Most visitors to Mexico City head out at some stage to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán: there’s a constant stream of tours, buses and cars heading this way, and the ruins can get quite busy, especially on a Sunday. As it’s an extensive site that can easily take up most of a day, it’s best, if possible, to head out here as early as you can manage and do most of your exploration in the cool of the morning, before the crowds arrive.

The ruins reveal a city planned and built on a massive scale, the great pyramids so huge that before their refurbishment one would have passed them by as hills without a second look. At its height this must have been the most imposing city in pre-Hispanic America, with a population thought to have been around 150,000 (though estimates vary), spread over an area of some 23 square kilometres (as opposed to the four square kilometres of the ceremonial centre). Back then, every building – grey hulks now – would have been covered in bright polychrome murals.

Calzada de los Muertos

The main entrance, by Puerta 1, is at the southern end of the 2km-long Calzada de los Muertos (Causeway of the Dead), which originally extended 1.5km further south, and formed the axis around which the city developed. A broad roadway some 40m wide and linking all the most significant buildings, it was built to impress, with the low buildings that flank most of its length serving to heighten the impact of the two great pyramid temples at the northern end. Other streets, leading off to the rest of the city, originally intersected it at right angles, and even the Río San Juan was canalized so as not to disturb the symmetry (the bridge that then crossed it would have extended the full width of the street).

Its name is somewhat misleading, as it’s more a series of open plazas linked by staircases than a simple street. Neither is it in any way linked with the dead, although the Aztecs believed the buildings that lined it, then little more than earth-covered mounds, to be the burial places of kings. They are not, and although the exact function of most remains unclear, all obviously had some sacred significance. The design, seen in the many reconstructions, is fairly uniform: low three- or four-storey platforms consisting of vertical panels (tableros) supported by sloping walls. In many cases several are built on top of each other – clearly demonstrated in the Edificios Superpuestos (superimposed buildings) on the left-hand side shortly beyond the river. Here, excavated structures underneath the present level may have been the living quarters of Teotihuacán’s priests.

La Ciudadela

Directly opposite the entrance at Puerta 1 lies La Ciudadela, the Citadel. This enormous sunken square, surrounded by stepped platforms and with a low square altar in the centre, was the city’s administrative heart, with the houses of its chief priests and nobles arranged around a vast meeting place. Across the open space stands a tall pyramid construction inside which, during excavations, was found the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. With the back of the newer pyramid demolished, the elaborate (Miccaotli phase) temple structure stands revealed. Pyramids aside, this is one of the most impressive sections of the whole site, rising in four steps (of an original six), each sculpted in relief and punctuated at intervals by the stylized heads of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and Tlaloc, the rain god. Traces of the original paint can be seen in places.

Pirámide del Sol

The great Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) is Teotihuacán’s outstanding landmark, a massive structure 70m high and, of Mexico’s ancient buildings, second in size only to Cholula (itself a total ruin). Its base is almost exactly the same size as that of the great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, but the lower-angled sides and its stepped nature make it very much lower. There are wonderful views from the top nonetheless, and the bulk is all the more remarkable when you consider the accuracy of its alignment: on two days a year (May 19 and July 25), the sun is directly over the pyramid at noon, and the main west facade faces the point at which the sun sets on these days. This alignment just off the cardinal points determined the line of the Calzada de los Muertos and of the entire city. Equally remarkable is the fact that the 2.5 million tonnes of stone and earth used in its construction were brought here without benefit of the wheel or any beast of burden, and shaped without the use of metal tools. The pyramid you see was reconstructed by Leopoldo Batres in 1908, in a thoroughly cavalier fashion. He blasted, with dynamite, a structure that originally abutted the south face, and stripped much of the surface in a search for a more complete building under the present one. In fact, the Pirámide del Sol, almost uniquely, was built in one go at a very early stage of the city’s development (about 100 AD), and there is only a very small older temple right at its heart.

The cave

You approach the pyramid by a short staircase leading to the right off the Calzada de los Muertos onto a broad esplanade, where stand the ruins of several small temples and priests’ dwellings. The main structure consists of five sloping layers of wall divided by terraces – the large flat area at the top would originally have ebeen surmounted by a sanctuary, long disappeared. Evidence of why this massive structure came to be raised here emerged in 1971 when archeologists stumbled on a tunnel (closed to the public) leading to a clover-leaf-shaped cave directly under the centre of the pyramid.

This, clearly, had been some kind of inner sanctuary, a holy of holies, and may even have been the reason for Teotihuacán’s foundation and the basis of its influence. Theories abound as to its exact nature, and many fit remarkably with legends handed down through the Aztecs. It’s most likely that the cave was formed by a subterranean spring, and came to be associated with Tlaloc, god of rain but also a bringer of fertility, as a sort of fountain of life. Alternatively, it could be associated with the legendary “seven grottoes”, a symbol of creation from which all later Mexican peoples claimed to have emerged, or to have been the site of an oracle, or associated with a cult of sacrifice – in Aztec times the flayed skins of victims of Xipe Totec were stored in a cave under a pyramid.

Pirámide de la Luna

At the end of the Calzada de los Muertos rises the Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), a smaller structure built slightly later (but still during the Tzacualli phase), whose top, thanks to the high ground on which it’s built, is virtually on a level with that of the Pirámide del Sol. The structure is very similar, with four sloping levels approached by a monumental stairway, but for some reason this seems a very much more elegant building: perhaps because of the smaller scale, or perhaps as a result of the approach, through the formally laid-out Plaza de la Luna. The top of the pyramid offers the best overview of the site’s layout, looking straight back down the length of the central thoroughfare. It is perfect for sunset, though as it is then close to closing time the guards will soon chase you down.

Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl

The Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl (Palace of the Quetzal-butterfly) lies to the left of the Plaza de la Luna, behind the low temples that surround it. Wholly restored, it’s virtually the only example of a pre-Hispanic roofed building in central Mexico and preserves a unique view of how the elite lived at Teotihuacán. The rooms are arranged around a patio whose elaborately carved pillars give the palace its name – their stylized designs represent birds (the brightly coloured quetzals, though some may be owls) and butterflies. In the galleries around the patio several frescoes survive, all very formalized and symbolic. Mural art was clearly very important in Teotihuacán, and almost every building has some decoration, though much has been removed for restoration.

Palacio de los Jaguares and Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados

Two earlier buildings, half-buried under the palace, still have substantial remains. In the Palacio de los Jaguares, jaguars in feathered headdresses blow conch shells from which emerge curls of music, or perhaps speech or prayers to Tlaloc (who appears along the top of the mural); in the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Snail Shells), you see a motif of feathers and seashells along with bright green parrots. Other murals, of which only traces remain, were found in the temples along the Calzada de los Muertos between the two pyramids.

Tepantitla, Tetitla and Atetelco

Mural art was not reserved for the priests’ quarters – indeed some of the finest frescoes have been found in outlying apartment buildings. The famous Paradise of Tlaloc mural (reproduced in the Museo Nacional de Antropología) was discovered at Tepantitla, a residential quarter of the old city across the road from the back of the Pirámide del Sol. Only a part of it survives here, but there are others in the complex depicting a procession of priests and a ball-game. All have great vitality and an almost comic-strip quality, with speech bubbles emerging from the figures’ mouths, but their themes always have a religious rather than a purely decorative intent. More can be seen at Tetitla, to the west of the main site, and Atetelco, a little further west, just off the map.

Museo del Sitio

Plan to spend at least some of your time in Teotihuacán’s excellent Museo del Sitio, situated behind the Pirámide del Sol and surrounded by a lovely sculpture and botanical garden. In the first room, artefacts from the site are well laid out and effectively lit to highlight the key features of each item in the cool interior. There’s just about everything you would expect of a ritual site and living city, from sharp-edged obsidian tools and everyday ceramics to some fine polychrome vessels decorated with animal and plant designs, and a series of five ceremonial braziers or censers ornamented with appliqué flowers, butterflies and shields.

Vast windows framing the Pirámide del Sol take up one entire wall of the second room, where you walk across a glass floor over a relief model of the entire city as it might once have been. The glass floor leads you to the third room, where burials from under the Temple of Quetzalcoatl have been relocated, along with statues of gods (often bottom-lit to accentuate the gruesome features), including a trio of braziers carried by the sun god Huitzilopochtli.

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