesoamerican tradition of ancestor worship.

Entrance to the Underworld

Excavations below the main stairway of the Pyramid of the Sun revealed a pit with a stairway cut into the bedrock. These man made stairs lead into a naturally formed long cave or tunnel underneath the pyramid. This in turn then leads into a series of chambers. This long cave was formed by a lava tube and was present before the site was built.

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Caves are important symbolic entrances to the underworld—representing the creation of life. The Pyramid of the Sun was the likely the location of ancestor worship rituals.

One has to wonder what types of activities took place under the Pyramid of the sun? Human sacrifices? Maybe a resident oracle was consulted here?

Why do cats purr? Who knows!

Once Were Warriors

More than 200 skeletons have been found inside the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Where they sacrificial victims or willing volunteers?  Either way it points to the existence of a rather violent ritual aspect of Teotihuanco life.

Most of the remains are those of young male warriors. These warriors were, buried with obsidian spears and necklaces of made from human jaw bones (the jaw bones of their victims perhaps?)

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This mass ritual burial, which appears to have coincided with the time the temple was built, about 200 A.D. suggests that a mass sacrifice took place as a show of the power of the rulers, or as an offering to the Gods.

Which came first the chicken or the egg– again who knows?

How to maximize your visit to Teotihuacan?

A day is enough to get a good feel for the place. You are allowed to enter and re-enter the site with a day pass – gives you an opportunity to quench your thirst with a cerveza fria at one of the restaurants along the perimeter road south of gate 5.

There is lots of interesting stuff to look at around the site including murals, remnants of living quarters and a pretty cool museum. Depends what you want to experience and how much time or money you would like to spend.

For us we like to hit the site as soon as it opens in the morning for several reasons a) you have the best light for taking photos, b) it is the coolest part of the day and c) it is less crowded and you can actually hear yourself think.

For these reasons we decided to stay in a small Posada right next to the site. This place was recommended by fellow travelers.

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Tour guides

There are opportunities galore for guided tours of Teotihuacan. We have mixed thoughts on guides – sometimes they can make the whole experience pop, sometimes they are included in the price of getting there. Personally, I find of a lot of guides just make shit up as they go along, or just rattle off nonsense explanations or opinions.

I am sure there are some fantastic guides who can give wonderful insight into the place and the history. For Teotihuacan we decided to do the self-directed thing and it worked out fine.

Hot Air Balloon Rides

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One of the reasons we had chosen this particular Posada was the excellent view it afforded us off the site and the early morning air show.

Are you an early riser? Have some extra cash burning a hole in your wallet? Fancy a champagne breakfast? If so you can float over the site in a hot air balloon and experience a bird’s eye view of Teotihuacan. If you land successfully you can toast your good luck with some bubbly.

But don’t come with the romantic notion that yours will be the only balloon in the sky! From our viewpoint it was evident that this is a very popular way to see the City of the Gods from above.

We saved our money to see the Iguazu falls from a helicopter!

Our impressions – What we saw, felt and heard

Teotihuacán was a stark contrast to the chaos that is Mexico City.

Entering Teotihuacán was like entering a different world, a still silent world of stone mountains. Still and silent until the tourist hoards started arriving by the bus load (hundreds of buses!). Being just 30 miles outside of Mexico City Teotihuacán is one of the most visited tourist sites in Mexico.

Teotihuacán must have been a busy place in its heyday. In fact it still can still be a busy place, especially on Sundays when the site is open to Mexican Nationals for free.

Humanity is definitely part of the Teotihuacan experience. There are hundreds of vendors selling a vast array of wares- trinkets, jewelry, noisemakers – lots of noise makers – making jaguar, owl and a cornucopia of other bird whistles.

Like most vendors in Mexico, they are pretty cruisy and respect a polite “no gracias” – just don’t show any interest at all, unless you are willing to spend some time looking at someone’s junk.

Then there are the tourists. There all kinds of them, in all shapes and sizes plus busloads of school kids ranging from the cute ones with toy bows and arrows, to the obnoxious testosterone fueled variety. The 1 square mile site can get a little squishy (not to mention noisy). Cities were built for people and Teotihuacan fulfills that purpose even today.

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As with most crowds – they don’t always act in the way you would like – you just need to go with the flow – otherwise you could go freaking bonkers. You just have to get over the fact that for some people Teotihuacán is just another shallow superficial play thing to take a selfie in front of.

Crowds aside, wandering around the site and climbing the Pyramids resulted in a sense of awe, wonder and impermanence.

Ozymandias 

 By Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography enthusiast, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. Retired at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis grazing on awesome food along the way. Michael’s mission is to inform, inspire and empower people who are interested in travelling extensively in their retirement.

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