Exploring the Epic Ruins of Teotihuacan
All the time that I had been enjoying Mexico City, I was also looking forward to a little trip-within-a-trip: Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan is an archaeological site about an hour northeast of Mexico City. It was its own civilization, distinct from the Aztec or Mayan cultures, and would have been possibly the largest city in the Pre-Colombian Americas. Reaching its zenith around 500 CE, the ancient city would have supported upwards of 125,000 people.
The main attractions in Teotihuacan are the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun, the latter of which is the third-largest pyramid in the world. It ranks just behind the Great Pyramid of Giza and, incidentally, the Pyramid of Cholula, also in Mexico.
I could think of no better way to spend my last day in Mexico.
Getting to the Bus Station
I enjoyed a breakfast of huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), fruit, and coffee, and talked with the cook Daniel about my plans. He became visibly excited, and told me that he had been there many times.
“The climb to the top of the Temple of the Sun will be difficult,” he told me in Spanish. “But when you reach the top, you will feel rejuvenated. There is certainly a spirituality to Teotihuacan.”
As per my research, he confirmed that the best way to get there would be to call a cab to get to the Terminal Autobuses Central del Norte, the North Central Bus Terminal. From there, it would be about a 1-hour bus ride to the archaeological zone.
Now, it’s very important to get the right kind of cab in Mexico City. Some of you may have heard stories about never getting into cabs there, and unfortunately, there is still a kernel of wisdom to that. Martin and Gioconda warned me to stay away from green taxis, which still carried the stigma of abductions and robberies from the 1990s. Instead, they recommended the newer, pink-and-white taxis, saying the mayor of the city was aware of the problem and completely rebranded the city’s cab service. These are radio-dispatched and clearly licensed and are called taxis de sitio.
However, instead of a pink-and-white cab, I got a dude in a regular-looking car. I was automatically suspicious, so I asked the guy to hold on a second while I checked with the front desk that this was who they called. They assured it was, and so I got in, but I was sure to get into the back seat.
The driver’s name was Armando, he was probably about sixty, and his sincere manner put me at ease. We talked the entire ride to the bus station, and he gave me his card for when I needed a ride back. All in all, from the Capsule Hostel to the North Terminal, it came to 250 pesos, or about $12.50.
If you prefer to take the metro, it’s on the Yellow Line.
Terminal Autobuses Central del Norte
The station will probably be very busy, but don’t worry about it. You’ll want to go to Sala 8, and there should be signs that say “Piramides.” The staff I spoke to did speak some English. You can buy an Ida (one-way) ticket by itself, or go ahead and get a Vuelta (return ticket) as well. I opted to get a round-trip ticket, and that total came to 104 pesos, which is like $5.20. It’s really nothing at all to get all the way out there and back.
They directed me to the bus lanes outside, and I spoke with an attendant to make sure I was at the right bus (these guys may not speak the best English, so be sure that the attendants at the desk tell you where to be). I waited in line with a diverse array of Mexicans, some dressed their best, others carrying their belongings in black trash bags. There was only one other couple who were conspicuously tourists.
The bus was a pretty normal-looking coach, similar to a lot of the Mexican tour buses I would see on the highways back home. The seats were comfortable, the windows tinted, and there was air conditioning. Pretty good for five bucks!
The Bus Ride to Teotihuacan
The ride was eye-opening, in many ways. We rode through some very, very poor parts of the city. As a middle-class American, we’re constantly told about the poverty in many so-called developing nations. I think at some point we either become desensitized to the words (with nothing to put it into context). Maybe we simply believe that because we’ve heard it all, that means we’ve seen it all.
I’m not afraid to say that what I saw genuinely shocked me. There were places in which most of the paint on the buildings was graffiti. Razorwire rimmed the tops of most residences and businesses. Stray dogs roam the streets in packs. There is an unbelievable amount of trash. I suppose I should be fair and say that back home, there were many parts of many cities that didn’t look much better.
We even passed what seemed to be military exercises in full swing. We passed transport trucks full of Mexican soldiers in green uniforms, assault rifles at the ready. Police Hi-Lux trucks with .50-caliber mounted machine guns were not uncommon in these particular neighborhoods.
It reminded me that some people who have to live in these areas must look to the US as an opportunity to escape their conditions.
At one point we stopped to take on passengers. A police officer who would have passed for SWAT back home got onboard, inspecting us all. He told us to remove any hats or sunglasses. Then a second guy, wearing a T-shirt that read Private Security, got on, holding a camcorder. He walked down the aisle, pointing the camcorder in the face of everyone on-board. No one seemed alarmed by this, although for me it was chilling.
We continued our drive north, the terrain becoming more mountainous. At one point we passed this one town, which was either San Carlos, or close to San Carlos, that climbed up the side of a mountain. The houses were densely packed together, like something you’d see in the Mediterranean. They were all painted in pinks, blues, whites, and yellows. The houses even color-coordinated: the entire hillside seemed to be covered in perfect bands of color. It was beautiful.
The mountainside town stood in sharp contrast to a lot of the other communities we passed. I saw kids playing soccer on fields in the middle of what resembled landfills more than towns. I gathered a newfound respect for a lot of refugees from the so-called “shithole countries” that Trump and many of his supporters liked to denigrate.
The Ruins of Teotihuacan
An hour after departing Mexico City, the bus pulled into the Zona Arqueologica de Teotihuacan. It was warm, windy, and sunny. Conditions could not have been more perfect for visiting these majestic structures. I could have been missing a leg and excitement alone would’ve carried me up that pyramid. I walked onto those ancient grounds and could see them off to my left, in the distance: straight down El Calzado de los Muertos was the light-colored Temple of the Moon, and to the right of the Calzado, the dark-colored Temple of the Sun.
Temple of the Sun
El Templo del Sol is the third-largest pyramid in the world, and the biggest pyramid you are able to climb. You can look at all the pictures you want, but you won’t appreciate just how massive the thing is until you’ve stood before it in real life. The cubic footage taken up by the structure is staggering.
There are a number of other, lesser structures at Teotihuacan, and I did visit them and learn about them. But I won’t lie: I was here for the pyramids. It’s a deceptively long walk to get to them, and I imagined what the city would have looked like in its ancient glory.
Or, at least I tried to, when I wasn’t getting harassed by vendors.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a very moving moment in my life, but it’s hard to write about Teotihuacan without warning any potential visitors that there are a significant number of aggressive vendors. They all sell the same things, and they are all extremely persistent.
I finally arrived at the base of the Temple of the Sun. I lamented the decision to wear jeans on this of all days, but I didn’t want to stick out like a complete tourist. I took many photos, sending them to my friends and family, before taking a deep breath, and starting the climb.
The Climb Up
I should mention that these are very popular tourist attractions, so there is as much waiting for the people in front of you as there is actually climbing steps. That didn’t take away from the experience for me. Indeed, it was cool to be a part of this “group effort.” One man was an old campesino type, an obvious rural resident, who had to be 70. He wore dark pants, a long-sleeve white shirt, and a sombrero, and stooped over badly. He took the stairs in a winding fashion, like a cow slowly climbing a large hill. While his circuitous path was unconventional and at times got in the way of others, he did make it to the top. This was very impressive, considering that I was 27 and I was losing my breath.
It wasn’t so much that there were so many steps, but they were steep, and every single one was a workout. My heart was beating hard in my chest, and I was sweating like a whore in church. However, when I finally made it to the apex of the Temple of the Sun, I did indeed feel reinvigorated, just like Daniel had said. The breeze cooled me off, and the views were spectacular. As if mandated by some Mesoamerican deity, a large cloud passed right in front of the sun, giving everyone some well-deserved shade.
I enjoyed the view from the narrow walkway spanning the top of the structure. Unfortunately, there are thousands of other sightseers you need to share the view with. It’s best to take a few photos and then descending back to the second-highest terrace. There you can sit and appreciate your surroundings as long as you like.
I had noticed the sound of explosions, like a cannon, every few minutes. These sounds were emanating from just beyond a hill directly in front of the pyramid, maybe two or three miles off. I asked the guy seated next to me what that sound was.
“What sound?” He responded in Spanish.
I felt incredulous; the boom was perfectly audible. I pointed towards the hills, where even now tiny puffs of smoke could be seen drifting in the breeze.
“Oh, those,” the guy replied. “Those are cannons.”
“From where? For what?”
“Why do they fire cannon?”
“They just do.”
I sat back, drank some water, and appreciated the views of the Templo de la Luna, the people, and the mountains. I just took the moment in, happy to be there.
I climbed back down the steep steps to the ground. Once again the vendors assaulted me, and finally, I gave in.
If you’re going to buy gifts from vendors in Teotihuacan, or anywhere else in Latin America, then you’re going to have to learn some haggling. Haggling does not come naturally to everyone–it certainly didn’t to me–but you can pick it up quickly. In fact, this was the first time I ever haggled and the experience was intoxicating. All of a sudden, I wanted to haggle everything! And it worked: I got a whole bunch of trinkets for probably half-price.
You’ll notice a lot of the same objects laid out on the vendors’ blankets. Many of them are carved from obsidian, such as little pyramids and sun discs. The vendors are only too happy to show that they are real obsidian by scratching one with the other. There are plenty of wooden dolls, brilliantly colored rugs, and soapstone figurines. However, some of the more prolific souvenirs are jaguar head whistles that supposedly mimic the sound of a jaguar’s roar. The vendors are able to replicate these sounds perfectly, but everyone who bought one seemed to have much less success. Jaguar roars, both accurate and half-hearted, fill the air at Teotihuacan.
Content with my trinkets, I made my way to the Temple of the Moon.
Temple of the Moon
Though a much shorter structure, the steps were so steep it was as much as a workout as its larger brother. Knowing what I know about the general stature of Latin Americans, the size of the steps made little sense to me.
I sat on the ledge of the pyramid, my legs dangling over the edge, running my palms over the rough volcanic rock. Looking out over the ruins of the town, feeling the breeze on my skin, listening to conversations in Spanish and English going on all around me. I heard sobbing to my right. I looked over to see an Indigenous girl, probably high school age, sitting with arms crossed over her knees. She too was looking out over the views, crying softly. Maybe she took the city’s history more personally than I did.
Walking out of the ruins, I remembered that there was one last item on my list: drinking pulque.
I found a restaurant just outside the gates, though to call it a restaurant was perhaps inaccurate. There was a chainlink fence. On the near side of the fence were tables and an awning for shade. A man, with skin so dark he almost looked Indian, took the orders, and his son worked as a waiter. On the far side of the fence, an older woman and a young girl who had to the wife and daughter prepared the food and drink, and passed it through a hole in the fence.
The father and son wore matching jeans and white long-sleeved shorts, with cowboy boots and studded belts with large buckles. These campesinos were the type of people I automatically associated with Mexico; being so close to the rural northern border, most of the Mexican immigrants in central Texas were country types. As a whole, you won’t find harder-working people anywhere.
Pulque is made from the leaves of the maguey, which is a kind of agave. It’s ever so slightly acidic, and if you’d ever had one of those aloe vera drinks, or perhaps kefir, imagine an alcoholic version of that. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but I enjoyed it very much. It was refreshing.
I did what I always did on the last day of an important time of my life: I sat comfortably, opening up my senses to their widest aperture. I took in the expanse of Teotihuacan in high dynamic range. The passage of the clouds across the bright blue sky. The ancient pyramids in the distance. The dust kicked up by passing buses, trucks, and motorcycles. People coming and going through the gates or waiting for the next bus.
All against the backdrop of incredible ancient pyramids.
Armando’s SUV rolled up to the curb at the bus station, amid the clamor of pedestrians and police whistles. On the drive back, he told me about his wife and daughters, how he had quit smoking, and about life in general. Being from Veracruz, he had met many Cubans, and was well-versed in Cuban cuisine. He told me some recipes to ask my grandparents about when I got back home. He said he would be back in the morning to take me to the airport.
Indeed, I could not have had a more pleasant end to my trip.