This complex of awesome pyramids, set amid what was once Mesoamerica’s greatest city, is among the region’s most visited destinations. The sprawling site compares to the ruins of the Yucatán and Chiapas in terms of its significance and anyone lucky enough to come here will be inspired by the astonishing technological might of the Teotihuacán (teh-oh-tee-wah-kahn) civilization.
Set 50km northeast of Mexico City, in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México, Teotihuacán is known for its two massive pyramids, the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and the Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), which dominate the remains of the metropolis. Teotihuacán was Mexico’s biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably Mexico’s largest pre-Hispanic empire. Exploring the site is fascinating, although rebuffing the indefatigable hawkers is exhausting and crowds can be huge. The site is busiest in the middle of the day, so going early pays off.
The city’s grid plan was plotted in the early part of the 1st century AD, and the Pirámide del Sol was completed – over an earlier cave shrine – by AD 150. The rest of the city was developed between about AD 250 and 600. Social, environmental and economic factors hastened its decline and eventual collapse in the 8th century.
The city was divided into quarters by two great avenues that met near La Ciudadela (the Citadel). One of them, running roughly north–south, is the famous Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) – so called because the later Aztecs believed the great buildings lining it were vast tombs, built by giants for Teotihuacán’s first rulers. The major structures are typified by a talud-tablero style, in which the rising portions of stepped, pyramid-like buildings consist of both sloping (talud) and upright (tablero) sections. They were often covered in lime and colorfully painted. Most of the city was made up of residential compounds, some of which contained elegant frescoes.
Centuries after its fall, Teotihuacán remained a pilgrimage site for Aztec royalty, who believed that all of the gods had sacrificed themselves here to start the sun moving at the beginning of the ‘fifth world,’ inhabited by the Aztecs. It remains an important pilgrimage site: thousands of New Age devotees flock here each year to celebrate the vernal equinox (between March 19 and March 21) and to soak up the mystical energies believed to converge here.
Though ancient Teotihuacán covered more than 20 sq km, most of what can be seen today lies along nearly 2km of the Calzada de los Muertos. Buses arrive at a traffic circle by the southwest entrance (Gate 1); four other entrances are reached by the ring road around the site. There are parking lots and ticket booths at each entrance. Your ticket allows you to re-enter via any of them on the same day. The site museum is just inside the main east entrance (Gate 5).
Crowds at the ruins (admission M$51; 7am-5pm) are thickest from 10am to 2pm, and they are busiest on Sunday, holidays and around the vernal equinox. Due to the heat and altitude, it’s best to take it easy while exploring the expansive ruins. Bring a hat and water – most visitors walk several kilometers, and the midday sun can be brutal. Afternoon rain showers are common from June to September. No big backpacks are permitted up the Pirámide del Sol, and children must be accompanied by adults. There’s a M$45 fee for the use of a video camera and parking costs an additional M$45.