Exploring Aztec culture in Mexico City

Josh Ferry Woodard

Legend states that the ancient city of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) was founded in 1325 after the Aztec people followed the orders of their sun and war god, Huitzilopochtli, and built an empire in the place where they found an eagle perched on top of a prickly pear cactus devouring a serpent. This spot happened to be a small island in the middle of a lake in the Valley of Mexico.

The Aztecs spent decades dredging to build temples, pyramids, palaces and marketplaces on small islands connected by a network of canals and stone bridges (brilliantly depicted in a set of murals by Diego Rivera in the National Palace).

Sadly, the majority of the ancient city was destroyed by Spanish conquistadores. But still, within Mexico City I find glimpses of Tenochtitlan’s former splendor, and the Aztec way of life.

The ancient Templo Mayor ruins

Walking through the wide colonial streets of the capital’s historic centre, the air filled with the scent of spiced carne and the calls of textile peddlers, I am confronted by a striking excavation: the ruins of the Templo Mayor pyramid.

This was the supposed site of the eagle devouring a serpent on a prickly pear cactus and was considered the centre of the Aztec universe, where the plane of the human world intersected with the thirteen levels of the heavens, and the nine levels of the underworld. It hosted all kinds of important religious and municipal ceremonies, from ritual bloodlettings to the naming of leaders and funerals for nobility.

The archaeological site is teeming with symbolism. Two undulating serpents flanking the temple base catch my eye. They, along with numerous other menacing snakeheads scattered around the site, are seen to signify that the Templo Mayor was created to be a replica of Coatepec, the sacred Serpent Mountain where, in the primary Aztec origin myth, patron deity Huitzilopochtli was born of immaculate conception.

Leaping from his mother’s womb fully formed and fully armed, Huitzilopochtli saved his mother’s life by defeating his scheming sister, along with her legion of "400 stars". A gruesome, but beguiling, rack of over 240 carved skulls is seen to represent where Huitzilopochtli placed the severed head of his defeated goddess sibling.

Inside the Templo Mayor museum, I find more fascinating artefacts—no shortage of skulls—and learn of ancient Aztec rituals, trade routes, cookery and agricultural practices.

The floating gardens of Xochimilco


Two mariachi musicians await a tour boat with potential clients on a canal in Xochimilco

Riding on a colourful, ornate wooden trajinera (a gondola-esque boat), I’m consumed by a cacophony of floating Mariachi bands, mescal-fuelled birthday parties and reggaeton ghetto blasters. The frantic deluge of Mexican weekenders who visit the canals of Xochimilco in the south of Mexico City create a festive atmosphere perfectly at odds to the otherwise tranquil green chinampas (floating gardens), invented by the Aztecs.

The chinampas—juniper branch rafts carrying soil and crops—originally served as an ingenious way to increase agricultural production, while the canals were integral for the transportation of goods and people throughout the metropolis.

Crops such as corn (tortillas), beans, avocados, chili, tomatoes, and squash were grown on the floating gardens, and these foodstuffs remain staples of the modern Mexican diet.

Another interesting facet of Xochimilco—although not one I have the fortune of encountering—is the nearly extinct axolotl salamander. This peculiar amphibian, nicknamed the "walking fish", is native to the area and has the rare ability to regenerate lost limbs, jaws and spinal cords.

Possessing frog-like googly eyes and the smile of a stingray, the axolotl was an important medicine, food and ceremonial object for the Aztecs. They likened its regenerative powers to the god Xolotl, who would guard the sun as it travelled through the underworld each night to recreate life from the bones of the dead.

The pyramids of Teotihuacan

Frustratingly little is known about the origins, the people, the fall, or even the original name of Teotihuacan—an ancient Mesoamerican city located around 25 miles north of Mexico City that was inspiring enough to earn itself a place in Aztec mythology.

At its zenith in the 5th century, the city is thought to have housed between 150,000 and 200,000 people, making it one of the largest in the world at that time. However, in the 7th century the site suffered a mysterious and swift decline.

Catching my breath after climbing the 140-foot Pyramid of the Moon in the stifling sun, I gaze down at dozens of smaller dusty pyramids flanking the wide Avenue of the Dead. Slightly to the left, the colossal 246-foot Pyramid of the Sun dominates the skyline.

This awesome vista makes it easy for me to understand why the Aztecs were so impressed with the site. After finding the abandoned city in the 14th century, they repopulated it, incorporated it into their history and named it Teotihuacan (the city of the gods).

Although historians do not all agree on the name and its meaning, the prevailing theory suggests the Aztecs believed the city to be the place where the gods sacrificed themselves in order to create the world for the living.

Temazcal ceremony in Tepoztlan

In Tepoztlan, a small town just south of Mexico City renowned for its ancient traditions, I’m about to take part in a traditional temazcal ceremony.

I have spent the morning climbing a 1200-foot mountain to reach the El Tepozteco Pyramid. The small mountain-top pyramid is a temple to the Aztec god Tepoztecatl, a deity famous for his love of pulque—a millennia old alcoholic drink made from fermented agave. The climb is difficult but the views are more than worth it.

Temazcales are dome-shaped sweat baths made from volcanic rock, designed to symbolise the womb. They have been a feature of Mesoamerican life for centuries. The Aztecs often held temazcal ceremonies to purify the body, mind and spirit after heavy exertions such as battles, ceremonial ball games or giving birth.

The shaman closes the door and I’m swallowed into thick darkness. My pulse races, with a hint of claustrophobia, as sweat begins to tickle my forehead, neck and spine and the herbal scent of copal incense sears the inside of my lungs.

He flicks water onto the burning coals. The sharp hissing sound shocks me, pulls me deeper into the black.

It’s not until the shaman loudly inhales and exhales that I’m able to moderate my breath. He begins chanting. Thanking the gods. His deep voice fills the void.

A little over an hour later I emerge from the temazcal dripping wet, a little fragile and, to a certain extent, reborn.