Hops and Skips

“Mexico City has the perfect ingredients for human life.”

We would hear our gregarious tour guide, Jorge, repeat this line at least a dozen times over the course of our 7-hour tour to Teotihuacán, the ancient Mesoamerican city. The first was during our 30-mile drive away from the capital city, when this assertion seemed a bit hyperbolic.

A whopping 25 million people live in Mexico City’s metropolitan area, so when you’re trying to leave, it just keeps going. It suffers all the nuisances of big city living – noise, crowds, trash, pollution, expense. But as the modern metropolis gives way to the suburbs, the sky begins to open up into brightly-painted neighborhoods built into the surrounding hills. Here, Jorge explained, live the waiters, construction workers, and teachers that commute into the city each day, a stark economic contrast to the white-collar professionals that live in the city center.

As distance from the city grows, the land quickly becomes rural. Agriculture is essential to Mexico’s economy, and more specifically to the country’s indigenous population. Seventy percent of Mexican agriculture is farmed by these groups that, overall, account for only ten percent of Mexico’s total population. These people don’t consider themselves Mexican; rather, they identify as their indigenous community. This is the community surrounding Teotihuacán, the town sharing a name with the ancient site. As we approached, I questioned whether we’d be taken for a ride. The roads were quiet except for a few locals going about their daily life; there were no major location markers or corporate signs – none of the usual marks that a tourist attraction is ahead. I had come to see ancient pyramids, but I couldn’t even spot them on the horizon.

Jorge pulled up to a driveway and announced we had arrived. The parking lot was small and the entrancing unpretentious for such an impressive site. It was nine in the morning, just as the gates opened; crowds were sparse, and the July air was still cool.

Meandering the gravel pathways deeper into the site, Jorge shared some of Teotihuacán’s basic history. Built around 2,500 years ago, it was a huge productive city, nestled in the valley between  mountains, around 15 sq km in size. Two pyramids – named for the Sun and the Moon – are the largest and most significant structures remaining. We started our climb of the largest, Pyramid of the Sun, as soon as we approached. It wouldn’t normally be a very daunting climb – unless you have a fear of heights or are wearing the wrong shoes – but I had a seven-month-old strapped to my front. At certain points during my climb I questioned whether this was the right thing to do. Would this be defined as child endangerment? But then that’s one of the beautiful things about Mexico: no one looked twice.

The view from the top is expansive, truly a bird’s eye view of civilization below. It is believed that a temple once stood on top, perhaps a spot to venerate some deity or perform sacrifice to the gods. Forces of nature were powerful and worshiped by these ancient Mesoamericans. There was a strong belief in balance. Earthquakes and floods took human life; provide it to the gods, instead, to prevent these forces from causing more destruction. Death was not feared; rather, it was part of a natural cycle that returned energy to new life. It was peaceful up there. As I looked down from one of the tallest pyramids in the world, on people that felt so small, and out to land that seemed to never end, I understood the sanctity inherent to a spot that provides such a paradoxical perspective.

We descended the pyramid’s steps just as the late-morning crowd really picked up; that feeling of solitude was nearing its end. The two pyramids are situated along the Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacán’s version of Main Street, running north to south. During the city’s peak, the avenue was lined with administrative buildings and temples, but now only their foundations and staircases remained. Nearby were athletic fields where champions once played a popular Mesoamerican ball game that often left one team the victims of human sacrifice. Though my subsequent research suggests otherwise, Jorge maintained it was usually the winning team that earned that “privilege.”

The July midday sun in Mexico is going to be strong, no matter how deceptively cool the morning began. Especially when you’re 7,000 feet above sea level. My 7-month-old was protected by sunscreen and bonnet, but I was feeling the glare of UV rays and sought shelter at the base of the Pyramid of the Moon. Shade is sparse at these ruins, but that moment’s particular angle of light provided me a well-timed respite from the sun. Visitors can climb to the top of this pyramid as well, from which you would see directly down the avenue. The two pyramids work in tandem, never in competition. One faces east and west, the other north and south – always existing in balance, as their namesakes.

At its peak, Teotihuacán was home to an estimated 125,000 people, but none of these structures along the Avenue of the Dead housed its residents. Instead, elaborate multifamily complexes were spread throughout the site that featuring indoor plumbing and a sewer system. Residential areas featured common space for festivals and rituals; buildings had ornamented roofs; decorative paintings depicted mythology and religion. The civilization was unusually advanced and remarkably luxurious – facets of a daily lifestyle that are difficult to uncover when all that remains is pieces of stone.

As we returned to Mexico City, sun-drenched from our tour and satiated from a filling lunch at a local watering hole, I reconsidered Jorge’s claim. Abundant sunshine, temperate climate, an eco-rich valley. On second thought, the settlers of Teotihuacán had all the ingredients, and what remains of their civilization indicates the result was a magnificent accomplishment.

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