A Travellerspoint blog

Ancient peoples and holy shrines

Mexico day two

View Mexico 2024 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Temple of the Feathered-Serpent, Teotihuacan

I slept well for the first few hours of the night, then quite badly, my body torn between tiredness and the conviction that it was time to get up! Ah, the joys of jetlag!

We were both up early therefore and had time to catch up on messages before breakfast. The buffet at the Hampton I would describe as adequate, with passable coffee, some fresh fruit (papaya, melon, banana), yogurts, cereals, a few hot items (none of which appealed), rolls and pastries. I'd have welcomed some cheese to have with what looked like good bread rolls, but as there was none stuck to fruit, yoghurt and a small croissant.

The Three Cultures Plaza

We were picked up at 9.00 by our guide, Alfonso, and driver Laura for today’s tour. We drove out through heavy traffic and made a short stop at the Three Cultures Plaza, where in one place you can see structures built in the pre-Columbian, Spanish and post-independence eras.

The Three Cultures Plaza

Alfonso explained the history of the Spanish invasion and conquest over the Aztecs and other groups. We also learned from him that the Aztecs had come originally from what is now Arizona and had themselves conquered the native people here.


But the main focus of our morning and indeed the whole tour was Teotihuacan, the complex of pyramids from a people that predated the Aztecs and about whom relatively little is known.

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.

When the Aztecs discovered the abandoned city they were so impressed by what they found that they named it Teotihuacan, ‘the place where the gods were created’.

Alfonso proved an excellent guide to the complex, providing just enough information to help us understand what we were seeing but also allowing plenty of time for photos and also some general conversation about the fascinating way that cultures living thousands of miles apart, on different continents and in different eras, developed similar beliefs, architectural styles etc.

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.

The Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl

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.



The Temple of the Feathered-Conches

We also visited the Palace of the Jaguars. Alfonso pointed out the mural of a jaguar blowing a feathered conch shell dripping with blood.

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. It stands 43 metres tall and measures a massive 130 metres by 156 metres at its base.


The Pyramid of the Moon

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.

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. Alfonso took us to watch a demonstration by a local man of the way it is thought these ancient people created the colours they use from natural materials. He gave us the simple painting of a flower he created and of course we tipped him in return.

Artist in the Plaza of the Moon

The Pyramid of the Moon from the Avenue of the Dead

We strolled along the Avenue of the Dead 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.

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.


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 Temple of the Feathered-Serpent

This pyramid complex lies at the far end of the Avenue of the Dead. 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.

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!

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.



The Temple of the Feathered-Serpent

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.


The Temple of the Feathered-Serpent (taken by Chris)

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.

Laura and Alfonso took us to many tourist-focused restaurants in the vicinity. It wasn’t one that we would have chosen, being mainly geared to groups wanting to take advantage of the ‘all you can eat buffet! But we were able to order a snack of delicious guacamole and tortilla chips, as we don’t usually like to eat a big lunch. After eating, and while waiting for Alfonso and Laura who were taking full advantage of the free buffet meal offered to guides (now, that's why they chose that restaurant!) I went for a wander to photograph the colourful mural I'd seen just outside the entrance.

In the restaurant garden, Teotihuacan Pueblo

Entrance to Teotihuacan Pueblo

Mural, Teotihuacan Pueblo


In the afternoon we visited the Shrine of Guadelupe with its complex of churches and chapels. The Hill of Tepeyac, located here on the outskirts of Mexico City, was the site of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to a peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531. She is said to have appeared five times in total, always on the hill, and when he asked for a sign or miracle she told him to gather flowers from the summit of the hill. This was in December when no flowers would be blooming, but he found them as she had promised. He carried them home in his cloak or tilma and when he opened it later to show the doubting archbishop, the flowers fell to the floor, revealing on the fabric the image of the Virgin. The tilma was preserved and is venerated here.

Atrio de las Américas, the central plaza at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The site was thronged with pilgrims, well outnumbering the tourists. First, we went to view the tilma, which hangs above the altar in the modern basilica. Careful design of the building allows pilgrims and other visitors to pass slowly beneath it on a travelator (which is at a lower level and therefore hidden from the main area of the basilica). This ensures that no one can linger too long and everyone gets a turn. Photography (without flash) was allowed here and throughout the complex.

The sacred image in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Then we went into the modern basilica, built in the 1970s as the old one could no longer cope with the numbers wanting to worship here. A mass was in progress (my guess is that there would be so most of the time) so we just observed from the back. The building is very striking, designed (Alfonso told us) to look like Mary’s outspread robes sheltering the faithful. It also allows everyone an uninterrupted view of the tilma.

In the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Not everyone was focused on the mass, or wearing appropriate clothes!

We then went to the quieter original basilica, built at the turn of the 18th century and dedicated to Christ the King. It shows very obvious signs of having slipped over time, due to the unstable ground here.

The Basilica of Christ the King, with a relief depicting the apparition

It too was beautiful, much more so than the Metropolitan Cathedral in the city centre which we had visited yesterday. I loved the intricate stained-glass windows and some modern statues of saints. The dome and parts of the ceiling have mosaics which reminded me of Byzantine churches.




The Basilica of Christ the King

We also went into two other churches. The Capilla de Indios was built, Alfonso told us, for the indigenous converts who weren’t allowed to pray in the main basilica. According to Wikipedia, this chapel housed the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe until it was installed in what is now the ‘old’ basilica.

The Capilla de Indios

In the Capilla de Indios, and the Capilla del Pocito with sculpture of the apparition outside

The Capilla del Pocito has an especially beautiful dome, inside and out. It was built over a well that was considered miraculous.




The Capilla del Pocito

Then it was time to return to the city, with Laura fighting the traffic jams! But the slower pace meant that I could grab a few photos of some of the impressive street art dotted around.


Street art, CDMX

We got back to the hotel around 4.30, leaving time for us to download the many photos we'd taken and catch up on messages. I also used the time to book a couple of restaurants for our first few nights in Oaxaca as we'd been finding that necessary here in Mexico City. Also, we were very aware that our first night there would be Valentines and no doubt restaurants would be very busy.

For dinner we went to the Balcon Zocalo that had been recommended yesterday by Liz, and which gets very good reviews on Google. It lived up to them, though was pricey by Mexican standards. The terrace has great views overlooking the side of the cathedral and although we weren’t seated right at the edge we could easily go to take a few photos. The food was delicious, especially the steak tacos we shared as a starter.

View from the Balcon Zocalo

View of the cathedral

Posted by ToonSarah 11:27 Archived in Mexico Tagged churches restaurant history ruins mexico cathedral street_art archaeology saints

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


I don't know if you have same saying but this really got my travelling foot tapping! :)

by hennaonthetrek

I don't think we have that exactly as a saying Henna, but it makes perfect sense. I reckon mine is tapping most of the time!

by ToonSarah

What a day! Now I really want to go! :)

by Ils1976

I really do recommend it Ils, I'm sure you'd love it!

by ToonSarah

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.