The National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City is an excellent way to discover the human history of Mexico. From the dawn of the human species until the modern day, it covers everything. It was for this reason – that it would inform our travels – that I insisted the museum be one of the first places we visit during our trip to Cuidad de Mexico.
Getting to the Museo Nacional Antropología
The National Anthropology Museum is in the Chapultepec Park district of Mexico City. It is on the north side of the park, above Lago de Chapultepec and Paseo de la Reforma. Its location makes it an opportune destination for entire day’s outing – we combined our day withChapultepec Castle.
Need to Know:
Address: Av Paseo de la Reforma & Calzada Gandhi S/N, Chapultepec Polanco, Miguel Hidalgo, 11560 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
Hours: 9 am – 7 pm (Closed Mondays)
Entrance Fee: $70.00 MX pesos. (~$3.70 USD)
Finding Your Way
The museum is very large and has a large avenue leading to it. There are also signs throughout Chapultepec Park that will direct you where to go. Opposite the museum, is a large pole and demonstration ground. Here we witnessed an indigenous ceremony where drum and flute players hang by their feet upside down while spinning to the ground.
Upon entering the front building you have three options:
Left: Gift Shop
Right: Special Exhibition
Center: Permanent Exhibition
You cannot have backpacks, bags, etc – luckily, the museum provides a “coat storage” for you just behind the gift shop. After that, you can proceed towards the right side of the entrance building where you can purchase your tickets and receive a map.
Designed in 1960, the museum is – to say the least – huge. With 23 rooms, each covering a distinct aspect of Mexican heritage, culture, and history, the establishment is the most visited museum in Mexico.
The museum began in 1790 and expanded and moved numerous times over the following centuries. For a while, the collection was housed in Chapultepec Castle, before settling at the current location.
The current design is that of a horseshoe around a large central pond. The buildings are two stories with a courtyard accessible from the bottom floor.
When we entered, the ticket master handed us a map, and circled a few key exhibits. As it was a little bit later in the day, we would not have the time to see the whole museum. You will need at least a whole day to see everything – however, you can still get a great experience even if you only see half. If you have the time and interest, you could spend a second day there too!
We spent around 4 hours in the museum. All the exhibits were kept in top shape, and were highly informative and interesting. One aspect that we particularly enjoyed was how the bottom floor exhibits had their own outdoor exhibit portions as well. These gardens gave fresh air and a more authentic presentation of the artifacts.
We put our focus on the Mayans, Olmecs, Aztecs, and Teotihuacan, as well as on the Oaxaca region. Though, we did still manage to see the majority of the museum. It does not disappoint at all.
A reconstruction of an Aztec temple in one of the many outside exhibits. This is a part of the Tenochtitlan exhibit.
A stone carving of an Aztec God.
Arguably one of the most recognizable artifacts from the Aztecs – the great stone sun calendar is a huge monolithic carving.
A scale model replica of the Templo Mayor complex. The ruins of the complex can be seen in Centro Historico.
The Jaguar is an important animal in the mythologies of the Aztecs.
The Mesoamericans were highly skilled stone workers.
Second-floor exhibits display more modern items. Here, we viewed the traditional dress and textiles of the region.
Death was a very important part of the cultures of Mexico and Central America.
Do Visit The National Anthropology Museum
I really don’t think I can emphasize enough, just how impressive the museum is. It’s excellently curated and should keep you occupied the entire time you are there. The displays are in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl – so don’t worry about understanding if you don’t speak Spanish.
In the heart of Mexico City’s Centro Historico district, the ancient Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, lies the ruins of Templo Mayor. Today, what remains is only ruins, but the site was once one of the most important temples in the Aztec Empire. It is now a great look into Aztec and Mesoamerican culture and history in the center of the now bustling Mexico City.
Our path to visiting Templo Mayor was part of a much longer and bigger day. Because of the way that we went, it seemed to be far more complicated to get into the archaeological site than it actually is.
We had approached from the west, on the north side of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Zocalo Square. There is an elevated walkway that goes around the north side of the site and offers decent views of the ruins – but it didn’t seem to offer any actual entrances.
We walked the entire outer boundary of the ruins, but with no luck. At one point, we thought we found the entrance, but it actually turned out to be the exit. The exit is surprisingly more elaborate and conspicuous than the entrance. Most likely, it served as the entrance at one time.
Regardless, the actual entrance to Templo Mayor is on the south side of the compound, and can easily be accessed via the east side of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Cost: $70 Pesos (~ $4 USD) for adults. Free for children under 13, Mexican students and educators, and seniors.
No food, water, or umbrellas are allowed – free stowage is provided at entrance.
Photography is allowed.
Entering the Ruins
Once you exit the entry building, you arrive to the ruins of Templo Mayor itself. We broke this up into two different viewing times: once before, and once after visiting the Templo Mayor Museum. This may not seem intuitive at first, but it actually does serve a purpose.
We entered a small, elevated walkway and explored the ruins some. There are plaques, but upon initial viewing, you don’t walk away with much understanding. But this is okay! It piques your interest for the monster to come that is the Templo Mayor Museum.
History of Templo Mayor
Legend says that the Aztecs were in search of a location to build their city. In a vision, the king was told to found their city when they found an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake. The next day, that is what they saw. The city of Tenochtitlan was founded sometime around 1325 CE with the main temple built at the site the eagle was seen.
The site is a very large and robust archaeological site, still undergoing excavation today. On some days, you may even see archaeologists hard at work to recover more artifacts. Much of the site is buried beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral, Zocalo Square, the Palace, and other colonial buildings.
However, in 1978, electric workers came across the massive stone monolith while digging. Work stopped, and a special study ensued from 1978 to 1982 to determine if the site was worth studying. At the end of the study, it was deemed a very well preserved and intact site, which lead to the demolition of 13 buildings. The ruins remain as found, with small artifacts housed in the adjoining Templo Mayor Museum.
The coup-de-grace of Templo Mayor is the massive pyramid that once stood 200 feet tall. It went through seven different construction phases, each phase building a new pyramid atop the old.
When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, lead by Hernan Cortes, they saw the seventh phase of the pyramid. It was topped with two temples: one to Huitzilopochtli – the god of war and sun; and one to Tlaloc – the god of water. They were impressed at the number and grandeur of the temples, but were revolted at the beliefs of the Aztecs and human sacrifice.
In 1519, the Spaniards began a war against the Aztecs that would rage on in bloody conflict until Tenochtitlan fell in 1521. Cortes ordered the destruction of the city – and of the temple – and began the construction of a Mediterranean style city built in its place.
The site of Templo Mayor quickly fell to nothing more than memory as the Spanish and later Mexican governments continued to build atop the site. It would remain mostly forgotten until its rediscovery in 1978.
Templo Mayor Museum
We entered the museum, not knowing what to expect. We had thought it would be rather small – but we were wrong. The museum is rather large, although compact, and is very well curated. You can easily dedicate 2 – 3 hours wandering it’s four floors and eight exhibition rooms. It even has a small gift shop.
Room 1: Historical Background
This room provides an overview of the history of the site and it’s discovery.
Room 2: War and Sacrifice
This room showcases artifacts relating to the violence of the Aztecs. Funerary offerings, skulls, and weapons adorn the room.
The fired clay statue of Mictlantecuhtli shows the god of the underworld with his liver hanging out and skin removed.
Room 3: Tribute and Trade
This room covers the important role of trade and commerce throughout the Aztec Empire. Merchants were extremely important in the Mexica culture. They would often serve as communication links between cities, and assault of a merchant was seen as an act of war.
Room 4: Huitzilopochtli
This room is dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and human sacrifice.
Room 5: Tlaloc
This room is showcases the god Tlaloc, the god of water. It was believed that rain was the result of breaking pots in the heavens. The shattering of ceramic was believed to be the sound we know as thunder.
Room 6: Flora and Fauna
Animals and plants were an important part of Aztec and Mexica life. This room covers the different species of importance in the cultures of the regions including: jaguars, dogs, eagles, crocodiles, and hummingbirds.
Room 7: Agriculture
Part of the success of the Tenochtitlan was the innovative agricultural practices. The city was built on a lake, and food was grown on chinampas. Chinampas were floating platforms built of reed, wood, and filled with soil.
Important plants grown were:
Room 8: Historical Archeology
The final room documents the colonial times of city, and it’s transition from Aztec to Spanish to Mexican.
Each room had an interactive video display. However, most were not working when we went – much to the dismay of a security guard.
Returning to the Ruins, with New Understandings
After completing our long run through the museum, we returned to the ruins outside. With a now far greater understanding of the site, we could now better appreciate what we were looking at.
Most of the ruins remain open to the elements. But a few sections have permanent roofs. These sections contain important relics or areas such as rooms.
The walkways in this area are far longer and more extensive than the initial ones. As well, they get lower, so you can start to get a better scale of what it was like to walk among the temples.
After many hours, we made our way out of Templo Mayor. If you didn’t leave anything at the entrance then you can simply exit through the main exit – otherwise, just backtrack to the entrance to gather your things!
The number one thing that I wanted to see and do while in Mexico City, was to visit Teotihuacan.Massive pyramids of stone standing in the highlands just north of the capital – these behemoths are the largest in the world that you can climb.
Getting to Teotihuacan
There are many different ways to get to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The method you choose should reflect what you wanting to get out of the experience and how much of a budget you are on. They are about 25 miles north of Mexico City, so you can’t simply walk there.
To beat the crowds, be sure to arrive early. This means that you will have the option of using your own car, a taxi, or an Uber.
If you are less concerned about arriving early in the day, you can take public transportation to Autobuses del Norte station, where you can then take a comfortable bus ride to the pyramids.
If you want it easy, and you don’t care too much about price – you can take a guided tour, where you will be picked up from your hotel and have everything arranged for you.
After seeing a few videos and pictures of incredibly big crowds at Teotihuacan, we decided that we should get in early. Briana also read somewhere that you could catch the site of hot air balloons if you got there before the park opens (unfortunately this didn’t end up working out for us). We didn’t trust trying to take a taxi, so we took an Uber. This is where I made our first mistake – which you should avoid. You should be sure to put in the address as:
55800 Teotihuacan, State of Mexico, Mexico
And if you have the option, further specify the pyramids and try to get to Gate 2. There are 3 Gates you can enter at.
We began by grabbing some water from a local convenience store and then grabbing an Uber.
I Made a Mistake
I did not put in the correct address. Upon ordering our Uber, I simply put in Teotihuacan – which is a city north of Mexico City, but not the pyramids. This led to some confusion later on. Our driver picked us up around 8 in the morning and away we went. They did take quite a while to arrive (around thirty minutes), though, which delayed us to the point that we wished we had just taken the bus or slept in a little more instead. Our path meandered through the primary roads of the capital but soon gave way to rough streets and tiny villages.
I thought we might be lost, but signs for the pyramids kept appearing, so I assumed we were on the right track. It was taking much longer than it should have though. Finally, in the middle of an alley way, the driver stops and says we’ve arrived.
There was an obvious problem, but within a few minutes, and a quick talk with a local police officer, we managed to find our way to the pyramids. Sadly, what should have been a $25 – $30 USD Uber ride became a ~$60 USD ride due to my incorrect routing. Briana’s dad graciously picked up the tab.
We got in a little late, but ultimately, it turned out fine. Just be sure to specify exactly where you want to go!
Arriving at Teotihuacan
We arrived later than we intended due to both issues with Uber, but the site was still pretty empty. We made our way up the road from Gate 2, which faces the the Pyramid of the Sun. Entrance to the ruins costs $70 Pesos (~$4 USD), which is really cheap compared to most sites of such grand scale.
After passing the ticket booth, there is a road that leads towards the main area – lined with vendors. Most of the vendors where not active yet. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that the venders weren’t as pushy as we’d read – a simple “no gracias” was all it took to be left alone.
The enormous compound consists of four main parts:
The Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Moon
The Avenue of the Dead
Cuidadela / Feathered Serpent Pyramid
It is oriented where the Pyramid of the Moon is on the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead, with the Pyramid of the Sun on the eastern side of the Avenue of the Dead halfway down, and the Cuidadela / Feathered Serpent Pyramid on the south end of the mile and half long Avenue of the Dead.
Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. It is impossible to miss, as it stands at 216 feet tall, and 760 feet wide. It is also the largest pyramid in the world that you can climb.
We approached it in the cool morning air, and began our ascent. It looks big from afar, but you can’t really grasp just how big it is until you begin to climb it. It just keeps going up, and you can’t see the summit. As you go, you get winded and hear the sound of jaguar and eagle whistles from the vendors below.
Luckily, the pyramid is stepped, so there are multiple places to take a rest and look back on how high you’ve climbed. There are rails to assit you up and down – but the friendly stray dogs don’t seem to need them.
Upon arriving to the summit, you’re given an awesome view of the surrounding plains, mountains, and site. We stayed at the summit for close to a half-hour, just admiring the views before continuing down.
Pyramid of the Moon
The Pyramid of the Moon is on the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead and has it’s own plaza, surrounded by numerous smaller temple mounts.
Although not as tall, the Pyramid of the Moon is still huge. The steps to to the first platform are also far steeper than any others at Teotihuacan. We climbed to the platform and then rested there for a while. We enjoyed the sites and views before moving on. You can’t climb to the summit here though, because the top is more in ruins than the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
It should also be noted, that you should wear plenty of sunscreen. At over 7,000 feet elevation and a lower latitude, exposure to the sun is more intense and sunburn happens quick – as we figured out. We quickly applied some sunscreen, but too late. We continued for the rest of the day to use an umbrella and wear jackets to shade ourselves as much as possible.
Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl
On the west side of the Plaza of the Moon lies the Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl. Although smaller, be sure not to miss it. The area consists of two parts: the upper and lower areas.
The lower area contains some well-preserved murals of jaguars and altar spaces. There is also a temple that is underneath the Palace. In this area, you can see a great mural of a feathered serpent.
The upper area consists primarily of ruins. However, there is a well preserved courtyard of Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl that contains many columns with great relief carvings.
Just outside the palace is Gate 1. You can enter / exit the site here, or you can check out the numerous vendor stalls. Here we picked up some banana chips to satiate our hunger until we returned to the city or got food and a few affordable souvenirs.
History of Teotihuacan
The structure of Teotihuacan is that of a planned city complex. At it’s height, it is estimated to have been the home to around 200,000 citizens. Construction began sometime between 50 and 500 CE.
The pyramids were constructed sometime between 200 and 250 CE. The complex as a whole consists of 15 massive pyramids along the Avenue of the Dead.
Unlike today, the tops of the pyramids were only ever visited by royalty, priests, and sacrifices. The Teotihuacans practiced extensive human sacrifice – as did much of the region – and would kill prisoners of war, citizens, and children to appease the gods.
The methods were brutal and bloody. Decapitation, crushing, removing the heart – the methods were extreme. Thankfully, these are no longer practiced today.
When the Aztecs arrived in the 1300s, Teotihuacan was already in ruins. The original names of the site have been lost, but we now know them by way of the Aztecs. They believed that this was the birth place of the gods.
Calidad de los Muertos
The Avenue of the Dead stretches the entire length of Teotihuacan, and consists a project just as massive an undertaking as the the pyramids themselves. The avenue diverts the San Juan river, which allowed for better irrigation and water control.
Along the entire length, are great plazas, temple mounts, temples and pyramids. The walk takes a long time to make your way through, considering the up and down nature of climbing the many steps.
The Avenue of the Dead also provides ample opportunity to see old ruins, newer constructions, and reconstructions. Here is a preserved mural of a puma.
This pyramid had a temple built atop it.
You can tell what has been reconstructed by the look of the buildings. Reconstructed buildings have stone that was found on site, brought together with a local motar, with small black volcanic rocks in the mortar between the stone. It creates a nice look that also helps you to easily identify what is original.
La Ciudadela and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent
After a very long hike along the Avenue of the Dead, we finally arrived at the last of the primary sites for the day. The Ciudadela is a massive plaza that consists a field of grass surrounded on all sides by low temple mount constructions.
On the far side of the plaza rests one last pyramid – or rather two. At this point, Briana and her dad decided they didn’t want to climb the pyramid as we’d already walked and climbed so much. I decided that I wanted to check it out anyways.
So I climbed the pyramid and found that on the other side of the pyramid was yet another. So I descended the pyramid and came across the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. This pyramid was far shorter than the others, but much more exquisitely decorated. Numerous carved heads of serpents lined the walls and stairs.
The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent was used specifically in the sacrifice of children.
Other Notables at Teotihuacan
Across from the Cuidadela is Gate 1. Gate 1 has a small visitors center and restaurant that you can visit. However, the prices are very much tourist prices, and if you have the patience you can get a better and more affordable meal back in Mexico City.
There is also an on-site museum on the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun. We didn’t visit because we were very tired – we had been trekking around the area for around 6 – 7 hrs by this point and were a bit hungry and eager to get back with our worsening sun burns – and we had just had a good look at the Teotihuacan exhibit at the Anthropology Museum the day before.
It is also worth noting that the weather can be temperamental. When we arrived, the temperature was around 60F, but when the sun came out it would shoot up into the mid 80s within a couple minutes. At such a high elevation, the weather can change quite quickly. We were also lucky to be arriving at the end of the rainy season when everything was green.
Getting Back to Mexico City
There is a bus that arrives every fifteen minutes at Gate 2 that goes back to Mexico City to the Autobuses del Norte station. A round trip will cost $100 Pesos or $50 Pesos each way.
We found the bus ride to be pretty enjoyable overall. Although it was crowded at first, a few people got off and we were able to get seats shortly. We were then treated to a better view of the north side of Mexico City.
The ride took a little over an hour to get to the bus station – which does not have good food. Along the way, police came on board to document who all was on board. This may happen, and it’s a simple safety precaution – nothing to be worried about.
All in all, Teotihuacan is an awesome experience that you should not miss on your visit to Mexico City.