Teotihuacan, Xochimilco: Fantastic Daytrips

The 2,000 year-old Teohuatican Pyramid near Mexico City, Mexico. Arjun Venkatesh photos.
The 2,000-year-old Teohuatican Pyramid near Mexico City, Mexico. Arjun Venkatesh photos.

Memorable Day Trips from Mexico City Teotihuacan: Pyramid Power

By Nirmala Venkatesh

It is not uncommon for visitors to Mexico City to squeeze in a day trip or two.

Arjun and Nirmala in a 2,000 year old residence in Teotihuacan, Mexico
Arjun and Nirmala in a 2,000-year-old residence in Teotihuacan, Mexico

If you have just a couple of days, I would suggest that you select Teotihuacan (pronounced Teo-thi-wa-kan) as your first pick with Xochimilco (So-chi-mil-ko) coming in a distant second.

Both places are deserving UNESCO World Heritage sites and Teotihuacan is guaranteed to take your breath away.

Our guide Jorge Mendoza (contact jorgemendozaturismo@live.com or + 52 55 3660 8182), a remarkable storyteller, provided the historical and cultural contexts to the places we visited.

As with other civilizations around the world, the Mesoamericans worshipped the forces of nature and the Sun had a special place in their pantheon because it sustained all life force.

Pyramids Doubled as Altars

The Pyramid of the Moon from atop the Pyramid of the Sun - Teohuatiacan
The Pyramid of the Moon from atop the Pyramid of the Sun – Teohuatiacan

The Pyramids doubled as altars from where the priests offered prayers to the Gods.

It was also an imposing pedestal conferring on them power and authority over the residents of Teotihuacan.

The Mesoamericans attributed natural calamities to the Gods being angry and they were fearful that the Sun may not rise every day.

They felt that it would be wise to appease the Gods before they were visited by natural disasters, thereby restoring balance in nature. Which is why, human sacrifices were offered to appease their Sun God, Huitzilopochtli.

Incidentally, worship of the Sun was widespread among many ancient civilizations around the world.

It was a rush of adrenaline that got me taking the first ten steps on the Pyramid of the Sun (over 200 feet high, 700 feet wide and with 248 steps) with a half run. Sections of the pyramid have a rubber rope to assist climbers.

2000 year old residence in Teotihuacan
2000-year-old residence in Teotihuacan

We did the climb in 12 minutes, allowing for a couple of short stops to catch our breaths.

The steps of the pyramid are cut from volcanic rock and they are steep, uneven, and worn out, making them tricky. Use caution. You would also do well to get to the pyramids early morning to marvel at the rising sun.

You would also beat the crowds, enjoy the best vantage points, and be up and down the pyramid before it gets too hot.

Panoramic Views

From atop the pyramid, you get panoramic views of the 2,000-year-old city, among the largest during its time, spanning almost nine square miles and housing over 200,000 residents.

If you are open to the suspension of disbelief, you can imagine being among the thousands gathered in the ceremonial square in front of the pyramid to witness ceremonies and sacrifices.

Toilet from 2,000 years ago, Teotihuacan, Mexico
Toilet from 2,000 years ago, Teotihuacan, Mexico

Presided over by the elite and conducted by the head priest, wearing an elaborate head-dress decked with the feathers of an eagle (it is believed that when they wore this crown, they assumed a superhuman ability and stood as representatives of God). Apparently, hallucinogens also played a role. ‘

The city was organized around the Avenue of the Dead, with the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in the north end and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in the south.

As recently as in the 1980s, excavations revealed mass graves and sacrificial remains. Jorge explained that sacrifices were often made of the weak and sickly, who would otherwise have burdened society.

Complex Ancient Residences

We were awe-struck by the maze of impressive structures, including residences in Teotihuacan replete with courtyards, varieties of rooms, toilets, bathtubs, drainage systems, and even downspouts to funnel rainwater into underground cisterns. Impressive!

Transported in time to a people, who used plants like agave to make cloth, crushed insects, and cactus fruits to obtain colors, who demonstrated genius in astronomy, math, and engineering, left us wanting just a bit more. Food!

We were not to be disappointed. A short drive from the pyramids, Jorge took us to Restaurant Meztli for lunch. Pride of place on their menu was accorded to escamoles, ant larvae, a Mexican delicacy that adventurous foodies may find hard to resist.

For myself, I asked for a second helping of two different kinds of cactus fruit (called ‘prickly pear’ in North America). The sweet and slightly sour one is ‘tunas’ and the juicy and crisp one, ‘cristalina’.

They were delicious. Cristalina tasted almost like jackfruit, a popular fruit in the Indian state of Kerala. Cactus salad made with the broad succulent plant after removing the sharp thorns, is another delicacy that we enjoyed.

I also learned that ‘mole’ is Mexican for sauce and the oh-so-popular guacamole dip that is a must on every wannabe Mexican chef’s table, is the Nahuatl word for avocado (guaca) sauce(mole)!

If you wish to read about the glory of the Americas before Columbus, your best bet is ‘1491’ by Charles C. Mann, selected Best Book of the Year by several leading publications.

Floating Mariachi Band, Xochimilco, Mexico
Floating Mariachi Band, Xochimilco, Mexico

Xochimilco – the Venice of Mexico

A picture of concentration, our boatman - Xochimilco, Mexico
A picture of concentration, our boatman – Xochimilco, Mexico

A handy getaway from bustling Mexico City with a touch of Venice. Far from the madding crowds yet not too far from the city.

The gentle lapping of water with brightly colored boats (trajineras) decked with flowers, small man-made islands, and indigenous peoples tenuously holding on to a throwback tradition of the Aztec era.

Located 15 miles south of Mexico City, Xochimilco is a network of canals, once used extensively by the Aztecs for trade and commerce, dotted with man-made islands and floating markets.

Xochimilco is a Nahuatl word meaning ‘flower garden’ and it is famous for the chinampas or ‘floating gardens’ where, continuing the tradition of their Aztec ancestors, indigenous peoples continue to produce fruits, flowers, and vegetables, the mainstay of their livelihood.

We rented a boat with an oarsman (Alejandro) for an hour paying 500 pesos (30 USD). And bravely hopping from one boat to another, across ‘parked’ boats, we reached ‘Lolita’.

Interestingly, the owners name their boats after women in their families, as a sign of respect to women in Mexican society.

Restaurant Meztli.
Restaurant Meztli.

True to form, as a welcoming gesture, I was invited to choose a flower from a basket that had a whole bunch prettied up with a colorful ribbon tied around it to look like a corsage.

With skill, strength and dexterity, Alejandro, maneuvered Lolita out of the fleet of boats moored very tightly, bobbing awkwardly with every nudge and bump. We encountered other multi-colored ‘trajineras’ on our hour-long ride.

One was selling scarves and shawls, another ‘pulque’ (a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage from the fermented sap of the maguey plant) and yet another, steaming corn-on-the-cob. From the far end, we heard music and we soon glided past a floating Mariachi band, serenading young tourists cracking open beer bottles rather early in the morning.

Island Nursery’s Carnivorous Plants

Carnivorous plants in Xochimilco, Mexico.
Carnivorous plants in Xochimilco, Mexico.

Our tour included a stop at an island nursery. Colorful tropical potted plants and flowers filled the place but what caught our attention was a collection of ‘plantas carnivoras’. Yes, carnivorous plants that consumed insects. However, Jorge punctured our sense of amazement by matter-of-factly noting that flies and mosquitoes were adept at avoiding them.

What with its idyllic ambiance, Xochimilco is a popular getaway for the denizens of Mexico City, not to mention tourists. Often, large trajineras are hired for day-long family celebrations, with mariachi bands providing the entertainment.

Conveniently, the pier also boasts a modest market selling souvenirs and handicrafts, everything from sombreros, ponchos, paintings, and what-have-you. Xochimilco boasts an indigenous society moored in a proud and ancient civilization, providing valuable insights into history!

Nirmala Venkatesh 1

Nirmala Venkatesh was a well-known journalist in the Middle East, based in Bahrain, free-lancing for the Dubai-based Gulf News. She was also a staff reporter for Bahrain Tribune, covering local stories. She has passed the prestigious Probationary Officers Examination from India and worked for Bank of America in Hillsboro, Oregon, and Buffalo, NY.  She now lives in Toronto.

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