Teotihuacán, Ancient Wonder of the New World
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, magnificent. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, amazing. The Colossus of Rhodes, stupendous. Just reading about the wonders of the ancient world both inspires the imagination and creates awe. Yet these, and the rest of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, with the exception of the Great Pyramid at Giza, are all gone.
But nestled in the Mexican Basin, just 30 miles north-east of México City, stands an ancient wonder of the New World, one you can still see, touch, and explore, the great city of Teotihuacán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring the great Pyramids of the Sun, the Moon, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcóatl.
Much still needs to be learned about the city itself and the people who once lived there. The name Teotihuacán was given after the city’s rise and fall by the Aztecs in their Náhuatl language. Neither Aztec nor Mayan, scholarly debate continues as to exactly who the people were who built the city. Different theories are mentioned including Toltec, Totonac, and Otomi among others. Whoever archaeologists, linguists, and historians finally establish as the builders of the city, there is no question it was a large multi-ethnic city including, in addition to those already mentioned, populations of Zapotec, Mixtec, Nahua, Maya along with many others. And the Teotihuacano civilization’s influence is undeniable, reaching as far as Guatemala and beyond.
Believed to be settled around 100 BC (BCE), some say earlier, the ancient city’s core features the impressive Pyramids of the Sun, the Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, among many other structures, including those referred to as talud-tablero platforms. All these structures stand along what is known as the Avenue of the Dead, a broad and very straight thoroughfare through the center of the city. The avenue’s somewhat unfortunate name also comes from the Aztecs, who believed the flat topped talud-tablero buildings were tombs. Today, it is believed these structures, rather than tombs, were platforms upon which temples were built. What’s particularly impressive about the city, beyond its obvious vast scale and its incredible, sculpted stones and colorful murals, is the precise layout of the city according to the builders’ thorough understanding of the solar system some 1400-1700 years before Galileo.
The city is believed to have reached a population of between 125,000 and 200,000 at its peak and it’s an archaeological treasure trove where new discoveries are made often. I think it only fair to warn you, therefore, that throwing away your current career and becoming an archaeologist is always a risk once you’ve visited this awe-inspiring site.
On your google map, just drop the coordinates N19 41 30.012 W98 50 30.012 into your search box to get a good look at the location, its proximity to México City, and other points of interest.
If you are fortunate enough and you do get a chance to visit Teotihuacán, I recommend reading a little about the site and taking advantage of any interpretive exhibits at the entrance before walking out to the avenue. It will enrich and inform your visit to the site.
If you are fit, the view from the top of either the Pyramid of the Sun or the Pyramid of the Moon, or both, if you are some sort of extreme athlete, cannot be beat.
But the compound called the Ciudadela (the Citadel), so named by Spanish conquistadors because they believed it to be a fort, encloses the breathtaking Temple of Quetzalcóatl and for me holds a special fascination and beauty. I get goosebumps, the good kind, when there, and the sculptural details on the temple are jaw dropping.
Here are just a few things to remember when you go:
I want to emphasize the massive size of the site. The Avenue of the Dead is 4 km long (about 2 km are open to the public) and 40 meters wide. So bring comfortable shoes, a hat, snacks, water, lightweight rain gear, sunscreen, cash, and a camera. Our 3 year old was with us the last time we went. My husband carried him on his shoulders a lot. In spite of his adventurous spirit, the pyramids would have been too much for my son to climb, however, there is plenty of space for him to explore. Just keep in mind that if walking up the pyramids is in your plan, an extra pair of eyes and hands may be needed to witness the ascents from your child’s side while the rest of the group goes up.
Keep in mind, too, this part of Mexico sits pretty high up, about 7000 feet (~2100 m), and the site is in a wide open valley, so it can be hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or dead still. Make sure to carry plenty of water so you don’t have to cut your explorations short due to thirst. And remember, unless you’re from a couple thousand feet above Denver, the air is probably thinner at Teotihuacán than at home, so pace yourself accordingly.