A Side Trip to the Pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacán

50km (31 miles) NE of Mexico City

The ruins of Teotihuacán are among the most remarkable in Mexico -- indeed, they are among the most important ruins in the world. Mystery envelops this former city of 200,000; although it was the epicenter of culture and commerce for ancient Mesoamerica, its inhabitants vanished without a trace. Teotihuacán (pronounced Teh-oh-tee-wa-khan) means "place where gods were born," reflecting the Aztec belief that the gods created the universe here.

Occupation of the area began around 500 B.C., but it wasn't until after 100 B.C. that construction of the enormous Pyramid of the Sun commenced. Teotihuacán's rise coincided with the classical Romans' building of their great monuments, and with the beginning of cultures in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Oaxaca, and Puebla.

Teotihuacán's magnificent pyramids and palaces covered about 30 sq. km (12 sq. miles). At its zenith, around A.D. 500, the city counted more inhabitants than contemporary Rome. Through trade and other contact, Teotihuacán's influence was known in other parts of Mexico and as far south as the Yucatán and Guatemala. Still, little information about the city's inhabitants survives: what language they spoke, where they came from, why they abandoned the place around A.D. 700. It is known, however, that at the beginning of the 1st century A.D., the Xitle volcano erupted near Cuicuilco (south of Mexico City) and decimated that city, which was the most prominent of the time. Those inhabitants migrated to Teotihuacán. Scholars believe that Teotihuacán's decline, probably caused by overpopulation and depletion of natural resources, was gradual, perhaps occurring over a 250-year period. In the last years, it appears that the people were poorly nourished and that the city was deliberately burned.

Ongoing excavations have revealed something of the culture. According to archaeoastronomer John B. Carlson, the cult of the planet Venus that determined wars and human sacrifices elsewhere in Mesoamerica was prominent at Teotihuacán as well. (Archaeoastronomy is the study of the position of stars and planets in relation to archaeology.) Ceremonial rituals were timed with the appearance of Venus as the morning and evening star. The symbol of Venus at Teotihuacán (as at Cacaxtla, 80km/50 miles away, near Tlaxcala) appears as a star or half-star with a full or half-circle. Carlson also suggests the possibility that people from Cacaxtla conquered Teotihuacán, as name glyphs of conquered peoples at Cacaxtla show Teotihuacán-like pyramids. Numerous tombs with human remains (many of them either sacrificial inhabitants of the city or perhaps war captives) and objects of jewelry, pottery, and daily life have been uncovered along the foundations of buildings. It appears that the primary deity at Teotihuacán was a female, called "Great Goddess" for lack of any known name.

Today what remains are the rough stone structures of the three pyramids and sacrificial altars, and some of the grand houses, all of which were once covered in stucco and painted with brilliant frescoes (mainly in red). The Toltec, who rose in power after the city's decline, were fascinated with Teotihuacán and incorporated its symbols into their own cultural motifs. The Aztec, who followed the Toltec, were fascinated with the Toltec and with the ruins of Teotihuacán; they likewise adopted many of their symbols and motifs.

Getting There & Departing

By Car -- Driving to San Juan Teotihuacán on the toll Hwy. 85D or the free Hwy. 132D takes about an hour. Head north on Insurgentes to leave the city. Hwy. 132D passes through picturesque villages but can be slow due to the surfeit of trucks and buses. Hwy. 85D, the toll road, is less attractive but faster.

By Private Sedan or Taxi -- If you prefer to explore solo or want more or less time than an organized tour allows, consider hiring a private car and driver for the trip. They can easily be arranged through your hotel or at the Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR) information module in the Zona Rosa; they cost about 300 to 400 pesos an hour. The higher price is generally for a sedan with an English-speaking driver who doubles as a tour guide. Rates can also be negotiated for the entire day.

By Bus -- Circuito Pirámides (tel. 55/5141-1360, ext. 2000 and 2602; www.circuitopiramides.com.mx) offers guided air-conditioned coach tours to the ruins for 900 pesos for adults and 600 pesos for children, including transportation, entrance, and lunch buffet. Buses depart from five sites in Mexico City, between 9am and 10am each day.


The ruins of Teotihuacán are open daily from 7am to 5pm. Admission is 65 pesos.

A small trolley-train that takes visitors from the entry booths to various stops within the site, including the Teotihuacán museum and cultural center, runs only on weekends, and costs 10 pesos per person.

Remember that you're likely to be doing a great deal of walking, and perhaps some climbing, at an altitude of more than 2,120m (6,954 ft.). Take it slow, bring sunblock and drinking water, and during the summer, be prepared for almost daily afternoon showers.

A good place to start is at the Museo Teotihuacán. This excellent state-of-the-art museum holds interactive exhibits and, in one part, a glass floor on which visitors walk above mock-ups of the pyramids. On display are findings of recent digs, including several tombs, with skeletons wearing necklaces of human and simulated jawbones, and newly discovered sculptures. Admission is 45 pesos. Using a video camera costs 30 pesos.

The Layout -- The grand buildings of Teotihuacán were laid out in accordance with celestial movements. The front wall of the Pyramid of the Sun is exactly perpendicular to the point on the horizon where the sun sets at the equinoxes (twice annually). The rest of the ceremonial buildings were laid out at right angles to the Pyramid of the Sun.

The main thoroughfare, which archaeologists call the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), runs roughly north to south. The Pyramid of the Moon is at the northern end, and the Ciudadela (Citadel) is on the southern part. The great street was several kilometers long in its prime, but only a kilometer or two have been uncovered and restored.

Exploring the Teotihuacán Archeological Site

La Ciudadela -- The Spaniards named the Ciudadela. This immense sunken square was not a fortress at all, although the impressive walls make it look like one. It was the grand setting for the Feathered Serpent Pyramid and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl. Scholars aren't certain that the Teotihuacán culture embraced the Quetzalcóatl deity so well known in the Toltec, Aztec, and Maya cultures. The feathered serpent is featured in the Ciudadela, but whether it was worshiped as Quetzalcóatl or a similar god isn't known. Proceed down the steps into the massive court and head for the ruined temple in the middle.

The Temple of Quetzalcóatl was covered over by an even larger structure, a pyramid. As you walk toward the center of the Ciudadela's court, you'll approach the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. To the right, you'll see the reconstructed temple close behind the pyramid, with a narrow passage between the two structures.

Early temples in Mexico and Central America were often covered by later ones. The Pyramid of the Sun may have been built up in this way. Archaeologists have tunneled deep inside the Feathered Serpent Pyramid and found several ceremonially buried human remains, interred with precise detail and position, but as yet no royal personages. Drawings of how the building once looked show that every level was covered with faces of a feathered serpent. At the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, you'll notice at once the fine, large carved serpents' heads jutting out from collars of feathers carved in the stone walls. Other feathered serpents are carved in relief low on the walls.

Avenue of the Dead -- The Avenue of the Dead got its strange and forbidding name from the Aztec, who mistook the little temples that line both sides of the avenue for tombs of kings or priests.

As you stroll north along the Avenue of the Dead toward the Pyramid of the Moon, look on the right for a bit of wall sheltered by a modern corrugated roof. Beneath the shelter, the wall still bears a painting of a jaguar. From this fragment, you might be able to reconstruct the breathtaking spectacle that must have been visible when all the paintings along the avenue were intact.

Pyramid of the Sun -- The Pyramid of the Sun, on the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, is the third-largest pyramid in the world. The first and second are the Great Pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, and the Pyramid of Cheops on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. Teotihuacán's Pyramid of the Sun is 220m (722 ft.) per side at its base -- almost as large as Cheops. But at 65m (213 ft.) high, the Sun pyramid is only about half as high as its Egyptian rival. No matter -- it's still the biggest restored pyramid in the Western Hemisphere, and an awesome sight. Although the Pyramid of the Sun was not built as a great king's tomb, it is built on top of a series of sacred caves, which aren't open to the public.

The first structure of the pyramid was probably built a century before Christ, and the temple that used to crown the pyramid was completed about 400 years later (A.D. 300). By the time the pyramid was discovered and restoration was begun (early in the 20th c.), the temple had disappeared, and the pyramid was just a mass of rubble covered with bushes and trees.

It's a worthwhile 248-step climb to the top. The view is extraordinary and the sensation exhilarating. On a clear day, you can just barely see downtown Mexico City.

Lucky Break -- When you reach the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, you might see people of all ages and entire families jostling to get near a mysterious metal tab, no bigger than your thumbnail, embedded in stone. Many believe that touching it will bring them energy or luck. It turns out that any power the metal might have is in its misconstruction. The metal is actually just a leftover marker from an archaeological excavation and probably hasn't been there for more than 50 years. Don't let this stop you from getting caught up in the excitement. Who knows, maybe you'll get lucky anyway.

Pyramid of the Moon -- The Pyramid of the Moon faces a plaza at the northern end of the avenue. The plaza is surrounded by little temples and by the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl or Quetzal-Mariposa (Quetzal-Butterfly) on the left (west) side. You have about the same range of view from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon as you do from its larger neighbor, because the moon pyramid is built on higher ground. The perspective straight down the Avenue of the Dead is magnificent.

Palace of Quetzalpapalotl -- The Palace of Quetzalpapalotl lay in ruins until the 1960s, when restoration work began. Today it reverberates with its former glory, as figures of Quetzal-Mariposa (a mythical, exotic bird-butterfly) appear painted on walls or carved in the pillars of the inner court. Behind the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl is the Palace of the Jaguars, complete with murals showing jaguars.

Where to Dine

Vendors at the ruins sell drinks and snacks, but many visitors choose to carry a box lunch -- almost any hotel or restaurant in the city can prepare one for you. A picnic in the shadow of this impressive ancient city allows extended time and perspective to take it all in. There is a restaurant called Las Pirámides in the new Museo Teotihuacán, which is the most convenient place for a snack or a meal. To the southeast of the Pyramid of the Sun you will find a kitschy joint called La Gruta (tel. 59/4956-0127; www.lagruta.com.mx). The food is all right, but you'll be more impressed by its cave setting and dinner show featuring regional and folkloric dances.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.