How to Take a Day Trip to the Teotihuacan Pyramids, Mexico (+Map)

Most of us are well acquainted with the ruins of ancient Mesoamerican cities such as Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Copan, but head a little north of Mexico City, and you’ll find some of the most exceptional remains of civilizations gone by at the Teotihuacan Pyramids.

Before my visit, I admittedly knew very little about this fascinating archaeological site. However, I left feeling awe-struck by how well-preserved and impressive these ruins were, so much so that I now consider them among some of the most unmissable landmarks in Central Mexico.

If you’re a keen historian or fancy yourself as somewhat of a culture connoisseur, the soaring pyramids of Teotihuacan should go right to the top of your list. Shrouded in mystery and believed to have been built by the Totonac people, the remnants of Teotihuacan tell the story of the diverse and flourishing city that once stood here.

Just a few months back, I embarked on a full-day tour of this pre-Columbian city, which means I’ve gathered all the up-to-date information to give you a comprehensive overview of what to expect when taking a day trip from Mexico City.

What are the Teotihuacan Pyramids?

Pyramid of the Sun

Often dubbed the City of Mystery, the limited information researchers have discovered about Teotihuacan makes this former metropolis all the more intriguing. Teotihuacan refers to the old city as a whole, but this name is often linked specifically with the vast pyramids that serve as the site’s focal points.

My guide informed me that the area is believed to have been inhabited since about 600 BC, though the imposing structures that now dominate the landscape likely came about sometime between the 1st and 7th centuries.

Unlike many cities that date back to this era, Teotihuacan wasn’t solely populated by one major ethnic group, as it’s believed that Totonac, Toltec, Maya, Mixtec, and Zapotec culture have all influenced the development of the city in some way.

As is the case with most aspects of Teotihuacan, little is known about why the city fell, as it went from one of the most expansive early urban areas in the western hemisphere to suffering abandonment during the 8th century.

Some put the decline down to political unrest among the poorer population, although my guide mentioned that droughts and changes in climate may also have been responsible.

Teotihuacáns seem enigmatic as we look back on them today. They were said to be a peaceful community of farmers, since the city contains no defensive structures. However, their temples contain many symbols of war.

It was the Aztecs who gave Teotihuacán its name, when they arrived here in about 1320. The name means “City of Gods,” and they believed the gods had gathered here to create the sun and moon after the last world ended. From their base in Tenochtitlán (in what is now Mexico City) they used it as pilgrimage destination.

Getting to the Teotihuacan Pyramids

Getting There

Teotihuacan is located 48 km north of the Mexican capital and can be reached from the downtown area in under an hour and a half making it very doable as a day trip. There are essential 3 options for getting to Teotihuacan from Mexico City:

By tour bus

I was keen to accompany a local guide during my visit as my knowledge of Teotihuacan was minimal. As a result, I opted for a guided tour from Mexico City, though I also learned of some alternative methods of reaching the site should you prefer to explore the ruins at your own pace.

By booking a guided tour, I eliminated the process of navigating public transport, as my trip included a round-trip shuttle. However, if you have limited time, this may not be the most suitable option, as the minivan I travelled in made numerous pickups along the way. The tour also included some extra stops that added time to the overall experience.

By bus

Buses to Teotihuacán leave from Mexico City about every half hour from two locations: Terminal del Norte (outside Autobuses del Norte Metro station, Line 5) or from outside the Potrero Metro station (Line 3). From Terminal Autobuses del Norte, walk towards Gate 8. There is a ticket booth almost at the end of the hall. Check that your bus goes to the site entrance of Teotihuacán ruinas and not just to the town of San Juan Teotihuacán nearby. From Potrero, exit the station and look for white buses that go to Los Piramides.

By car

From the city center of Mexico City it takes about 45 minutes if you use the toll highway or much longer if you use the old free road. There is a small fee for parking at the site. Taking a taxi to Teotihuacan is also possible but very expensive.

Partaking in a Mezcal Tasting

Mezcal Tasting

The first of these additional stops was a visit to a locally run mezcal distillery right by the entrance to Teotihuacan. A particularly exciting aspect of the tour for avid fans of this agave-based alcoholic drink, I found this activity surprisingly enjoyable, considering we were sampling several mezcal varieties before 9.30 a.m.!

If you opt for a tour that includes this experience in the itinerary, you’ll learn how the locals in the area have been using the core of agave plants to create one of the country’s most beloved alcoholic beverages. Although not strictly related to the culture of Teotihuacan, understanding the role of mezcal-making and agave cultivation in the region’s modern-day industries is fascinating.

Though it was undoubtedly a little too early to fully appreciate the more pungent servings of mezcal with high alcohol content, I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet and slightly sour pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.

What I didn’t anticipate from this aspect of the tour were the recreations of tools, jewellery, and crafts from the time when Teotihuacan thrived. Some of these included razor-sharp knives made from obsidian, which is a robust volcanic glass, elaborate necklaces, pyrite mirrors and pottery.

Map of Teotihuacán

Map of Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Sun

As my group quickly made our way inside the archaeological complex, we were met by the most awe-inspiring vista of the 65-metre-high Pyramid of the Sun.

Let me tell you, photos don’t do justice to the sheer enormity of this structure, and few sites of this scale exist. Made of stone and rising over multiple stepped levels, this pyramid was believed to be built to honour a god and may have once housed a temple or altar at the apex.

Pyramid of the Sun Stairs

Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to explore the mysterious interior of the pyramid, though our guide did his best to describe the findings that archaeologists have unearthed since the 1970s.

Under the base of the structures lies a series of tunnels leading to various chambers. Everything from animal bones and obsidian tools to the famous greenstone masks closely associated with Teotihuacan tradition have been discovered here.

I initially assumed the pyramid’s title, Pyramid of the Sun, had some kind of calendrical significance, though I learned that the Aztecs gave the pyramid this name centuries after the city was deserted. It may have been created as a sign of respect for the sun, but the true reasoning behind the construction is unclear.

The Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly

Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly

Similar to the Pyramid of the Sun, the Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly wasn’t the structure’s original name but one that came about much later.

Whether rulers actually lived at this palace is open to debate, though some archaeologists believed priests may have occasionally lived there.

The palace is centered around a beautifully designed courtyard, with birds and butterflies used as decorations. It was these decorations that led to its name. Quetzal means butterfly.

Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly

As soon as I stepped inside and wandered over to catch a glimpse of the intricate pillars that lined the patio area, I was taken aback by how the colours that emblazoned each corner of the structure had proved so long-lasting.

My guide informed the group that the partially shaded courtyard location meant that this palace suffered less from harsh weather conditions than the neighbouring buildings, allowing much of the colour retention.

I was already enamoured by the attention to detail on each pillar, only to be even more blown away by the nearby murals that had also stood the test of time. Icons of owls, who were thought to be messengers of the underworld by the Teotihuacan people, and those of gods, goddesses, and other adored figures, make up most of the artwork.

Pyramid of the Moon

Pyramid of the Moon

As we strolled down the wide walkway, aptly named The Avenue of the Dead due to the dozens of tombs flanking either side of the road, we soon arrived at the Pyramid of the Moon.

At 43 metres in height, it’s noticeably smaller than the nearby Pyramid of the Sun, but I found it no less remarkable and equally as grand. Though mostly consistent with the design of its neighbour, the Pyramid of the Moon features a smaller temple-like platform near the base, sitting within a wide plaza-like area.

Pyramid of the Moon

Likely built to replicate the shape of the Cerro Gordo mountain that sits as the pyramid’s backdrop, some studies suggest that the Teotihuacan people created this structure as a tribute to the goddess of water, fertility, and creation.

Furthermore, some of the artefacts found amongst the underground tunnels below the pyramid have led experts to believe that it was used for burials and sacrificial rituals.

Much like the Pyramid of the Sun, we weren’t permitted to venture inside the pyramid or climb the 200-plus steps, so we once again relied on imagination and the descriptions provided by the guide!

If you need to burn up energy, climbing to the top of the pyramid will do that for you. It also provides an excellent opportunity to view the great city of Teotihuacán.

Temple of Quetzalcoatl

Temple of Quetzalcoatl

The Ciudadela or Citadel anchors the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead and received its name from the Spanish because of its impressive walls. However, it was actually a large sunken plaza that was big enough to house almost all of Teotihuacán’s residents. La Ciudadela centers around the Temple of Quetzalcoatl or Feathered Serpent. Completed in the third century, apartment complexes stand on two sides of the pyramid; archaeologists believe the city’s rulers may have lived in them.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the smallest of the three pyramids at Teotihuacán. It’s built on six levels with the outside of each level featuring feathered serpent heads and other snake heads; these serpent heads may be symbolic of war. Obsidian was used for eyes, making them glimmer when the sun struck them. A bas relief of the full serpent is below the heads.

The temple’s construction features the talud-tablero architectural style where a rectangular panel sits atop a sloping panel. It is believed this is the first time this style was used, and it was later found in other Mesoamerican cultures. A platform called Asodada is on the front of the pyramid, hiding much of it from view at this angle.

Avenue of the Dead

Avenue of the Dead

The main street through ancient Teotihuacán may have been called the Avenue of the Dead, but that doesn’t mean dead people are buried on it or along the road sides. The Aztecs so named it because the mounds on the sides of the road looked like tombs. Archeologists have now established that these were ceremonial platforms that were topped with temples.

The avenue was several kilometers long in its prime, but only a kilometer or two has been uncovered and restored. At 40 meters (131 feet) wide, this road would be considered wide by our standards today. Teotihuacán is in ruins now, but walking the Avenue of the Dead provides a glimpse of the city’s glorious past. You’ll walk by huge housing complexes and temples, some of which date back to before the birth of Christ.

At the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead, is a sprawling ceremonial plaza that Spanish conquistadors named La Ciudadela (the Citadel). Looking from a distance like a fortress, it was likely the home of the city’s high rulers.

Heading north along the Avenue of the Dead, you’ll see exquisite examples of the housing complexes and temples. On the right side is the enormous Pyramid of Sun while at the northern end is the Pyramid of the Moon.

Museo Teotihuacan

Museo Teotihuacan

The Museo Teotihuacán, located south of the Pyramid of the Sun, is a good introduction to what you’ll see as you wander around Teotihuacán. In addition to learning about the monuments, you’ll find artifacts made from shell, bone and obsidian that were used by this ancient people.

The museum boasts more than 600 religious and art artifacts on display, as well as handmade necessities of daily life. In the museum’s eight halls, you can learn more about the Teotihuacán economy, society, technology, religion and politics.

Palace of the Jaguars

The Palace of the Jaguars exudes wow-ness, with red murals, now faded, embellished with white drawings and carvings. The drawings represent jaguars and elements of sea life, such as shells, including conches. Even today this exquisite art doesn’t fail to impress.

Key among the murals is a jaguar blowing a feathered conch that drips with blood. This is believed to be a symbol of war, since conch shells were blown before warriors went into battle. Atop the jaguar’s head is a snake with feathers jutting out from it.

The Palace of the Jaguars is considered one of the most sacred sites in Teotihuacán, a city that is filled with religious buildings. The imagery depicted in the murals is stronger than at any of the other sites. Some images were later found depicted in other Mesoamerican cultures.

Because of its closeness to the Temple of the Moon, archaeologists believe priests and warriors planned events here that would take place later at the temple.

Palace of Tetitla & Palace of Atetelco

The palaces of Tetitla and Atetelco, located west of the Avenue of the Dead, are a treasure trove of Teotihuacán murals. Discovered in the 1940s, the palaces contain some of the best preserved murals in the ruins. You’ll see 120 walls covered in murals in the Palace of Tetitla alone. One of the most famous murals shows the Great Goddess or Spider Woman wearing a headdress that features an owl bordered by a snake.

Other murals depict eagles, serpents and jaguars. The Palace of Atetelco, located about 100 meters (1,200 feet) away, showcases murals that depict jaguars and coyotes. Some of these animals are painted red and in a processional format that has been linked to war orders.

Palace of Tepantitla

The Palace of Tepantitla is a priests’ residence found northeast of the Temple of the Sun. It contains the Paradise of Tlaloc, the most famous mural in Teotihuacán. This mural recreates daily life residents playing and picking flowers while water running down a mountain depicts their irrigation system.

Study the mural longer, and you’ll see people falling into the mountain as their blood changes into water. The people are different colors, which could represent the classes of society. Other murals consist of thousands of small drawings that are believed to show how Teotihuacáns thought the world worked.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

After spending a few hours exploring the enigmatic and thought-provoking ruins, there was one last stop included in the tour as we started the journey back towards Mexico City.

The final spot on the itinerary was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a colossal church that’s an incredibly important site for Mexico’s overwhelmingly Catholic population. This site houses a cloak embossed with the image of the Virgin Mary, who is believed to have appeared here numerous times.

Though I don’t consider myself to hold strong religious beliefs, I couldn’t help but be moved by the thousands of Mexican citizens who’d come from every corner of the country as pilgrims to make it to this striking basilica. What made the experience even more memorable was witnessing the wedding that took place as we visited!

Cultural significance aside, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe was unlike any church I’d ever seen. More akin to a complex of religious buildings, the grounds played host to several places of worship, including a convent and cemetery. We didn’t have time to visit the on-site museum, which I believe is filled with superb paintings and metalware, should you have the time on your hands.

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