‘No eres de aquí, verdad?’
‘No, soy inglesa’
‘Ahhh… y viajas SOLA?’
Dawn was breaking quickly over the Teotihuacan pyramids, one of Mexico’s breath-taking archaeological sites and, armed with my sister’s SLR camera, I was in a hurry to get inside its gates to capture the moment.
In keeping with my usual meticulous planning, I had sauntered out of my nearby guesthouse a few minutes before, assuming I would just wander in and around the ruins. Not so. A waiting taxi driver enthusiastically reprimanded me that the nearest gate was 30 minutes walk and I would definitely miss the sun. He would take me. I hopped in, expensive camera keenly slung around my neck.
When we reached the first of Teotihuacan’s five gates, I handed the man the last of my pesos. I was in time to get my photos! My mood quickly changed as I approached the entrance to find nobody there and the gates locked. Despondent, I gazed around.
‘Get back in, we’ll go to the second gate’.
Anxious that the disappearing morning light meant I wouldn’t get my photos, I gratefully climbed back in. I realised that my indulgence in the guesthouse’s (excellent) carnitas the night before had also now left me without any cash to pay him for this extra journey.
As we sped around the dusty recinto track, a Virgen rosary swinging around the rear-view mirror, the driver turned to me with a quizzical look. ‘You’re not from here are you?’. (I always felt a bit indignant at this refrain, as if my Spanish was clearly not good enough). ‘No, I’m from England’. The man looked a bit surprised and followed up with, ‘AND you’re travelling ALONE?’, his eyes narrowing. ‘Yes! I’m on my own’, I said faux cheerfully. Something about his manner made the camera feel heavy around my neck and I felt suddenly alone.
Before I left for six weeks PhD researching in Mexico last April many people had seemed surprised that I would travel there by myself. If I’m honest, this annoyed me. Nobody would say this to a man, I thought. And, even though Mexico has its problems, its capital is actually, as I found out, as safe as any major city.
I’m not sure if my taxi story has grown in the telling, but I do remember feeling the need to turn away from his gaze. As I studied the landscape from the window, I remembered the concerned and bemused expressions, the surprise that I would even entertain going to Mexico on my own. Let alone a deserted archaeological site…
I quickly compensated for this obvious solitude by gabbing about how many (imaginary) friends I had back in Mexico City, while he looked bemused beside me. As we arrived at the gate, I apologised feebly that I didn’t have any money. He batted his hand, amused, ‘Oh, you don’t have to pay.’ Oh.
As I neared the end of my research in an archaeological archive in Mexico City, a visit to Teotihuacan loomed large in my mind. Extolled by each person and guidebook as a ‘must do’, I couldn’t go home without a visit to one of Mexico’s most important archaeological sites. Las pirámides lie thirty minutes’ drive from the capital. It’s a honeypot for tourists who travel up on local buses, or more expensive guided tours, for the day to see the magnificent pre-Aztec city.
I was nervous for the journey because a friend had warned me of a person boarding his bus at the Estación del Norte, taking photos of the passengers; a record ‘in case the bus was taken hostage’. I put this tale to the back of my mind and I booked my tickets. I would go on a local bus (much cheaper, more authentic) and stay in the guesthouse (with pool!) to make the most of the cooler mornings and dawn light. Everything would be fine.
The night before my trip I googled ‘Teotihuacan’ to check the metro stop for the bus and ‘Teotihuacan armed robbery’ popped up as suggested search. Of course, it would have been sensible just to ignore these posts but, of course, I spent hours engrossed in a succession of horrifying tales of armed robberies on the D.F. – Pirámides route. My Airbnb host, perhaps keen to get rid of me for the weekend, assured me it would be totally fine, everyone went to the pyramids, but maybe take the camera to hand over in case of a heist. Reassuring…!
In the end, of course, the bus journey was completely fine – no hostage photos or robberies – and I was even serenaded by some very enjoyable mariachi music for most of the way. But what I mean is, by the time I hopped into the taxi the next morning, I couldn’t help but feel nervous and vulnerable.
In another planning failure, I had pitched up without a hat, something which every single person had advised me to take: ‘it is a desert there, Harriet’. Luckily, the Teotihuacan locals had this covered and I bought a beautiful, overpriced hat by the kiosk.
It was a privilege to see the pyramids in the morning light. For a few moments, I was the only person inside the Teotihuacan precinct. It’s hard to describe the sight without resorting to cliché – so I hope these photos I took can show you what I saw.
The main feature of Teotihuacan is the Avenue of the Dead, or in Nahuatl, Miccoatli. On its eastern flank rises the astonishing Pirámide del Sol and straight ahead is the smaller, but no less impressive, Pirámide de la Luna.
I spent the morning climbing the sections which are open to the public. The whole experience was incredible and the views are just stunning. As the sun rose higher and higher, more people bussed into the huge site and I realised how lucky I had been to experience this atmospheric place on my own.
By mid-afternoon, I made my way to the bus stop. So far so good, I thought. In the scare stories I had consumed, armed robberies happened on those buses which stopped off at Teotihuacan rather than departing from there. As the bus rolled in having come from the town of San Juan Teotihuacán, I thought well, it’s either this bus or stay at Teo for the rest of my life. I climbed aboard, nervous.
All was going fine – disappointingly, no mariachi this time – until we pulled over in the motorway. A large man climbed on board with a huge plastic bag. Oh here we go, I thought, resigning myself to at worse, death, or at best, just losing my (my sister’s) camera. He reached into the bag and pulled out a huge box – of herbal tea to sell.
I arrived back at the Airbnb a few hours later, fully versed in the health benefits of green tea.
‘So how was it?’ asked Diego.
‘Yes! Great – I got some good pictures’
‘And it was ok on your own?’
‘Yeah it was totally fine’.
Harriet is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her research explores the relationship between state and local Nahua rituals during the time of the Aztec empire, with particular emphasis on underexplored non-elite and private ceremonial.
She is organising a conference on indigenous languages and cultures at the University of Sheffield which will take place in September. Please read more about that here.