travelog 78


We're rumbling eastwards along on a small road. Suddenly a hill rises in front of us in the fading light of day. It looks pretty rectangular and man-made and, as we approach further, we realize that it must be Teotihuacan's famous Pyramid of the Sun. On the ring road we drive around the entire complex and see the Pyramid of the Moon and many overgrown, tree-shaded areas that sureley hide more ruins. Thanks to our Swiss visitor we have finally made it to Teotihuacan!

Traveleres like us, who like to be at the entrance of an archaeological site as early as possible, are best advised to find a hotel near the ruins instead of arriving from Mexico City. There's the Club Med Hotel Villa Arqueologica along the ring road. On the short way to the entrance of this hotel we realize that this is definitely not in our price range, but we look at it anyway. The rooms are very nice and tastefully decorated. There's a swimming pool in the big courtyard and many shady places to sit and relax. The hotel is surrounded by a beautiful park but unfortunately the prices are between 900-1200 pesos, way too much for just an overnight stay. We find the bed & breakfast Sol y Luna, where they don't serve a breakfast, near San Juan Teotihuacan. At night we stroll through this busy little town and find a place where they'll still serve us a beer. The bartender and his girlfriend later accompany us to the arcades at the public market where they show us the best tacos in town. Food stalls line up next to each other and people try to push and shove through the crowd. Soon we manage to grab chairs and enjoy our tacos al pastor with different hot sauces and grilled onions and chiles.

The next morning we're back very early at the market. We bought the sweet bread rolls the night before, now we're only looking for some hot coffee and orange juice. At 7:30 AM we're on the parking lot at the Pyramid of the Moon. We're the first ones and early, but someone lets us in without a murmur. All the souvenir stalls are still closed and most of the guards are just drifting in. We hurry past the Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl, the Palace of Quetzal Butterfly, and stand on a huge square. Quickly we climb up the stairs to the Pyramid of the Moon but are allowed only up to the first platform. The rest of the pyramid is fenced off with bright orange tape. Nonetheless we have an exceptional view down the 3 kilometers (2 miles) long Calzada de los Muertos, the Street of the Dead, just as we had hoped for. Not a living soul is to be seen on the broad street or the pyramids lining it. Only the bright orange tape that keeps the tourists away from the fenced off areas disturbs this beautiful sight. At other archaeological sites the barriers are a lot more discreet and normally fit in with the surrounding area. This could have been achieved here too!

Archaeologists assume that about 100 B.C., the discovery of a cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun triggered the population explosion from about 7000 to up to 200'000 in the Valle de Teotihuacan. This cave, discovered by archaeologists only in 1971, runs east to west and lines up with various astronomical phenomena such as the setting sun and the rising of the Pleiades constellation on the equinoxes. Teotihuacan was built to its current size over centuries. About 300 A.D. all the important structures were completed and no more were built apart from housing for the people. The old chaotic conglomerations of dwellings were replaced with about 2000 planned apartment compounds each housing about 50-100 probably related people. These people were not only related by kinship but also by occupation and place of origin. Today not much is visible of these compounds. But digging in Teotihuacan's surrounding areas would surely produce remnants of ancient houses. We went to see Tetitla, one of the more luxurious compounds, on the other side of the ring road, but we'll come to that later on. Around 600 A.D., Teotihuacan began to slide into a decline. No new edifices were built; no new frescoes were painted; the apartment complexes were slowly abandoned. Until today no one knows the reason behind this decline but researchers believe that mismanagement, the breakdown of the trade and tribut system, a health crisis because of overcrowding, and a series of extremely dry years could have been the possible causes. Archaeologists believe that the city was plundered and completely burned around A.D. 750. Teotihuacan was never totally abandoned but the subsequent few inhabitants were doing little more than camping out in the ruins. The center of power shifted from Teotihuacan first to Tula and then to Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs had their own theories about the origins of Teotihuacan. They believed that the city was built by the gods themselves and that the cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun was the emerging place of the sun, the moon, the stars, and humanity itself.

In the morning light we stroll from the Pyramid of the Moon down the Street of the Dead to the Pyramid of the Sun. Left and right the street is lined with low temples and pyramids. We especially like the fresco of a yellow puma with long and sharp claws. Reaching the base of the Pyramid of the Sun, we're not the only visitors anymore. This pyramid is one of the largest pre-Columbian structures in the Western Hemisphere. Each side measures 221 meters (725 feet) at ground level. Researchers suspect that the facade of the pyramid was once plastered and painted red. Various tunnels have been dug into the pyramid because archaeologists believe that it contains a royal burial but nothing has been discovered yet. We didn't count the stairs to the top of the 64 meter (210 feet) tall pyramid but some of them are so high that cables have been put in to help visitors climb up hand over hand. They come in handy on the way down too because sometimes you have the feeling of climbing down almost vertically. With our long legs we have an advantage but what an effort it must have been for the people in those days who were smaller and short-legged! Every platform on the way up offers an excellent opportunity to take a breather and enjoy the views. The further up you go, the more impressive the view down onto the remains of this perfectly planned and laid out city become. From the top we have an incredible vista in all directions and on to the surrounding villages which are all built on the ruins of Teotihuacan. It's mostly early rising Europeans who have made it to the top of the pyramid. Two colorful hot-air balloons are gliding over the huge pyramid too.

Now we slowly wander back to the Pyramid of the Moon. Groups of Czechs, Germans, and French are busy taking pictures. Two American women brought their dog along. A German couple is accompanied by a Mexican guide speaking broken German. A group of young Mexicans is surrounded by aggressive souvenir vendors. Later they climb up the Pyramid of the Sun with their recently purchased obsidian knives, alabaster gods and feather head-dresses. There's only one word for this stuff: kitsch! We, too, are frequently bothered by souvenir vendors. Sometimes they even offer us a really antique and authentic piece, but we wave them aside uninterestedly. Next we visit the palace with ferscoes of plumed jaguars. Then follows the Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl. We come through various rooms with frescoes and patios surrounded by columns. The eight columns of one patio are adorned with reliefs of an animal that looks like a hybrid between a butterfly and a Quetzal bird.

By now there's a lot going on n the parking lot and another car instantly occupies our shady parking space when we pull out. We drive northwards around the Pyramid of the Moon and park at the entrance behind the Pyramid of the Sun. Actually, we just wanted to drive by but then we saw the sign Jardin Botanico and of course we want to see it. The small garden is in an unfortunate state and has little in common with a botanical garden. Fortunately we stopped here because we would otherwise have missed the excellent museum built in 1994. The exhibition rooms are very well lit and the art beautifully presented. There's a huge diorama of Teotihuacan in one room. The visitor walks on a glass floor over the threedimensional reproduction of the archaeological site. Light floods this room through a glass wall with a stunning view of the back of the Pyramid of the Sun.

Our next destination is the parking lot at the Ciudadela. Big coaches unload people often outside of the parking lots to save money. There's a fee to pay for parking your car or a coach but once paid it's valid on all parking lots. First we have to fight our way past many small souvenir shops that all sell the same stuff. Mostly kitsch, books, maps and postcards. From the platform around the Ciudadela, the sides of which each measure 390 meters (1280 feet), we have a view onto a huge square that is said to be able to hold 30,000 with no problems. Fortunately there aren't that many people here today! Unfortunately, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent is in restoration and archaeologists are doing some more excavation work. From a tall pyramid we can nonetheless catch a glimpse of the stone serpent heads that protrude from the temple facade.

By now the sun burns down relentlessy on the area. In the shade of a jacaranda tree we marvel at the many tourists who stroll around with no hat and naked shoulders. German girls obviously want to show off the tan they got at the beach. American boys wear their baseball hats backwards and let their red noses burn a little more. Mexicans think that they are protected by their dark skin. Pale Northern Europeans put coconut oil on as sun protection. It seems that only the peddlers, protected from head to toe and wearing broad-brimmed hats, know how unrelentingly the sun burns. When we finally get back to the parking lot, there's a huge crowd gathered around a tall pole from which traditionally costumed men swing through the air. Slwoly they swing lower and lower to land on the ground. The origins of this presentation are in Guatemala but nonetheless the crowd applaudes enthusiastically. Later, the beautifully dressed men circulate with a small container for a contribution.

When we get to the apartment compound Tetitla, there's only one other car on the parking lot. A boy sits in the car reading. He had probably sniffed enough culture for today. The entire complex is covered and protected with corrugated iron roofs. Thick plastic curtains protect the frescoes from direct sunlight. We wander through the different rooms and patios with mostly well-preserved frescoes of gods and fantastic animals. Low basins, connected through channels and filled with water, provide pleasant coolness. Soon we meet the other visitors. It's a German father with his son, a fact that is easily noted by his lectures. The father is busy explaining the functions of the new digital camera to his son. The son listens patiently and we understand why the other boy preferred to wait outside in the car. Again and again the boy has to lean on an altar or put his head in front of a fresco to be photographed by his father in different variations. Finally, the father's cell phone rings and we gather from the loud conversation that they have to leave right now to arrive in time for lunch with Mother in Mexico City. Soon we leave too and rummage through a few souvenir shops. At the entrance of one a group of Americans are invited to a Tequila sampling. In the shops you are overwhelmed with choice from thousands of obsidian Tlalocs, alabaster gods, knives, kitschy key chains and much more.

Of course, to see everything in Teotihuacan you need of course more than the 6 hours we have spent on the grounds. To get an overview and a good feeling for the site, half a day is certainly enough. If you want to experience something special, it's best to get there as early as possible to see the pyramids and the Street of the Dead deserted or at least without much commotion. Since our Swiss visitor wants to see something of Mexico City also, traffic in this voracious giant isn't so easy to master, plus the sun is bothering us a lot, so we set off in the early afternoon to find our hotel in Mexico City. We'll tell you about this visit in our next travel report.

April 2007

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen