Stone carving of a face encircled by a broken ornamentation
History,  Mexico

A slightly sleepy museum visit

Despite that, I managed to really enjoy our visit here and even to remember a little of what I learned. But I’ve had to supplement that with a fair bit of online research, both to write this post and to fill in the gaps in my own knowledge.


It was a Sunday, when museums have free entry for locals, so we had to queue for a while outside. It was pleasant to be out in the fresh warm sunshine, having left wintery London behind just a day before.

Modern building with large Mexican flag and line of people
Museum entrance with queue

Once inside our guide Lizbet went to buy our tickets (no free entry for visitors to the country, even on a Sunday). Meanwhile we could enjoy the stunning mural by Rufino Tamayo, an artist from Oaxaca. This is ‘Duality’, depicting the epic encounter between two Aztec gods, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent and Tzecatlipoca, the jaguar.

Large mural of a feathered snake and jaguar fighting
Duality, by Rufino Tamayo

From here we proceeded to the central courtyard, roofed in part by a massive square concrete umbrella supported by a single column. This column is carved with pre-Hispanic iconography, while down it a waterfall cascades (to the delight of the visiting small children, so I had to wait to get a decent photo!)

This museum is world famous and rightly so. It has a huge and impressive collection of artefacts from the pre-Hispanic peoples of this region (as well as from present-day indigenous groups, but these we didn’t visit).

Liz led us on an excellent tour of some of the main highlights, carefully picking out pieces that would tell the story of these earlier civilisations and lay a foundation for our later visits to the ruins of Teotihuacan and Monte Alban. Here are some of them.

The Disk of Mictlāntēcutli

I shared my feature photo previously in my Going around in circles post. Also known as the Disk of Death, this is a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting Mictlāntēcutli. He was the Aztec god of death and ruler of Mictlān, the underworld of Aztec mythology. The disk was found by archaeologists in the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in 1963. It features a skull with a tongue sticking out, surrounded by a pleated paper headdress. There will be more about Teotihuacan in a future post!

The Piedra del Sol

Large stone disk with elaborate carving in rings
Piedra del Sol

The piece that fascinated me most was probably the Stone of the Sun, which was discovered in 1790 when the city’s main square was being laid out. Liz explained it to us in great detail. Some of her explanation I took in at the time, and I’ve since supplemented it with a bit of research. Google Arts and Culture explains:

The Sun Stone, or Piedra del Sol, is a representation of the Aztec concept of time, its cyclical nature, and the relationship between the gods and humans. In one sense it’s a calendar, but it’s ceremonial rather than practical.

The Aztecs used separate but connected calendars to mark earthly time and ritual time. From Google again:

The Aztec solar year lasted 365 days. There were 18 months of 20 days, as well as 5 intercalary days. They also used a 13-month, 260-day ritual calendar. Every 52 years, or 18,980 days, the ritual and solar calendars coincided. This is sometimes called an ‘Aztec century’.

The details on this stone are incredible, and it’s massive. You really need the presence of a person to appreciate its size. That was easily done, as a steady stream of families queued to pose their children beneath it, while couples also waited their turn.

Large stone disk with elaborate carving in rings, with a young girl standing in front
Piedra del Sol

Liz pointed out the face of a god in the centre, around which are four squares, each of which represents a previous era. The Aztecs named these: Jaguar, Wind, Rain, and Water. It was believed that when each era ended, the world was destroyed and recreated. The Aztecs believed that they lived in the fifth age, and that like all ages, theirs would be destroyed because of its faults.

The first ring features twenty symbols representing the days of the Aztec month. These were each dedicated to particular religious and agricultural festivals and associated with a compass direction and a symbol.

The second ring appears to act as a sort of compass too, with arrows indicating the cardinal points. Around this, two serpents are coiled, with human heads in their mouths. These too are gods.

If you are as intrigued as I was by this object you can read more, and see close up images, here:

Pacal the Great

Pacal the Great or Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal to give him his Mayan name, ruled Palenque in the seventh century AD. After his death he was buried in a sarcophagus in one of the city’s stepped pyramids. The museum has reproduced his tomb as it was when discovered by archaeologists in 1952. His skeletal remains were still lying in the sarcophagus, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces. The body was surrounded by sculptures and reliefs showing his transition to divinity and figures from Maya mythology.

The actual jade mask and necklaces are also on display in the museum. These are among the 124 objects stolen from the museum in 1984, of which 111 were recovered a few years later when the thief stupidly tried to trade them for cocaine. You can read more about the theft here:

The statue of Chalchiuhtlicue

Chalchiuhtlicue was an Aztec deity of water, rivers, seas, streams, storms, and baptism. She is also associated with fertility. This statue of her was found at the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan. Her name means ‘she of the jade skirt’. In this portrayal she is wearing a large rectangular headdress, ear muffs, a necklace with three strings of beads, huipil (traditional blouse), skirt and sandals.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan

We were to see the real thing for ourselves the following day, but this reproduction allows for a closer look at the details. There were also some original pieces from that temple, like the one bottom right above.

And there’s more … much more!

Did I mention I was jet-lagged and very short of sleep?! That’s my excuse for not fully taking in everything this wonderful museum has to offer, although I did my best and forgot my weariness in admiration of some of these artefacts, so beautifully crafted all those years ago. I also really appreciated how well the carvings were lit to bring out the details, and of course the fact that photography was allowed (without flash).

Here are a few more highlights (click on the images for captions):

I visited Mexico City in February 2024


  • equinoxio21

    Good choices. Our eldest daughter took a summer course in the courtyard in prehispanic dance. She was about 8. Quite nice…
    And the museum is unique. Sorry about the jetlag.

  • grandmisadventures

    What a fascinating museum- no wonder it is so famous. It was really interesting to read about the Piedra del Sol and how it depicts the god of death. This is a museum that would keep me going for hours reading up on all the items

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You could indeed easily spend hours here Meg 🙂 Some of the signs were only in Spanish, so it was good to have our guide to explain the objects, but the most important pieces had information in English too, and you can hire an audio guide in a variety of languages.

  • wetanddustyroads

    It looks like a museum where you are definitely going to get value for your admission fee. The history behind some of these photos is very interesting, like the Piedra del Sol. Despite how tired you were, you did very well – I think I probably would have just made it to the front door (and maybe that waterfall) 😀!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Definitely great value for the admission – you could easily spend all day here if so minded. But a couple of hours was enough for us. Having such a good guide ensured we didn’t just give up 😆 And she made sure we saw the most important things so it was time well spent.

  • margaret21

    Museums in a different continent are fascinating as their core collections are so different from ours. This looks so well-presented. Well done for beating the jet-lag!

  • Annie Berger

    What a brilliant idea to arrange a highlight tour of one of the world’s best museums after your overnight flight. You could so easily spend, and enjoy, hours and hours at the museum but having a guide point out the best of the best was a perfect use of your limited time AND energy!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, having a guided tour booked forces us to get up and out at a specific time, a great way to tackle jet lag head-on 😀 We did the same in Bogota with the gold museum etc. And we would never have found the most important and relevant pieces on our own, I suspect!

  • the eternal traveller

    Your quote at the start is spot on. I find the more I look at in a museum the less I take in, unlike Mr ET who reads every word on every item. I’ve been known many times to find the cafe and order a coffee and a sweet treat while he finishes. It works for me! This museum looks fabulous.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Haha, my father-in-law was like that! It used to drive me and my husband mad. He’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, happy to look at things without reading a word 😆 I’m in between, I do like to read a bit about what I’m looking at when it seems especially interesting. Or quite often these days I photograph the sign and read it later!

  • restlessjo

    Even when you’re fully alert there’s often too much to take in in a good museum, Sarah, and it’s great that so much information is available online. I rely on that heavily at times. You’ve done a great job on what is obviously a fascinating subject.

  • Monkey's Tale

    I think you did very well considering the jetlag. Good to put a person in front of Piedra del Sol for perspective. It looks like the museum has such a great collection. Maggie

  • Georgina

    Fascinating and I find the Aztecs recognise when a culture is becoming unsustainable and will become part of the cycle. I sympathise with the jet lag but you really manage to do just justice to the incredible history. About a year ago we went into the museum in Monterrey on a Sunday and it was free for us! Not really a major tourist destination. Looking forward to more.


    Studying the beliefs, the imagery and the methods of worship of the ancient peoples is one of Mexico’s many absorbing features. It’s endlessly interesting and yes, too much to retain all the information in one go. It’s a great country to travel around, as I’m sure you discovered!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re so right Phil – I realised how little I knew about pre-Hispanic cultures despite previous visits to Tikal in Guatemala and Lamanai in Belize, not to mention North American native communities and Machu Picchu! The sheer number of different cultures in Mexico surprised me, and the age of some of them, e.g. the original peoples of Teotihuacan.

  • Anne Sandler

    Thanks for the tour Sarah! Sometimes it’s hard to take in all of a museum, especially when you’re suffering from jet lag. That’s why I’m so glad information is at our fingertips. Wonderful images.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Anne. I really didn’t do this museum justice, even though I loved what I saw and did take in. It would have been good to go back at the end of the trip when I knew much more about the history, but unfortunately we didn’t come full circle back to Mexico City (other than to transit through the airport).

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