Hundreds of years before European explorers set foot on the Americas, the American natives were already creating their own lavish and elaborate cities. The Mesoamericans in central Mexico created pyramids that rivaled the great pyramids of Giza. They called their home Teotihuacan and believed that the sun and moon were born there. In later years, the inhabitants of Teotihuacan moved away and became part of the Aztec Empire, leaving their grand pyramids to the fate of the elements. Mother Nature took over and buried the city under dirt and grass. Teotihuacan wasn’t excavated until the late 1600s and in 1905, archaeologists began a major restoration and excavation project. Now, Teotihuacan stands as a reminder of the great civilization that once lived there.
WHERE IS TEOTIHUACAN?
Teotihuacan is located 38 miles northeast of Mexico City and is a great day-trip from Mexico’s capital. Give yourself at least half of a day to visit Teotihuacan. My suggestion is to try and get there early in the morning, around 9 or even earlier. Not only will the weather be much cooler to climb the pyramids, but also there will be fewer tourists. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my travels, it’s that the early morning is the best time to visit places.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are three main ways to travel to Teotihuacan from Mexico City:
The first and most authentic is by taking the bus. If taking a local bus concerns you, there is no reason to be worried. These busses are different from the local public transportation and are much nicer. To catch the bus, go to the North Bus Station. The easiest way to get there is to take the metro to the autobus stop and the bus station is directly across the street. Once inside the huge bus terminal, go left to Gate 8. There will be a desk that says “Teotihuacan” and “piramides”. You can buy your tickets there that will take you to the pyramids. Round trip tickets are $92 pesos and are valid all day. Busses leave every 20 minutes and the journey to the pyramids takes around an hour. The bus drivers are usually nice and will announce the stop “piramides” to get off at.
The second option is to take a tour with a group. Tour groups are a great way to visit Teotihuacan because all of the difficult work is done for you. You can just hop on a bus, learn some history of the site, and be dropped off at the entrance to the pyramids. Life doesn’t get easier than that. A downfall of these tours is that your time at the pyramids is limited. You are forced to operate under their schedule and can’t always do your own thing. But it is the most appealing option for some people and is still an excellent way to visit the pyramids. Sites such as viator.com and Travelocity.com offer tours or you can search for others that suit your taste.
The third and least common option is to rent a car and drive there on your own. The roads leading from Mexico City to Teotihuacan are nicely paved but there is always the traffic to take into consideration. I don’t recommend this option but if you already have a car rented, it is easier to drive there than to arrange for additional transportation. Some people have used Uber for around $20-30 one way, which is also an option.
WHAT TO EXPECT
I’ll admit, I was a little nervous about going to Teotihuacan. My all-time favorite movie is El Dorado and I was excited to see my childhood erected in stone. However, several articles I read online about the pyramids expressed disappointment in the site. As much as I wanted to enjoy the site, I was afraid that it would not live up to my expectations.
As the bus turned off the main highway and bumped along the cobblestone road, I frantically looked out the windows in search of the pyramids. After all, they were pyramids! It couldn’t be easy to miss them. The bus stopped and the driver yelled “piramides” for all of the tourists to get off the bus. Our bus was elaborately decorated with pyramids on the side but not every bus looked the same.
Immediately after departing the bus, you will be approached by taxi drivers trying to take you to the entrance of the pyramids. I was skeptical at first but eventually said yes. If you can find other people to split the cab with, the price becomes even cheaper. Five of us, plus the driver, squeezed in to the tiny car for only 50 pesos. Each of us only had to pay 10 pesos, which is about 50 U.S. cents. Part of our taxi ride included an “exclusive” visit to an indigenous shop for a short tour. None of us knew what to expect as soon as the car stopped and the driver told us to get out.
The scene that awaited us was calm and relaxing. Our guide took us to a gift shop with a restaurant and workshop. A friendly local woman came out of the front doors and greeted us warmly, introducing herself as our tour guide.
She began the tour by talking about the ugly four-legged creature that was sitting outside of a doghouse. Believe it or not, these ugly things are dogs and their breed was highly revered by the Aztecs. Their technical name is Xoloitzcuintles and they have a sweet disposition. After our guide gave us a brief history of the dogs, she showed us samples of obsidian and demonstrated how natives used the stone for centuries. She also taught us about the many uses of the Agave plant, a large plant that I had seen everywhere in Mexico.
Then, the tour guide cleverly segwayed from the agave into the type of alcohol the agave plant could make. Now that piqued my interest. She led us to a table where freshly made tequila was ready for us to sample. We were each given three shots before the tour ended. Our guide joked that we would need it in order to climb the pyramids. I laughed but had no idea how correct she was.
As is customary at many of these locations, you are expected to purchase something from the gift shop. My mom purchased a small obsidian necklace and pretty soon we all piled back into the taxi to be driven to the pyramid. You don’t have to buy anything, but that is definitely what they’re expecting you to do. That’s why the tour guides take you there.
Once you are dropped off at the pyramid, you will be thankful that you did not walk the distance from where the busses stopped. It was at least a 10-minute drive and spending the money on a taxi is worth it. If you’re a Mexican student you get in to the site for free. Otherwise, you will have to pay around 60 pesos or $4.50. Just beyond the entrance are little shops full of kitschy, souvenirs. A good thing to purchase from them is water (if you don’t already have some) and a hat. The sun can be brutal and there is not a lot of shade at the site.
Finally, you emerge from the shops and can see the Pyramid of the Moon in its full glory. It’s size, even from far away, is enormous… until you turn to the right and see the Pyramid of the Sun, which is even larger. Dozens of ruins spread out before you. The first and easiest ruins to explore are directly in front of the shops. There are usually tour groups in these ruins so feel free to attach yourself on to one so you can learn a bit more about the history. Signs describing the ruins are found throughout the site and are in both Spanish and English. So if you’re concerned about not understanding signs, you’re in luck!
The Pyramid of the Moon is the smaller of the two pyramids at Teotihuacan. Currently, excavation is still underway at the top of the pyramid and visitors are only allowed to climb up part way. I suggest starting with this one because it’s the closest one and there will be fewer people. The views from the top are spectacular and look out over the Avenue of the Dead leading toward the other pyramid.
Adorning the sides of the Avenue are pyramids with flat tops. Historians believe that these once held wooden temples on the tops, hence the reason their tops are flat. I watched several children run up the stairs of those pyramids but decided to let them exercise for me as I set my sights on the final goal – climbing the Pyramid of the Sun.
Early morning is the best time to tour Teotihuacan because there are fewer tourists and fewer vendors. As the sun rose higher, vendors came out of the woodwork making their jaguar mating calls. I’m not kidding. The Mesoamericans who built Teotihuacan highly revered the jaguar and painted hundreds of jaguars all over their city. Peddlers have capitalized on that and craft wooden jaguar skulls that sound like jaguars when you blow into them. It’s a very eerie sound but after hearing dozens of sellers making those calls, you can get tired of them. I really liked them so I purchased one for my dad and think it’s a pretty neat souvenir.
Climbing up the Pyramid of the Sun is no easy task. It stands 210 feet tall and is composed of five different levels. These levels come in very handy for taking breaks to catch your breath enjoy the view. Many people will be taking their time climbing up so if you’re an expert climber, go easy on us slowpokes; we’re trying our best! Plus, Mexico City is roughly 7,000 feet above sea level, so there’s a good chance you’ll already be out of breath due to the altitude.
The views from the top of the pyramid (once you make it there) are unparalleled. You can see the Pyramid of the Moon among the vast expanse of Mexican jungle. It seems like a scene straight out of Apocalypto.
Teotihuacan also has a museum with many artifacts excavated from the site. The museum gives visitors a more in-depth understanding of the ancient city. My favorite part is a huge relief map that shows what the city actually looked like when it was inhabited!
HOW TO RETURN TO MEXICO CITY
For some odd reason, busses back to Mexico City leave out of a different gate than they drop you off at. Visitors are dropped off by the bus at Puerta 1 but are picked up at Puerta 3. Thankfully, Puerta 3 is right at the entrance near the Pyramid of the Moon. I enjoy the stroll back up the Avenue of the Dead because I can see how many tourists have now infiltrated the site. The bus stop is unmarked but is directly across the street from the entrance. If you can’t find it, just ask someone or follow the rest of the tourists.
IS TEOTIHUACAN WORTH IT?
Yes. Don’t listen to the naysayers on the Internet who think that this architectural marvel isn’t worth the hype. If you don’t have any interest in this sort of thing, then you might find it a bit dry but I found Teotihuacan to be worth it. I was able to learn lots about the Mesoamerican culture as well as see some beautiful sites. Teotihuacan isn’t the only amazing ancient pyramid that Mexico has to offer. If you’re in Mexico for a bit of time, you can even hop over to the Yucatán Peninsula and pay a visit to the more famous Chichén Itzá pyramid too!
Have you made it to Teotihuacan before?