Down in Mexico, Day 3: Climbing Pyramids


October 31, 2013, Mexico City: For the second time in three years, I was celebrating Halloween in another country, but instead of trick-or-treating, I would be going pyramid climbing. Today was my long-awaited visit to the mysterious Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, built by an unknown civilization beginning around 100 BC, and, at its zenith in 450 AD, one of the largest cities in the world.

As with the previous day’s Mexico City tour, I was picked up in front of my hotel and dropped off at the same garage in the center of the city. After a short wait, I boarded a van with a small group (unlike the previous day, I would not be taking this tour by myself). On the ride I befriended a couple of guys from San Diego; it was nice to have someone to talk to.

Before leaving Mexico City we stopped at the archaeological site of Tlatelolco, the sister city of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. There was much more to see here than at the Tenochtitlan site, but we didn’t have time to explore, so we just snapped a few photos and hopped back in the van.

The ruins of Tlatelolco.
Tlatelolco and a 17th-century church called Templo de Santiago.

When we arrived at Teotihuacan we first endured what I call the “hard sell,” basically a sales pitch disguised as a tour at a tourist spot outside the pyramid complex. It wasn’t all bad, though. The guide for this portion gave us a primer on how they extract cactus juice and the various drinks they make from it. He then extracted some juice from a cactus and let us try some. Next he showed us masks and other trinkets that were created onsite by artisans, talking up their quality and authenticity (the hard sell). He took us around to some of the artisans as they worked, carving masks from stone and painting them. From there we headed inside to the store, where he walked us up and down the aisles, showing us more purchasable souvenirs (ahem, hard sell).

The tour ended at a station with several bottles of tequila and other liquor, where he proceeded to pour us shot after shot from the various bottles. By the end, I had a pleasant buzz—I think the plan was to get us drunk so we’d buy stuff. 😉

The various liquors we sampled.

Finally, it was time to head into the pyramid complex. It was a hot sunny day, so I borrowed some sunblock from one of the San Diego guys for my face and neck (luckily I don’t really need it for my arms and legs).

We entered near the immense Pyramid of the Sun and then headed toward the other end of the complex and the Pyramid of the Moon. From here, the guide gave us about two-hours of free time. I had been expecting a guided tour of the complex, complete with history and everything, but that’s okay, the free time enabled me to climb both of the large pyramids.

Our first view of the Pyramid of the Sun…
…and our first view of the Pyramid of the Moon.

I began with the Pyramid of the Moon, the smaller of the two massive pyramids.

Approaching the Pyramid of the Moon

You can only climb about 2/3 of the way up as a rope blocks any further ascent to the summit, but even on the lower level the view of the entire complex was spectacular.

The roped-off upper portion of the Pyramid of the Moon.

There was a crowd going up and down the steps, but not too bad. I imagine in the summer months it gets so packed that you can barely move, so once again, I was glad to have taken this trip outside of peak season. After taking some pictures from the top I sat for a while just admiring the view (the panorama at the top of this post represents the view I enjoyed from this spot).

Me on top of the Pyramid of the Moon.

I then headed down and climbed one of the smaller pyramids. At the top I had the entire structure to myself (everyone else was busy knocking about the more popular structures). Sitting at the top in complete isolation was peaceful and sublime, and I stayed there for quite a while. I could have sat there all day, but I needed to make my way to the Sun Pyramid if I hoped to climb it before my time was up. Here are some views from my “private” pyramid vantage point:

Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Moon
Rocks on top of my “private” pyramid.

I headed down the Avenue of the Dead toward my ultimate destination, occasionally stopping to visit some of the other structures.

The Avenue of the Dead looking back toward the Pyramid of the Moon.
Some surviving wall art.

Along the way I was repeatedly accosted by vendors trying to sell me stuff, and they don’t take “no” for an answer, so be prepared to have them follow you for a bit before finally giving up. I realize people have to earn a living, but it kind of ruins the atmosphere when you have to run through gauntlets of vendors stationed near all of the attractions. It would be nice if they were restricted to designated areas near the gates of the complex.

Most annoying was that the vendors kept blowing into these toys to create a sound that they claimed was a jaguar, but really sounded more like a duck being tortured. Over and over again as you make your way through the complex, the tortured ducks assault your senses. Thankfully, the vendors are apparently not allowed on the pyramids, so once you’ve fought your way through the gauntlet and started to climb, you’re home free—at least until you come back down again. You will find yourself saying “No, Gracias” so many times that it becomes almost like breathing, because even after you’ve said “no” to the first four vendors in the gauntlet, the fifth one will still think you might be interested in his wares.

That being said, Teotihuacan is still an amazing place to see, so don’t let the vendor situation turn you off from visiting. In the larger scheme of things, they are a minor annoyance. Once you’re at the top of the pyramids surrounded by expansive beauty, all of that disappears. And Teotihuacan is one of the few places in Mexico where you can still climb the pyramids, so it definitely should be at the top of anyone’s must-visit list while in Mexico.

Anyway, it was time to climb the magnificent Pyramid of the Sun. Depending on which source you read, it is anywhere from the 3rd to the 7th largest pyramid in the world—for the purposes of this post, we’ll call it the 3rd largest. 🙂

This zoomed-in shot of the Pyramid of the Sun gives you a good
idea of just how massive it is by observing how tiny the people appear.
Approaching the Pyramid of the Sun

It’s not a difficult climb and there are guide ropes to help you along, though I did have to rest a couple of times (you’d think after surviving the Inca Trail that I’d be in better shape than that).

Beginning the climb.

I eventually reached the top and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the pyramid complex and the surrounding terrain. I bumped into the San Diego guys at the very top and they were kind enough to take my picture (as they had earlier on top of the Pyramid of the Moon) and I returned the favor. Here are a couple of my views from this vantage point:

Panorama of Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Moon and the surrounding terrain.

From up here I could see another small pyramid at the far end of the complex but I would not have time to venture down there (another reason to lament having wasted our first hour on the “hard sell”), so I spent the rest of my free time walking around the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, enjoying the view and taking lots of photos.

View of the small pyramid at the far end of the complex.
Small pyramid (zoomed in).

Before long, it was time to go. Here are a couple of parting shots from my walk back to the complex entrance:

Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Moon

When I returned to the van, one of the guides drove me to a restaurant for a late lunch. I was the only member of my group whose lunch was included in the price of the tour, so I was taken to a different restaurant to eat by myself (I had a similar experience in Peru). The restaurant was in the shadow of the Pyramid of the Moon so I had a nice view while I ate.

The view from my restaurant table.

After lunch I was driven to the restaurant where the rest of the group was eating (they thought that I had gotten lost and left behind). We then boarded the van and headed back to Mexico City for a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is basically like the Mexican version of the Vatican. Here are a few photos:

Outside the Basilica
Basilica Interior
View of the Basilica from the rear square.
The square behind the Basilica.
The old basilica (left).
Side view of the old basilica, which was replaced when it began sinking (much of Mexico City was built over an old lake). Toward the back you can see where the sinking caused the building to split apart.

It was pretty late in the evening when I finally got back to my hotel and I had to pack for my flight in the morning, but I decided to head out for one last walk around the city. In particular I was looking for a Mexican franchise restaurant called La Casa de Tono, which had been recommended by some of my fellow bloggers. I was walking for some time with no luck and I eventually wound up in an unfamiliar area, where I stumbled onto a Star Wars shop.

It was pretty cool finding one of these in Mexico.

I circled back toward my hotel, but decided to try one last time to find La Casa de Tono. It turned out that the restaurant was right down the street from my hotel (I could practically have thrown a stone from my window and hit it) and I had walked right past it. This time I found it and headed upstairs. I ordered pozole, a Mexican soup that had been highly recommended by other bloggers. I had some trouble because I only knew enough Spanish to place the order, so I was unable to understand the waiter when he asked me a question about the order (I’m guessing he was asking about some customization option), and he eventually gave up, wrote something down, and left. I ordered the grande pozole with chicken, which was huge (probably should have gone with the smaller size). It was delicious, though, especially after spicing it up with salsa. It came with a bunch of tortillas. I wasn’t sure if they were meant to be eaten as bread, put into the soup, or what, so I ended up putting some chicken in them and eating them like fajitas, which was most likely wrong and probably looked bizarre to the locals. 😉

After dinner I made my way back to the hotel and packed for the morning flight to Merida, my time in Mexico City near an end.

View my full Mexico photo album (including larger versions of the photos in this post)…

Related Posts:

Teotihuacan, Mexico: View from the Pyramid of the Moon

Down in Mexico: The Movie

This is a compilation of the mini-videos I shot during my October 2013 trip to Mexico, highlighted by my visits to the pyramid sites of Teotihuacan, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. Mostly absent are my stays in Merida and Cancun, as I neglected to take video in those cities.

I apologize for the jerkiness of the zooms, but the manual zoom lens of my new camera does not lend itself well to smooth zooming. I tried to smooth out some of the zooms by slowing the video down, with mixed results. This is one case where my older camera (with its auto-zoom) would have been preferable, but I wasn’t about to haul two cameras all over Mexico. 🙂

For musical accompaniment, having already used most of the other pieces from Holst’s The Planets for previous movies, I decided it was time to use Mars, The Bringer of War. I think it fits pretty well with the visions of the pyramids.

The video quality defaults to 360p, but you can increase this up to 1080p if you want to view it in higher quality.

Related Posts:

Mexico Panoramas

View of Teotihuacan taken from on top of the Pyramid of the Moon

I’m back from my trip to Mexico (it was awesome!) and eager to start blogging about my adventures, but it will be a while before I finish organizing my photos and my journal (which at the moment exists only in my head), so in the meantime I thought I’d share a few horizontal and vertical panoramas I shot along the way (you can click on an image to view a larger version):

Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of the Moon viewed from the Avenue of the Dead
Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of the Sun
(one of the largest pyramids in the world)
View of Teotihuacan from on top of the Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacan: Pyramid of the Moon viewed from the Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacan: The Pyramid of the Sun
Chichen Itza: El Castillo (the main pyramid)
Chichen Itza: El Castillo
Chichen Itza: El Castillo
Uxmal: The Great Pyramid, which has only been partially restored.
View of Uxmal from on top of the Great Pyramid
Mexico City: Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

And finally…