Her downward dog was perfect.
The backpacker doing yoga on top of the world’s third-largest pyramid seemed a little out of place. Her exhale as she stretched into her pose smacked me right in my puffy face, sweating from the climb up the 200-odd stone steps.
Travelers come from all over the world to the ancient ruin city of Teotihuacán, 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, to contemplate the views and harness the spiritual energy of the land. Especially at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, people meditate and do yoga poses, supposedly to beckon the spiritual energy contained within the undiscovered interior of the pre-Hispanic building.
Granted, when you’re standing on the top of these pyramids, with the bustle of Mexico City miles away and only the wind and sun to remind you you’re alive, it’s difficult not to feel some sort of emotion, whether or not you’re spiritual or religious.
The ancient city of Teotihuacán, over 2,000 years old, has remained largely intact and is the most visited archeological site in all of Mexico. At the height of its empire, Teotihuacán was home to an estimated 250,000 people, whose origin and subsequent disappearance is still under debate. The indigenous people who built these impressive pyramids were long-gone by the time Aztec Indians strolled through the main thoroughfare, the Avenue of the Dead, and their secrets, preserved so long within the temple walls, will likely remain that way; the area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, leaving roughly 90% of the pyramids unexplored by archeologists.
Standing amid those in yoga pose and repose atop of the Pyramid of the Sun, one is presented with an unencumbered view of the expansive yellow and green fields of the surrounding basin, and can’t help but imagine what life must have been like so long ago.
The easiest way to partially bridge the centuries-wide gulf between the time of Teotihuacán and today? Take off your shoes walk around on the smoothed volcanic stone the entire city was built with, connecting directly with the same, if slightly more weathered paths walked by the city’s original inhabitants.
The knee-high stone steps of the pyramid structures make for a vigorous upward climb up and a slightly daunting descent. The pyramids are believed to represent religious centers, not everyday homes. Anthropologists speculate only high priests and kings were allowed to climb the steps of the pyramids, likely to call congregations or conduct ceremonies, sometimes human sacrifices.
Speculation is all we have; in addition to the restrictions on investigation under the UNESCO designations, the majority of the city’s stone structures still stand, much of the ancient symbols and inscriptions have been worn down, either from from weather wearing or the a fire believed to have destroyed the rest of the city. Part of the internal structure has been restored for guests to see the carved outlines of beaked birds and four-leafed flowers, providing visitors a small window into a past that is all around them and almost frustratingly inaccessible, its magic fueled by its mystery.
The present floods back in upon reaching the foot of the pyramid. On the pebbled avenues lining the pyramids you’ll run into school children on a field trip, mock-attacking each other with the colorful bow-and-arrows sold by local vendors. Roaming through the grounds amidst reeds and a silent breeze, the only sounds breaking the peace are jaguar roars: vendors have fashioned whistles to mimic the growl of a giant cat.
Leaving the pyramid grounds, food vendors gather along the road beckoning you to come dine at their small thatched-roof eateries. Signs boasting seasonal specialties and local delicacies can quickly draw travelers in for a quick bite or a leisurely lunch, but of note is the restaurant El Gran Teocalli: A buffet restaurant that offers up an array of local dishes ranging from flash-friend quesadillas to slow-roasted meat dishes simmering in their own juices for hours, perhaps the most surprising of which for unsuspecting traveler is the slow-cooked pork with Maguey worms.
The edible maguey, small, white worms that infest agave plants indigenous to Mexico, are considered a common delicacy in many traditional dishes.The worms themselves could almost be mistaken visually for a vegetable, but tasting them there is no mistaking their unique flavor. Adding a truffle-like flavor to a dish, what is an initially awkward meal for the inexperienced can quickly turn into a repeat meal, for those willing to try.
Using worms in cooking is one of the pre-Hispanic traditions still celebrated today, unlike (thankfully) human sacrifice. That’s not to say that religion and sacrifice don’t play an integral part in Mexican culture, as rituals and belief have evolved to embrace a different, though no less devout, type of worship.
The majority of Mexicans practice Catholocism, with the Virgen de Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary, considered one of the most respected religious figures. On the same day as visiting the Teotihuacán pyramids, I also visited a more contemporary and equally beautiful place of ritual and worship: The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Roman Catholic Church in the north of Mexico City, the Basilica is a modern-day look at how religion has gone from worshipping indigenous deities to incorporating the Catholic religion into daily life.
It’s often to la Virgen that daily offerings in the form of lit candles are made. Whether people need help finding a job or are asking for a sick relative to be cured, lighting candles around the Basilica is an equally beautiful and sad scene to behold. Hopeful faces, others distraught with streaming tears, are a daily occurrence at the Basilica, where people from all over the country come on a pilgrimage to pay their respect to the Virgin Mary. Candles accumulate so quickly church attendants make frequent rounds to throw away used and wilted candles to make room for new offerings and requests.
As an extra offering, many people endure physical pain and suffering in order to coax the Virgin Mary to grant their wish. It is not uncommon to see people walking on their knees, praying as they make their way into the church, demonstrating their commitment to sacrifice so as to obtain divine assistance.
Visiting the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán and modern-day churches of Mexico City in the same day was a humbling experience, learning about Mexico’s history and the people’s beliefs in a way so personal and intimate.
Both places represent hope in an often-cruel world, not necessarily faith in religion but faith in the power of community.
Indeed, community is one of the most beautiful things about Mexico and its people. Strangers, foreigners, and locals alike are united by traditional customs, music and food, making it the perfect place to make new friends, even if you’re not a fan of the worms.