When I say “the ruins of a technologically advanced ancient society,” what comes to mind? The Parthenon of Athens? The Colosseum of Rome? Sure, these are both spectacular sights that I hope to visit someday, but what if I told you that a breathtaking feat of ancient construction can be admired here in the Americas, no trans-Atlantic flight needed? Less than an hour’s drive outside Mexico City sits the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in a larger complex referred to simply as the Piramides.
When Kevin and I first arrived at the Piramides in the town of Teotihuacan, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Our trip to Mexico City wasn’t simply another wanderlust-fueled exploration – it was our honeymoon. One week prior to takeoff, we hosted thirty of our friends and family members for our commitment ceremony (like a wedding, but feminist and anti-consumerist). I can’t lie, I was tempted to book a hotel with a stunning pool and recharge. As it turns out, though, Kevin and I just aren’t the relax-and-do-nothing type of folk. There’s no amount of money that would convince us to go on a cruise.
Why Mexico? I chose it on a whim. One of the top destinations on my “to-see” list is Puerto Rico, and I’ve longed to explore the island for some time now. When I went to purchase tickets from D.C.’s Dulles Airport to San Juan, I saddened when I realized we couldn’t afford the high ticket price. The only time that Kevin and I could travel was over Memorial Day Weekend, and naturally, airlines were taking advantage of the holiday.
Not to be deterred, I started typing in random destinations. Panama, Costa Rica, San Francisco – then Mexico City. Surprisingly, the Mexican capital turned out to be the cheapest option and I booked our tickets immediately. We called Kevin’s mother that night to tell her about our plans, and having traveled extensively throughout Mexico during her youth, she quickly recommended that we visit the Piramides.
Thanks to the hectic ceremony, I didn’t have much time to plan our Mexico City adventure, so I bought a Lonely Planet guide a few days before departure and didn’t open it until we were on the plane. My mother-in-law didn’t have any photos on hand of her trip to the Piramides, and the guidebook didn’t offer too much information about the sight. Here’s something no word-of-mouth recommendation or guidebook from Barnes and Noble can prepare you for:
The Piramides complex is gigantic, and, in my humble opinion, as grand as any of the ancient sights in Europe.
Look at that exceptional detail! This is one of the world’s grand sites, no doubt. Kevin and I found the Piramides complex to be unending, and each structure we stumbled upon seemed to be more exciting than the last. If rich history doesn’t excite you, perhaps this will – visitors to Teotihuacan can climb the pyramids.
Climbing The Piramides
Ever wanted to scale the third-largest pyramid in the world? Well, at Teotihuacan, you can. The climb is nerve-wracking, sure, but if you put your fear of falling off a thousands-year-old sacrificial site onto the back burner for an afternoon, you’ll have the time of your life. I promise.
Wait, did I not mention yet that the Piramides are likely a site of both animal and human ritual sacrifice? If you’re interested, you can learn more about this recent find here. Today, only pride is sacrificed in Teotihuacan, as nervous travelers scoot down steps on their rumps and turn bright red like a lobster for forgetting to pack sunscreen.
Just to warn those who have limited mobility or an intense fear of heights, climbing the actual pyramids looks something like this:
The steepest sections of the two primary pyramids have a rope handrail that runs down the middle, but descending back down to the ground will stir up a few butterflies in the stomachs of even the most confident climber. I must add that I saw more than one incredibly brave parent carrying their infant up to the top of the pyramids – only in Mexico, am I right? Standards of safety in the U.S.’s southern neighbor differ immensely from those we’re accustomed to in the rest of North America or West Europe.
There’s more to this incredible site than just the two major pyramids:
While the highlights of Teotihuacan are undoubtedly the Piramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and the Piramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), many of the other, minor structures within the complex can be climbed for a unique photo opportunity or, I suppose, old-world exercise.
Seriously, these architecturally-gifted peoples must have been incredibly fit.
Teotihuacan is deceptively large; I arrived expecting to see a pyramid and then leave, but I meandered around the Mesoamerican site for hours without seeing everything that the landmark has to offer. In Europe, the most prized views are often to be had at the top of a church tower, but if you’re craving a glance of Teotihuacan’s surrounding valley, your best bet is climb up one of the pyramids. Even if the temperature is near boiling point and the hot Mexican sun refuses to spend a few moments behind clouds, climbing one of Teotihuacan’s pyramids is one of the most incredible travel experiences that the world has to offer.
- While Mexico City enjoys relatively mild weather year-round, visitors to the piramides might face some incredibly high temperatures, even in the shoulder season. Teotihuacan doesn’t offer many opportunities for shade, so be sure to bring a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. Even if you’ve never been sunburned before in your life, lather up. I have one of those tanned complexions that doesn’t burn easily, and after a few hours exploring the historical site, my chest was red like a lobster and I actually got burned on my head. And I have thick hair, so take my word for it.
- There is a fairly upscale eatery within the Piramides complex, but it’s pricey by Mexico standards and doesn’t offer much variety. I recommend bringing plenty of water with you in a backpack, because climbing pyramids will dehydrate anyone. There are a smattering of small towns around Teotihuacan (which is itself a town) where non-touristy, budget-friendly fare can be found.
- Like at any major tourist spot in Europe, hawkers selling kitschy junk are all over the Piramides complex. Don’t respond to their sales pitches; simply walk past them in silence and avoid eye contact. If your kid absolutely has to have the light-up pyramid-shaped yo-yo, light bartering is acceptable.