“That’s what we have in Mexico City, instead of slums!” the driver explained, pointing at humongous masses of identical, unpainted cinder-block dwellings sprawling up the arid hillsides that dominated the entire northern horizon. It was early AM and Slawek and I were back in a cab, this time traveling along a highway heading northeast of the megalopolis, past endless working-class suburbs to reach a really special place just outside the city limits. Luckily our driver was not only very friendly but also immensely informative. He was responding to my observation that I had not seen any slums in Mexico City thus far – at least nothing like those visible in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Bombay, Jakarta or Manila. He went on to explain that in recent decades – along with cleaning up what used to be horrendously polluted air – the authorities had bulldozed all the slums within the city proper and relocated their inhabitants to these mass-produced townships built at the very fringes of the urban area.
“It’s better than living in cardboard shacks, right?” I ventured. The driver snorted. “Not really. These townships have no running water either; the water has to be trucked in to each individual home. Plus they are completely controlled by criminal gangs. And given that most of the inhabitants have to ply their trades in the city center, they end up having to bus it three hours each way just to make a living…” OK, so not really that much of a better deal. At least the slum-folks in those other cities across the developing world had much shorter commutes, as well as the political power that ensues from controlling some truly pricey real estate. “Look, that’s Acolman over there … that’s where the piñata was invented!” the driver offered, changing the subject. We had now left the cinder-block district behind, and were passing a very traditional-looking village crowned by a beautiful old church. Soon after we exited the highway and headed along a quiet road towards our destination, our excitement mounting by the minute.
And we were there! Now, just try to imagine a vast, 2000-year-old ruined city, perfectly planned and laid out following ancient, mysterious principles, crowned with two stunning, gigantic pyramids of dimensions rivaled by very few edifices constructed during their time, and located right outside one of the biggest, most economically important cities in the world. Shouldn’t such a place be among the most celebrated tourist attractions on the planet? Shouldn’t people mention its name in the same breath as Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, or the Great Wall? Well, they don’t. While Chichen Itza managed to sneak into the “Official New 7 Wonders of the World” list – owing to the fact that every visitor to Cancun (and his uncle) hops on a bus tour to go see it – Teotihuacan continues to hide out of the limelight … which is wonderful for folks who want to visit here. It’s one of the most extraordinary places on Earth – located an hour’s drive from a major international airport that’s connected to every major city in the Americas and Europe – and when you get here it costs less than US$5 to enter, and once inside there is hardly anybody around to get in your face.
Due to the fact that it’s so enormous, the site has multiple official entrances. We arrived at the southwestern entrance, which is convenient to explore the Citadel area and its centerpiece the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent deity). This temple is decorated with heads of Quetzalcoatl alternating with those of the rain god Tlaloc, who looks totally like a space alien. Meanwhile, the main pyramids and plaza are located at the other end of the complex, and connected to the Citadel by the jaw-dropping Street of the Dead – a grand ceremonial avenue lined with imposing excavated structures. It’s very tempting to try to walk up this avenue all the way to those other structures, but the 7,000-foot altitude and blazing sun make it much harder than one would expect, and so our obliging cabbie drove us over to the northwestern entrance in order to help us save our energies for climbing the two gargantuan pyramids instead.
From this entrance you just walk straight ahead in order to get to the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the most massive structure at Teotihuacan. While arguably not as “beautiful” as the other big pyramid within the site, its colossal dimensions alone will take your breath away, not to mention your inevitable efforts to climb it. And climb it we did, of course. At this altitude it took time, patience, and lots of panting like an excited Labrador, but we kept at it and we finally made it as far up as they would let us go (the very top was off limits because it was an active archeological excavation site). The view from up there was just stupendous. OK, I’d better watch my superlatives, because from the reader’s perspective it gets real old after a while, but this is one of those places where only superlatives will do in trying to describe it. This is indeed the “Grand Canyon” of all the pre-Columbian sites in the Americas. A group of people dressed in white were meditating and praying to pre-Hispanic deities atop the pyramid. We got to speak with a couple of them; they told us that a lot of spiritually inclined Mexicans visit here during the solstices to soak up the mystical energies of the place. We could clearly see why they would.
As the adrenaline wore off following our descent from the Pyramid of the Sun, we realized just how hungry we were. Signs pointed to La Gruta restaurant located a quiet walk down a dirt track, which turned out to be just exactly that – a huge underground cave turned into a breathtakingly atmospheric restaurant. We gorged on sinfully delicious antojitos as we were serenaded by a pair of guitar-toting, mustachioed gentlemen. Something about hearing a skillful rendition of Cielito Lindo – or “The Aiyaiyaiyai Song” as the gringos call it – inside that cool, gorgeous cave next to giant, 2000-year-old pyramids just made the hairs on my forearms stand up. The only other place where I’ve ever felt so completely intoxicated by the atmosphere is the old Cloth Hall in Krakow, Poland. We followed up this unforgettable lunch with yet another memorable experience, a visit to the Teotihuacan Site Museum, with its superb scale model of the entire complex, surrounded by an array of excavated treasures.
The final item on the agenda for our visit – following a tour through an expertly restored palace with colorful murals and intricately carved stone columns – was to climb the other great pyramid of Teotihuacan, the Pyramid of the Moon. This is the more immediately photogenic of the two pyramids, and is located on the north side of the monumental Plaza of the Moon. We took our time climbing it, pausing along the way to laugh at the antics of two extremely idiotic visitors from Chicago, who, along with a small group of Germans, happened to be the only other foreign visitors we encountered all day. The view from the summit of this pyramid was … well, the only way I can describe it is “sublime.” I could just sit there and stare at it forever and ever.
As I looked down on the Plaza below, the Pyramid of the Sun to the left, and the Street of the Dead stretching into the distance, I felt myself literally transported to another world. Suddenly the clock rolled back 2,000 years, the structures acquired coats of vividly-painted stucco, the plaza came alive with royalty, priests and townspeople, and a group of dancers and drummers in feather headdresses started up a performance on the main platform in the center of the Plaza. I enjoyed the entrancing hallucination as long as I could, before it eventually faded away. Maybe it was just a combination of exhaustion, heatstroke, and mild altitude sickness, but I’ve never had such an otherworldly experience in my life.
On our way out of the complex I met a craft vendor who was selling these exquisite, jewel-like traditional native masks made of polished, multicolored stone. I greeted him politely and asked him how much this particularly gorgeous yellow stone mask was worth. He looked me straight in the eye and stated with tremendous sincerity, “For you it is 200 pesos, since you speak such good Spanish.” In central Mexico, folks will make direct eye-contact with you, and every encounter will leave you feeling that you just experienced genuine, meaningful interaction with a real human being. I gave him the 200 pesos – roughly US$16. My Spanish at the time was pretty horrible, given that I was just starting my journey into that language, so my language proficiency could not have been the reason why he was offering me that price. If I had to guess, it was his way of indicating to me that I was behaving in a manner respectful of him and his culture. You see, while I was heading towards his stall, I witnessed those two jackasses from Chicago make him wear a sombrero and dance like a clown, and then walk away without buying a thing.
On our way back into town I unwrapped the mask to show it to Slawek. The driver looked at the object and asked me how much I paid for it. I said 200 pesos. He smiled in genuine surprise and said, “I have to commend you on your bargaining skills. Every tourist I have taken to Teotihuacan who bought a mask like this was charged at least 500 pesos…”
Deepak Prem Subramony has been in 31 countries across four
continents thus far. Within US territory, he has covered 42 states
(including Alaska and Hawaii), Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
His favorite language is Spanish, and he is happiest when he is
anywhere between Tijuana and Tierra del Fuego.
All photographs courtesy of Deepak Prem Subramony.