To help us better understand the present, we need to understand the past. A good place to start this quest for understanding is one of the world’s great prehistoric civilizations: Teotihuacán, Mexico.
Teotihuacán was at its height from about the first to the fifth century, when it was among the world’s most inhabited cities with as many as 150,000 residents. Today the city lies in ruins, making it one of the most significant archaeological sites in Mexico. It is also the most visited.
Teotihuacán was a major religious center as you’ll see from the many religious monuments and structures found here. Its residents worshipped some of the same gods that other Mesoamerican cultures did. They engaged in human sacrifices, since human and animal remains were found in tombs. It is believed the sacrifices were made when structures were expanded.
Teotihuacáns seem enigmatic as we look back on them today. They were said to be a peaceful community of farmers, since the city contains no defensive structures. However, their temples contain many symbols of war.
The city was abandoned in the seventh or eighth centuries for reasons that are not known for certain. Archeologists believe the decline was probably caused by overpopulation and depletion of natural resources. It was the Aztecs who gave Teotihuacán its name, when they arrived here in about 1320. The name means “City of Gods,” and they believed the gods had gathered here to create the sun and moon after the last world ended. From their base in Tenochtitlán (in what is now Mexico City) they used it as pilgrimage destination.
Teotihuacán is located about 50 km (30 miles) north of Mexico City, making it very doable as a day trip. There are essential 3 options for getting to Teotihuacan from Mexico City:
From the city center of Mexico City it takes about 45 minutes if you use the toll highway or much longer if you use the old free road. There is a small fee for parking at the site. Taking a taxi to Teotihuacan is also possible but very expensive.
Buses to Teotihuacán leave from Mexico City about every half hour from two locations: Terminal del Norte (outside Autobuses del Norte Metro station, Line 5) or from outside the Potrero Metro station (Line 3). From Terminal Autobuses del Norte, walk towards Gate 8. There is a ticket booth almost at the end of the hall. Check that your bus goes to the site entrance of Teotihuacán ruinas and not just to the town of San Juan Teotihuacán nearby. From Potrero, exit the station and look for white buses that go to Los Piramides.
Be warned that despite the presence of police checkpoints, armed robberies on these bus routes do happen. The robbers are often passengers themselves, who board the bus at stops in between the main bus station in Mexico City and Teotihuacán. Sometimes this happens with the knowledge of the bus driver and/or the police.
By tour bus
Half or full day tours are an easy way to get to the Teotihuacan ruins. They are often combined with the Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the Basilica of Guadalupe, both of which are outside the city center of Mexico City.
Map of Teotihuacán
The Palace of Tepantitla is a priests’ residence found northeast of the Temple of the Sun. It contains the Paradise of Tlaloc, the most famous mural in Teotihuacán. This mural recreates daily life residents playing and picking flowers while water running down a mountain depicts their irrigation system. Study the mural longer, and you’ll see people falling into the mountain as their blood changes into water. The people are different colors, which could represent the classes of society. Other murals consist of thousands of small drawings that are believed to show how Teotihuacáns thought the world worked.
The palaces of Tetitla and Atetelco, located west of the Avenue of the Dead, are a treasure trove of Teotihuacán murals. Discovered in the 1940s, the palaces contain some of the best preserved murals in the ruins. You’ll see 120 walls covered in murals in the Palace of Tetitla alone. One of the most famous murals shows the Great Goddess or Spider Woman wearing a headdress that features an owl bordered by a snake. Other murals depict eagles, serpents and jaguars. The Palace of Atetelco, located about 100 meters (1,200 feet) away, showcases murals that depict jaguars and coyotes. Some of these animals are painted red and in a processional format that has been linked to war orders.
The Museo Teotihuacán, located south of the Pyramid of the Sun, is a good introduction to what you’ll see as you wander around Teotihuacán. In addition to learning about the monuments, you’ll find artifacts made from shell, bone and obsidian that were used by this ancient people. The museum boasts more than 600 religious and art artifacts on display, as well as handmade necessities of daily life. In the museum’s eight halls, you can learn more about the Teotihuacán economy, society, technology, religion and politics.
The Palace of the Jaguars exudes wow-ness, with red murals, now faded, embellished with white drawings and carvings. The drawings represent jaguars and elements of sea life, such as shells, including conches. Even today this exquisite art doesn’t fail to impress.
Key among the murals is a jaguar blowing a feathered conch that drips with blood. This is believed to be a symbol of war, since conch shells were blown before warriors went into battle. Atop the jaguar’s head is a snake with feathers jutting out from it.
The Palace of the Jaguars is considered one of the most sacred sites in Teotihuacán, a city that is filled with religious buildings. The imagery depicted in the murals is stronger than at any of the other sites. Some images were later found depicted in other Mesoamerican cultures.
Because of its closeness to the Temple of the Moon, archaeologists believe priests and warriors planned events here that would take place later at the temple.
The Palace of Quetzalpapalotl sits at the southwest edge of the Temple of the Moon. It is considered the most palatial building in Teotihuacán, though it is but one of several palaces in the city. Even today, some 1,500 years after it was built, you can see the richness of the structure with its painted lintels and ornately carved columns.
Whether rulers actually lived at this palace is open to debate, though some archaeologists believed priests may have occasionally lived there.
The palace is centered around a courtyard, with birds and butterflies used as decorations. It was these decorations that led to its name. Quetzal means butterfly.
The palace was discovered in the early 1960s and named after designs featuring abstract carvings of birds/butterflies with obsidian eyes were found on the structure. The discovering architects believed them to represent Quetzalpapalotl, a feathered creature had bird and butterfly characteristics. Later archaeologists believe these designs are more symbolic of an armed bird but the name of the temple has lingered.
The palace was built, destroyed and rebuilt over the time the city was inhabited, so you’ll see a variety of ruins on your visit.
The Ciudadela or Citadel anchors the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead and received its name from the Spanish because of its impressive walls. However, it was actually a large sunken plaza that was big enough to house almost all of Teotihuacán’s residents. La Ciudadela centers around the Temple of Quetzalcoatl or Feathered Serpent. Completed in the third century, apartment complexes stand on two sides of the pyramid; archaeologists believe the city’s rulers may have lived in them.
The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the smallest of the three pyramids at Teotihuacán. It’s built on six levels with the outside of each level featuring feathered serpent heads and other snake heads; these serpent heads may be symbolic of war. Obsidian was used for eyes, making them glimmer when the sun struck them. A bas relief of the full serpent is below the heads.
The feathered serpent on the pyramid may have represented life and peace, while the fire serpent may have stood for war and the hot desert. Since Teotihuacáns did not have a written culture, archaeologists have had to rely on legends and writings of other cultures for their assumptions.
In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing the remains of 200 people at the site where the temple’s construction was believed to have started. Most of the remains are men, believed to be warriors, since weapons are buried with them.
The temple’s construction features the talud-tablero architectural style where a rectangular panel sits atop a sloping panel. It is believed this is the first time this style was used, and it was later found in other Mesoamerican cultures. A platform called Asodada is on the front of the pyramid, hiding much of it from view at this angle.
The main street through ancient Teotihuacán may have been called the Avenue of the Dead, but that doesn’t mean dead people are buried on it or along the road sides. The Aztecs so named it because the mounds on the sides of the road looked like tombs. Archeologists have now established that these were ceremonial platforms that were topped with temples.
The avenue was several kilometers long in its prime, but only a kilometer or two has been uncovered and restored. At 40 meters (131 feet) wide, this road would be considered wide by our standards today. Teotihuacán is in ruins now, but walking the Avenue of the Dead provides a glimpse of the city’s glorious past. You’ll walk by huge housing complexes and temples, some of which date back to before the birth of Christ.
At the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead, is a sprawling ceremonial plaza that Spanish conquistadors named La Ciudadela (the Citadel). Looking from a distance like a fortress, it was likely the home of the city’s high rulers.
Heading north along the Avenue of the Dead, you’ll see exquisite examples of the housing complexes and temples. On the right side is the enormous Pyramid of Sun. At a height of more than 63 meters (200 feet) and a base more than 225 meters (730 feet) long on each side, this pyramid is one of the largest structures created in the pre-Columbian New World. It would have been completed around 200-250 AD.
At the northern end of the avenue is the Pyramid of the Moon. Recent research suggests it was built in stages between around 1 AD and 350 AD. It started off as a small platform and eventually became a 46-meter (150-foot) high pyramid.
The Pyramid of the Moon is located at the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead. It is considered an icon of Teotihuacán. Completed sometime between 200 AD and 250 AD, it’s smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun, but every bit as impressive. Built over an existing structure, a tomb containing riches of a male skeleton was found in recent years, leading archaeologists to believe that tombs of Teotihuacán rulers also may be buried beneath the pyramid. The pyramid was renovated six times; archeologists believe the skeleton was buried around the time of the fourth renovation. Besides the man, the tomb contained skeletons of animals and birds, and 400 artifacts.
The pyramid, which resembles a nearby mountain, Cerro Gordo, celebrated the Great Goddess of Teotihuacán, who was considered the goddess of earth, water and fertility as well as creation. A tomb dedicated to the Great Goddess contained human and animal skeletons, jewelry and other relics. This tomb is believed to date back to 100 AD.
The Plaza of the Moon, where ceremonies were held, can be found near the altar dedicated to the Great Goddess. Because of the way the plaza is configured, it became known as the Teotihuacán Cross.
If you need to burn up energy, climbing to the top of the pyramid will do that for you. It also provides an excellent opportunity to view the great culture of Teotihuacán.
Impressive is but one word that describes the Pyramid, of the Sun. This magnificent structure not only dominates Teotihuacán, but it is the third largest pyramid in the world. Situated on the Avenue of the Dead between the Temple of the Moon and La Ciudadela, the pyramid at one time was painted a bright red, while at one time, the temple’s plaster sides were painted with brightly colored murals.
The pyramid is even more impressive when you consider its builders used no metal tools to construct it. The Pyramid of the Sun originally consisted of four raised platforms; another platform would be added later taking it to a height of 75 meters (246 feet). The pyramid was constructed in about the second century. It was built over mounds of rubble, then covered over with plaster. A tunnel leading to a cave was found inside, with archaeologists thinking the cave might be a royal tomb.
Archaeologists aren’t sure why the pyramid was built, but believe it may have been a temple to a god as there used to be an altar on top. The pyramid was heavily looted over the centuries with thieves taking artifacts that might have shed light on its purpose; weather also contributed to the demise of the pyramid. The temple may have served astrological purposes because of its alignment with the sun. Obsidian arrowheads and other artifacts have been found inside the pyramid, leading to speculation the temple may have been used for sacrifices.
Also unknown is its original name. The Aztecs named it the Temple of the Sun when they discovered the abandoned city of Teotihuacán.
If you climb to the top, as temple priests did, you can see the street’s other end where stands the Temple of the Moon.