A Friday at Teotihuacán

I am way behind on this blog. I have so many ideas for topics to write about and so little time to actually put them all down on paper. This entry – about an early summer daytrip to the archaeological zone of Teotihuacán – is a long time coming. Said daytrip took place two months ago (!), and I’m only just now reporting on it to you, Loyal Reader. (I will often wait a bit after visiting somewhere before commenting on a place to let its impressions fully soak in, but this is just ridiculous.)

As you probably know, Teotihuacán is a large complex of ruins near Mexico City that is most famous for its pyramids, the Pyramid of the Moon and the larger Pyramid of the Sun. You may even recall that I ranked it as #5 in my Top Ten Mexico – The Country blog entry of January 2013. At the time that list was compiled, it had actually been ten years since my last visit to Teotihuacán. My photographic memory for travel details is like, say, my dad’s memory for baseball statistics. That is to say, I remembered my original visit like it was yesterday, and remain confident that my #5 ranking is just about right. Still, ten years is far too long to go between visits to a place as magnificent as Teotihuacán, so it was on a Friday in early June, with previous plans having fallen through, that I decided to make up for lost time.

Getting to Teotihuacán is easy, but it can be time-consuming. Buses run at least hourly from Mexico City’s North Bus Station, and buses to the bus station pass within two blocks of my apartment. Convenient – except for the fact that the route passes through the city center – and at an absolute snail’s pace. I somehow made the connecting bus with literally minutes to spare and was seemingly on my way…until two additional security checks – including a full-body pat down of every male passenger on the bus – delayed us by 30 minutes. A traffic accident two-thirds of the way to the ancient city added yet another hour to the trip, and by the time the bus dropped me off at the site’s southern entrance, I was two hours later than originally anticipated.

But I made it! There were hardly any visitors as I explored the southernmost complex, La Ciudadela (the Citadel) with its Plumed Serpent Temple and Pyramid at the center. It is said that the supreme ruler of Teotihuacán resided here, and from the uppermost platforms of its pyramid he was afforded an impressive view of the much larger Pyramids of the Sun and Moon…a long walk to the north. I knew right away that there was no chance I was going to see everything.

Calzada de los Muertos – the Avenue of the Dead – runs for over two miles and connects the Citadel with the northernmost area of the city. Some parts of the avenue are paved, and those sections were overtaken by stroller-pushing parents and their offspring. Further along the route, the avenue changes to dirt – with a healthy dose of stair-climbing thrown in for good measure – and I almost felt sorry for said parents as they had to fold their strollers and carry Junior in their arms. Almost. This stretch of the site is a series of low-rising buildings, devoid of shade and a scorcher on a sunny day. I wore a baseball cap, but the back of my neck was roasted. To the left of these buildings, over a rise and out of sight, several small ruins exist that once functioned as palaces for the city’s various noblemen. Access to these palaces is via the complex’s ring road – too far to walk to and seldom visited as a result. I hope to get there next time.

As you continue north along the Avenue of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun looms ever larger. Afternoon thunderclouds were swirling overhead, covering the entire pyramid in shadows and creating an interesting look that made me take out my camera. I scrambled onto a ledge for some creative photography attempts, and immediately regretted leaving my tripod at home. (You know what I mean, ladies.) A group of four college students noticed my White Sox ball cap and rightly pegged me as an extranjero (foreigner). They approached me for help translating an English speaking exercise. Their English was pretty terrible but they seemed like good kids so I obliged them for perhaps 15 minutes. I decided not to tell them I was an English teacher as I figured they’d never let me leave. 🙂

As it happens, the clouds parted during this time and the sun returned. What better time to climb the 248 steps to the inclined summit of the Pirámide del Sol – Pyramid of the Sun, third-largest pyramid in the world. The view is impressive, to say the least, and as you gaze northwest you notice that the Pirámide de la Luna – Pyramid of the Moon – is still a long walk from here. Time to move on!

I had summited both pyramids on my inaugural visit in 2002, so I decided that before climbing the Pyramid of the Moon again, I’d try to visit at least one part of the site that I had missed the first time. El Palacio de Tepantitla – the Tepantitla Palace – is a small lump of ruins in which little more than a covered patio remains. This covered patio, however, boasts several impressive frescoes, depicting the Indian rain god Tláloc, his priests, and their followers. I am no expert on pre-Hispanic cultures and know little about the cult of Tláloc, but considering that these frescoes are essentially open to the elements – a roof and a curtain are little protection to a determined rain storm – they are remarkably well-preserved. As such, I’d hold them in the same league as the very reconstructed frescoes of the Knossos Palace in Crete. (How was that for a random comparison?)

As an FYI, Tepantitla Palace is located outside the site’s northeast entrance – a good 30 minute walk from the Avenue of the Dead. Admission is covered by your Teotihuacán site ticket, but going here basically robs you of a full hour that could be spent at the main complex of ruins. I am glad that I went, but I wouldn’t seek it out a second time.

The walk back to the main complex was quite scenic. Not only did I get a view of the back of the Pyramid of the Sun, but the grasses were a lovely shade of green. The summer rainy season wouldn’t kick into full gear for another two weeks, but a few, surprising, early-season downpours added a bit of color to the countryside. (My first visit ten years prior was in late fall, perhaps two months after the rainy season wound down, and everything was a dull brown by that point.)

My walk deposited me steps from the Pyramid of the Moon, which I immediately ascended…just halfway. The second set of stairs, to the pyramid’s rocky summit, was closed for restoration. No bother. I took a series of panoramic shots of the environs, found a willing visitor to snap a photo of yours truly (see my current Facebook profile pic), then sat for a few minutes to enjoy the view, my feet dangling over the edge.

I think I enjoy the view from here more than from atop the Pyramid of the Sun. For one thing, you’re not as high so the view is a bit more intimate. For another thing, there aren’t nearly as many tourists this far north in the complex – nor this late in the afternoon (though that was simply happenstance). But additionally, the view from here reveals what a stunning symmetrical achievement the whole city’s construction ultimately was. It isn’t perfect – that accolade I reserve solely for the Taj Mahal – but it’s close. There are, perhaps, more buildings clustered on the eastern half of the Avenue of the Dead than on the western half – the Pyramid of the Sun most notable of them all – but the avenue runs south from here, literally as far as the eye can see (just over two miles in this case).

As I sat here, taking in this glorious view, I thought about how remarkable it is that we still know almost nothing about the original occupants of Teotihuacán. Sure, the Aztecs lived here for awhile, and sure, the serpent, jaguar, sun and moon elements are all features of Mexican and Central American temples in general. (Apparently, as the various tribes migrated throughout the region, they “stole” the symbols of the tribes who occupied the stone cities that they sheltered in before them. Or something.) But what we do know is that the architects and original residents of Teotihuacán pre-dated the more-famous Aztecs by at least 200 years. We also know that much of what we see today was once red in color. Can you imagine something so striking? I can’t…or maybe I just don’t want to.

What few people I observed on the Avenue of the Dead below me appeared to be heading for the exits, and judging by the sun’s position in the sky I decided to do the same. (I had forgotten my watch.) It was a long walk back to the turn-out where the bus picked up and dropped off passengers. Something told me I had already missed the last bus of the day back to Mexico City, so there was no point rushing. (This later turned out to be true, and I had an expensive taxi ride to the nearest small town, where buses to El DF ran until much later in the evening).

What if I got locked in? I wondered about this for a moment but then passed a stunning jaguar mural and threw such worries to the wind; on a such a beautiful day, would being locked in really be a bad thing? As it turned out, I reached the southern entrance just in time. I chatted with a hawker of glass pyramids as the security guard granted us a few extra minutes on the grounds. I agreed to buy a souvenir if the hawker would snap a picture of me on the Avenue of the Dead, with late afternoon skies overhead. The picture was great but then I snapped one of him – and another of the avenue, sans people – and those were even better.

Not a bad way to spend a Friday.

 And now, the pics:

Teotihuacan 7 - La Ciudadela and Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent - Sepia tone

Above pic: Citadel and Plumed Serpent Pyramid as seen from just inside the site’s southern entrance. (Sepia tone, natch.)

Below pic: Animal heads lining the steps ascending the Plumed Serpent Pyramid.

Teotihuacan 17 - Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent

Teotihuacan 49

Above pic: Everyone’s favorite blog-writing gringo, posing with local university students who are studying English.

Below pic: Platform and stairs midway up the Pyramid of the Sun.

Teotihuacan 54 - Pyramid of the Sun

Teotihuacan 63 - Pyramid of the Sun summit vista

Above pic: View from the Pyramid of the Sun towards the smaller Pyramid of the Moon.

Below pic: Pyramid of the Sun as seen from behind.

Teotihuacan 92 - Pyramid of the Sun

Teotihuacan 81 - Tepantitla - Tlaloc the Water God fresco

Above pic: Detailed Tláloc fresco in Tepantitla Palace.

Below pic: Pyramid of the Moon at the northern terminus of the Avenue of the Dead.

Teotihuacan 114 - Pyramid of the Moon

Teotihuacan 110 - Pyramid of the Moon vista

Above pic: My current (as of press time) Facebook profile pic. Taken from midway up the Pyramid of the Moon.

Below pic: Sombrero-wearing hawker on the Avenue of the Dead at closing time. Note that the avenue is otherwise completely devoid of people.

Teotihuacan 140 - Avenue of the Dead

Below pic: Attempted panorama of the Avenue of the Dead, taken from atop the Pyramid of the Moon. It didn’t stitch exactly right – and I’m not completely happy with the lighting on the right half of the image, which is a bit over-exposed – but it gives you an idea of the scope of this place.

Teotihuacan panorama stitch

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

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