Templo Mayor, or the Great Temple was built by the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was almost completely destroyed some years later when the Spanish conquerors arrived, and the bit that was left was hidden under what is now Mexico City. It wasn't until 1978 that people realised it was there, thanks to the chance discovery of an unusual carving, and in the 30 years since then an on-again, off-again program of excavation has been being carried out. Now, some of the bits that have been excavated can be seen by passersby walking near the Cathedral, but to get a proper look at it, you have to pay to enter the grounds and attached museum. Or, like us, you can go on a Sunday when it's free of charge.
The first part you enter is the remains of the grounds that have been uncovered, which form the outdoor part of the museum. This part takes maybe 15 to 30 minutes depending on how much information you want to read, and how busy it is. We went on a (free) Sunday and the place was busy, with lots of Mexican families rather oddly taking detailed notes, copying down the info on the signs. It was as if they were on a school trip, but it was the adults doing it, apparently out of their own interest. This part of the visit is definitely not suitable for those with walking difficulties since it has lots of steps to climb, and since some of the paths are metal grids high heels are also not recommended.
As with so many of the remains from this time period, serpents feature heavily in the designs and guard the entrances to many buildings. These are the originals, but some of the other things on display, such as some sculpted offerings which lean against the steps, are just replicas, with the originals in the museum. This is a little strange - to have the originals, but to have moved them away from where they once stood - but I suppose they have done it to preserve the pieces. The design of the building is also quite interesting, and it was constructed from various things - paving slabs, pretty coloured rocks in cement - giving it an unusual look. However, just from looking at it you can't understand all that much of what you're seeing, so the information signs are vital.
You progress through the grounds in a one-way direction only, so you need to take pictures as and when you see things to photograph since you might not get the chance again. The shot looking back at the cathedral with the remains in the foreground is especially worth taking, as are some of the staggering staircases (they used to chuck sacrificial bodies down these, dontcha know).
Part of the grounds are undercover - there is a sort of roof above them, and shades have been installed, again I would suppose to protect the artefacts within them, and preserve them for the future. One of the key items here is the Chacmool, a reclining figure that looks like a man propped up on his elbows balancing a bowl on his knee. They have these all over - plastic ones adorn the beach near Cancun, and there's a large one in the Museum of Anthropology, but this one at least is suppose to be an original.
Following your self-guided tour of the grounds you can enter the museum at the back of the site which will take about 30 minutes to an hour, again depending on your level of interest. The building houses a small shop (overpriced and understocked), toilets and 8 exhibition rooms. You are supposed to follow the order of these, which means you go up at the right (floors 1 to 4) and then come back down at the left (floors 4 back to 1). The first thing you notice when you enter is a massive wall of human skulls, though this is another replica, or a Tzompantli shrine. It's rather gory and rather cool at the same time.
The museum contains a variety of artefacts including some rather fun Eagle Knights that could have been inspiration for my Halloween costume had I been a little more creative. Something else to look out for is the massive carved stone which shows the separated arms, legs, head and body of an Aztec goddess in a Picasso sort of way. You can see this on the 2nd floor but for a better view look down on it from the balcony on the floor above. There are also lots of models of what the temple would have looked like, way back when, which are useful since what has been uncovered today does not really look the same.
SOME FURTHER NOTES
They do not allow liquids into the site - it's not a case of no eating or drinking while you're there, they literally search bags and make you throw away any drinks they find. It's like being at an airport. I had two bottles with me, and managed to get away with just throwing one (and the half empty one at that) since they didn't recheck my bag, but I didn't quite understand the fuss since carrying a bottle with you doesn't harm anyone, and it's unlikely to accidentally spill itself from the bottom of my backpack.
Signs in the outdoor part are in both Spanish and English while indoors they are just in Spanish, though you can pay to hire an audioguide. We didn't bother, relying on my guidebook and my dubious Spanish instead, and I think we got the gist of most of it.
There is no cafe on site, but there are lots of restaurants nearby. We had a picnic in the Zocalo and watched the native dancers strut their stuff in the October sunshine. The nearest metro is Zocalo too, and most hotels in the Historic Centre are within walking distance.
The temple is not very temple-like, in shape or structure, but is an interesting visit nonetheless. You can see a lot of it from street level (it's located below ground, so you can look down on it) and this might be enough for some people, but if you're there on a Sunday it is worth popping in to see it properly for free. I just love the idea that something like this could go undiscovered for so many centuries. I wonder what else is lying below the streets of this city, yet to be uncovered.
Bonus points (or at least 15 dooyoo miles, i.e. a read) if you can work out the reasoning behind the title...