“This is my office,” Carlos San Roman says, gesturing out the driver side window to the streets of Mexico City.
Billboards advertising Chili’s baby back ribs, a Sylvester Stallone movie (“solo en cines”), Sears and Corona hover over dated red and yellow taxis, Volkswagen Beetles and motorcycles grappling for space.
Behind them, the hazy outlines of the mountains and volcanoes that frame the Valley of Mexico. The pollution stings our eyes and tickles our throats.
See below for a video of what we saw out the cab window on the ride from Mexico City to Teotihuacan.
San Roman is our guide for a day trip to Teotihuacan, an archaeological site 45 minutes northeast of Mexico City. Here, the most influential city in Mesoamerica thrived for hundreds of years before it was destroyed and abandoned around 700 AD.
Today is my fiance Greg’s 30th birthday. We’re celebrating with a climb up the Pyramid of the Sun, one of the tallest pyramids in the world.
Guide Recommended. Not Required
A five-hour tour with San Roman, a guide and interpreter for more than 20 years, runs $155 US for up to four people.
A guide is not necessary to tour Teotihuacan. Public busses from Mexico City run a mere $8 US round trip. But posts on travel forums about armed robberies on the busses – whether founded or not – steered us into hiring San Roman.
Though plenty of passengers have reported trouble-free rides and police check passengers leaving Teotihuacan, issues may occur when the bus stops at stations on the ride back to the city.
“There are no police checking people there,” San Roman says.
So we ride in his 2006 Camry. Past cornfields. Past smokestacks. Past tottering cities of cinderblock.
Finally, we see it: the 200-plus foot Pyramid of the Sun. It’s an imperfect triangular mound with staggered levels, a muddy grey facade, and a steep staircase that visitors climb to the uneven top.
The smaller Pyramid of the Moon sits a half mile to the north via the Avenue of the Dead. Two miles south is the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent.
The original purpose of these roads, temples and pyramids is unknown. Even the names are made up.
Teotihuacan’s Mysterious End
The Aztecs discovered Teotihuacan and named it “the place where the gods were created” some 600 years after the city was mysteriously destroyed and abandoned around 700 AD.
“It went from 75,000 people to 5,000 overnight,” San Roman says.
Some theories blame the exodus on a war with outside communities. Others say the city was destroyed during an internal revolt.
The pyramids were restored in the 1900s. Today the Avenue of the Dead is filled with vendors pushing sombreros, jewelry and miniature versions of the Aztec calendar. They don’t hassle us as much as they do visitors without guides.
The steps of the Pyramid of the Sun are steep and uneven. The high altitude – Mexico City sits almost a mile and a half above sea level – and the beers and tequila we consumed at lunch force us to stop at each level to catch our breaths and wait for our heads to stop pounding.
Around us, climbers speak Chinese, Dutch and Spanish. Children dart past. We sidestep those who cling to the few handrails.
The urge to climb the last set of stairs on all fours sets in right around the 30-minute mark.
Finally, we reach the top. A temple used to stand here but now it’s just a pile of rocks.
Exhausted tourists wait for their legs to stop trembling before posing for pictures.
Below us the vendors blow through noisemakers that mimic the roar of mountain lions. Loud explosions bounce off the surrounding hills, the sound of nearby towns celebrating their patron saints. Loose dogs rest under the scrubby trees that surround the complex.
I ask San Roman about rumors of an ancient energy line running through the middle of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Thousands flock here on the spring and summer solstices, stopping traffic in their quest to commune with the cosmos. Might the tingling in our legs and lightheadedness be caused by something other than the steep climb and altitude?
San Roman shuts me down.
“That’s a modern invention,” he says.
The steps are just as steep on the way down. San Roman, in his dress shoes and pressed white shirt, bounces ahead of us down the last few steps. He has already caught his breath by the time we reach him and suggests a climb up the ten-plus-story Pyramid of the Moon.