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!
One of the biggest things we wanted to do in Ho Chi Minh was the Cu Chi Tunnels, made famous for the fierce fighting that took place during the Vietnam war (or the American War from their perspective).
Many Options to Visit the Cu Chi Tunnels
There are several ways to get to the tunnels. The easiest is to take a tour bus to the tunnels. If you’re in one of the main hotels or in District 1, you can simply arrange for a tour bus to the tunnels and the operators will take care of the logistics – just show up where and when they want and off you go (these options will run anywhere from $15 – $40).
You can also take a boat tour, where you take a speed boat up the rivers and canals to the tunnels – this option generally runs more expensive (~$80), but can be more personal and more convenient. Bike tours are another option.
You could also rent a taxi for the day which can run a little expensive as well (~$50). We chose a different, cheaper, and more exciting option.
Deciding on Taking a Bike
We were up in the Go Vap district which is quite a ways away from District 1 and all the tour operators. We really didn’t want to take a taxi, and we wanted to experiment with riding a motorbike so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. There was virtually nothing online about riding to the tunnels – most people just said not to do it, that it was too difficult. Our host helped set us up with a SIM card so that we could use GPS and lent us his automatic scooter.
Our trip to the tunnels was quite an adventure, so I’m going to break this up into three sections: The journey there, the tunnels themselves, and the journey back.
We prepared to leave by thoroughly looking at the map, writing down directions, and taking pictures. Then I set up the directions within the GPS on my phone and we left around 10:45. The trek should have been about 40 km to reach the tunnels – 1 hour.
Our plan was to make our way up out of Go Vap and take the QL1/QL1A to QL22. Immediately we realized that taking a bike was the best way to see and experience Vietnam. There were just so many little things that you could miss on a bus or taxi. The views were really quite amazing even for a rather dirty little part of town. About 15 km down QL22 the road has a split, and you can take DH2 to Lien Xa. Lien Xa will then merge with Nguyen Thi Lang. Nguyen Thi Lang will shortly then dead end onto DT8 where you make a right turn and about half a km later will turn left onto Cay Bai.
QL1 and QL22 are both major highways, luckily it is divided between bikes and cars, which makes the journey a little bit safer. Once you turn off onto DH2 the roads become far more narrow and aren’t divided. Driving becomes more like regular city driving here. Once you hit Cay Bai though, you will be in very rural roads where you may be the only person on the road.
Starting To Get Lost
Once you get out here, your GPS may start to lose signal, so it’s important to know where you’re going. Although we’d taken pictures, I was relying on my GPS too much, which started confusing us (me). The issue we later figured out was that the GPS was taking us to Cu Chi the city, not the tunnels. So it was trying to bring us to the center of the town, which is really more an agricultural district than anything.
The Correct Route
We should have stayed on Cay Bai and followed it all the way until it ends at Ba Thien. Cay Bai merges with Pham Van Coi about halfway through this distance. But the map was throwing me off and kept thinking that I was missing a turn – so began the beginning of getting lost.
We turned down a red dirt road, that quickly looked like it turned into a military installation. To the left of us was a dry creek bed, and on the right were fields, old bunkers, and watch posts. We decided that we were not going the right direction and turned around.
Before going, we went to the restroom on the sides of the road, and then took pictures. What we had not noticed until near the end was that there was a soldier in the watch post who had been watching us the entire time. I decided to call up to him and ask him which way to the tunnels. He just laughed and didn’t answer. It didn’t mean much, but we figured it meant that we were no where near the tunnels.
We Didn’t Take The Correct Route
Getting back to the main road, we continued on Cay Bai. The road here was quite scenic and we passed through a new growth forest that shielded us from the shade. This was a nice reprieve, as we hadn’t thought about sun burn, and we were getting a pretty bad burn.
We came to a little town, and checked the GPS, which pointed us off down a little road which we took. Several km later, we arrived at a military installation, and what looked like the end of the dirt road we were on earlier. We turned down another much larger dirt road, and went for several km until we once again came to the realization we were totally lost. We made our way back out and went up to the guards to military gate and asked for directions. They drew us a map but it was pretty useless.
At this point, we were getting really low on gas, so we headed back the way we came for a bit to stop and get some gas. We were also getting very hot, tired, and thirsty and Briana started to feel sick, so we stopped by a little covered stall and got drinks.
I thought I’d got us two sugar cane drinks, but they brought us coconut water. Briana does not like coconut water so I ended up having to drink two of them .This was fine for me I guess, but didn’t help Briana.
A guy who spoke English asked us if we knew our way back to Ho Chi Minh and we said yes, and then proceeded on our way to get gas. Luckily, the break and shade helped us a little bit.
Back On the Road
We quickly came upon some gas and filled up the bike. I didn’t actually know how to open the gas tank, but luckily the attendants were quite helpful and took care of it all for us. It only cost us 40,000 Dong (~$2) to fill the tank completely and we headed back the way we came to look a little bit more before giving up.
As we passed the place we stopped off, the guy who spoke to us previously got on his bike and caught up to us. He quickly asked us why we were coming back (assuming we were heading back to the city). We told him we just needed gas and were looking for the tunnels. He told us to just follow the road for about 15 km and then turn right when the road ended.
We Were Followed
We continued down the road for quite a bit. At some point, a local on a bike noticed us and started to follow and stalk us. We turned down the road Bau Lach and quickly found out that was not the way we wanted to go.
The guy was following us and acting quite creepy. We turned around and decided to try the other direction of Bau Lach, to which the guy turned around and followed us again. He came up and tried to talk to us while riding.
Trying to indicate for us to stop, and possibly for Briana to get on his bike; I kept trying to tell him that we weren’t interested in whatever it was he wanted .
I was too nice in telling him no, and should have just been rude to him. Instead, I kept trying to speed up or slow down to lose him, but he kept with us. I did not realize he was following us for a long time and wasn’t quite sure Briana was right but after 40 minutes of following us even with all the turn-arounds and u-turns, it was pretty evident.
Finally He Left
Eventually, I managed to turn around and head back towards Cay Bai. The guy turned around to follow us again, but finally seemed to give up and just left us. Our initial research seems to point to him trying to rob us. Whatever it was, he was being way too persistent to have had actual good intentions.
Turning back onto Cay Bai, we decided to just take the man’s advice and go to the end of the road. We were getting ready to give up after continuing on for a while, and were going to give just five minutes more when we finally hit the end of the road, saw a sign that pointed to the Cu Chi Tunnels and turned right.
2 km down the road we came to the tunnels and finally parked. What should have been a 1 1/2 hour ride had just turned into nearly 4 hours.
Briana edit: Kyle was actually ready to give up when we were what I thought was 10 minutes, (but was actually 20 minutes) away but I convinced him to keep going. I didn’t want to have gone all this way and not make it there.
When we arrived at the tunnels, we were directed to park our bike in an area watched by security. We paid 6,000 Dong and received a ticket stub. We then headed off to purchase our tour tickers, which came out to 220,000 Dong (~$11). You have the option to take a self-guided tour, but we recommend actually going with a guide.
It is interesting to see history from another viewpoint
We proceeded down through a very large tunnel where we were given stickers and our tickets were checked and then we came out to the tunnel area and were lead to a little “movie theater” where we watched a short documentary about Cu Chi, the tunnels, and people who lived and fought there.
The video was pretty interesting, though it was (obviously) heavily skewed against the Americans. It constantly talked about the heroism and honor of people killing many American soldiers. It didn’t mention anything regarding the reasons for the war, it simply said that one day the Americans came in and decided that they wanted to bomb and kill all the civilians.
When the video finished, we were lead to a tour guide who spoke English and we were joined by a Canadian named Eduard. We basically got a private tour. Our guide was excellent, and far more tasteful than the video. We’d heard that some of the guides could be quite callous about the deaths of Americans at the tunnels, but he covered all the details without being cruel about it.
An Interactive History Lesson
We found out about how the tunnels were started long before the Vietnam war, during the war with the French. The civilians managed to live entire lives in the tunnels, working the fields at night, and fighting and living in the tunnels during the day. The 121 mile network of tunnels are extremely complex and elaborate – containing working kitchens, bunkers, living quarters, escape tunnels, and water access.
Within the tunnels, there were workshops where mines, grenades, and other weapons were manufactured. As well, they would create their uniforms: green for day fighting, and black for night fighting and women (women comprised 30% of the fighting force).
Kitchens would have chimneys that could redirect the smoke several hundred feet away to misdirect the living location, and would often times only cook during the morning so that smoke would blend with the fog.
Working Recreations of the jungle traps
The most gruesome part was the display of booby traps employed by the Cu Chi fighters. They were varied, cruel, ingenious, and deadly. Some were even still very sharp.
We were also shown the remains of an American tank, which was destroyed by a mine and a crater from a B-52’s bomb. The entire region has been subjected to carpet bombing, and the lush jungle was reduced to nothing. Today, new jungle has begun to grow back.
Shoot Authentic Guns
Our tour then led to the shooting range, which ultimately we didn’t do. However, if you choose, you have the option of firing an m16, ak 47, m60, or m1. You have to purchase 10 bullets for whichever you choose, which comes out to around 400,000 Dong (~$20). We took a short break here before heading on to a tour of the tunnel itself.
Crawling The Tunnels
We were lead down into a bunker which then descended into the tunnel itself. The tunnels were incredibly narrow, at only about 2 feet wide and 3 feet high at the largest. The guide told us as well that these tunnels had been enlarged to twice the size so that tourists could crawl through them.
During the war, the civilians were so malnourished they could easily fit and crawl through the narrow passages. Getting through the tunnels was a lot of work though, because we could not walk normally in them and they got quite hot. At various places, you could get out of the tunnel if you became too claustrophobic.
At one point, where the tunnels narrowed even more, Briana decided to get out and she took the backpack. The guide and the Canadian guy got out next. I proceeded on and had to lay down to get through the tunnel. I crawled the remaining 40 something meters to the end. For only a couple hundred meter walk, it was really quite exhausting.
Tapioca and Tea
Exiting the tunnels we were lead to a table where we got to try some tapioca and tea. It was really nice to have. We were thirsty, and more importantly, we were hungry. We hadn’t eaten all day, and the tapioca root dipped into peanuts and sugar was good. It is very similar to a sweet potato.
After eating, we were shown a few other parts of the daily life at the tunnels. We were shown how rice paper was made for spring rolls as well as how shoes were made out of old tires.
Finally, our tour wound down and we were lead back to the entrance of the park. We made our way out, fully having enjoyed our experience at the tunnels. We also talked a bit with Eduard about his traveling experience before heading our separate ways.
Feeling a bit refreshed and ready to go, we quickly made our way back onto the road. It was almost 5 and the sun set around 6, and we wanted to get back before dark. We didn’t envy the idea of trying to navigate the roads at night.
It went smoothly at first, but at some point, I made a wrong turn. I ended up going way down on TL8 which required some adjusting of directions and added more time. We got a nice look at some of the more rural (suburban?) parts of Ho Chi Minh too.
We turned down Ha Duy Phien and went south for many km. At places, the road became chaotic and crowded and required some finesse on the bike. It went smoothly though.
We began to enter some rush hour traffic as we got closer to the city. We crossed a large bridge near a park with many people flying kites and then hung right continuing down Le Van Khuong until QL1A.
Finally, we were near where we should be, and knew our path. Unfortunately, we missed our turn to Go Vap and had to back track a bit. At some point during this time, our rear wheel went flat.
I tried checking the tire, but wasn’t sure if it actually was or not. Along the way, someone told us that our wheel was flat, so it probably was. We were so close to home though and no idea how to fix the issue. So we made it back to our host who assisted us. We finally pulled up just as it got dark. Not a moment too late.
We were sore, tired, and burned – but we had a great and exciting day. If you’re up for an adventure it’s worth trying to take a bike to the tunnels. But don’t expect it to be easy to accomplish. Definitely prepare: get a map, have GPS, bring water, and wear sunscreen.
Located about 3 km north of Siem Reap, just as Charles De Gaulle Blvd begins to enter the forest on its way to Angkor, lies the active Wat Thmei temple. This moderately sized temple complex at first appears unimposing, but commemorates a very dark and recent past in Cambodian history.
A Skull Stupa Rises In Memory
Near the center of the compound, a small memorial stupa stands, housing the bones and remnants of Khmer Rouge victims. Although commonly mistaken for the killing fields, Wat Thmei was not a place of execution. Though, many murdered were held captive here before their deaths.
The Khmer Rouge
During the Khmer Rouge (1985 – 1987) roughly 2 million Cambodians (25% of the countries population) were murdered by Pol Pot and his regime. The genocide has left a scarred memory on the people. Those executed were the religiously affiliated, associated with the previous government, educated, unwilling to serve, or in any way against the Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Fields were dozens, if not hundreds, of locations across Cambodia, at which Cambodians were killed. Today, Wat Thmei stands as somber memorial to those who died. If you are not able to visit Phnom Penh and see the more in-depth museums and memorials related to the genocide, Wat Thmei is a good place to educate yourself and pay respects.
Informative Plaques Detail The Hardship
There are large posters and plaques depicting images and brief information regarding the past events. Reading through them, you begin to note the somber atmosphere that permeates the place. Many people were forced to evacuate cities with only an hour’s notice, often times leaving with only shoes.
The Temple Deserves A Visit
Wat Thmei is more than just a memorial however. A very large prayer hall greets you as you enter the compound. Within which you can see beautiful frescos and murals painted on the ceilings. And of course a golden Buddha overlooks the entire hall.
As well, there are several smaller pagodas to Buddha within the center courtyard and a few other buildings.
Removed off to the side, you can find a few grave sites and stupas – here we found a thirsty kitten that we tried to give water, but it was too afraid of us.
There also are tour guides which can give you more explanation about everything that you see – we saw one that was given a tour in Khmer, though you can apparently arrange for one in English if you want. You may even catch a monk willing to chat.
Wat Thmei is well worth the visit and does not take very long to take in. Located on Sivatha Rd, all tuk-tuks will know the place and if you go alone, it is easy to find. Although officially open from 6am – 6pm, you can expect to find it open during daylight hours. It is free to enter and visit, but it can be worth it to donate a small bit to the memorial fund.