The Call of the Jaguar

Exploring Teotihuacán

I was completely surrounded. No escape. All around I heard the angry calls of jaguars, each time a little closer, each time more threatening.

I just wanted a little peace and quiet so I could focus on learning about the great, extinct civilization that had built these pyramids. I wanted to feel the spirits of those who had lived in this place two thousand years earlier. I wanted to imagine their lives, and the activities they would have done right where I was standing.

The calls of the jaguars were closing in. They were ready to make their kill. I took a deep breath, braced myself, and turned to face them. My eyes focused on the closest, a salesperson who carried a little wooden jaguar statuette that made a real-sounding jaguar call when he blew into it. All the salespeople were blowing into jaguar statuettes and the collective sounds annoyed me.

“Pure onyx, amigo. Almost free,” the closet called.

“Sterling silver necklace or bracelet for your pretty girlfriend,” another roared, pointing at my mother.

“You need this hand-carved jaguar as a souvenir my friend,” still another called towards me.

They were converging on me, jostling with each other as if fighting over a piece of meat.

“No thanks,” I replied, holding up my right hand, fingers together and palm facing me in the Mexican sign of thanks.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. The jaguars kept following, still making their unsettling calls, still trying to make a sale.

My parents visited me in Mexico in late February, the best time of the year to visit. Here, the coldest months are December and January, and rainy season starts in June, so February and March are perfect months to visit. April gets expensive around Easter. And of course, no first-time visitor to Mexico City can skip seeing the ruins at Teotihuacán. We visited on a Thursday, and there weren’t a lot of tourists. I thought it was fantastic that we’d get the whole place almost to ourselves. But then I heard the jaguars. On reflection, I wondered if they were more bothersome than usual today because there were fewer tourists available to go after.

I had tried being polite. I had tried saying no. But the jaguars kept attacking. I had only one recourse left. I pretended they weren’t there. I know — rude, but effective.

I turned away from the nearest salesperson and focused on the object that inspires awe in me, even after having visited Teotihuacán twice before. In front of me stood the Pyramid of the Sun, the largest of the two pyramids at the site.

Turning my head left and right, I looked at the various ruins running along each side of the Avenue of the Dead. This was the main drag in the once immense Mesoamerican city of 125,000.

The jaguars, and their incessant calls were all but forgotten now as I drew in a few deep breaths and let it all soak in. The people who had lived here were amazing. They had built all this, and without the help of modern machinery. Archaeologists believe the pyramids were finished sometime around 250 AD.

My parents were awestruck too, and as we started walking along the Avenue of the Dead, I pointed to plaques in front of each structure. Each plaque told the story of its structure, in both Spanish and near-perfect English. There were amazing stories of religious ceremonies and sacrifices, the functions of the various structures, and more.

As we finished our tour of Teotihuacán, we felt both exhausted and amazed.

We were amazed because this civilization was incredible. At the time, Teotihuacán was the sixth largest city on the planet in terms of population. Building the pyramids was no small feat. The city was a cultural center that drew people from all over Mesoamerica, including from as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. Imagine that kind of travel without trains, buses, or cars!

We were also exhausted because it was past midday, and the sun was at its zenith. Even though it wasn’t overly warm, the sun was hot and after so much walking, we were beat. Good thing I made sure we brought plenty of water with us. It’s not well advertised that visitors cannot buy water inside the site itself.

Go early before it gets too warm. Bring your own water. Don’t be afraid of the jaguars; they don’t bite. But above all, please approach Teotihuacán with a humble heart and open mind. It’s a beautiful place with a beautiful history and there’s so much more to learn.

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