Teotihuacan and Cholula pyramids, Mexico

Teotihuacan pyramids, Mexico

Teotihuacan: A view down the main street, Avenue of the Dead, seen from the Pyramid of the Moon. On the mid-left is the Pyramid of the Sun. Photo by Diego Delso

Visiting Teotihuacan

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan – the Place where Gods Gathered -is 25 miles (40 kms) outside Mexico City. It’san ancient pre-Columbian city housing 150, 000 people at it’s peak, though it’s a bleak and blasted city of stone ghosts these days with its mud and wood structures returned to dust. It is not known who built the city but currently the bets are on either Totonacs or Aztecs as builders with archeological evidence suggesting that Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Nahua peoples lived there, possibly at the same time but in different districts. Unusually for a city this size there are no signs of military defences or fortifications.

Teotihuacan was inhabited between – very approximately – between 300 BC and 500 AD and the Pyramid of the Sun is the second largest pyramid in the Americas (65 metres high and 200 metres long on each side) after Mexico’s mostly grass-covered Great Pyramid of Cholula 80 miles (130 kms) away.

The site is awesome in its scale and the pyramids are magnificent in spite of the fact that unlike their Egyptian counterparts they are not solid stone but earth and rubble mounds dressed with a facade of stone.

Teotihuacan, Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of Moon, Mexico

The Pyramid of the Sun on the right, Pyramid/Temple of the Moon on the left and originally many wood structures occupied the open spaces.

Teotihuacan history

Teotihuacan city reached its peak in 450 AD. There appears to have been an ecological crisis around 500 AD which might have triggered riots that resulted in many of the dwellings being burnt. There was no migration to Tenochtitlan at that time.
The nearby city of Tenochtitlan that much later became Mexico City began on an island in a lake valley about 1325, so dates from at least 800 years after Teotihuacan collapsed. Tenochtitlan was the core of the Aztec empire until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1521.

diorama of the Pyramid of the Sun over Teotihuacan, Mexico

A diorama of the Pyramid of the Sun over an approximation of Teotihuacan’s original layout in the Museo Teotihuacán on the site itself. Photo by Fjhuerta.

Teotihuacan Main Sights

Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the must climb structure on the site if the legs are willing. It’s an effort, especially if the temperatures are high so make sure you take sufficient water with you. The panoramic view from the top is superb and well worth the time.

The Temple of the Moon is similar but smaller so if you’ve reached the Sun don’t feel obliged to go to the Moon.

The Temple Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl was one of the most sacred places in Teotihuacan and decorated with stone representations of the deity Quetzalcoatl.

Museo Teotihuacán houses some fine displays and a model of the entire site (photo above).

The Avenue of the Dead. While walking this central promenade keep an eye open for unusual structures along the such as the Palace of the Jaguars and its wall paintings, sculptures and underground rooms.

The Perimeter. If you have wheels then take a drive around the edges of the site as you’ll find more interesting structures and different views on the way, along with a large selection of restaurants/cafés/hotels and, of course, shops.
If you bused or taxied out to Teotihuacan you may be able to find a rental cycle depending, on which part of the complex you find yourself. Taxis are not allowed to drive around the site.

Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan, Mexico

The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, aka the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The face bottom left is of one of the Maya’s most important deities, Quetzalcoatl, the ‘feathered serpent god’.

The Temple/Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent is at the south end of the Avenue of the Dead and covers the remains of at least a hundred sacrificial victims from about 150 BC.

Tepantitla Mountain Stream mural, Teotihuacan, Mexico

A section of a mural from the Tepantitla compound in the Mesoamerican ruins of Teotihuacan. This Mountain Stream mural is in the National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropologia) in Mexico City. Photo by Luis Tello.

Getting around

This is a reasonably-priced, pay-to-enter complex and will involve a lot of walking/climbing in the open all day, so bring appropriate walking shoes and sun protection but don’t carry too much. You will be able to buy water there. There are sort-of bus/wagons with shelter that trundle around and carry tourists that are too tired or unable to move easily but their movements are unpredictable.
Avoid visiting on Sundays as the site is free for Mexican residents and likely to be more crowded than usual.

Getting there

Car. takes about 45 minutes from Mexico City using the toll highway. The free road takes longer but is lively and interesting. The parking charge at the site is reasonable.

Taxis are expensive but you might be able to negotiate a deal with a friendly driver.

Buses to Teotihuacan leave from Mexico City every 20 minutes from Terminal Autobuses del Norte. Check your bus goes to Teotihuacán Ruinas (aka Zona Arqueologico) and not to the town of San Juan Teotihuacán. The trip takes an hour and buses run until about 9pm.

Tour bus. Travel agencies offer convenient half or full day tours to the site but are usually combined with other stops, including gift shops!

Popocatepetl volcano

Popocatepetl active volcano, Mexico

Popocatepetl is an active volcano (5, 426m high) in the region and a possible ancient pyramid inspiration. Photo by Jakub Hejtmanek.

Popocatepetl is just 45 miles (70 kms) from Mexico City, it smokes constantly and makes noticeable weezing and grumbling noises and farts on a regular basis. If you fly into the city look out for the ‘Smoking Mountain’ ( Popocatepetl in Nahuatl, an Aztec language).

Great Pyramid of Cholula

Cholula pyramid, Mexico

Cholula pyramid, that includes the grassy mound on the upper right, about 81 miles (130 kms, 1. 5 hours drive) from Teotihuacan. Photo by Diego Delso.

The largest pyramid by volume in the world is not the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt but that grassy mound pictured above, all of it, with a church on top in Puebla state, Mexico. It’s the Great Pyramid of Cholula, a temple/pyramid built over hundreds of years from 300C BC to 800 AD and dedicated to the famous Mexican bird-god Quetzalcoatl.

Although Cholula is bigger in volume than its Egyptian competitors, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 138. 8 m (455 feet) high while Cholula goes up to a mere 66 m (217 ft). However, in terms of external dimensions this is not only the largest pyramid in the world but also the largest monument.

The Great Pyramid of Cholula has been little excavated and hardly restored due to the placing of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Church of Our Lady of the Cures) on top of the pyramid by the Spanish in 1594. A common practice of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages was to reuse ancient religious sites as Catholic ones, and this one has become a popular pilgrimage destination.

When local people began construction work in 1910 excavations turned up this massive structure along with skulls of decapitated children. Recent investigations have revealed that this is in fact a series of six pyramids built on top of one another, with successive generations improving on their forbears but deliberately not entirely covering the past.

Cholula pyramid is partly made of adobe bricks ( mud mixed with straw, small stones and sand) baked in the sun till hard.  This is a relatively easy process and very effective in a dry climate but when the pyramid was abandoned around  800 AD (CE) the heat, sun, rain and humidity formed a perfect grow zone and was soon overcome by tropical jungle.

Cholula pyramid’s exterior, church  and over 5 miles of tunnels can today be explored by tourists. There are a handful of direct Estrella Roja buses from Mexico City (96 kms/60 miles/2 hours) and many from Puebla (20 minutes) which is a pleasant town with a lot of pretty churches and decent shopping.