Visiting Teotihuacan

Introduction: Mexico City, Really?
Using The Cross Border Xpress
Review: Tijuana VIP Lounge
Review: Aeromexico Salon Premier Tijuana
Aeromexico 787 Business Class Tijuana to Mexico City
Review: Las Alcobas Hotel Polanco Mexico City
Hot Air Ballooning Over Teotihuacán
Visiting Teotihuacan
An Evening Of Lucha Libre
Floating Around Xochimilco
Day Trip To Coyoacán
Exploring Mexico City’s Historic Center
Dining At Dulce Patria
Palacio De Bellas Artes & The Ballet Folklórico
Mexico City: Andrew’s Thoughts
Review: Minute Suites DFW


Teotihuacan.

If you are up on your ancient cities or UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you’re probably already familiar with the pre-Columbian city on the outskirts of Mexico City.

If you aren’t, you are in for a treat.

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Looking down the Avenue of the Dead

Words can’t convey the true majesty of the ancient city of Teotihuacan. The scale is unique. The structures reflect a moment in time in a way that many other historical sites can’t.

And that’s part of what makes Teotihuacan so interesting.

For a bit of context for the unfamiliar, Teotihuacan is old. Very, very old. Exact timelines vary, but the city is thought to have been founded around 100 BC, reaching a peak population of 150,000 – 200,000 somewhere around 450 AD. Due to either famine, invasion, or civil war (or a combination — no one really knows, apparently), the city began to decline after that, culminating in a large series of systematic fires somewhere around 550 AD.

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Pyramid of the Sun

The city never recovered.

Unlike other population centers, Teotihuacan wasn’t conquered and rebuilt repeatedly — you don’t see the layers upon layers of culture and history like you would in say, Rome. The city was effectively abandoned, to the point of being in ruins by the time of the Aztecs, who claimed the city as one of the sacred locations of their creation stories.

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Temple of the Sun and some of the surrounding city from the Temple of the Moon

The feeling of personal insignificance is tremendous — and not because of the size of the pyramids, although they’re impressively large. Unlike say, the Pyramids of Giza, or the Greek temples in the Mediterranean, Teotihuacan wasn’t only a religious shrine (although there were and are many spiritual elements). It was a city, and a large one. About 45 times the land area of Pompeii, as a general comparison to a place many of you are familiar with.

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View down the Avenue of the Dead

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View down the Avenue of the Dead

Although development is encroaching on the archaeological zone, enough of Teotihuacan is preserved so as to suggest the thriving, bustling, center of commerce that it once was. There are grand boulevards and narrower streets, and a diversity of architecture — a mix of the mystical and mundane.

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Jaguar fresco

The on-site museum has a scale model of the ancient city, which gives a fascinating perspective on how Teotihuacan was oriented with the valley, and just how much was going on in the city at its zenith. There’s a decent map here as well.

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Plaza of the Moon

I’m neither an art historian nor an anthropologist, so I won’t dwell on the history lesson. If you’re interested in reading more about the theories and excavation progress, the Smithsonian magazine has an interesting story on the current efforts. The guesstimate is that the city once covered nearly 12 square miles, and with only a fraction of the site excavated, there is potentially much more to discover.

Suffice it to say, Teotihuacan is a special place.

Logistics of visiting Teotihuacan

There are several ways to visit Teotihuacan as a day trip from Mexico City, but there are two that I think make sense.

  • Use a combination of public trains and buses (at a cost of about $5 USD)
  • Hire a private driver (and maybe guide) for the day

Many, many hotels and tour companies offer excursions to Teotihuacan, but these are often 7+ hour tours that only allow for an hour or two at the park. The rest of the time is eaten up by transportation and mandatory shopping stops. We visited Teotihuacan as part of our balloon trip, but as I mentioned in previous installment I don’t really recommend the ballooning as a method of visiting Teotihuacan if you want to fully discover the latter.

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Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun

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Massive Pyramid of the Sun

I could have spent the entire day exploring Teotihuacan — between the ruins and the museum there was a ton to see — so I think my recommendation would be to get there as efficiently as possible. Arriving first thing in the morning would be ideal, as there is almost zero shade, and it definitely gets warm fast.

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Smaller structures and the Pyramid of the Moon

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Beautiful vistas, very little cover

We lucked out with a day that wasn’t too crowded, but apparently most of the tour buses arrive around 11AM – 12PM, so if you can finish your hike and escape to the museum before the mid-day rush that will almost certainly be a better experience.

If you’re someone that likes having a guide, this would maybe be a good place to research and source a reliable one. The only audio guide I could find was in Italian, which is probably not useful to most. There were also local guides hawking their services at the park entrances, so that’s another option.

Either way, you’ll want to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and maybe even snacks. There is a restaurant on site, and various food options around the perimeter, but again — this is a massive complex, so getting anywhere takes quite a bit of time, and leaving for lunch might not be practical.

Overall

I’m fortunate to have been to many ancient cities and World Heritage Sites (I’ve even lived in one for a time). They’re all stupendous in their own way.

But there is something different here. Walking down the Avenue of the Dead and seeing the alignment of the boulevard with the surrounding mountains — this place is about much more than the main pyramids, which made it feel very human to me.

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Details on one of the smaller structures

Teotihuacan is more than a thousand years older than Angkor, or Machu Picchu, but even though we know next to nothing about the population in comparison to those more recent civilizations it was easier to picture the city the way it might have once been. At least for me.

Have you been to Teotihuacan? Any tips for others?

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Comments

  1. Interesting post. I have long thought about visiting. Did you have any safety concerns around Mexico City or take any atypical precautions ?

  2. Been to Teotihuacan twice. Not as impressive as Machu Picchu, but more impressive than Chichen Itza. Visiting this site is a must.

    Great post!

  3. I agree… Have been there twice, and it is an amazing place. A must if you are visiting Mexico City. We had taken a private car to take us to the site and it was much better than taking a tour… You get to go on your own pace and really relax and enjoy everything.

  4. @baltia-you are right, not anywhere as interesting as looking at those National Geographic sites you can sit and home and view showing women in different states of undress. If you think this is boring, you need to get out once in a while. As far as the trip report, I enjoy seeing a trip report in between the upgraded rooms and First Class seats going from A to B, what was served and what champagne was consumed. Find another blog if this is so boring to you.

  5. @balatia Yawn.. totally boring comment. An utter waste of key strokes. Next time try thinking before you post.

    Years ago I saw a small exhibition on Teotihuacan, strangely enough set up in one of the terminals of SFO. I’ve been wanting to go there ever since, but the question of safety in Mexico City was always a deterrent. Thanks to this series of posts I’m considering going now.

  6. I found Teotihuacan to be much more impressive than Chichen Itza. Teotihuacan is less touristy but there’s so much more to see. Walking along the Avenue of the Dead was quite chilling – I can easily imagine (much thanks to Apocalypto) what it was like when it was a bustling centre.

  7. Never been, but it is now on the list. If you prefer a private guide, I’ve used a company called “Tours by Locals” for Central/South America tours. They pair you up with a local resident that also does tours as a side job. It’s more expensive than a group tour but you can customize the itinerary however you want, and avoid the dreaded mandatory shopping stops (unless you want to).

    If you want to find your own way and hire a guide there, as with everything in Mexico, bargain hard on the price.

  8. @ Kate — Not really. I wasn’t traveling solo (which is when I tend to be more aggressive on the safety front), and didn’t do anything out of the ordinary other than avoiding taxis, which was easy with Uber.

  9. @ Robert Hanson — You should go. It’s an easy trip, and the safety concerns aren’t really greater than anywhere else you’d consider going.

  10. You are well on the way to convincing me on the safety question. My attitude was based on horror stories I’ve heard about the crime there decades ago, kidnappings and the like. But a local resident who commented on an earlier post on this series says it did used to be dangerous there, but that has changed, at least in the wealthier neighborhoods.

    One question I’m wondering about though, with the city being so huge, and public transportation being limited in coverage. I notice you are still taking the precaution of avoiding taxies. Why do you think that Uber is safe, when taxies clearly still are not?

  11. Also intrigued by your comment about avoiding taxis but taking Uber. Would love to know your reasoning.

  12. @ Robert Hanson @ Kate — The public transportation is actually excellent (easiest subway system I’ve ever used, and cheap), it’s just crowded. But you can definitely take it just about anywhere.

    As far as Uber — I tend to avoid taxis everywhere, though I have heard mixed things about the taxis in Mexico City. Mainly scams (like taxis everywhere), but theft was apparently a big problem 5-10 years ago that hasn’t been fully eradicated, though there’s been a lot of progress. My Spanish isn’t great, and hailing street cabs is always more complicated when you don’t speak the language.

    Using Uber (or Cabify, or a similar app) means there’s no confusion about destination, you can make sure you’re not being taken off-course, and there’s no cash exchanged. Small things, but they make me a bit more comfortable.

  13. I have visited Teotihuacan many times when I lived in Mexico City as a kid. I always enjoyed racing up the pyramid if the sun. There used to be (I imagine still is) a really neat restaurant not from the there inside a huge cave – that was mandatory lunch stop when we took family who came to visit.

  14. You can hire a guide at gate, most of them speak pretty good english. We paid 500mex for private guide for 2 people for 4 hours, and we didn’t haggle for cheaper price.

  15. To explain a bit further about Mexico City cabs, it is important to understand there are different types of cabs: “regular” cabs that you hail (used to be exclusively green VW beetles, now a mix of cars) and “sitio” or radio cabs.

    The regular, street-hail cabs were a dangerous proposition until recently, and are still not safe. In addition to scams, both westerners and Mexicans who appeared to be wealthy (and as Tiffany notes, Mexico City is the region’s economic powerhouse and there are a large number of very wealthy Mexicans as well as foreigners there) were kidnapping targets if they stepped into a street-hail cab. And especially in the pre-cellphone era, there was little recourse; you never knew who the driver was. Even in the cellphone era, an armed driver could prevent you from contacting anyone.

    “Sitio” cabs were always a safer proposition as you had to request it or walk to a designated site, and your identity along with the driver’s was logged along with your origin and destination. A radio dispatcher also kept tabs on each car’s whereabouts. These were generally safer, however, fares were significantly higher as a result.

    Uber is safe for the same reason as sitio cabs; the robbery/kidnapping threat is reduced or eliminated when your driver’s identity is logged and your location tracked at all points during your trip.

    I too love Mexico City and with the advent of Uber, find there is no reason (safety or otherwise) not to use Uber in lieu of any types of cabs. As Tiffany notes, the subway system is also awesome, cheap, safe, and possibly the easiest to use of any big city system in the world, as it was explicitly designed to be usable by illiterate individuals – thus, each line is color coded and each station has a unique logo on the station map.

  16. @Jean

    The Avenue of the Dead is called that because that is where they buried the bodies of the sacrificed.

    Also, some French guy blew up most of the structures right after Carter found the tomb in Egypt filled with gold(he found nothing inside). He did take photos allowing them to be rebuilt.

  17. I’ll be visiting Mexico for the first time this November, and intend to visit Chichen Itza, maybe Uxmal, definitely Tulum, and, yes, definitely Teotihuacan. I’m debating how to get there, preferring to avoid the group tour thing, but concerned about arranging something more private, and worried that I may not be able to successfully navigate the distance on my own through public transit. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to my trip.

  18. Loved the report. I was there when I was 9, and you’re inspiring me to go back.

    BTW, the reference to “tour busses” has a typo. “Bus” ( plural “buses”) is a mode of mass transportation. “Buss” (plural “busses”) is a kiss. I presume it’s not the tour kisses that are arriving, though I’m sure the people are friendly.

  19. Hesitated to visit Mex. City due to safety concerns – and altitude/pollution, but finally went last year for a long weekend (which is enough to cover the main sites). Was well worth it! People were friendly, food great, a good vibrant megalopolis. Flew AA F $700 r/t from PDX via PHX (Admirals lounge from/to MEX/PHX allowed) Only problem was I got sick due to the horrendous odor/particulates from diesel emitting vehicles everywhere. Stayed Sante Fe Hilton (good b’fast, reasonable price, newer hotel, but boring area save for a mall), and the full-service large Polanco Hyatt (good restaurants, pricey shopping) and Hilton Paseo Reforma near Ballet Folklorica (highly recommended!), 5 min. walk (this Hilton was a Sheraton at one time and the health club is very excellent). I used Hilton Reforma’s private car/guide for a Teotihuacan excursion at $100.00. Well, well worth it. Quiet, comfortable, new car with A/C, can do the trip at a good pace. Again, well worth the cost! The site is large and having the driver shuttle me around the site incl. to the museum (a long hike to get to) saved my energy as the altitude and sun, even in the morning, can sap you. Highly recommend the Museo Archeologica! Impressive displays, and nice park-setting, EZ walk from Hyatt. Mexico City was well worth the visit and I’m glad I finally got to this important world city. But I wouldn’t like to live there – and would never rent a car there.

  20. @Geroge

    That information is false. There are no registries of human sacrifice in Teotihuacan.

    As a matter of fact, several scholars put in doubt human sacrifices even in Aztec or Mayan cities. ALL documents accounting on them were written after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, and used by the same to justify colonization to the eyes of the Catholic Spanish Crown. There are even texts by Spanish priests from the time who traveled from Mexico City to Yucatan and refute such sacrifices.

    There is a famous text from the conquistadores describing the night they were expelled by the Aztecs from Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). They made a camp at the lake shores and claim they saw sacrifices being carried at the top of the main pyramid. Recent technical studies demonstrate such observations to be physically impossible given the great distance and the lack of special observation equipment at that time.

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