In US classrooms, everything pre Columbus from this part of the world is summed up with a few sentences: Aztecs, Maya, Inca, advanced calendars, human sacrifice, then smallpox and you know the rest.
Well, there was obviously a lot more to and last weekend I went on a day long trip through some of that history. There were also a lot of rather unnecessary stops but we’ll get to that. Arjun, my Penn housemate, and I booked the trip through the hotel I stayed at when I first arrived and they collected us at 8:30 am in an empty 12 seater van. We went to the Zocalo (the historic center) to pick up more people from a nearby hostel and walked around a little bit. Then we continued to the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, an archeological site that has elements from three cultures: The Tlatelolca, people who broke off from the Aztecs, a church built during the colonial period and modern mexico. The Modern mexico connection isn’t the best: it was the site of a famous student massacre in 1968 right before Mexico hosted the Olympics. 68 is a huge year in mexican history, literature and politics largely because of that day and the locations of the massacred students bodies is still unknown. The plaza is also on the side of the highway and our tour guide talked A LOT without letting us actually GO SEE it (this would become a theme). Then we got back on the road, having switched vans to a different guide in the same company for space reasons and headed to see the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Our entrance to the site where the Virgen is worshipped was delayed by a mandatory 30+ minute stop in a religious gift shop, which they must have some kind of deal with. Lovely. Then we walk to the pilgrimage site which features a church from the 1600s, a church from the 1970s (bad architectural decisions), a clock that was the gift from the pope, and people from all around the world ready to worship. The original poncho with her image on it hangs in the new church and so that people can see it without disrupting services, there are three moving sidewalks behind the alter where you can look up. It’s a very weird sensation of being in an airport next to people crossing themselves and really having a spiritual moment. Modern times, eh. It was kind of a lot and definitely a long time to spend there but the Virgen plays a really important role in Mexico’s sense of legitimacy in the Catholic Church and it was cool to see how that plays out in the present day.
We’re back on the road, driving the 50 km to the Pyramids. Our guide is trying to explain that the cement houses with unfinished roofs are very middle class and the people don’t put roofs on because taxes are lower if your house is unfinished (an explanation I sort of buy) and then we see signs for the pyramids. At this point, it’s after noon and we have not seen any pyramids. We arrive at the site which doesn’t have a museum or anything and drive right past the pyramids to an area with a bunch of plants and a giftshop. Then we have a roughly hour long explanation of the maguey plant, from which the Teotihuacans got everything from paper to ink to fibers for weaving to to a drink, pulque. Today pulque is beloved by hipsters in Mexico city and it keeps fermenting in your stomach. This very cool info and demonstration was accompanied by an explanation of the stone carvings of the time, a tasting of various forms of plant–derived mexican alcohol (tequila, mezcal, pulque, some coffee liquor) and numerous sales pitches for the really expensive carvings and gifts. I really liked seeing the plant but the rest was pretty unnecessary and it was starting to look like rain. We don’t quite head to the pyramids yet but visit a palace with intact paintings. The paintings are really cool and show different important symbols of the culture. The Teotihuacans worshipped symbols from nature such as the jaguar and the butterfly which is shown in their art.
A little after 2, we made it to the pyramids!!!! If you think this is burying the lede on a blogpost, imagine it in real time. Finally. It was 100% worth it because these pyramids felt like being in the middle of a civilization. There’s a clear avenue and two big pyramids: de la luna (perimeter 600+ meters) y del sol, the tallest one has a perimter 870 meters. They’re not hollow and weren’t used as tombs. Worship happened at the base and they added a new level every 52 years, so it’s the result of centuries of work. The stairs are STEEP but there were people of all ages climbing them (and taking breaks at landings) and the descent is the worst part. I saw one woman at the top of the Piramide del Sol in HEELS and wanted to shake her. It’s very sunny near the pyramids so the overcast day worked in our favor as all the guidebooks warn about sunburn. It’s so impressive to see these pyramids and know their age and then comprehend how someone walked down this street which was lined with palaces and also had a market and lived their life. So cool.
We had lunch at a buffet clearly designed for tourists and then got dropped off at the house. The other couples we were with were not the best (overheard one couple talking about conspiracy theories about Jews and various assassinations/communism) but I’m still glad that I got to see just another slice of how much was going on here so long ago. This civilization was founded around 150 BCE and they built crazy pyramids that I walked on in 2014. I love it.