Just 48 kilometers outside of Mexico City lies one of Mesoamerica’s greatest mysteries – the ancient city of Teotihuacan. At its height, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas with a diverse population of over 125,000 people. If you’re like me, you probably think that Teotihuacan is just about Mayan ruin as they are heavily scattered through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. But, that’s where the mystery lies. No one knows who built Teotihuacan!
Most archaeologists believe that Teotihuacan was built around 100 BC with the major monuments built around AD 250. However, the origins of its founders are unknown. The Aztecs gave Teotihuacan its name after its fall in 550 AD. It means “birthplace of the gods” in Nahuatl. Legend has it that Teotihuacan was built by the gods hence why its founders and original inhabitants are widely unknown.
Around 300 BC Teotihuacan became a very important city in Mesoamerica. It was a place where people from all over the region came to settle. During the city’s existence it is commonly believe that people of all ethnicity mixed – from Aztecs to Mayans. Although, the Aztecs reached their zenith after the fall of Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan reached its peak power about AD 450 where it became the most powerful and influential city in all of Mesoamerica. It is estimated that the city scrawled over 30 squared kilometers and reached a population of over 150,000 people. The city was all but destroyed completely by the 500’s AD. Experts believe that residents left due to drought, malnutrition, and possibly a volcanic eruption. But no one knows for sure.
It wasn’t until the late 17th century that the ruins of Teotihuacan was rediscovered by Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora. Archaeologist Leopoldo Batres came to Teotihuacan in 1905 to begin the first major excavation and restoration project lasting multiple decades. Today you can explore much of the main plazas and structures, but many more lie under centuries of dirt and vegetation.
A trip to Teotihuacan can easily be done on your own, but due to its interesting history I decided that I wanted to attend a tour to get the most out of my experience. I’m certainly glad I did choose a tour because I definitely thought that Teotihuacan was built by the Aztecs! Oops! I guess I better study up on my early Mesoamerican history.
My Experience with Teotihuacan Tours
I chose the the Hidden Teotihuacan & Family Dinner tour with Urban Adventures. Urban Adventures is a branch of Intrepid Travel that focuses on responsible and experiential day tours with local guides that gets you off the beaten path and focusses on really connecting you to the city and its people. The tour normally costs $52 per person, but if you sign up for their email newsletter you’ll received $10 off your first tour. I highly recommend doing this as you’ll save money plus you’ll receive their newsletter that contains additional future discounts and sales.
I met our tour guide, Casear, and the rest of our small group outside the meeting place around 12:30pm. Casear grew up in Mexico City and attended university in the United States so his English was excellent. He recently moved back to Mexico to be closer to his family and share his love for his home country. Urban Adventure tours aims to connect you to your destination so you’re always going to use local public transportation to get the full experience. We took the local city bus north from the Zocalo (historic center of Mexico City) to the North Bus station where we met our van for the tour. Normally we would take a local bus to Teotihuacan, but due to the size of our group it was easily to take a private van. The drive took about an hour with traffic.
Entering Teotihuacan for the first time is incredible. I’m always amazed at how people could build monuments of this scale without modern equipment. It’s just mind-boggling! Casear gave us the grand tour of the site while sharing facts and small tid-bits about the history, architecture, and culture of Teotihuacan. We had plenty of time to walk the massive site and snap photos along the way.
Unlike in Tikal National Park, you are able to climb both pyramids. Although if I was to guess, I give this only another 2-5 years as the climb up is slightly dangerous and I’m impressive no one has fallen to their death. The stairs are steep and extremely small. Wear shoes not flip-flops like me! Also, Mexico City is over 7,000 feet above sea level so expect to huff and puff your way up!
The Pyramid of the Moon is the second largest pyramid in Teotihuacan. The pyramid was constructed between 200 and 450 AD by thousands of hardworking men. The staircase leads to the Avenue of the Dead and was often used during ceremonies for the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. The pyramid stands at 141 meters tall with many steps to get there. Be prepared to sweat!
The largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, stands at 220 meters tall. It is considered to be the crown jewel of temples in all of Mesoamerica due to its sheer size. The altar, built during the second phase of construction, no longer exists at the top, but you can see much of the original structure. After climbing all 248 steps to the top, you are rewarded with epic panoramic views of the historic site and surrounding villages. It’s definitely worth the climb. Trust me!
Unfortunately you can’t see it today on any of the pyramids, but the pyramids and much of the surrounding temples and buildings were painted with bright colors and designs. You can see a few small surviving pieces of walls in the museum on the grounds though, which is pretty neat. You’ve probably guessed that paint as we know it today did not exist during the height of Teotihuacan. Since the people were quite clever, they used natural elements to create their own colorful paints. Casear and a local artisan gave us a great demonstration of the plants used to make the colors ranging from bright blue to deep red.
Learning About the Agave Plant
After our tour of Teotihuacan, it was time to hit up the neighboring villages for traditional Mayan craftsmanship. We went to a local family’s home where they produced liquors from the agave plant. Now, I’m NOT a fan of tequila. It makes me puke 100% of the time. Of course, Mexico is famous for its tequila. To my surprised I learned me were taxing something other than tequila. Thank goodness!
Pulque is a sweet liquor made from the sweet raw sap from the heart of the agave plant. The “honey water” is extracted and then fermented to produce a low alcoholic drink. It is generally thick and super delicious. Mezcal is more similar to Tequila and wasn’t quite my jam.
Dinner with a Local Family
After the tasting and playing with the family dog, we headed to our last destination – another local family’s house for dinner. Our dinner contained rice, chicken cooked in prickly-pear and cacti, and small tacos. We stuffed our faces silly and eventually rolled ourselves back into the van and back to Mexico City.
Overall I enjoyed my tour with Urban Adventures. I especially like their commitment to getting off the beaten path and connecting with the local community. I could have easily done Teotihuacan on my own and saved a lot of money, but having a tour guide was extremely helpful as I knew nothing about the history of the site. If you’re looking to get more out of your visit than just climbing impressive pyramids then I recommend going with a tour guide whether it’s Urban Adventures or not.