Teotihuacán Archeological Site—Tuesday May 9th and Wednesday, May 10th, 2000
Early in the morning on Tuesday, May 9th we decided to leave Taxco and jump another bus for a trip to Teotihuacán (pronounced 'teh-oh-tih-wah-KAN). Teotihuacán has the distinction of being the first pre-Aztec urban center in the Western Hemisphere. It started around the time of Christ, and prospered until about AD 700. Around AD 500, at its peak, the city encompassed more than 20 square kilometers with a population of about 125,000 people in the metropolis and surrounding area. It was the sixth largest city in the world. Their society had advanced to the level of mathematics, writing, and books, and it endured longer than imperial Rome.
The original designers laid out this impressive city on a grid system, which encompassed about eight square miles. The Pyramid of the Moon anchors the city on its north end and overlooks a long avenue called Avenue of the Dead—named by the Aztecs who thought that the city's grand Pyramid of the Sun served as a large tomb.
We checked into a Club Med hotel called Villas Arqueológicas. The hotel delivered clean rooms, a great shower, and, most notably, a Mexican restaurant with distinctly French overtones. We arrived just after the US tourist season, and just before the European tourist season, so we mostly had the entire hotel to ourselves.
After checking into our desert-based Club Med, we walked 15-minutes to Teotihuacán's southwest entrance, only to discover that the site closed at 18:00. We only had an hour and a half to explore that afternoon. Because admission was only 250 pesos, about $2.60 US, we decided to take a look anyway. We immediately headed toward the closest ruins, the Temple of Quetzalcóatl.
Temple of Quetzalcóatl
Quetzalcóatl—known as the Plumed or Feathered Serpent—was the Toltec and Aztec god and ruler of Mexico. The Temple of Quetzalcóatl consists of two structures: an earlier more ornate pyramid, constructed around 250-300 AD, and a second pyramid built in front of the first.
The Temple of Quetzalcóatl lies within a large complex in the Ciudadela— a huge main plaza that could hold about 100,000 people for ritual performances. Large sculptural heads decorate the pyramid, making it one of the most important structures in Teotihuacán.
Originally seven levels, and now with only four remaining, the façade on each level includes three-dimensional sculptures of the god Quetzalcóatl. Archeologists disagree about the figure to the side of Quetzalcóatl. Some think the figure is Tláloc, the rain god. Some think the figure is the fire serpent, who is responsible for ensuring that the sun rises in the morning, arcs, and then sets in the afternoon.
While walking towards Temple Quetzalcóatl we were approached by Floriberto—a registered archeological guide who participated in one of the major excavations during his youth in the 60's.
He informed us that all of the streets and squares beneath our feet were originally paved in a white plaster. And that all of the buildings were originally plastered and painted red. Workers harvested the red pigment from insect eggs that gestate on nearby cactuses.
The city included over 2000 groups of dwellings: merchant sites, residences, religious sites, and city administration. A December 1995 article in National Geographic, Uncovering the History of Teotihuacán, indicates that "Each compound probably housed a single kin group, related families and their closest relatives. Within a compound's exterior wall were a varying number of apartments, each consisting of clusters of rooms with different functions. Seen from the gargantuan downtown structures, the flat rooftops of the apartment compounds would have stretched, like tiles on a floor, to all horizons."
Our exploration of the compounds revealed startling innovations: indoor wells that reached the aquifer, a flowing fresh water system that included indoor showers in one residence, and a sewage system with running water toilets. The indoor shower was essentially a waterfall of cold running water that entered an underground residence at the ceiling. It ran down the wall and then across the floor into a drain.
Pyramid of the Moon
Completed in 300 AD, the gracefully proportioned Pyramid of the Moon stands majestically at the north end of Avenida de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead) and overlooks the Plaza of the Moon, which is surrounded by 14 smaller pyramids. Some archeologists think that this large pyramid contains structures within it.
The Plaza of the Moon and the Temple of the Moon form an impressive manmade amphitheater that must have been a spectacular center for rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations.
The red painted pyramids, compounds, and wall-lined streets, all framed by white plaster pavement, must have presented awe-inspiring scenes to Teotihuacán's residents and visitors alike. The city's architecture, organization, and military power certainly represented the height of technology at its time.
Making the 140-foot high climb to the top, at a starting elevation of 7,400 feet, in the midday sun, requires a degree of stamina, patience, and a lot of water. We immediately felt the effect of the elevation: shortness of breath and frequent stops after each flight of stairs. But the climb to the top rewarded us with a panoramic view down to the Plaza de la Luna and its surrounding temple-platforms.
Standing at the top of the pyramid you can see that Teotihuacán's urban planners spent a lot of time thinking about the city's overall design and symmetry. It stands as a fascinating tribute to an unknown people—archeologists still don't know anything about the ethnic groups that built the city, or the languages they spoke.
Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacán's Pyramid of the Sun is the world's third-largest pyramid. Built before the Pyramid of the Moon, it was completed in 100 AD, and archeologists reconstructed it in 1908. Originally it had a temple at its peak, but today only small hand-size stones cover the top.
Workers used three million tons of stone to construct the Pyramid of the Sun, reportedly without metal tools or use of the wheel. Climbing its 248 steps brings you to 212 feet of elevation, or about 20-stories high. The site is aligned with the rising and setting sun of the summer solstice.
Underneath the Pyramid of the Sun, deep within its foundation, archeologists found a cave that extends 330 feet to a point near the center of the pyramid. The cave's origin and use are unknown.
Back to Taxco and Ixtapa
Thursday morning May 11th we retraced our previous steps and returned to Taxco. We caught a bus back to the northern bus terminal in Mexico City, then a taxi to the southern bus terminal, and then a bus back to Taxco. Thursday evening we stayed at Los Arcos Hotel. The hotel retains its contemplative atmosphere from when the building was a monastery in 1620. However, I found my room at the top of the 2nd floor stairs to be less than conducive to contemplation, let alone sleep. The windows were perfectly positioned to catch the sound of Taxco's dogs barking throughout the night. Nearby street traffic sounded like the trucks were driving through my room. Soft voices in the hotel's courtyard amplified to full volume. This effect, coupled with some very aggressive mosquitos, resulted in a bleary-eyed morning.
Our travels back to Ixtapa on Friday consisted more of taxis than busses—not by design however. We wanted to take a bus from Taxco to Acapulco, or another city, where we could have connected to Zihuatanejo. It was not to be so easy. The lady at the ticket window at the Taxco bus station directed us to a local bus across the street. The local bus across the street directed us to a taxi stand around the corner. People waited at the stand for taxis to arrive which shuttled them to Iguala. The taxi pulled up, and five people jammed into seats designed comfortably for three, and ideally for no more than four.
We waited half an hour or so while several taxis reduced the length of our line. The young fellow behind the wheel in our taxi was a frustrated LeMans race car driver, with neither the skill nor equipment necessary to fulfill his dreams. While the two-lane road to Iguala complied by providing about 20-miles of hairpin turns, the old Nissan taxi strained and creaked with every twist of the wheel. The effect was closer to heeling in a sailboat than driving down a country road.
When approaching another vehicle that was driving too slow for his tastes—which was everything on the road—he would pull up to within 12 inches of their rear bumper. This is an interesting maneuver at 80 MPH. I wanted to tell him that he needed to maintain one car length for every ten miles an hour, as they taught me in driver's ed, but the Spanish words escaped me. Probably because I never knew them. The driver passed the slow-moving taxi in front, and swerved back into the right-hand lane without looking either sideways or into his rearview mirror. Had the other driver not stood up on his break pedal, which he did, we would have had a nasty encounter.
Undaunted, and oblivious to the safety or comfort of his passengers, our young driver pressed the pedal to the metal, skidding around every turn at speeds in excess of 70 MPH. Many of these corners had straight drops down into the valley floor, without the luxury of a guardrail. Often he would speed around a corner to find a bull or donkey on the side of the road, less than two feet from his front fender, causing him to push the break pedal past the headlights, and then make up for lost time by jamming on the accelerator again. Had either the donkey or bull been standing more centerline in the road, we would have created a new type of fission, whereby you accelerate a Nissan taxi to within proximity of the speed of light, and use its accelerated fender and headlight particles to bombard a Mexican donkey or bull. This would have created a totally new kind of matter-energy particle called SPAM.
Occasionally the woman in the front passenger seat leveled a barrage of what sounded like searing reprimands at the driver, with no visible (or audible) effect. We think the driver may have been deaf, as a result of a head-on collision with his bicycle and a donkey at the age of six.
Thankful to have arrived on the outskirts of Iguala, we selected another taxi and asked him to take us to the bus station in Iguala. The previous driver was 'loco.' But this driver was a little too much of an independent thinker. This ride should have lasted about 10-minutes. But half an hour later, as we sped through the countryside, we realized that we were not, in fact, traveling to Iguala at all, but rather some other unknown destination. Plying the friendly driver with pointed questions about where he was taking us, he explained that Chilpancingo had better bus connections to Acapulco. "Departing every 15-minutes," he said. How far away was Chilpancingo, we asked? Another hour, he replied.
Accepting the logic of events, we settled back into our seats for the non-air-conditioned ride through the Mexican desert. As we sped down the road, only inches from the vehicle in front of us, our driver informed us that he had taxi-driving friends in Chilpancingo who could take us to Acapulco for only 120 pesos.
When we arrived in Chilpancingo, we made connections to another driver, who confirmed that he would drive us to Acapulco for only 120 pesos, but that he needed to find two more passengers to make his trip worthwhile. Not looking forward to another hour long ride with six people in a four passenger car, we offered to pay the difference (200 pesos total) so that the three of us could ride in relative comfort, with an emphasis on relative.
What the driver didn't mention is that driving on the toll roads would cost us an additional 180 pesos. Otherwise we would have had to take the back roads which would have lengthened our travel time considerably. Our taxi ride to Acapulco, which originally was to cost us $12.50 US, ended up costing us about $40.00 US. En route our driver offered to take us all the way to Zihuatanejo for a mere 1200 pesos ($125.00 US). We explained that the air conditioned bus from Acapulco would only cost us $10 apiece, and kindly declined his offer.
When we arrived on the outskirts of Acapulco, we had to change taxis again because we were in a different taxi jurisdiction. This is the Mexican government's way of saying that everyone needs their fair share of fares. Climbing into the Volkswagen Bug, we held on for the ride through Acapulco. This taxi had lost its synchromesh. So the driver was forced to drive along in a gear that was usually too high (no acceleration). Otherwise, he had to shift down to first gear while underway, evoking a whiplash response from all three passengers.
Five and one half hours and four taxis later, we slipped into our air conditioned seats on the Futura bus for a cool ride to Zihuatanejo, accompanied by a Jackie Chan video overhead. Paradise.
Access & Resources
To find extensive information about Teotihuacán see the Arizona State University's Archeological Research Institute web site. Click on virtual museum, and then click on Meso America. Next, click on The Archaeology of Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Los Arcos Hotel: Ruiz de Alarcón 2, Taxco, Mexico.
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