Large stone stepped pyramid at the end of an avenue of smaller pyramids
History,  Mexico,  Monday walks,  Ruins

Teotihuacan, where the gods were created

The city was founded around 1 BCE and grew over the next 350 years. By then it was estimated to have a population of at least 125,000 and was among the largest cities in the ancient world, containing 2,000 buildings. Some historians put the population even higher at 200,000 or even 250,000. It had huge influence in the region, trading with Maya cities as far away as present-day Honduras. The architectural style of its pyramids inspired those elsewhere, and objects created by its many potters, jewellers, and craftsmen were traded throughout Mesoamerica. But they left no texts, so much of what we do know about them is either conjecture (based on archaeological finds) or second-hand, from other cultures such as the Maya.

But from around 600 CE the city started to decline, for reasons not completely clear. Some historians theorise that there was an uprising from the poor against the ruling elite. Others that invaders sacked and burned it. Certainly there is evidence that buildings were deliberately burned and artworks and religious sculptures destroyed, which could support either of these theories. By 750 CE the city was completely abandoned.

Teotihuacan today, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 

Teotihuacan’s UNESCO citation says:

The ceremonial ensemble of Teotihuacan represents a unique artistic achievement as much by the enormous size of the monuments (the Pyramid of the Sun, built on a 350 m² terrace, measures 225 x 222 meters at the base, and is 75 meters high, for a total volume of 1 million m³) as by the strictness of a layout based on cosmic harmony. The art of Teotihuacans was the most developed among the classic civilizations of Mexico. Here it is expressed in its successive and complementary aspects: the dry and obsessive geometry of the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon contrasts with the sculpted and the painted decor of an exceptional richness of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent.

Visiting Teotihuacan

We visited on a day trip from Mexico City, as many do. I’ve read that this is the most visited site in Mexico, but on our morning visit we found it relatively quiet. Perhaps the sheer size of the site helped to create that impression, or maybe we were ahead of the crowds.

On our walk around the site we were accompanied by an excellent guide, Alfonso. He was great, providing just enough information to help us understand what we were seeing but also allowing plenty of time for photos.

Palaces and temples

Before exploring the main pyramids we had a walk around a complex of smaller buildings near gate three, where Alfonso had chosen to start the tour. These include the Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl, ‘palace of the beautiful butterfly’. It was named for the reliefs of mythological birds on the courtyard pillars (from quetzalli, precious feather, and pāpālōtl, butterfly). The birds are today however recognised as owls, wearing a headdress of green quetzal feathers. Similar images are found throughout the city and thought to be symbols of its warriors, priests and ruling elite.

Beneath the palace is an earlier structure, the Temple of the Feathered-Conches. The name comes from the reliefs on its pillars. I was more taken with the murals that run along the base of the walls. They show green birds, thought to be macaws.

I found an interesting but very detailed article about the iconography of these two buildings for anyone curious enough to read more: I found much that this website had to say about Teotihuacan fascinating. However, it’s the work of one individual and I haven’t been able to check if it’s authoritative, although I’ve seen nothing to suggest that it isn’t.

We also visited the Palace of the Jaguars. The same source as the above article, Uncovered History, describes one of the murals that had caught my eye here:

The most prominent mural is that of a jaguar blowing a feathered conch shell that drips with blood. Whilst it equally looks as though the jaguar is drinking from the shell, the scroll forms that emanate from the end of the shell like musical notes are indications of sound. The mural is presumed to be symbolic of war, because conch shells were trumpeted before armies were led into battle.

Fragment of a mural with a stylised animal
In the Palace of the Jaguars

The Pyramid of the Moon

This impressive pyramid sits at the northern end of the main thoroughfare of Teotihuacan, the Avenue of the Dead. My feature photo shows the view of it from part way along that avenue. The pyramid stands 43 metres tall and measures a massive 130 metres by 156 metres at its base.

Large stone stepped pyramid
The Pyramid of the Moon
Large stone stepped pyramid in front of a mountain
The Pyramid of the Moon and Cerro Gordo

Its shape echoes that of the hill behind it, the Cerro Gordo. This is thought to be deliberate. The inhabitants of the city revered the mountain as the source of the water that irrigated their crops. They almost certainly sacrificed people to the gods of the mountain, their blood keeping the waters flowing, and it is likely that these sacrifices took place on this pyramid.

Large space surrounded by stone pyramids
The Plaza of the Moon

In front of the pyramid is a huge plaza, 120 metres by 132 metres. This is surrounded by a number of smaller pyramidal bases that would have housed temples and provided viewing platforms for the elite of the city. These pyramidal structures also extend some distance along the Avenue of the Dead.

We strolled along that avenue until we reached the Pyramid of the Sun, which lies on its eastern side. On the way we stopped to photograph another mural, less well preserved than those we’d seen earlier, the Mural de Puma.

Faded mural of an animal
The Mural de Puma

The Pyramid of the Sun

This is the largest pyramid at Teotihuacan. It was by far the largest building in the Americas when it was completed in the 2nd century CE. It would, like the Pyramid of the Moon, have been covered with brightly painted stucco decorated with murals. Those we’d seen elsewhere give just a hint of what this huge structure could once have looked like. At its base, the pyramid measures 223.5 metres and its peak is 71.2 metres tall.

Large stone stepped pyramid
The Pyramid of the Sun
Large stone stepped pyramid
The Pyramid of the Sun

This pyramid sparked an interesting conversation with Alfonso about the fascinating way that cultures living thousands of miles apart, on different continents and in different eras, developed similar beliefs, architectural styles etc. The pyramid’s base is almost identical in size to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which measures 230 metres. That may be a coincidence of course. But its positioning relative to the Pyramid of the Moon and the other main pyramid here, that of Quetzalcoatl, also mirrors that of the three Giza pyramids. Even more strikingly, both arrangements reflect the alignment of the three stars of Orion’s Belt.

Some use this as evidence of an ancient super-race who spread knowledge of geometry and astrology across the globe. More likely however is that cultures in different parts of the world used the same symbolic calculations and were equally inspired by their observations of celestial objects. The image below is courtesy of Uncovered History again. That site has much more to say on the subject of these geometric calculations and the alignment of the pyramids.

Two satellite images of ancient ruins and photo of three bright stars
Alignment of pyramids at Teotihuacan (on the left) and Giza (on the right), compared with Orion’s Belt (centre)

The Temple of the Feathered-Serpent

This pyramid complex lies at the far end of the Avenue of the Dead. I must confess here that although I am posting this as a Monday Walk, at Alfonso’s suggestion we went back to the car after our visit to the Pyramid of the Sun and drove around to another gate nearer to this one!

You will see older photos on the internet that show people climbing the pyramids here. This was banned during the Covid pandemic, Alfonso told us, and since then all but one have remained closed, to protect them. That exception is here, at the Temple of the Feathered-Serpent. You can’t climb the actual temple pyramid, but a smaller one in front of it. The photo below shows in the foreground a small flat-topped platform and beyond that the pyramid that can be climbed (you can see people on the steps and on the top). Largely hidden by that pyramid is the one known as the Pyramid / Temple of the Feathered-Serpent, or sometimes the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl.

Large stone stepped pyramid in a wide open space
Complex of the Temple of the Feathered-Serpent

Not being great at climbing steep steps (or descending them!) I opted to climb only the lower platform, to get a wider perspective on the scene. So while Chris and Alfonso climbed the higher pyramid immediately in front of the temple, the latter advised me to go around it in order to get a look at the temple’s distinguishing features. I was so glad to have acted on that advice!

The feathered serpents

Unlike the others, this pyramid is adorned with carvings, largely hidden by the platform in front (a latter addition to the complex). These carvings alternate between a serpent’s head surrounded by feathers, and that of another snake-like creature. The latter has been variously identified as a crocodile, a war-serpent or a fire-serpent. Its eyes have hollows which would have held pieces of obsidian, making them glimmer. The entire pyramid would have been painted in blues and red, with carved seashells. In my post on Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum I shared some photos of its reproduction of this temple.

Meanwhile Chris and Alfonso were enjoying the view of these carvings face-on, and Chris has given permission for me to share a couple of his shots. You can see many more details from this angle.

Stepped pyramid with carved animal faces
The Temple of the Feathered-Serpent, taken by Chris
Stone carving of a mythical beast's face
On the Temple of the Feathered-Serpent, taken by Chris
By way of an apology

This was the last major sight we visited at Teotihuacan. There are many more minor pyramids and other structures, and it would be possible to spend all day exploring them. But we were ready for lunch by now and I reckon this post is more than long enough, especially as I vowed to post shorter ones this year. Ah well, sometimes my curiosity takes over and I head down internet rabbit holes in search of more information / speculation! I’m sorry if I’ve overdone it this time.

I visited Teotihuacan in February 2024


  • rkrontheroad

    The ancient civilizations of Central America are so fascinating. The Teotihuacan pyramids were so much wider than the Maya pyramids. Thanks for the detail and stories.

  • equinoxio21

    An excellent account. I’d heard somewhere one can’t climb the pyramids anymore… Just as well… (Though the climb was taxing for visitors because of the altitude…)

  • Annie Berger

    Another top notch post, Sarah, and certainly not overly long as you feared! We also visited but on an independent day trip from Mexico City pre-Covid so we were able to climb the pyramids which surprised us. Thanks for the wealth of information provided by Alfonso and your independent research.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Annie 😊 I’d seen photos of people on the pyramids so assumed it would be possible to climb them, and was debating with myself whether my knees would mind too much if I did so! I wasn’t that sorry that we couldn’t, because it meant I could get photos of them without tourists all over them!

  • grandmisadventures

    What an incredible place- I really loved learning about the place, the people, the beliefs. And the name ‘where the gods were created’ just sounds so poetic. Great post all around 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Meg 😊 Incredible is a good word for it – and I barely scratched the surface in terms of talking about the people and their beliefs, there’s so much to learn about them despite the lack of concrete information, or maybe because of that lack, as each scholar seems to have their own theories!


    We too found this place utterly absorbing, it’s wonderful to stand there and imagine this magnificent city in its pomp. Did your guide by any chance take you to one of the ladies who demonstrate how they created the colours in the original artwork, or at least how it is thought that they did? She created fabulous colours entirely from plants which grow around the site – some sap, some extracted from petals, some by grinding seeds, etc etc. Amazing to watch, and amazing to once again picture how they discovered such things and turned them into iconic decoration. All in all it’s an intriguing, thought provoking place to visit. And you definitely did not over egg it, Sarah – I read every word with relish!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Phil 😊 Yes, our guide did take us to someone demonstrating those ancient painting techniques, although in our case it was a man doing it. I have a few photos and thought about including one but the post was already getting rather long (or so I thought!) We tipped him and were given his simple flower painting in return. Maybe one day soon I’ll share a photo of that alongside one of the artist!

  • margaret21

    This is a dauntingly large site – no wonder the post is a long one but no apologies necessary. Religious sites outside Europe often seem to be on a quite spectacular scale compared with what we’re accustomed to here. The space is there of course, but even so…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It’s a very large site today, the Avenue of the Dead is about two kilometres long. But the overall site is far larger, much of it unexcavated and buried under newer (or at least, less old) developments, farms etc. However it isn’t just a religious site, per se, but the most important structures in what was a large city. The smaller unimportant ones would have been of less durable materials (wood, clay bricks) so haven’t survived.

  • Easymalc

    Well, you certainly never overdone it for me Sarah. Somewhere I would have loved to have visited, but at least you’ve given me a good taste of what there is to see here. Great post!

  • the eternal traveller

    Amazing that the Aztecs recognised the value of these structures and didn’t replace them with some of their own, and how lucky for us now that they still exist. Your photos really took me there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, that’s a good point about the Aztecs. I’m sure they destroyed more than they kept but they recognised that the pyramids and temples were of great spiritual significance it seems 🙂 Glad to have taken you there!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Alison 😊 There has been quite a lot of restoration done here but the bulk of the pyramids are as they were, or rather, are the remains of what they were.

  • Teresa

    It is wonderful to find out about ancient civilisation and thanks for doing the work for us. I don’t think I will be able to go here in this lifetime so thanks for taking me there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Teresa 🙂 It’s part of the fun of blogging to share sights I’ve seen with others and in return learn about places they’ve visited which I may never get to! Although the latter can be frustrating too 😆

  • Marie

    I was looking forward to this – we’d a wonderful visit a few years back….. the structures are incredible aren’t they … Like you, we’d a relatively quiet time in the morning which added to the enjoyment

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marie, I hope it helped to revive your own memories? It is an incredible place! I’m glad you found it quiet too, I wondered if maybe we’d just been super lucky or I’d somehow not noticed crowds of people!

      • Marie

        We were there til at least 3.00pm… it was SO busy when we were leaving … queues to get up onto the pyramids … we couldn’t believe it … definitely a place to visit earlier in the day…

  • restlessjo

    Civilisations come and they go, don’t they? And we all have those stars surrounding us. It isn’t strange that others tried to make sense of it all long before we came on the scene, but it’s interesting to go down those rabbit holes and try to piece together the how and the why. Thanks, Sarah, for all the information.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, it’s so interesting to try to understand what ancient civilisations made of the phenomena they didn’t fully understand. I wonder if in the future people will speculate about our interpretations which, although more scientific, are still based in part on conjectures about the universe

  • Rose

    Fascinating Sarah! It’d be wonderful to know how such a big urban area began, and then ‘disappeared’? How fantastic that these structures were preserved or restored so well! You never have to apologize to me for your long posts, they are so interesting. I learn a great deal from your travels, images, and stories.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rose, I’m glad you found this so interesting 🙂 So little is known for certain about these people, including the reason for abandoning the city, because they had no written language. So historians can only speculate, but for me that makes them all the more fascinating!

  • wetanddustyroads

    Just thinking about how old these buildings are – it’s mind-boggling! And what would the people’s way of thinking have been to build something like the pyramids of the moon and sun. I can understand why you had to write a long post about this … after all, it’s centuries of stories!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne 🙂 I enjoyed doing the research for this one, it’s such a fascinating place! The challenge was in deciding when to stop and what to leave out!

  • Monkey's Tale

    Teotihuacan looks very impressive. Nice to see some of the restored paintings to get an idea of the originL decorations. I also find it fascinating to see similar beliefs and customs from places that would never had contact with one another. Maggie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Maggie 🙂 The paintings in this post are all original as far as I know (I did ask Alfonso). However, parts of the buildings and pyramids have been restored, and not always sympathetically – it was done back in the early 20th century before people really understood the best way to do so with minimal impact on the original structures.

  • Sue

    Thank you so much for the virtual tour, this is a place I had hoped to visit some years ago but alas it wasn’t possible.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!