Mexico! Part III: Teotihuacán

Temple of the Sun

Reading this week:

  • The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  • Used and Rare by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (antiheroes)

Having filled up our cultural bucket the day before with the history presented in museums, on our third day in Mexico we decided to go see the real thing: Teotihuacán. The day went astonishingly smoothly. Thankfully for our limited Spanish there are many travel blogs on the internet that described in detail exactly how to get to the pyramids, and we simply followed those instructions and got there no problem. The bus that goes to the pyramids first goes through the town of San Juan Teotihuacán before it finally winds itself to the archeological site, and as we bumped over the last few potholes I was getting very impatient but it was well worth the trip. Plus as the bus rode along it was interesting to watch the landscape go from Mexico City to Mexico Rural with farm fields and a glimpse of a shepherd tending his flock.

Pyramid of the Moon framed by the mountain. My sun and moon is in the foreground.

We were dropped off at Gate 2 for the site and as soon as you step off the bus you are greeted with the sight of the absolutely massive Pyramid of the Sun simply dominating the skyline. It is huge. Gigantic. Stupendous. An impressive feat for any civilization at any time. Overawed, we bought our tickets and entered the archeological zone. One of the things I liked best about our visit were all the people. I like my ancient cities to feel like cities and this one did. The crowds were light when we first arrived but more and more people came, but what set Teotihuacán apart from my last visit to an ancient city, Tikal, was that there were people everywhere selling souvenirs. That’s what made it feel more like a city to me. Tons of buskers were around peddling whistles and masks and statuettes. Teotihuacán was built by a pre-Aztec civilization, and even the Aztecs would make pilgrimages to the city to be in awe of what they did. I assume they too wanted something to remember their trip by and I liked to think how by visiting we were part of that very same tradition in our own way. And from one of the stands at the end of the day I bought a very cute little clay chihuahua with a piece of maize in its mouth.

Caldaza de los Muertos filled with los Vivos.

The part of the city on display is arranged along a long rode that the Aztecs decided was a road of the dead, Caldaza de los Muertos, having assumed the smaller temples were all tombs. Gate 2 spits you out towards the end that terminates at a plaza at the foot of the Temple of the Moon. The plaza was magnificent and there you could see how the city was arranged. From various points around the plaza, as you look up at the Pyramids of the Moon and Sun are framed and mirror the mountains that surround the site, I think communicating how the city builders were connected to the world around them. At Tikal, you are immersed in jungle and so the city comes to you in pieces, but Teotihuacán was surrounded by scrub which put the city in the context of its valley.

After taking in our fill of the Pyramid of the Moon’s plaza, we then hiked all the way down the Caldaza de los Muertos to arrive at the other end of the city, passing many many smaller temples and apparently residential districts along the way. You also pass over the San Juan river, which a criminally under-highlighted sign explains that one of the things the Teotihuacán builders did was divert the river in order to make it cross the city perpendicularly. That’s really cool! Geoengineering to make your city better reflect the cosmos! Think of all the digging. Just thinking about all that hard work, not to mention our relatively lengthy hike on an increasingly warm and dry day had us very tired and thirsty. Luckily at the far end of the Caldaza the archeological site has a very uncrowded restaurant that serves surprisingly delicious food alongside a necessarily refreshing beer. If you get a window table you overlook the Quetzalcoatl temple complex. As we ate a dust devil picked up in its own small homage to the storm god.

After lunch we checked out the Quetzalcoatl temple for ourselves. It has some of the most impressive decorations on the site, because the pyramid has been deconstructed. The Mesoamerican civilizations would build pyramid on top of pyramid, burying the last one to create something bigger. Since the Quetzalcoatl pyramid was no longer intact, decorations from its younger days are now on display and visible and cool to see. Also on the day we visited the Quetzalcoatl pyramid was the only one you could climb up, with the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon closed for repairs. This is probably a good thing though because we were tuckered out just climbing that one, so who knows if we would have survived the Pyramid of the Sun.

The final part of our visit was the museum on site, where they had lots of cool stuff. The most stunning part of the museum was a room where they had a scale model of the whole city with the Pyramid of the Sun itself serving as a backdrop thanks to a gigantic window. Whoever designed this setup deserves an award, it was awesome. Hot and tired, from there we decided to head back into town where we were finally revived with showers and some time to chill. We eventually head out for dinner. On the way I was impressed to see a man playing the accordion for tips, one of many talented musicians we saw earning their keep by entertaining sidewalk diners. The working musician is alive and well in Mexico City. For dinner we went to Pato Manila, a place that serves verifiably delicious duck tacos, and for dessert went to the Churreria El Moro where there was quite a crowd. We finally went back to our place to gird ourselves for going for the next day’s adventure into the beating heart of a modern city.

A temple still covered in scrub.