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Teotihuacan (Mexico)

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The ancient city of Teotihuacan is the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites and a must-see if you’re in Mexico City.

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      11.11.2008 13:47
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      A fun day out of the city, with some great photo ops

      There are some things you just have to see during a stay in Mexico, but some of these things are things you may only want to see once even if your stay is an extended one. For me, Teotihuacán was on this list, and so I "saved" it for when I had a visitor who would want to see it. With Big Sis in town for a week, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go. In case you're one of those people who worries over pronunciation, and will get aggrieved by the repeated used of the name in this review, it's pronounced "tay-oh-tea-wa-can" with an emphasis on the last syllable.


      GETTING THERE AND BACK

      Teotihuacán is located just outside Mexico City. You can go on an organised tour, take a semi-organised trip, or do it yourself, as we did. This involved catching the Metrobus to Indios Verdes (which also has a regular metro station), and a bus from there. Simple enough, you might think, if you've never been to Indios Verdes. In reality it is a crowded and chaotic bus terminus where dozens of lines end, and finding the correct bus took some doing (including the purchasing of some chocolate so we could ask the stall holder, and the questioning of some friendly looking policemen with big guns). If you're planning a trip, exit the Metro or Metrobus, and find the mountains. Head towards them, to the top left hand corner of the chaos, and you should see a string of busses with "Piramides" on their 'Where we're going' pieces of cardboard in the windscreen. Make sure you get on one of these, since the others that say "Teotihuacán" often just go the town of the same name. We got on the second bus in the line which seemed weird, but they called out to us and, upon questioning, revealed they would be setting off in 10 minutes, which they did.

      The trip there took an hour along some bumpy backstreets, since we were dropping people off in random villages on the way. We pulled up at Gate 1 and disembarked. Coming back we headed again to Gate 1 to catch a bus, and were directed to wait at one side of the road. Two busses pulled up, dropped people off...and drove off without doing pick-ups. Finally a third one was flagged down by a man with a clipboard, and we were allowed on. The trip back was slightly quicker, but did not take us to Indios Verdes as the cardboard sign said it would, instead driving past here to the North Bus Station, from which we caught a Metro home. On the return trip we were also "entertained" by an on-board Mariachi band, who I assume were the brothers or nephews or cousins of the bus driver.


      OUR VISIT

      We walked in through Gate 1, ignoring the offers of a taxi. This is a huge con, since the entrance is maybe 200m away. I suppose they could have been offering to take us nearer to the Pyramids, i.e. the other entrances, but still. We bought tickets from the man on the gate, walked in through a row of shops and came out onto the site.

      Teotihuacan is an absolutely massive archaeological site that pre-dates the Aztecs. They thought it had been built by giants, and celebrated it as a sacred place, but who actually built it (and whether or not they were on the tall side) remains a mystery. The whole site is set around the Avenue of the Dead, and we entered at one end of this. Again, we can thank the Aztec's mistakenness for the name, since they believed (wrongly) that the buildings lining it on either side were royal tombs. They weren't, but the name stuck. We started our tour here, and headed along the path towards the large pyramids, passing several smaller ones on the way. Many tourists come in through Gates 3 or 5 and miss this bit entirely, but it was quite a fun clamber up and down steps, through grassy plazas, and over a few boulders, like some kind of ancient obstacle course.

      We stopped at the large Pyramid of the Sun, which measures 65m high. Its base is the same size as the great pyramid of Egypt, but it's tiddly in comparison, since that one is 144m high. Big Sis has been to Egypt and seen the Pyramids, but since you can't climb those ones any more, this was still something new for her. We set off for the climb to the first platform, my guide book telling us that you should at least climb up to here. The view was good, but not magnificent, so we continued our ascent right to the top. Climbing this pyramid is certainly an experience. The steps are very tall, the hand rails flimsy cord rather than nice sturdy iron, and people were clearly failing to understand the not über-complex "up one side and down the other" circulation system they had tried to put in place, but we made it. My tip, if you're short in the leg department, would be to scramble up almost on all fours, using your hands on the steps to steady yourself. At the top, once we'd finished with the huffing and puffing, we could admire the view, which was admittedly great. From here, you can see the whole length of the Avenue of the Dead, have a good view of the other pyramids, and can also see further afield into Mexico State. After taking the obligatory photo or 5 we started off back down again, me finding that bump-bump-bumping on your bottom was quite a fine way to manage this.

      Our next stop, at the other end of the avenue, was the smaller but nonetheless impressive Pyramid of the Moon. This measures about 47m high, but has the bonus of being at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, while the Sun is a little way along and to one side. My guide book tells me you should climb to the top of this one, but unfortunately it is currently close for renovation, so I was glad we'd sensibly/stupidly hiked to the top of its taller neighbour. Because the site is on a slight tilt, this is the best pyramid to get views from, when you can get all the way to the top, that is. Instead, we were forced to stay on the first platform, and took advantage of this to eat our lunch here, since there are no benches on the site anyway, and having a picnic with a view like this is not something you can do every day.

      After coming down (bump-bump-bump again) we went to escape the little, light rain in the Quetzalpaoalotl Palace which is to the right of the Moon if you're coming down from the latter. Apparently a "Quetzalpaoalotl" was a mythical creature, somewhere between a bird and a butterfly. Full of rooms like "Temple of the Feathered Conches" and the "Jaguar Palace", this is a series of buildings and rooms believed to have originally been residential with a few temples attached, when first built. The murals here are understandably faded, but still reasonably clear, especially when your guide book tells you what it is you're seeing... As with all things Aztec-y, there are tons of stone Serpents' heads here, along with decorative "merlons" in the courtyard which are rather pretty.

      Walking back along the Avenue of the Dead we stopped to admire the Jaguar Mural, and pondered the difference between Jaguars and Pumas since the official info board next to it referred to the latter. It also told us that the Jaguar/Puma was painted with a red and green water background which, while very patriotic for Mexico, are not the colours I tend to associate with water.

      We left the crowds behind as we headed back towards our starting point, stopping for a little light acrobatics on the way - I have progressed from photos of me doing upward circles outside Buckingham Palace circa 1990 to photos of me doing handstands against pyramids 18 years later... Our final stop, opposite Gate 1, is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl which you would have to know was there to go and see since it's off the main avenue. There's another small pyramid to climb, and behind this you can view what remains of the temple, which is decorated with a rain God, and serpents of course.

      Our exploring over, we headed back under the one on-site restaurant (elevated, to give a good view of the site) to the shops that lined the entrance, via a quick peek in the museum here which highlights the work done to date on the excavation of this hidden city, which only began in 1978. There are two other museums on site which we did not visit. These house "interesting" things discovered on the site, but I imagine anything extremely interesting or important would have been whisked off to the Museum of Anthropology years ago. In the shops we found post cards and a few souvenirs, probably more than you can actually find in the city centre which is remarkable for its absence of souvenir shops. We did, however, resist the urge to buy some Ugly Betty-style ponchos, though these were abundant everywhere we went. We even saw an American school trip where all the teen boys had clearly just bought these and were wearing them proudly without a hint of irony.


      TIPS FOR VISITORS

      If you ever do make it to this neck of the woods, there are some key things to bring, wear, bear in mind prior to your visit.

      * The weather here is very different from in Mexico City. It can be hotter or colder, wetter or drier. In summer, sun screen is an essential. In winter, like now, a warm jacket is a must. You need sensible shoes too (not the strappy sandals we saw on some people), and high heels are actually banned from the Palace complex. There are a few places to shelter, but in general this is a dry day activity, though sometimes you can't plan for this as the weather here is rather temperamental.


      * Climbing the pyramids is hard work, but worth it. You don't have to be super fit, it's more important that you go slowly, and aren't carrying too much with you to weigh you down. The tops of the pyramids offer great views, but there are no safety barriers up here, so if you are scared of heights, you might rather dislike being up top.


      * There are various people on site offering to guide you, but we preferred to wander alone, reading the info boards at the key sights (all in English as well as Spanish), and eavesdropping on the odd tour nearby in English/French/German.


      * You can buy food and drink at the entrances, but the choice is not extensive, and once you're in you have to go back to one of the gates if you want to by anything - dubious silver necklaces and massive t-shirts are sold at the bases of the pyramids by travelling salesmen, but water isn't. Take a bottle with you for the climb, even in winter.

      * It's easy to get overawed by the buildings, and distracted by the climbing / handstanding while you're there, so it helps to read up on it first so you know what you'll be seeing, and can just enjoy your visit.


      * You can enter at one of 5 gates. Tour groups will probably take you to a central one, while local busses go mainly to Gate 1. I preferred this since it gave us chance to discover other parts of the site - there's more to Teotihuacan than just two massive pyramids, y'know.

      * Obviously (?) the site is not wheelchair-friendly, but the children who had been dragged along seemed to be enjoying themselves, and there's lots of things for them to see, and places for little ones to run around easily, though they would need help with the actual climbing given the sheer size of the steps.


      HOW IT ADDS UP

      4.5 pesos Metrobus

      62 pesos (return) bus to the Pyramids

      2 pesos Metro

      48 pesos Entrance to the Pyramids

      Total: 116.50 pesos (about £6)

      This compares to 450 pesos for the semi-guided tour which includes transport, entrance, a guide and a buffet lunch. www.circuitopiramides.com.mx/index_content.html

      We took a picnic. It costs maybe 10 pesos each, meaning a whopping saving doing it the DIY way.

      Grayline also offer a tour which costs 350 pesos. This includes a stop at the Virgin of Guadeloupe but not lunch.
      www.grayline.com/Grayline/destinations/mexico/ mexicocity.go?mode=activityDetail&apid=716&sid=563


      VERDICT

      Most people bill Teotihuacan as a half day tour, and I would agree. We left home at 8.30am (I live slightly south of the centre), were on the bus for 9.30am and arrived at 10.30am. We saw most of the site, though didn't loiter in some areas, and were catching the bus back about 1.30pm, getting back at 2.30pm. If weather and brain power allowed, you could stay a lot longer, but we felt we'd seen what we wanted to by that point. I am not a history buff, but I did enjoy our visit, and especially the pyramid climbing part since this is banned in Chichen Itza, where I went a few days ago.

      I would say do it yourself, don't do a trip, but the people on the tours seemed to be enjoying themselves so it could be a good option if you don't mind the higher cost in exchange for not having to navigate the public transport. However be warned that most tours do not spend all that long on the site, and often pad out their tours with stops in other places - churches, tequila factories etc etc.


      MORE INFO

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teotihuacan

      www.differentworld.com/mexico/areas/mexico-city/guide-teotihuacan.htm

      www.teotihuacan.com

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      The ancient city of Teotihuacan is the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites and a must-see if you’re in Mexico City.