Travel info for visiting Teotihuacan in Mexico

One of the world's most enigmatic archaeological sites in the world


San Juan Teotihuacan, 55800 Teotihuacan de Arista, Estado de México, Mexico

GPS: 19.689086102322, -98.845212865225

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Teotihuacan is a pre-eminent archaeological site from the Pre-Hispanic era, located more than 2,200 metres above sea level in a valley in the state of Mexico. Formerly the capital of Mexico in classical times, this ancient city is among the most important and enigmatic ruins in the world. Its name was given by the Aztecs when they discovered it abandoned in the late 13th or early 14th century. Overwhelmed by Teotihuacan’s complex urban planning and the sheer size of its buildings, they appropriated the city as a holy place and pilgrimage site from the capital of their empire, Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

Like other archaeological sites in the history of the Americas, the founding origins and causes of Teotihuacan’s decline remain uncertain despite a century of excavations. According to specialists, the pre-Columbian city was built from the 2nd century BC by Amerindian peoples and Mesoamerican civilisations. It could be the Nahuas, the Otomis or the Totonacs, occupying the arid highlands of central Mexico. Some historians suggest that a multi-ethnic group (nicknamed Teotihuacanos) built a large ceremonial, astronomical and residential complex. Clearly, Teotihuacan is a place where cultures coexist among peoples of diverse origins who do not speak the same language. The cosmopolitan metropolis reached its peak around the year 500 or 600, a period during which it would have had more inhabitants than the mythical city of Rome (between 120,000 and 150,000 people according to estimates). It covers an area of about 20 km² and is the political, social, cultural, astronomical and economic centre of Mesoamerica, extending over a vast geographical area from Mexico to Costa Rica.

The fall of Teotihuacan would have occurred in the middle of the 7th century (about 900 years after its foundation), probably due to overpopulation and the scarcity of natural resources. A civil war, a destructive eruption or an uprising of the people against the ruling elite are other hypotheses put forward by archaeologists who believe that the city was never really abandoned. The sprawling site is ten times larger than what is visible today. It is composed of three major pyramids, residential quarters, multiple palaces, various temples and sacrificial altars (human and animal sacrifice having been abundantly practised on the spot). Articulated around the Avenue of the Dead (calle de los Muertos), Teotihuacan is adorned with magnificent murals, frescoes and sculptures carved into the rock. The Pyramid of the Sun, erected on five levels, is the tallest building in the archaeological complex (65 metres high).

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  • One of the largest archaeological sites in the world; the massive appearance of the monuments; a model of a cosmopolitan metropolis; a city-civilization with mysterious origins and a sacred dimension; the grey areas surrounding the Teotihuacanos people of planners, authors of the first multi-ethnic capital of the American continent
  • The Pyramid of the Sun (a mound of clay mixed with water and straw, 200 metres square at its base), the Pyramid of the Moon (46 metres high) and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (or Temple of Quetzalcoatl, built inside the Citadel around the year 200 on seven levels from stone and mortar)
  • The massive black stone constructions erected with rudimentary tools (chisels, spatulas and stone hammers) without the use of wheels or iron tools
  • The Palace of Quetzalpapálotl and its Quetzal-Mariposa figures (butterfly-bird); the Palace of the Jaguars and the Tepantitla architectural complex (the latter contains one of the most beautiful mural paintings in Teotihuacan); the Avenue of the Dead (the main axis of the city dotted with tombs and flanked by large step pyramids at its ends); the residential areas of Tetitla, Atetelco, Tepantitla, La Ventilla, Yayahuala and Zacuala
  • The 400 sculptures of heads carved in the effigy of the Feathered Serpent (half-bird, half-reptile god considered the creator of the world by the Teotihuacanos) adorning the 4 façades of the pyramidal temple of Quetzalcoatl; the frescoes of the Tlalocan and the mural paintings with their clearly identifiable colours
  • The Teotihuacan Museum and its numerous archaeological pieces; the presence of volcanic stones worked by the ancient inhabitants; the jade stone relics; the tools made from human bones; the thousand-year-old art objects and wall paintings exhibited at the Museo de los Murales Teotihuacanos, Beatríz de la Fuente; the sculpture garden and the botanical garden; the open-air theatre and the headquarters of the Teotihuacán Study Centre (where the latest archaeological finds are displayed)
  • The meticulous and methodical organisation of the city in its urban layout (grid plan); the neighbourhoods dedicated to different ethnic groups (Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, Totonac, Nahua…); the caves and tunnels built by human hands under the pyramidal structures (hundreds of objects and artefacts were recently excavated)
  • The fantastic view of the entire Teotihuacan site from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon
  • An archaeological site that is easily accessible all year round from Mexico City; the spring equinox festivities where most musicians, dancers and visitors are all dressed in white to watch the sunrise
  • Archaeologists do not know the original name of the city. Teotihuacan is a name that was given by the Aztecs (as it is also the case for the other monuments and pyramids on the site). Depending on the interpretation, Teotihuacan can be translated as “Place where the gods were born”, “Place where one becomes a god” or “City of the Gods” in the Nahuatl language. According to Aurélie Couvreur (historian specialising in ancient Mexico), this name refers to the myth of the creation of the sun and the moon in primordial times. Legends say that this place was created by giants or gods.
  • According to Aztec mythology, the gods met at Teotihuacan to recreate the world and the universe four or five times through the legend of the suns. A new god was chosen to embody the sun in each new era. Tecciztecatl and Nanahuatl were the candidates chosen to represent the fifth sun, and it was Nanahuatl who obtained the grail by having the courage to offer his life as a sacrifice by jumping into the flames first.
  • A major eruption of the Popocatépetl volcano (“Smoking Mountain” in Aztec) may have been the reason for the creation of the metropolis of Teotihuacan by groups of farmers forced to move north. Only 20% of the area of the site has been explored by archaeologists.
  • According to archaeological researcher Saburo Sugiyama, the three oldest monuments at the Teotihuacan site date from the 2nd century AD. Built simultaneously, they consist of the Pyramid of the Sun (with a volume of one million m3 and 265 steps on its ascending staircase), the Pyramid of the Moon (with seven distinct phases of construction, it was built on the axis of a mountain located behind it, which is believed to be the home of the god of the Storm) and the Citadel (the economic centre of the city, consisting of a 400-metre enclosure in which the pyramidal temple of Quetzalcoatl is located). Combining celestial and terrestrial elements, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was decorated with relief sculptures that adorned its entire façade. The living areas were built after the pyramids. Dedicated to the cult of water, these monumental buildings attracted many outside populations (Zapotecs, Mayans…). Some emigrated from afar to found a multi-ethnic society and create an identity of their own in Teotihuacan. This spiritual and economic centre established intense commercial relations with other regions of Mesoamerica.
  • Many buildings at Teotihuacan are arranged to predict the equinoxes (a natural phenomenon that occurs twice a year, when day and night have almost the same duration throughout the world). Even before the invention of writing, this knowledge of the movements of the sun and the natural cycle of the seasons was incorporated into the built structures of many ancient civilisations. It was a fundamental information in human life to optimise agricultural harvests (corn, squash…) to ensure survival.
  • New elements discovered by archaeologists seem to indicate that Teotihuacan was not governed by monarchs but by merchants or priests who prospered thanks to the trade of volcanic stones (including jade from Guatemala). It is above all an obsidian stone with sharp green flakes from a deposit in Pachuca (50 kilometres from Teotihuacan) that would have made the city rich. Ceramic workshops would also have flourished on an almost industrial scale.
  • According to archaeologist Linda Manzanilla, the pyramids of Teotihuacan were once covered with brightly coloured stucco (this lime-based plaster also adorned other buildings and streets in the city). Human and animal skeletons were found in the foundations of pyramid temples that were not used as tombs. Offerings and sacrifices organised by priests during great ceremonies probably allowed these buildings to be consecrated.
  • Archaeologists have uncovered a long tunnel, 120 metres long and 14 metres deep, under the pyramid temple of Quetzalcoatl, where an underground sacred lake is located. This ritual site, which contains a large quantity of mercury, was used to deposit offerings. It could correspond to the Underworld “El Inframundo”) of the Teotihuacanos (place of passage to the gods). Numerous rare obsidian objects and ancient artefacts, very well-preserved, were exhumed on the spot as well as four unique statuettes of green stone (jade). The bowels of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent also contain more than 250 skeletons in the structure of the monument (these may be ancient warriors with women who were buried alive to perpetuate the cycle of life).
  • Teotihuacan conquered the Maya rivals of Tikal (a city a thousand kilometres away) in the year 378 and deposed its king Chak Tok Ichʼaak I. It imposed a new political system in the Maya lowlands region as well as its hegemony in other Mesoamerican city-states (the cult of Quetzalcoatl and human sacrifice are faithfully reproduced by the Maya and Toltec).
  • Traces of arson on buildings and monuments indicate that a fire devastated the centre of the city. It could be the work of the modest inhabitants of Teotihuacan who rebelled against the ruling class by burning the City of the Gods before abandoning it for good.
  • Teotihuacan is located about 50 kilometres northeast of Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. There are round-trip bus services that allow you to reach the archaeological area of Teotihuacan easily and independently from Mexico City’s Northern Bus Terminal (Terminal del Norte). Allow an hour for travel. Many agencies also offer half-day and full-day tours.
  • Remember to bring comfortable walking shoes and sun protection and visit the site early in the morning when temperatures are coolest and there are fewer visitors.
  • Guided tours and cultural workshops are offered free of charge on site (special ‘family’ tours are organised on Sundays).
  • Entrance Gate 3 is equipped with ramps and walkways to facilitate access to the archaeological remains for people with reduced mobility.
  • Since July 2020, the Teotihuacan site holds outdoor film screenings a few hundred metres from the Pyramid of the Moon (these drive-in shows have a limited capacity of 100 cars).
  • If you’re looking for new archaeological sites to explore in the region, head to Tula, the ancient capital of the Toltecs (9th to 12th centuries). This historically rich city is located near the modern city of Tula de Allende, northwest of Teotihuacan.

Where to eat

  • Hamburguesas Del Chef
    (gigantic burgers)
  • La Oishii
    (Japanese-style pasta)
  • La Gruta
    (improbable location)

Where to go

  • Monastery of San Agustín
    (architectural jewel)
  • Museum of the Viceroyalty of New...
    (collections from the colonial period)
  • Firefly Sanctuary
    (breathtaking natural spectacle)

Where to stay

  • Posada Jade de Teotihuacan
    (clean and helpful)
  • Fiesta Inn Cuautitlan
    (on the way from Mexico City)
  • Posada Colibrí
    (small charming hotel)