Traveling To the Past – Pyramids of Teotihuacan

Just outside Mexico City, in the heart of Mexico is an ancient city, Teotihuacan. Actually predating the Aztecs, this ancient civilization was the most advanced and at one point the largest civilization in North America. During our time in Mexico we did a day trip with our teens and their young cousins to learn about this ancient culture and see with our own eyes the amazing buildings and history they left behind.

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A woman looking at the Sun Pyramid in the distance at Teotihuacan

Many people assume that the Pyramids of Teotihuacan are Aztec pyramids but believe it or not they actually predate the Aztecs. They are pre-Columbian pyramids built by and then abandoned by a people that predated the Aztecs. At its height it was the largest city in the Americas with a population of over 125 thousand people. It is considered the first advanced civilization in the North America Continent.

Getting Here

Teotihuacan is a day trip from Mexico City. Takes about an hour to drive out, but it’s well worth the trip. Since we were with family, we drove in two cars to the site, which allowed us a bit of independence. You can rent a car, but I don’t recommend that in Mexico, as there can be issues with police pulling you over and liability for accidents or break-ins.

If you don’t have access to a car, there is a public bus that leaves from Autobuses del Norte station and takes about an hour to get to the pyramids. Make sure to look up the current timetables to be sure you catch the bus back.

You can also use a service such as Get Your Guide to do a tour of the pyramids. With this you get a tour guide who walks you around the site. The only issue is you lose some of your independence in exploring on your own.

You can hire a private driver and guide to take you out to the pyramids. If you are staying in a hotel, they can likely help you set up these options for a reasonable cost. If you are traveling with young kids, this may be the most flexible and comfortable option, as it allows you to keep the younger kids’ schedule in mind as you go through the pyramids.

Sights to See

This sprawling complex is 5.4 square miles, so it can be quite overwhelming. Here are a few things you want to make sure you see when you come in.

A guide showing the temples in the Citadel in Teotihuacan, The paint that is still on the stone from the ancient city, The temple in the Citadel in Teotihuacan

La Ciudadela – Right as you enter the complex you see La Ciudadela, the Citadel. This is the public square that served as the religious and political center of the city. If you look carefully, you can see some of the original paint, still on the bricks. These were buried in the ground over time, and as they excavated, they found it, showing that these buildings would have been dazzling pieces of art that would have been painted all over.

Quetzalcoatl carved into the Quetzalcoatl temple in Teotihuacan, A woman looking at Teotihuacan from the top of the Quetzalcoatl temple, The Quetzalcoatl temple from the side

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the Feathered Serpent) – This is one of the famous temples that people climb when they come to Teotihuacan. Built for Quetzalcoatl, the god of life and fertility, you can still see excellent examples of the carvings that covered the temples. If you climb to the top, you get amazing views of the whole valley. Then, from behind, you can actually get a closer look of the Quetzalcóatl sculptures.

A family in front of a platform in the Avenue of the Dead

Avenue of the Dead – You can’t miss this. This is the walk between the Ciudadela and the village where the royalty and lower villagers lived. It extends between the Moon Temple and the Ciudadela. As we walked along, we learned that the Aztecs, when they found the city, originally believed the buildings along the sides were tombs, inspiring the name. Archaeologists now believe they were platforms topped with temples.

The sun temple at Teotihuacan.

Sun Pyramid – The biggest temple in the complex, this temple is known for aligning with certain astrological events to mark the early Mesoamerican’s calendar. You can see this temple from all over the complex, and it’s also visible from the roads around. At the time we were there, they were no longer allowing people to climb to the top. But when it does reopen, and if you have the physical stamina to make the hike, it’s supposed to be an amazing experience to climb to the top and lay on the top and look up at the sky.

The moon temple at Teotihuacan.

Moon Pyramid – This is the smaller of the two big temples you see in the complex, but it’s the one that leads right into the Avenue of the Dead. Again, at the time we were visiting, they were not letting people climb to the top. But it’s also supposed to be an amazing experience to climb to the top and see all the way around the valley.

The preserved carvings and steps below a temple built on top of an old one at Teotihuacan.

Layers of History – One of the things not talked about in all the blog posts that I loved was the layers of history. We learned that often temples were built on top of temples, and as they excavated, you would find perfectly preserved layers of history. You could see steps, sculptures, etc. We also explored the housing of the nobles, and often a noble would just build a house on top of the foundations of the last owner. You could see layers and layers of history and styles, similar to the layers of a tree. When you see these historic sites, you always see the important, well preserved religious sites. But it was intriguing to see the rooms and remnants of kitchens for people who would have lived in this city on a daily basis.

Hire a Guide Vs Exploring on Your Own

I’ll admit, we were there with family, I thought we didn’t need a guide. We saw a number of licensed guides in the parking lot who were trying to offer their services, but I thought we could make do with the plaques, and our family’s information. I. 👏🏽Was. 👏🏽Wrong.👏🏽

First off, there are not a lot of plaques with information. And only about 50% of them had English translations on them. Second, as soon as we got in, the littles in the group went off running to play, and my kids went to join them. I quickly realized my stepsister and her husband were going to be too busy making sure the two littles didn’t kill themselves to answer my 101 questions. My kids were interested in looking at the buildings for about 2 seconds before they were bored. This was not going to work. Tail between our legs, we sent my dad and stepmother out to negotiate and get us an English-speaking guide.

A guide pointing out the history at Teotihuacan

We paid about $80 for three hours, which in retrospect is really cheap, especially for a group our size. Our guide did speak English, but I will say he had a pretty heavy accent that the kids had trouble with at times. However, immediately we saw the difference. First off, he actually told us what were looking at. Without him we wouldn’t have learned about the paint still visible, or the layers of history we were looking at. We would not have known when we moved from the nobility housing to the normal village class housing. We learned about the history of the people, and the mystery of why they left. The kids became more engaged as they listened to the guide and learned more. The littles were still a bit more interested in playing on the ruins, but they to were able to learn a bit. The guide was well worth it. You can either choose to go on a packaged tour, or you can hire a guide on site. But for this complex, if you want to know what you are looking at, I highly suggest a guide.

But is it Kid Friendly?

If you know me, you know that I think anything can be kid-friendly. But I would say that the pyramids are definitely kid-friendly and kid-approved. First off, what kids do you know don’t like climbing? That was the favorite part of the four (kids that is) in our group. There were also large fields to run around and play in, and the kids could pretend to play a Mesoamerican ballgame, which was an early version of soccer the ancient Mesoamericans played. You don’t have to tell them that the losers were usually sacraficed.

kids playing around on the ruins at Teotihuacan

I would say if you have young ones who don’t have a regard for safety, you will need to be sure to be right there. Climbing the pyramids includes very steep stairs with no guardrails. The tops of the pyramids, while they do have guard rails, are big and a small child can easily slip through. If you are climbing the pyramids, be sure to keep a very close eye on the toddlers and little ones who are accident prone or have a habit of running.

Tips and Tricks

A few tips to help make your trip better.

  • Hire a Guide or Go on a Guided Tour: I said it before and I’ll say it again. Pay the money and hire a guide! You will not regret it, and it helps you learn more as you explore this historic site. You can also go on a guided tour that includes transportation to and from the pyramids from Mexico City, that doubly works.
  • Understand the Breadth of the Site: This sprawling complex is 5.4 square miles. We actually only made it half-way to the Moon temple. The kids started to drag, and both my husband and I started to have trouble as well. We did not realize how much of a hike it could be, especially after climbing the Quetzalcóatl temple at the beginning. If you have small kids or are out of shape, pick beforehand what you want to see to conserve your energy.
  • The Sun is No Joke: Make sure you have plenty of sunscreen and a sun hat. There is no shade so you are spending the entire time out in the sun and elements. It gets hot really quick. If you didn’t bring one, there are plenty of vendors in the front who will sell you one.

What to Bring

  • Comfy Shoes – You ware going to be walking A LOT. Make sure you bring shoes that are comfortable for walking long distances AND have a good grip. The sand and stones can be slippery. I wore my favorite Rothy’s Sneakers and wish I had brought my Sketchers Sneakers, because the Rothy’s just didn’t have enough grip. My husband and kids were fine with their regular Skechers Sneakers.
  • Sun Hat – I forgot my sunhat and ended up having to buy one from one of those nice vendors outside the pyramids. But I usually travel with this roll up visor from Target I purchased years ago. But there is a similar visor on Amazon.
  • Jeans or Pants – You will be using your hands and knees to help you climb those pyramids. Long pants are key to avoid scraps and bruises on everyone. I wore my Wit and Wisdom jeans. My daughter loves her athletic leggings for trips like these.
  • Camera and Tripod – Of course your camera on your phone is a great camera. But if you have a DSLR, be sure to bring it. You get some exceptional shots. A tripod/selfie stick lets you get some pictures of the whole group. The site is massive and you will often find places where there is no one but yourselves, so it helps to have the tripod for those moments.
A woman sitting on the ancient steps of Teotihuacan

Walking around Teotihuacan really puts our civilizations and lives into perspective. It helps you understand how truly advanced this stone-age civilizations were, even without the use of metal. You start to feel so small, compared to these vast pyramids and you wonder how they were able to build these great wonders of the world without the modern technology we have today. But the greatest gift is to be able to show your children this place, and help them understand and see that the Europeans are not the only great ancient civilizations to study. It teaches them to have pride in their own background and heritage. Visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacan opens your eyes in a way you can’t see at home in the United States. A trip to Mexico City should never be without a trip to Teotihuacan.

Edited by SKS

* Starred Photos taken by Atma Photography

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