Located less than 50km from Mexico City, Teotihuacan is a perfect option for a day trip while staying in Mexico’s capital. In fact, it is a popular day trip so abandon all hope you may have in seeing this place deserted.
Teotihuacan has had a long life – it was continuously constructed from around 100BC up until about 250 AD. Three hundred years later, it was razed by fire (though it is unclear why. A failed attempt at Herostratic fame, maybe?). During its heyday, Teotihuacan had a population of about 125,000 people. Doesn’t seem very big by our standard today, but back then that population size apparently made it one of the largest cities in the world. And it was a very interesting city, too, architecturally speaking. It even had multi-floor apartment compounds! The first condos, perhaps? The other interesting thing about this place is that so far, no city fortifications or military structures have been found. Not really sure what that says about the city… Arrogance? Stupidity? Holy site? Kumbaya?
Teotihuacan would have been a giant melting pot of all sorts of ethnicities and cultures making their home there: Totonacs, Zapotec, Mixtec, Otomi, Maya, Nahua, and Aztec. But who actually built the city, it isn’t actually known. What is known, though, is that the people who lived here dabbled in human sacrifice. Bodies have been found during excavations and it is believed that those people had been ritually sacrificed when buildings were built. It is also believed that the victims were those such as enemy warrior captives – they were killed via live burial, bashing over the head, carving out of the heart, and decapitation. Lovely.
When you visit Teotihuacan, the size of the site will probably make you wonder where to start. I say just pick a direction and start wandering. You’ll probably be harassed a little bit by people selling things but just ignore them. Some of the site is original but much of it is restored. When you wander, you will have to instruct your imagination to provide you with colour – back in the day, the city would have been awash in all sorts of hues, especially red, and lots of decorations such as colourful stones (including semi-precious) and painted murals. Of course, none of that is there today. If you want an idea of what it looked like, you should head to the Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City.
At Teotihuacan, I really enjoyed climbing the steep narrow staircases up the pyramids. Stepping where ancient people stepped always gets my imagination aflutter. And once at the top, the views are fantastic – hills and scrubland are all around and, of course, the imposing 2.5km Avenue of the Dead laid out at your feet.
As you have probably figured out by now, this is an outdoor site. I highly suggest sunscreen, a hat, water, and a snack. There is quite a bit of walking as well as climbing in the hot sun so you need protection and fuel. Also remember, the elevation is fairly high so you will tire faster than usual. Rest for a while at the top of the pyramids – call your mom from up there (I did – not to gloat…I swear…) or imagine you are a priest overseeing the next ritual sacrifice. Or not. Whatever you choose, take your time and enjoy this fantastic piece of history.