It was only after I got home that I realized that my trip to Mexico allowed me to visit two of the three biggest (supposedly) pyramids in the world – one at Cholula and the other at Teotihuacan. Both are very cool but Teotihuacan is the place where you can actually see all of it. Teotihuacan is located less than 50km from Mexico City so a visit can definitely be done as a day trip while staying in Mexico’s capital. In fact, it is a popular day trip so abandon all hope you may have in seeing this place deserted. The site has been continually excavated since 1884 and archeologists have barely scratched the surface of what is to be discovered. Not really surprising considering the place has a surface area of about 83 square km! Still, Teotihuacan is considered to have many of the architecturally significant pyramids of the Americas. In 1987, Teotihuacan was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Teotihuacan has had a long life – it was continuously constructed from around 100BC up until about 250 AD. Three hundred years later, it was razed by fire (though it is unclear why. A failed attempt at Herostratic fame, maybe?). During its heyday, Teotihuacan had a population of about 125,000 people. Doesn’t seem very big by our standard today, but back then that population size apparently made it one of the largest cities in the world. Archeologists today love this site not only because of the multiple pyramids but because of the varied types of living accommodations found so far. Teotihuacan even had multi-floor apartment compounds! The first condos, perhaps? The other architecturally interesting thing about this place is that so far, no city fortifications or military structures have been found. Not really sure what that says about the city… Arrogance? Stupidity? Holy site? Kumbaya?
Teotihuacan would have been a giant melting pot of all sorts of ethnicities and cultures making their home there: Totonacs, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomi, Maya, Nahua, and Aztec. But who actually built the city, it isn’t actually known. What is known, though, is that the people who lived here dabbled in human sacrifice. Bodies have been found during excavations and it is believed that those people had been ritually sacrificed when buildings were built. It is also believed that the victims were those such as enemy warrior captives – they were killed via live burial, bashing over the head, carving out of the heart, and decapitation. Lovely.
When you visit Teotihuacan, the size of the site will probably make you wonder where to start. I say just pick a direction and start wandering. You’ll probably be harassed a little bit by people selling things but just ignore them. Some of the site is original but much of it is restored. You can tell what is restored just by looking at it – if it has mortar in between big stones and the mortar has little round stones in it, then it is restored. Also, when you wander, you will have to instruct your imagination to provide you with colour – back in the day, the city would have been awash in all sorts of hues, especially red, and lots of decorations such as colourful stones (including semi-precious) and painted murals. Of course, none of that is there today. If you want an idea of what it looked like, you should head to the Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City, where they have some examples of what Teotihuacan used to look like.
At Teotihuacan, I really enjoyed climbing the steep narrow staircases up the pyramids. Stepping where ancient people stepped always gets my imagination aflutter. And once at the top, the views are fantastic – hills and scrubland are all around and, of course, the imposing Avenue of the Dead is laid out at your feet.
Avenue of the Dead is about 2.5km long so it stretches far into the distance. Staring at it, you come to realize that you just walked all of that in order to get to the vantage point at which you are now standing (no wonder you’re tired…). The avenue is lined with many smaller pyramids that have a platform top called talud-tablero. The story is that the Aztecs thought they were tombs and as such, named the wide boulevard “Avenue of the Dead”. Today, archeologists think the platforms were for ceremonies and the flat tops allowed for temples on top.
As you have probably figured out by now, this is an outdoor site. I highly suggest sunscreen, a hat, water, and a snack. There is quite a bit of walking as well as climbing in the hot sun so you need protection and fuel. Also remember, the elevation is fairly high so you will tire faster than usual. Rest for a while at the top of the pyramids – call your mom from up there (I did – not to gloat…I swear…) or imagine you are a priest overseeing the next ritual sacrifice. Or not. Whatever you choose, take your time and enjoy this fantastic piece of history.