It can be found just 40 kilometres out of Mexico City. Timewise, it is a much longer journey back in time, one measured in tens of centuries. Here is a city so ancient that even the Aztecs, who were busy constructing their own city, Tenochtitlan, drew inspiration from the deserted ruins of Teotihuacán.
It was in 800-100 BCE that various ethno-ethnocultural groups started to gather in hamlets in the area. By 1 CE, the various groups had coalesced in a small settlement of 5,000 near Teotihuacán’s yet-to-be-built Temple of the Sun. In the next 150 years, the city grew to 30,000, the largest in Mesoamerica at the time. By 650 CE, Teotihuacán covered 8.5 square miles with a population of 85,000, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world.
Today, standing atop the Pyramid of the Moon, Gail and I cast our eyes down the broad avenue known as Avenue of the Dead. Running north-south, the two kilometre axis currently terminates at the walled Ciudadela (Citadel) with its 100,000 capacity courtyard and Temple of Quetzalcóatl, a smaller stepped pyramid profusely decorated with stone water snakes, earth monsters and serpents’ heads. Originally, the avenue continued southward a further three kilometres.
Up here, we can see how well-planned this city was. An orderly series of smaller stepped temples line the grounds in front of the Temple of the Moon. Beyond these is the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the largest of the stepped tablero-talud pyramids in the city. To our right is a view of the Palace of the Quetzal-butterfly, or Quetzalpapálotl Complex. On closer examination, we will find that its romantic name reflects the fine stone pilasters in its enclosed courtyard. On each side of the square pillars are intricate carvings of birds with butterflies resting on their breasts.
From our vantage point atop the Pyramid of the Moon, we see the palace residence, a small reminder of a vast city, planned from the get-go on a rectilinear grid. Now lost under more recent development, the grid once stretched the length of the Avenue of the Dead and was four kilometres wide. On each side of the central avenue, the grid was filled to the street edges with around 2,000 single-storey apartments, each with rooms organized around large central courtyards.
Teotihuacán was a thriving metropolis with a city plan that might be the envy of many a contemporary city planner. Yet it failed in a catastrophic manner. By 750 CE, the population had dwindled to 5,000. Soon after, this once great city would be sacked and burned. The reasons are unclear. Overpopulation? Climate change? Exhausted resources? All are possibilities, theories and guesses.
Teotihuacán lay forgotten until rediscovered by the Aztecs much later on. For them it became a pilgrimage site, adopted from a culture about which they knew very little. Yet they found in the remains of Teotihuacán a culture they could merge with their own and an urban form they could borrow for their own new city of Tenochtitlan.
We arrived in Teotihuacán at early morning and had the city largely to ourselves. It’s now afternoon—and crowded. This UNESCO world heritage site receives over four million visitors annually, modern-day Aztecs drawn by the power of the place. Yet it is a somewhat welcome crowd, a new albeit temporary population, plying the streets of this still-great city, bringing it to life in some strange new twenty-first century way.
There are numerous tour companies offering day trips from Mexico City to Teotihuacán. For the most part, they seemed rushed, devoting time to tourist traps en route as opposed to spending more time at the site.
Instead, Gail and I chose the do-it-yourself approach. We hopped on the Mexico City Metro to Potrero station (5 pesos or 33 cents Canadian), walked 1.4 km to Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte and purchased round trip tickets at Autobuse Teotihuacán, Platform 7. Be sure that the destination is Los Pyramides (52 pesos/about CAD$ 3.50 each way, cash, no reservations needed). Buses depart every 15 minutes from 6:00-22:00. It takes about 60 minutes to arrive at Teotihuacán Gates 1 or 2. Gate 2 is directly opposite the Pyramid of the Sun. Return buses depart from Gates1, 2 and 3.
It’s a fun way to get there and back. The Metro is safe (there are even women-only cars and waiting areas). The walk will take you through a typical, un-touristy neighbourhood of Mexico City (also safe) and the bus is a very comfortable highway vehicle.
This will give you the entire day to explore Teotihuacán on your own. In my opinion, this fascinating city deserves it. There are many more interesting sites than I’ve mentioned above, two small museums worth a visit and it’s a good, long walk from one end of Avenue of the Dead to the other.
Teotihuacán is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00-17:00. Entry is 70 pesos. Plan to arrive early and avoid the crowds for at least part of the day.
Carry plenty of water (there are stands at the gates). There is a restaurant and bar near Gate 1 (across from the Citadel) offering reasonable lunches with a panoramic view of the Citadel.
Finally, when you return to the Zocalo in Mexico City, be sure to visit what remains of Tenochtitlan to discover what urban planning concepts the Aztecs adopted from their ancestors just 40 kilometres away.