This blog post was made in part through a hosted PR media experience with Vibe Adventures. All opinions are our own and we really do highly recommend booking the tour we enjoyed.
Ancient sites are so often associated with death. Especially Teotihuacan with its infamous history of human sacrifice. But, being there with someone like Sal makes you realize that the city is more associated with life than death.
Our tour started at 8:00am when our guide, Sal, from Vibe Adventures picked us up at our apartment. Having driven around a bit in Mexico City ourselves, we knew having a local drive us an hour outside of the city would save us some stress and peace of mind so that we could really enjoy our day. Having lived in Mexico City most of his life, Sal negotiated the drive effortlessly and pointed out a lot of interesting things along the way.
The flow of conversation was really easy, like talking to an immediate friend. We all bonded over having lived in California before and our passions for travel and history. Sal is fluent in Spanish and English and Vibe Adventures gives you the option to take this tour in either language.
Once we arrived at the site, we didn’t have to worry about figuring out where to park, or even buying tickets. Vibe Adventures took care of it all as it is included in the price of your tour. We were already off to an easier start than if we would have tried to do this all by ourselves.
It should be noted that we visited in September, 2021 and the site was still operating under COVID-related restrictions which require a mask to be worn. Unfortunately because of the pandemic state, access to some smaller spaces like the museum and the Palace of Quetzalpapálotl were closed off. Climbing the Pyramids was also not allowed at this time.
I (Emily) have a Masters Degree in Art History with a focus on Mexican art and I studied a lot of Pre-Columbian art as well. As soon as Sal started talking about the history of Teotihuacan, my memories of my time in University and Grad School started flooding back and we were batting around terms and Nahuatl words and the excitement was palpable for me!
Before you think this is a tour for school nerds only…
Alex, my husband, did not have the history background we had, but he was also amped. I could see it in his eyes how he was taking in everything we said and then related it to something he understood. He had a lot to add to the conversation and was highly engaged the whole time. This is why Sal is an excellent tour guide and after hearing about his career with Vibe Adventures, we could tell that this tour company takes pride in selecting the best guides and grooming them to be the best.
When talking about Teotihuacan, it is important to note that the names we have for its structures today come from the Aztecs who took over the site long after the Teotihuacanos were gone. You see, nobody knows exactly who the Teotihuacanos were, except for a group of indigenous Mesoamericans. Even the name Teotihuacan meaning “birthplace of the gods” was given to it by the Aztec who came centuries after its fall around 550 CE.
Pyramid of the Sun
We started at the Pyramid of the Sun learning how there were child sacrifice victims buried at every corner as a ritual dedication to the building of the Pyramid. It is pretty grim and horrific, but it is a signifier of something majorly important to their religion and culture. It isn’t clear exactly every purpose this Pyramid served. There used to be a temple on top, and in its day the pyramid would have been painted with brightly colored murals, likely depicting animals such as jaguars and snakes.
The one thing that is pretty clear about the Pyramid of the Sun, is that it was a clock and a calendar. You can see from the photo above that the sun hits the apex of the Pyramid at exactly noon. Cosmology was incorporated into all of the city planning as a way for the citizens to track the position of the sun, moon, and stars in order to tell the time and date. The Teotihuacanos and the Aztec placed such a significance on the sun because they truly believed it could disappear if they did not perform these rituals to the sun gods. (Of course there are theories that the political and spiritual elite fed this belief to the masses as a form of population control. You can never assume any system of leadership is completely free of corruption).
Pyramid of the Moon
The Pyramid of the Moon is the one that felt the most monumental to me. It is like you can feel how much death and life was there. The main purpose of this pyramid was to preform ritual sacrifices of food, animals, and humans. You can stand on the platform in front of this imposing structure and imagine the death that spilled from its peak giving life to those watching. Like to opposite forces equally competing to bring a crucial balance to the world.
Many onlookers would have been practicing what was called auto-sacrifice, which meant they threaded large bone needles through their tongues (and, ahem, sometimes other areas of their bodies) to give their own blood and pain to the ritual.
Avenue of the Dead
The name “Avenue of the Dead” was a bit of a misnomer given to the main road by the Aztecs. When they arrived, they assumed the homes along the avenue were burial temples. However, they were the homes of the elite class – political leaders, priests, and even some warriors. The Aztec were not completely wrong however, as these important families did bury their deceased under their homes patios.
There is definite evidence of a social hierarchy at Teotihuacan. The homes along the Avenue of the Dead belonged to the higher classes. Basically, the closer to the Pyramids you lived, the more important you were.
Ancient Apartment Complexes!
One of the coolest things Sal showed me and Alex was the ruins of the group housing complexes. This one is on the Avenue of the Dead, which meant it was probably filled with slightly more important people than the ones scattered up to 30 miles around the cities epicenter.
There are many housing complexes around the area that have simply just not been excavated yet. The government is always seeking to allocate more funds to the excavation and preservation of these ancient sites. But, as with anything, money is limited and it is a huge site so it is slow going.
Rio San Juan
As you can see from the site layout, the original engineers of Teotihuacan made their own river. This river served to transport resources and people around the complex.
As you walk down The Avenue, you notice and gentle downward grade. This was deliberate and was made to ensure that rain waters would flow down the drainage systems built into The Avenue to prevent flooding and direct water to the river.
The Citadel was named as such by the Spanish who assumed it was a fort. In reality, it was marketplace and center of commerce.
Temple of the Feathered Serpent
My favorite temple at Teotihuacan was actually ritually desecrated at some point in it’s history. It was burned, covered in earth, and and the Adosada Platform you see today was built in front of it. It is evidence of a huge transition taking place within the city’s rituals and government.
It is my favorite because of its ornate decorations. It has an overall feathered serpent motif with alternating heads representing the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and the rain and sun god Tlaloc. Archaeologists have discovered that there is a space within the eyes of the figures that would have held obsidian stone, causing their eyes to sparkle in the sun. In antiquity, it also would have been painted with bright blue and adorned with carved seashells. I can just image how beautiful it was.
Over 200 sacrificial victims have been found buried in the Temple and are thought to be mostly local warriors sacrificed for protection upon the Temple’s building and dedication. In 2003, archaeologists discovered a hidden tunnel under the Temple with a a chamber representing the underworld.
Our Experience Summarized:
Everything in Teotihuacan involved an intense desire to thrive and served a purpose. Being there with a well-educated local guide helped remind me why I have been so fascinated with Mesoamerican culture for years.
But, Sal also helped to remind us both of the importance of human connection throughout history and today. With the pandemic, it has been a while since we had a truly nice experience with another human being. We talked about everything from ancient history to our very present everyday lives. We felt like a thread in the fabric of history was weaving a connection to the present. We walked away feeling that Teotihuacan represents the perseverance of life instead of the sacrifice of death.