Teotihuacan

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Some 50kms northeast of downtown Mexico City, lies Teotihuacan, the site of the huge Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.


The Teotihuacan complex as viewed from the top of the Temple of the Moon

Teotihuacan was Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably Mexico's largest pre-Hispanic empire. A grid plan for the city was developed around the early part of the 1st century AD and the Pyramid of the Sun was built over an earlier cave shrine by AD 150. Most of the rest of the city was built between about AD 250 and 60. The city was divided into quarters by two great avenues that met near La Ciudadela. The one running roughly north-south is the famous Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) - so called because the later Aztecs believed the great buildings lining it were vast tombs, built by giants for Teotihuacan's fist rulers. The major buildings are typified by a talud-tablero style in which the rising portions of stepped pyramid like buildings consist of both sloping (talud) and upright (tablero) sections. They were originally covered in lime and colorfully painted. Even centuries after its fall, Teotihuacan was still a pilgrimage site for Aztec royalty who believed that all of the gods had sacrificed themselves here to start the sun moving at the beginning of the "fifth world" inhabited by the Aztecs. To this day it is still an important pilgrimage site, thousands of Mexicans flock to the pyramids every year to celebrate the vernal equinox.


The Teotihuacan complex as viewed from the top of the Temple of the Moon

The Avenue of the Dead forms the main axis. La Ciduadela (Citadel) on the southern end is a large square complex believed to have been the residence of the city's supreme ruler. Four wide walls enclose a huge open space of which the main feature, towards the east side, is a pyramid called the Templo de Quetzalcoatl.

Further north, on the east side, is the world's third-largest pyramid, The Pyramid of the Sun. Only the pyramid at Cholula and Egypt's Cheops are larger. The base is 222m long on each side and it is just over 70m high. It was built around AD 100 from 3 million tons of stone, brick and rubble without the use of metal tools. It is believed that the pyramid's plaster was painted bright red, which must have been a radiant sight at sunset.

The Pyramid of the Moon, at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead, is not as big as the Pyramid of the Sun but is more gracefully proportioned. Its summit is nearly the same height because it is built on higher ground. It was completed around AD 300.

The Plaza de la Luna, in front of the pyramid, is a handsome arrangement of 12 temple platforms. The altar in the plaza's center is thought to have been the site of religious dancing.

On the southwest corner of the Plaza de la Luna is the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl (Quetzal Butterfly) where it is thought a high priest lived. It is now a well restored patio with thick columns on which are carved images of the quetzal bird or the hybrid quetzal butterfly.

Teotihuacan Layout
The Avenue of the Dead (Calle de los Muertos) runs vertically in the middle. La Ciduadela is at the bottom. The Pyramid of the Sun is in the middle, to the right of the Avenue. Further on up the Avenue are the Pyramid of the Moon and the Plaza de la Luna.

Climbing the pyramids does not pose any problems for those used to climbing steep stairs. We spent the better part of an afternoon at the site in sight of these ancient pyramids.

Getting there: Metro to Autobuses del Norte (Line 5) and then an hour's ride on the bus to Los Pyramides. One should be careful not to say "Teotihuacan" at the ticket window as that means the town of San Juan Teotihuacan which, though close enough to the historical site, is not within walking distance. One is well advised to say "Los Pyramides" which gets the message across. The bus drops visitors just outside the southern entrance (1). 


We took in the view of both Pyramids from a distance, explored the Citadel, walked along Avenue of the Dead up towards the Pyramid of the Sun, explored the museum outside the Pyramid, climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, walked to the Plaza de la Luna, explored the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl before finally climbing to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon. It was close to 5:30 pm when we got to the top with not much time before the 6 pm closure of the site. The guard took the trouble of climbing to the top to gently prod everybody (including a pair of young worshippers who played a meditative turn on the flute) down before sundown. We walked back down the Avenue towards the entrance.

As we reached the Pyramid of the Sun, we were asked to exit from the side entrance (2) near the Pyramid. After exiting, we walked down the outside road towards the southern entrance (1), which proved to be a mistake as the return bus picks passengers at entrance (2). This is probably what we were told there (in Spanish). The guard at the main entrance promptly hailed a collectivo that was conveniently passing by which dropped us at the aforementioned town of San Juan Teotihuacan, from where we caught a bus back to Mexico City.


Panorama from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun (4:30 pm)

Panorama from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon (5:30 pm)


Satellite View of the Teotihuacan area


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