The Pyramids of Mexico
Take a moment to appreciate the immense strength and grandeur of a pyramid.
When gazing up at the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, one cannot help but feel a sense of awe and humility. This ancient pyramid stood as the third largest in the world and was believed to serve as a means for ancient priests to connect with the heavens from its summit. Unsurprisingly, the pyramids in Teotihuacán were also used as sacred temples to perform human sacrifices to appease the gods. Similarly, the Templo Mayor, located in the heart of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán (now known as Mexico City), was also utilized for this purpose. The significance of these structures in the ancient Mesoamerican culture cannot be overstated, as they played a crucial role in religious ceremonies and practices.
Before the advent of Spanish colonization, various civilizations, like the Mayans, constructed towering pyramids that served as significant communal areas. These impressive pyramids, situated in locations such as Chichén Itzá and Palenque, were utilized as burial sites for their leaders and also functioned to survey their surroundings by providing an elevated perspective beyond the tree line. Moreover, a Mayan pyramid was ingeniously employed at Tulum as a lighthouse, commanding a superb view of the stunning turquoise waters.
It may come as a surprise to know that Mexico boasts a pyramid surpassing even the Great Pyramid of Egypt. The Pirámide Tepanapa holds the title of the largest pyramid in the world by volume. Interestingly, despite its grand scale, the pyramid's exterior appears as a grassy hill, which served as a clever disguise that saved it from destruction by Spanish conquistadors. If you venture inside, you'll be awestruck by the cool tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula. The labyrinthine passages take about 15 minutes to traverse, and with each twist and turn, you'll feel increasingly insignificant compared to the pyramid's vastness.
This magnificent archaeological site is mountainous near the Valle de México. Teotihuacán was once the most significant ancient city in Mexico and served as the capital of what was likely the country’s largest pre-Hispanic empire. The site boasts the impressive Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon).
As you stroll through Teotihuacán, the renowned Calzada de los Muertos is the main attraction. This grand avenue is flanked by the former palaces of the city’s elite and leads to the pyramid-filled La Ciudadela, which is believed to have been the home of the city’s supreme ruler. The Templo de Quetzalcóatl, featuring striking serpent carvings, is within the Citadel’s walls.
If you head north, you’ll encounter the impressive Pirámide del Sol, the world’s third-largest pyramid, towering at 230ft (70m) and consisting of 248 steps. The avenue ends at the Pirámide de la Luna, surrounded by 12 Plaza de la Luna temple platforms. Near this area, you’ll find the beautifully frescoed Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl (Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly), the Palacio de los Jaguares (Jaguar Palace), and the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells).
Northeast of the Pirámide del Sol lies the Palacio de Tepantitla, where you can admire Teotihuacán’s most famous mural, the Paradise of Tláloc. To help you make sense of all the history and beauty surrounding you, there’s an onsite museum available for your convenience. Don’t forget to check out the breathtaking aerial view of Teotihuacán, which can be seen from an air balloon.
Teotihuacán was a significant migration hub for people from the south, where multi-ethnic groups were segregated into neighbourhoods. In 2015, DNA tests suggested that cultural and class tensions triggered the downfall of Teotihuacán. The city’s grid plan was designed in the early 1st century CE, and the Pirámide del Sol was completed over a preexisting cave shrine by 150 CE. The rest of the city was developed between 250 and 600 CE. Social, environmental, and economic factors accelerated its decline, eventually leading to its collapse in the 8th century.
Two significant avenues converged near La Ciudadela (the Citadel), dividing the city into quarters. The famous Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), roughly running from north to south, was named after the later Aztecs who believed the grand buildings lining it were enormous tombs created by giants for Teotihuacán’s first rulers. The main structures were characterized by a talud-tablero stle, where the rising parts of stepped, pyramid-like buildings consisted of both sloping (talud) and upright (tablero) sections. They were often covered in lime and colourfully painted. Most of the city comprised residential compounds, some of which contained elegant frescoes.
Centuries after its fall, Teotihuacán remained a pilgrimage site for Aztec royalty, who believed that all the gods had sacrificed themselves here to start the sun moving at the beginning of the “fifth world,” inhabited by the Aztecs themselves. It remains an important pilgrimage site, attracting thousands of New Age devotees each year to celebrate the vernal equinox (between March 19 and 21) and absorb the mystical energies believed to converge here.
Tickets to Teotihuacán can be purchased at the entrance for M$75. If you’re part of a group tour, your ticket will be included, and you won’t have to queue up. Spending a day here can be fantastic, but be cautious of the hawkers. Remember to bring a hat, water, and comfortable shoes for walking. The guardabultos (lockers) can store medium-sized bags.
How do I get there?
Teotihuacán is situated 31 miles (50km) northeast of Mexico City. If you want to avoid the crowds and explore the site early in the morning without taking a dawn tour, you can stay in San Juan Teotihuacán, just over a mile (2km) from the archaeological zone. However, there isn't much to do around the area.
During daylight hours, Autobuses México–San Juan Teotihuacán operates buses from Mexico City's Terminal Norte to the ruins (M$52, one hour) every hour from 7 am to 6 pm. To buy tickets, turn left to gate 8 when entering Terminal Norte, and ask which gate your bus departs from. Be sure your bus is headed for 'Los Pirámides' and not the nearby town of San Juan Teotihuacán (unless you are going to accommodations in San Juan). It's important to note that armed robberies occasionally occur on these buses, so you may want to check the US State Department website for 'Teotihuacán' for current warnings.
At the ruins, buses arrive and depart from near gate 1, with stops at gates 2 and 3 via the ring road around the site. Your ticket allows you to re-enter through any of the five entrances on the same day. You can find the site museum just inside the main east entrance (gate 5).
After 1 pm, return buses are more frequent. The last bus back to Mexico City leaves at 6 pm, with some terminating at Indios Verdes metro station, but most continuing to Terminal Norte.
Alternatively, tours to the ruins are widely available, offer better value for solo travellers than renting a guide alone, and depart conveniently from Mexico City's Zócalo metro station or accommodations. Capital Bus and Turibús run daily minivan tours, including a bilingual guide and entrance fee, with or without a visit to the Basílica de Guadalupe. Reservations are required.
Exploring the Teotihuacán site can be a fascinating experience, but dealing with persistent vendors can be tiring. The ruins can get crowded, especially between 10 am to 2 pm, and on Sundays, holidays, and around the vernal equinox. It's advisable to start early to avoid the crowds.
The ruins are vast and located at a high altitude, so it's best to take it slow and easy. It's recommended to bring a hat and water since visitors usually walk several miles, and the sun can be harsh around noon. Additionally, from June to September, there are often afternoon rain showers.
English-speaking guides are available at the gates for around M$600 per group for those who prefer a guide. Alternatively, an organized tour with a guide from Mexico City could be a more cost-effective option, especially for solo or small-group travellers.