Two thousand years after they were built, the pyramids of Teotihuacan remain among the most awe-inspiring and also most mysterious structures in the Americas. Even today, archaeologists and historians are still scratching their heads over who exactly built the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon and the Quetzalcoatl Pyramid. Regardless, these monumental masterpieces are still there for us to appreciate from a distance as well as climb on top of.
At only an hour’s drive from Mexico City, the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan make for the perfect day trip. While a whole day is plenty, there’s a lot to take in, not to mention a whole lot of walking and climbing to do. That’s why it’s best see everything in the right order to avoid having to backtrack under the hot sun. In this guide, we’ll go over the main landmarks of this ancient metropolis, including their history, their mysteries, and the most convenient order to see them in.
Teotihuacan: A Brief Introduction
Inhabited from around 50 BC up until 650 AD, the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan have continued to captivate the imaginations of every subsequent culture to encounter them. The Toltecs and Aztecs spent a long time exploring the abandoned pyramids, and even incorporated Teotihuacan into their creation myths. But if the builders of Teotihuacan weren’t Aztecs, Toltecs or Mayans, who exactly were they?
To this day, nobody’s really sure. DNA tests carried out on skeletal remains have revealed that many of the city’s inhabitants came from all over Mexico. While the city was strategically located near important obsidian mines, the ancient Teotihuacanos were in possession of jade from Guatemala and even mica from as far away as Brazil. While we don’t know who founded the city, there’s no question that Teotihuacan was a thriving, cosmopolitan melting pot.
Archaeologists have speculated that the city’s original inhabitants escaped a massive volcano eruption elsewhere in Mexico. But regardless of why it was founded, Teotihuacan grew into a city of roughly 250,000 – quite a number for its era. But as little we know about its foundation, the reason for the city’s abandonment remains just as mysterious. It was likely due to a combination of factors, such as fires, bad weather and invasions from neighboring tribes.
As the Teotihuacanos left no writing system, or at least one that’s been deciphered, much of what we know about the culture stems from later civilizations. The Aztecs, for example adopted much of the ancient mythology, beliefs and architecture from the Teotihuacanos. But even without a clear system of writing, the inhabitants of Teotihuacan were able to encode much of their knowledge of the stars, planetary cycles and geometry inside their pyramids and even within the city layout itself.
Logistics and Getting Around
The overall area of the Teotihuacan archaeological site is huge. That’s not to say that you can’t see it all in a single day, but seeing the sites in the wrong order means a lot tiring backtracking. This guide to the ruins will presume that you are doing two things: visiting Teotihuacan independently without a guided tour, and also doing so by public bus from Mexico City. While there are several parking areas throughout the site, buses from the city arrive at Gate 1 and buses back to the city depart from Gate 2.
Also understand that the public buses used to arrive or depart from different gates in the past, meaning that older articles online may suggest a route that’s no longer relevant. You should not be making either the Pyramid of the Sun or the Site Museum your first stop.
Be aware that you are not given a map with your entry ticket, and the maps on the signboards around the ruins are both scarce and often lacking in detail. Use the map below which also includes the correct gate numbers for arriving and departing from the ruins.
From Mexico City, it’s best to take a bus departing at no later than 9am. That will get you to the ruins at around 10, giving you plenty of time to climb the Pyramid of the Sun before the large crowds arrive in the afternoon. Also avoid Sundays, when Mexican residents are able to enter the ruins for free. A normal entry tickets costs $52 pesos and also includes access to the museums.
The Citadel & The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl
Entering the Archaeological Zone from the Gate 1 bus stop, start off at the Quetzalcoatl Pyramid that’s straight ahead in the distance. While smaller than the two other pyramids, this one stands out for the expressive carvings of deities all over the pyramid and staircase.
But first, you’ll enter a wider area which encompasses the pyramid along with a number of other structures, simply referred to as the Citadel. Archaeologists believe that this was the administrative heart of the ancient city. And in fact, it was geographically at the very center of Teotihuacan! Ancient Mesoamericans often built their cities as a reflection of their visions of the cosmos. The universe, they believed, consisted of four worlds which were divided by five points: the four cardinal directions and the center point. The Citadel is what sits at this central point.
First off, in the distance you’ll notice a large platform in front of the main pyramid itself. While the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl was built around the year 200 AD, the ‘Adosado platform,’ as it’s called today, was built a couple centuries later. It also appears as if much of the original pyramid was covered and built over. Exactly why remains a mystery, but it’s likely due to a shift in power at Teotihuacan. It’s even possible that later rulers wanted to wash themselves clean of the mass killings that took place near the pyramid, as hundreds of bodies of sacrificial victims have been found there.
Before getting to the main pyramid, you’ll notice a few other structures in the area. One of them, called Edificio Sur, is still under excavation. On the side of one of the walls is a faded old mural. Archaeologists realized that the mural once displayed symbology related to the five directions of the universe, further demonstrating the central role that the Citadel once played.
Finally arriving at the main pyramid structure, you’ll get a glimpse of the intricate carvings of the Teotihuacanos’ central deities. While the serpent with its head surrounded by flower petals (i.e. the ‘plumed serpent’) is undoubtedly the creator god Quetzalcoatl, there’s some debate over who the other face depicts. However, it’s widely believed to be Tlaloc, the god of rain and water.
Looking closely, you’ll also notice various serpents and seashells carved throughout the stepped pyramid, indicating the symbolic association the structure once had with water. There was also once a shrine at the top, but it’s long been destroyed and covered up.
Quetzalcoatl, also known as the ‘Plumed Serpent,’ was the prominent deity worshipped by the Teotihuacanos. He’s mainly associated with creation, as well as science and agriculture. Other Mesoamerican civilizations, like the Mayas, the Toltecs and the Aztecs, continued to revere this snake/bird hybrid as one of their main deities, and he appears in murals and reliefs throughout Mexico. The depictions here at Teotihuacan, though, are believed to be among the earliest in existence. At his pyramid, there may have once been as many as 260 plumed serpent heads, representing a full year of the ancient Mesoamerican calendar.
Tlaloc was the main god associated with rain and water. Tlaloc was also closely associated with war and with warriors. A mural in the Teotihuacano compound Tepantitla is called “The Paradise of Tlaloc.” It depicts people making offerings, among them human sacrifices, to a mountain filled with water. A tunnel underneath the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl may have been intended to depict this very scene. Even after the fall of Teotihuacan, Tlaloc continued to maintain his importance in Mexico, as he was one of the main deities worshipped by the Aztecs.
Nearly 1000 years after its construction, the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl continues to make news headlines to this day. In 2003, a sinkhole began to form in front of the pyramid entrance. Shocked and surprised, archaeologists soon discovered a man-made tunnel which dates back to the founding of the city. Using laser technology, scientists were also able to create digital maps of the tunnel, revealing its original shape and size.
But what did they find inside? The tunnel leads all the way to a space underneath the center of the pyramid. Underground watermarks indicate the presence of man-made lakes, while various statues and ritual offerings were also discovered underground. While nobody knows for certain, it’s likely a representation of Chicomoztoc, a mythological cave from which humanity was said to have first emerged. Or perhaps it symbolized the realm of Tlaloc himself. Excavations are still happening today, as this tunnel is notably one of the only parts of Teotihuacan that had never been looted.
Avenue of the Dead
After a visit to the Citadel, it’s time to backtrack slightly and start walking down Teotihuacan’s main street, the ‘Avenue of the Dead.’ While we don’t know what its original inhabitants called it, that’s what the Aztecs named it this during their numerous visits to the abandoned city.
The Avenue of the Dead is a north-south street which originally stretched out to be around 4 kilometers long. That means that visitors to the ruins today see only half of it. Furthermore, there was an additional east-west street that intersected with the Avenue of the Dead near the Citadel, although not visible evidence of that remains either. From here on out, we’ll be heading north, with the Pyramid of the Moon marking the end of the road.
Either side of the Avenue of the Dead contains ruins of former residences as well as temples. These are divided up into three main plazas, simply titled A, B and C. There’s a fair amount to explore on both sides of the avenue, and you can even discover narrow little alleyways well away from the crowds.
With the two largest pyramids in view, you’re probably already eager to get there. You should, however, at least stop to check out the western part of Plaza B.
Here you’ll find ruins of a smaller temple with carved snake heads. This area was likely built around the same time as the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. It’s a nice little glimpse of just how much activity was going on in the metropolis outside of the main pyramids themselves.
The Pyramid of the Sun
After awhile of walking down the avenue, you’ll eventually reach the base of the Pyramid of the Sun. The pyramid is simply massive. It stands at 75m high, with a base of around 225m on each side, making it the third largest pyramid in the world. And best of all, visitors are still able to climb to the very top.
Like many other parts of Teotihuacan, this pyramid’s name was decided by the Aztecs. The pyramid faces west, making it a prime location for viewing sunsets. It’s also lined up perfectly with two sunsets a year, which happen to be 260 days apart – the exact length of the ancient Mesoamerican calendar year.
The climb to the top is tiring, but not very steep or entirely too difficult if you’re in normal shape. And the views are well worth it. Obviously, just about everyone who visits Teotihuacan wants to ascend the Pyramid of the Sun, which is all the more reason to arrive at the archaeological zone as early as you can make it. It gets especially crowded (and hot) from the afternoon, but there weren’t many people yet between 10 and 11am on the Monday morning I visited.
As with the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Sun sits right on top of an underground cavern. In this case, it’s a natural cave with man-made tunnels added to it later. Numerous ritual offerings, like precious gemstones and animal bones, have been found underneath. As stunning as the pyramid is to look at from the outside, the most significant rituals that took place there may have been the ones underground.
Later on, you’ll see how when viewed from the Pyramid of the Moon, this pyramid greatly resembles the mountain behind it in the distance. That fact, combined with its position over a symbolically important cave, has lead some to believe that the Pyramid of the Sun was the first major structure built in the city. But like with many aspects of Teotihuacan, this is still up for debate.
Avenue of the Dead (Cont.)
Head back to the Avenue of the Dead, walking northward in the direction of the Pyramid of the Moon. But there’s still plenty more to explore on either side of the road, and you can even climb up the steps to walk on top of some of the platforms.
As you get closer to the Pyramid of the Moon, don’t miss the mural of the puma on the Avenue’s right-hand side. The painting reminds visitors that Teotihuacan was actually once a colorful and vibrant-looking city. Not everything appeared as grey stone as we see it today. Surprisingly, a great many more murals have been preserved which are now on display at the fantastic Mural Museum just outside Gate 3 (see more below).
The Pyramid of the Moon
The Pyramid of the Moon represents the feminine aspects of nature and the divine – fertility, water and of course, the moon. Displayed out in front of the pyramid is the ‘Goddess of Water,’ or Chalchiutlicue sculpture. We can be pretty sure, then, that the goddess was worshipped either at the pyramid or in the plaza in front of it. Notably, Chalchiutlicue is the female aspect, or perhaps companion, of Tlaloc.
Nearby the statue is a structure known as the ‘Teotihuacan cross,’ or Quincunce. It’s not exactly clear what this structure itself was used for, but it’s an obvious representation of the Teotihucanos’ cosmological vision, which, as mentioned above, is mirrored in the layout of the city itself. The structure is best viewed from atop the pyramid.
While this pyramid can’t be climbed all the way to the top, you make it about halfway. And you’re also able to climb up the smaller platforms at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, which provide excellent views of both main pyramids. You’ll also notice that there are still lots of structures completely covered in grass, appearing to be nothing more than mounds. It will be interesting to see if these too get excavated in the near future.
The Palace of Quetzalpoatl
Backtracking south a little bit, head toward Gate 3 and you’ll pass by the Palace of Quetzalpoatl on your right. This is an intricately designed structure clearly designed for someone important. The central room contains well-preserved columns that feature carvings of what appears to be a mythical ‘Plumed Butterfly’ being. However, this may not really be the case, and the carvings may actually depict an owl instead.
This is one of the best places to see Teotihucano artwork in its original setting, as the main room is covered in murals and reliefs. Some of the other rooms have obviously been renovated or reconstructed, but the palace is still well-worth a walk through to get a feel for how the ancient elite once lived.
Nearby, you’ll also encounter a labyrinth of former residences, as well as the open-aired Palace of the Jaguars. But that’s not all. The same complex also features the Temple of the Feathered Conches, where you can find more murals and carvings, but this time in an enclosed setting. Don’t miss it.
The Mural Museum
The mural museum is an absolute must-visit. Oddly enough, though, there’s almost no information about it on site, other than a brief mention on a plaque along the Avenue of the Dead. As the name suggests, the museum houses murals discovered throughout Teotihuacan. But what’s surprising is both the sheer amount of murals as well as their excellent condition. It’s much different from what you would expect after having just seen the faded murals around the ruins.
The museum provides a whole new perspective on what the pyramids might’ve looked like during their prime. It also contains convenient maps next to each piece, revealing where they’d been found. A whole lot of them, it seems, were discovered near some of the sub-structures in front of the Pyramid of the Sun.
The building appears to be brand new and it’s clear that a lot of money was put into it, though hardly any visitors go due to the lack of promotion. Regardless, entry to the museum is free with your ticket to the ruins.
Get there by exiting Gate 3 and turning right. Walk along the road for a few minutes and you should see a sign for it on the right-hand side.
Above we briefly went over how the city of Teotihuacan was divided into four sections divided by two large intersecting avenues (one of them the Avenue of the Dead), with their center at the Citadel. Many archaeologists believe that this perfectly symmetrical layout symbolized the inhabitants’ vision of the cosmos. But the positions of the Pyramid of the Sun and Moon are anything but symmetrical. Why?
The layout of Teotihuacan’s three main pyramids continue to baffle researchers to this day. Putting outlandish theories like prehistoric giants or visiting aliens aside for a moment, there are definitely more than a few strange coincidences going on here.
When looked at from the sky, the three pyramids form a shape very reminiscent of the stars of Orion. Notably, this same constellation has also been mirrored by the three pyramids of the Giza Plateau in Egypt. Furthermore, the Pyramid of the Sun is aligned in such a way that it faces two sunsets which are exactly 260 days apart, the length of the Mesoamerican calendar year. It’s even speculated that the size difference of the two larger pyramids (40%) point to other sacred numbers in the Teotihuacanos’ system of measuring time!
Considering how the city and its pyramids were built over a period of at least a couple hundred years, a lot of deliberate planning had to go into construction throughout multiple generations. There is clearly a lot of information which these ancient builders encoded in their structures and city. And even without a decipherable writing system, they’ve left us with a wealth of important knowledge, much of which we probably have yet to discover.
If you’re interested in learning more, this fascinating article is one of many on the subject.
Don’t feel you need to take a private or group tour to visit the pyramids. Teotihucan can be easily reached from Mexico City by bus.
First, you need to head to the bus station called Autobuses del Norte. This can be reached either by subway or public city bus. The ticket booth for Teotihuacan is by Parada 8, which is nearly all the way at the end. If you see a sign that says “Las Piramides,” this will be referring to Teotihuacan.
Buses leave every 30 minutes and the ride takes about 1 hour. A one-way ticket costs around $50 pesos, and you have the option of buying a round-trip ticket.
When you arrive at the ruins, you will start off at Gate 1. In the past, return buses from the city also left from Gate 1, but they now only leave from Gate 2, which is a completely different area. By seeing the sites in the order outlined by the article above, you’ll be able to smoothly see everything without having to do much backtracking.
Also keep in mind that you can walk out Gate 3, turn left and walk along the road until you get to the bus departure point. This is essentially the same place you end up at by walking out of Gate 2. That means you can finish your day with the Mural Museum, and then easily walk back to the Gate 2 area where the bus stop is, without having to re-enter the ruins.
The last bus supposedly departs as late at 19:00, but the archaeological zone itself closes at 17:00.
Mexico City’s public transportation system is very efficient, so generally speaking, you’ll be fine if you base yourself nearby a metro station. However, the city is so big that it can take awhile to get anywhere.
While not relevant to the ruins of Teotihuacan, which are outside of Mexico City, the most strategic area to base yourself in, in my opinion, would be the Centro district.
Other neighborhoods that are popular with foreign visitors are the hip Roma and Condesa districts.
I stayed at a basic, no frills hotel called Hotel Costazul. I would recommend this place to people looking for an affordable private hotel room in a convenient location. Located in Centro, it’s a fairly easy walk to the Zocalo and right by a couple of subway stations.
The best way to get to Mexico City would be to fly. The main Benito Juarez International Airport services flights from all around the world.
Coming from within Mexico, many budget airlines service Toluca International Airport instead. Some cheaper flights from abroad also go to the nearby city of Puebla.