On The Road: Chasing The Aztecs
Puerto Vallarta – Teotihuacan
Early Friday morning in the blackness of night, I set out from Puerto Vallarta, last night’s cheap wine and sweet goodbyes still banging around in my head as I tear down back roads and highways. I will cover over 900 kilometers today, in the process leaving behind the deserts, cities and small towns of northern Mexico in search of the ancient Aztec Empire.
The drive proves easy if pricy. Apparently, while the US has been allowing our infrastructure to crumble, Mexico has been on a silent mission to build one of the most modern highway systems known to man. Even the “Devil’s Backbone”, a 200 mile serpentine one lane highway of death has been tamed. What was once a perilous collection of mountain passes, blind turns and lunatic truckers, your only rest stop shady drug towns, is now a nearly dead strait $2.2 billion colossus. With over 60 tunnels, each intricately laced with LEDs and heads up digital traffic readouts, and 30 towering suspension bridges it is a marvel of modern engineering of the first magnitude.
What was once a backwater is now a panoply of speed, efficiency and safety. Semi trucks drive 100mph with no fear or difficulty. The downside of all this development are the tolls, which even by Western European standards could induce cardiac arrest, or at least prompt eyeballs to pop out of one’s head in cartoon-like fashion. I think, thus far, I’m up to about $300.Many, many hours later I arrive in Teotihuacan. The town is unimpressive. Congested and dirty, the walls of the traditional pastel buildings are compiled of 10-15 colors, each no doubt applied in an attempt to mask the graffiti that blankets the city. The streets and sidewalks are formed of dust and scattered cobblestone remnant, battered and bruised. I settle in for the night at my guesthouse and ready myself for an early morning tour of the ancient city.
Un…F*#@-ing…Real. I know I shouldn’t curse. It’s poor writing, indicative of my inability to articulate the emotion that besets me at this moment. It also wholly fails to capture the grandeur of the place in which I find myself and lacks respect and reverence for those who conceived of this truly staggering place. Yet, these are the only wo-rds passing through my head. Over and over I repeat it to myself, truly, completely, dumbfoundedly, slackjawedly awestruck by the incomprehensively massive collection of streets, buildings, temples and pyramids that lay before me.
The city of Teotihuacan served as the epicenter of power in the ancient Aztec Empire. Two thousand years ago this was the largest city in all of the Americas, North or South. Over 150,000 residents are thought to have called this city home. Its expanse is truly biblical in scale. The city is split into 4 equal quarters, bisected North-South by the Avenue of the Dead, the central thoroughfare that is 3.5km long. This may not seem exceptional but in an age when most of humanity lived in tribes of 150 people or less it is absolutely staggering. Even to my modern eyes it conveys a presence not met by the glass and granite canyons of Chicago or New York or San Francisco.
The Avenue is wide, wide as a six-lane highway, monstrous and engulfing. Its sides are lined with endless shrines, temples & stepped Pyramids. The entire city rests on a hillside with the Temple of the Moon at its zenith to the North. As the land descends the Aztecs split the Avenue of the Dead into “blocks” which have been segmented into sequential vertically arranged courtyards, each separated by a staircase and filled in with rock and sediment, each slightly higher than the last. As you move away from the Lunar Pyramid the fill compensates for the slope creating a lock system similar to that of a modern ship ferrying river, only constructed of hundreds of thousands of metric tons of rock, sediment, and debris, and ferrying people rather than boats. It creates the impression that the entire street is on plane with the Pyramid, magnifying the street’s length several times over in your perception. It’s a stirringly effective engineering feat; the city seemingly goes on to infinity in all its stone and ziggurated glory, stopped only by the towering Pyramid worlds away. There is no question this was the epicenter of the ancient world.
The central pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, located along the Avenue of the Dead, three-quarters down the road to the North is truly a colossus, the third largest pyramid in the history of the world, it trials only its two iconic Egyptian brethren in its scope. To stand in front of it is world-changing. Its height and mass are so staggering that if a modern cruise ship were sitting beached before me in the heart of Mexico, I would be no more shocked at its expanse nor the unlikelihood of its presence before me. To climb to the top is too feel that you can almost touch the sky and bear witness to the curvature of the earth.
Yet the size and scale of these massive structures is not what is most impressive. It is the sheer multitude and complexity of the remaining city. The layout is so exacting, the execution so perfect. There are thousands upon thousands of homes, workshops, government facilities, temples, alters, public forums, even sacrificial plateaus. Modern planned cities do not come close the exactitude that is Teotihuacan.
Yet, for all its precision it remains artful, beautiful. Each stone picked to perfectly trace the desired shape of a building’s exterior. On the mortar between the larger stones rests a line of decorative small stones, like giant ants crawling in a perfectly straight line down the center. Archeological findings even suggest that at times of ceremony and celebration, the entire city - walls, courtyard floors, temples - were covered in vibrant paintings and decorative tiles.
To truly grasp, to truly feel the spectacle of this place and the significance it represents some context may aid. Teotihuacan was constructed two thousand years ago, two thousand! This may not sound like much but just 100 years ago we had yet to fight World Wars I & II. Britain, the Ottoman-Turks, and the French dominated the world. There were no cars, no phones, no radios, no Internet. Electricity was just going up in a few cities around the globe; all the others were still dark. We had yet to find the atom or identify DNA, the primary cause of maritime war-deaths was Scurvy, we burned witches at the stake and no one bathed more than a few times a month. Now multiply that change by twenty and remember with each century you go back things get exponentially more primitive. Two thousand years ago Jesus has just finished walking the earth and Christianity and the Bible had yet to be formally recorded in writing. This structure, this society was so ahead of its time in its ability, organization, development and grandeur that the most impressive city on two continents has not even a single protective wall. The Aztecs were that domineering, that untouchable, that fearless. This is the hubris that comes only with a feeling of absolute control of one’s domain, if not complete infallibility. God need not build gates around Heaven it is said.
I am, in awe.