If you’ve never visited any Aztec ruins in Mexico, you might not know all that much about the Aztecs.
Here are some things you might know. You might know they lived in the region we now call Mexico. You might remember them from such greatest hits as building giant flat-topped pyramids and performing bloody human sacrifices. You might know an awful lot more than that, in which case please just send me a discreet private message when you spot the inevitable errors in this post.
As for me, I knew next to nothing about the Aztecs when I got offered the job of producing and directing a two-part series about Aztec pyramids for Science Channel in the US and Channel 4 in the UK. That’s how telly works, you see: you don’t need to actually know anything about the subject when you start. That’s what assistant producers are for. Mine was called Rich, and he didn’t know anything about the Aztecs either, but he’s very good at finding stuff out, so we were golden.
Rich and I had just a few weeks to become experts on the Aztecs, work out the logistics of our filming trip (Rich), and write a 20,000-word script (me, in just 5 days, nearly having a mental breakdown in the process). Then in December 2019 (before the pandemic hit, in case you were wondering about masks and social distancing) we flew to Mexico to film all of the main Aztec archaeological sites and interview the top archaeologists, none of whom spoke a word of English.
Nothing like a challenge to keep you on your toes! Along the way, we got to visit some pretty cool places and I did actually learn a handful of interesting facts about the Aztecs, some of which even made it into the programme.
So here, for your limited education and amusement, is my Unhelpful Guide to the Aztecs.*
*Note: this post won’t be helpful if you’re looking for practical information to help you plan a trip to visit Aztec sites in Mexico. But it might be interesting, occasionally informative, and even mildly amusing at times. At least, I do hope so.
An Unhelpful Guide to Aztec ruins in Mexico
Before I begin, a bit of background info about the Aztecs:
The Aztecs ruled central Mexico for about 200 years between about 1325 and the Spanish conquest in 1512. According to Aztec mythology, the whole thing started when a tribe called the Mexica left their mythological home, called Aztlán, and journeyed across Mexico in search of new lands. After 200 years of wandering they came to a lake called Lake Texcoco, where they saw an eagle landing on a cactus with a snake in its claws. They took this as a sign from the gods telling them to stop here and build a new city, and they called it Tenochtitlán, which means ‘place of the cactus rock’.
The Mexica then went on to conquer neighbouring tribes until they built one of the wealthiest and most powerful empires ever seen in the Americas. They did this partly by creating alliances and demanding taxes from their neighbours, and partly by slaughtering and oppressing a lot of people and performing gory human sacrifices.
They became known as the Aztecs because they originally came from Aztlán. Lake Texcoco is now dried up, Tenochtitlán is now buried under Mexico City, and the image of the eagle and cactus is on the Mexican flag. The name Mexico comes from the tribal name Mexica.
So if you’re going to make a documentary about the Aztecs, the obvious place to start is Mexico City.
In search of Aztec ruins in Mexico
And so it is that just a few weeks before Christmas 2019, Rich and I lug eight bags full of camera kit onto a plane bound for Mexico City. Things immediately start well – at least for Rich, who gets upgraded because he clearly has dirt on someone high up. He swans off into business without so much as backward glance, leaving me to slum it in economy like an animal.
Eleven hours later he skips off the plane fresh as a daisy, while I, creased and knackered, uncrumple myself and begin the tedious process of declaring our equipment to the customs lady, who, clearly extremely bored, demands to go through the bags item by item and check every lens, cable and battery in case we’ve decided to try to sneak in something extra. The irony of this is not lost on me two weeks later, when another bored security person decides to confiscate four camera battery packs (worth over £200 each) just before we board the plane.
Eventually satisfied, the lady stamps our documents and allows us on our way, but the joys of traveling for TV are not over quite yet. Upon our exit into the arrivals hall we are informed that we must sacrifice our trolleys, which are apparently not allowed outside the baggage reclaim area. This seems to be the most pointless policy ever, until we spot the ranks of porters lined up with their own trolleys and realise the rule is simply a racket designed to force us to pay for their help.
With eight heavy bags and only four hands, we have no choice but to cough up and engage the services of a couple of uniforms with wheels to escort us to our waiting crew van. There we are met by our cheery local fixer, Alex, whose capacity for relentless good humour becomes even more remarkable when we discover the legendary Mexico City traffic; it takes us almost an hour to travel the 12km to our dull but serviceable chain business hotel, the Fiesta Inn.
Musical accompaniment at Templo Mayor
Our first filming location is probably the most important one of all: Templo Mayor, the heart of the Aztec Empire. Along with Maya sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum this is one of the most famous archaeological sites in all of Mexico.
In Aztec times this was the main temple in the sacred precinct at Tenochtitlán, where Aztec priests performed human sacrifices to appease the gods. After the Spanish Conquest the temple was destroyed and its location eventually lost under the development of Mexico City, until it was rediscovered in the 1970s by electrical workers digging for cables.
Now it’s one of Mexico City’s top tourist attractions and would normally be full of people, but luckily it’s closed on Mondays and we have the place to ourselves. The archaeology authorities have decreed that we’re not allowed to interview anyone here and can only film general shots – I’m rather annoyed about this at first but it turns out to be a blessing as we are soon joined by a local organ grinder who winds out ear-bleeding versions of the same four Hispanic favourites repeatedly for the entire day. The stress of trying to do an interview against a backing track of Bamboleo and La Bamba would have been too much to bear.
Getting special access to things is one of the best parts of my job, and Rich and I enjoy a private tour of the Templo Mayor museum with its huge collection of weird and gruesome Aztec treasures.
When the musical torture gets too much we break for lunch and have the first of many meals involving tacos and guacamole, which is exciting on day one but by about day seven I’ve discovered that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
I learn that in Mexico they rarely bring you enough chips with the guacamole, and confuse the waiter when I ask for more by calling them tortillas. It turns out tortillas are the big round wrap things and the crispy corn chips are actually called totopos, but even though we eat them nearly every day, it still takes me until the end of the trip to remember the word.
The full lowdown at Tlatelolco
On day two we head a 30-minute drive north from our hotel to Mexico City’s second most important Aztec site: Tlatelolco.
There we are met by a Very Important Archaeologist who doesn’t speak a word of English and I am forced to dig out my rusty Spanish in order to ask him questions about the site.
It’s helpful that he speaks veeery slowly, and I manage to follow as he tells us in lengthy detail all about how Tlatelolco was founded in 1338 by a dissident group of Mexica who left Tenochtitlán and set out to start their own city.
While we slowly melt in the scorching Mexican sun, he shows us some skeletons and explains that after a war between the two rivals, Tenochtitlán won and Tlatelolco became part of the Aztec Empire.
As I start to wonder how long it will be till lunch, he carefully explains that while Tenochtitlán was the spiritual centre of the empire, Tlatelolco was the commercial hub, home to the largest market in Mesoamerica, where people came by canoe to trade important things like food, animal skins and cloth.
Tlatelolco’s a smaller site than Templo Mayor and a visit doesn’t take too long – at least, as long as you’re not wielding a camera and interviewing a Very Important Archaeologist. Make sure you bring suncream and a hat though, because it gets hot!
Top Tip: it’s worth a quick look in the shopping centre next door, not because there’s anything interesting to buy, or because it’s a good place to have lunch (trust me, it really, really isn’t), but because when they were building it they discovered a round temple to Ehecatl, the Aztec wind god, when they were digging the foundations. Who needs a John Lewis and a Primark when you can have a genuine Aztec temple in your shopping centre?
After the Spanish defeated the Aztecs in 1512, they tore down the main temple at Tlatelolco and used the stones to build their own cathedral on the same site. Tlatelolco is now considered one of the most important places in Mexico City because it’s where you can see the ‘three cultures’ of Mexican history side by side: Aztec, Spanish and modern Mexican. The square next to the church is called the ‘Plaza de las Tres Culturas’ for that reason.
Noisy neighbours at Tenayuca
Day three of our tour of Aztec ruins in Mexico involves getting up stupidly early to beat the traffic (something that will become a common feature of this filming trip) and driving out of the city to Tenayuca.
Something else that will become a common feature is our early morning check-ins. Because of concerns about safety in Mexico, and because of the (low) risk of Bad Things happening to us like car crashes and kidnapping, the office has decreed that we have to send a selfie and ‘check in’ via a dedicated WhatsApp group every time we start and end a journey. We’ve even had to fill in a ‘proof of life‘ form and write down secret answers to questions that only we would know the answer to, in case we get taken hostage and there’s a ransom demand. I feel like Bruce Willis, but with more hair.
But our driver is very experienced at driving in Mexico so we make it to Tenayuca in one piece. Here we are let into the site nice and early so we can get shots of the main pyramid looking splendid in the early morning light before the tourists arrive.
Our expert of the day, another non-English speaking but very clever archaeologist, turns out to be a petite, dark-haired lady wearing a large broad-brimmed hat that casts her face into deep shadow. I want to ask her to take it off so that the audience can actually see her, but causing my experts to get sunstroke and/or skin cancer goes against the spirit of my risk assessment, so I don’t.
The Hat-Wearing Archaeologist takes us around the site and tells us a bit about it. Tenayuca belonged to a different tribe before being conquered by the Aztecs in about 1434. Today you can still see the main temple, which is surrounded by dozens of statues of snakes and is the largest and best-preserved Aztec pyramid still standing.
There’s also the remains of a residential district; we try to do an interview here too but immediately discover that the area is rather, shall we say, lively. Loud blasts from the horns of freight trains clattering along the nearby railway line, barking dogs, and the squeaking of a bread-seller’s bell as he goes from door-to-door still haunt my dreams to this day.
Mexico, it turns out, is a sound recordist’s worst nightmare.
A race against time at Teotihuacán
Our next archaeological site, Teotihuacán, is not actually Aztec, but you can’t really go to Mexico and make a 2-part series about awesome pre-Hispanic archaeology and giant pyramid temples without visiting the most famous site in the country, can you? Anyway we manage to find a good excuse: although Teotihuacán is 1000 years older than the Aztecs, archaeologists found Aztec artefacts around the site which prove that they lived here, albeit several centuries after the site was abandoned by its original occupants.
It’s the one Mexican archaeological site on this list that most people have actually heard of, and some of you may have even been there. If you have, you’ll remember that it’s huge, and fascinating, and extremely popular with tourists. Which is always a bit of a problem for us.
We have just a single day here, so we have to be extremely targeted about where we want to go and what we want to film. Just like at all the Aztec ruins we visit, there are no roads once you get inside, so we have to carry our equipment and walk everywhere. Which is fine at a tiny place like Tenayuca, but a bit more challenging when the site is more than 2 km end to end and the temperature is about 30 degrees.
To beat the crowds we start early, with special permission to go inside to film the ruins before sunrise. We spend a glorious couple of hours with the place entirely to ourselves, capturing the magical early morning light turning the pyramids golden and watching a cloud of hot air balloons as they lift gently skywards. Unfortunately, they do make the place scream ‘tourist attraction’ but there isn’t a great deal we can do about that. Rich has to try to frame them out of his shots as best he can.
At 9 am our archaeologist turns up. This one is a bit of a superstar: as the spokesman for one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world he’s done a lot of telly before and he knows exactly what to do and say. He’s also able to open doors for us, and gives us access to an amazing hidden tunnel underneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, where they found a religious space full of priceless treasures from nearly 2000 years ago.
Although we never have time to do a site recce before we start filming, I’ve done my research: I’ve looked at photos and video online, so I know the tunnel is maintained and well-lit. Lights won’t be necessary, so we leave them in the van to avoid lugging them around the site.
But when we descend into the tunnel… disaster! The lighting system is having a bad day, and the lights are flickering on and off like an early 2000s nightclub except without Sandstorm by Darude blaring from the speakers. There is no way we can film an interview in here without risking giving all our viewers an epileptic fit (also frowned upon). I’m forced to send our driver, Samuel, who has come with us to help carry equipment, back to the car to fetch the lights, and we lose a precious half hour out of our already packed day.
This is stressful enough as it is, but becomes even more so when the Celebrity Archaeologist announces (a) that he has to leave two hours earlier than we were expecting, and (b) that he has managed, at the 11th hour, to get us permission to film the priceless jade statues they found in the tunnel – something that we had been requesting for weeks but never thought we’d get. Suddenly I find myself with even less time than I thought I’d have, AND an extra scene to shoot. This brings on a minor panic attack and a stress headache, but we power on through with maximum efficiency and somehow we get it done.
To save time, we send Samuel the driver ahead to a nearby lunch place, with instructions to order a selection of dishes to have ready on the table when we arrive. The rest of us turn up half an hour later to find this fabulous colourful restaurant situated in an underground cave, and table spread with amazing traditional Mexican delicacies which we dive into with gratitude. After the frantic morning we’ve had it’s lovely to have a quick sit down and some delicious food… until I get the bill, which comes to nearly £400! Rather more than our meagre £6-a-head lunch allowance.
Alex, our fixer, studies the bill in horror, and discovers what has happened. The restaurant has cheekily seen the opportunity to make a swift profit, and has served us up a selection of the most expensive dishes on the menu, including two portions of escamoles – ants eggs – a rare Mexican delicacy referred to as ‘the caviar of the desert’ and costing £80 a pop!
So here’s my top tip for Teotihuacán: don’t order the escamoles. They totally weren’t worth it.
New friends at Tetzcotzinco
Location five on our whistle-stop tour of Aztec ruins in Mexico is Tetzcotzinco, a hillside palace and gardens built by a king with the entirely unpronounceable name of Netzahualcoyotl (and yes, I did have to google how to spell that).
Netzahualcoyotl was the ruler of another city state called Texcoco, which formed an alliance with Tenochtitlán to become part of the Aztec Empire. He built his royal retreat up in the hills to escape the heat, and filled it with ornamental gardens with water channels, pools and even a royal bath with one hell of a view.
The site shows a different side to the Aztecs: far from simply being bloodthirsty savages with a taste for human sacrifice, they were also expert engineers and builders who were able to organize their workforce to build impressive temples, palaces and aqueducts without metal tools, wheels or animal power, none of which existed in the Americas at the time.
Tetzcotzinco is quite remote, and there have been reports of tourists getting robbed at gunpoint, so we are advised to have a police escort. We meet them at the entrance to the site and they turn out to be a cheery bunch who clearly see the job as a fun day out. Since the site is spread out and hilly, and we have a lot of walking to do, I decide to promote a couple of them to the role of camera assistant: one carries the tripod all day, another is put in charge of snacks and water. At the end of the day, Rich even rewards our friendly tripod-carrier with a chance to hold the camera, and he’s delighted.
There are no loos here, and it turns out having a wee amongst priceless archaeological ruins is bad etiquette, so we spend the day trying to strike the delicate balance between drinking enough water to avoid dehydration in the hot sun, and not drinking so much that we need to make the 1-hour round trip all the way back to the car and down the road to the nearest petrol station. I get quite good at this, and by the end of the shoot my bladder control is so expert that I can last the entire day without going to the loo once. I never thought that’d be an important skill to have for a successful TV career, but I’m still learning, even after 16 years in the industry.
Changeable weather at Calixtlahuaca
We need to learn more about the expansion of the Aztec Empire, so we head to Calixtlahuaca (good luck pronouncing that one), about a two-hour drive west of Mexico City centre. Calixtlahuaca used to belong to a different tribe, the Matlatzincas, until the Aztecs marched in and took it over.
This round temple to Ehecatl, the God of the Wind, was built on top of the previous temple – a way for the Aztecs to demonstrate their power and dominance over the people they conquered. Temples to Ehecatl are always round because they represent the way the wind comes from all directions.
When we arrive, at the crack of dawn as usual, I’m perturbed to find that the entire site is covered in thick fog and we can barely see a thing. We don’t have time to wait for the weather to improve, so we just push on with filming general shots of the Aztec ruins. I figure I will just have to make a feature of it in the programme – and it does look quite spooky and atmospheric.
But after only an hour the sun burns all the fog off, and we are suddenly bathed in glorious sunshine. Which is lovely, but now of course the place looks completely different, and our shots won’t cut together, so we have to do them all over again. And you thought being a documentary producer was all sparkle and glamour!
In spite of their tendency towards bloodshed, the Aztecs didn’t slaughter the Matlatzincas when they conquered them. After all, it’s pretty foolhardy to do away with your workforce when you need people to grow crops and build temples. So the two tribes lived together, sometimes intermarried, and were even buried side by side – as archaeologists discovered when they unearthed a cemetery with Aztec and Matlatzinca skeletons in it.
Our archaeologist showed us one of them – a young Aztec man complete with grave treasures that show wealth and status. He probably died from a blow to the head, suggesting he might have been a warrior (or maybe he just really pissed someone off).
Standing so close to this 700 year old skeleton I feel very privileged that my job gets me access to so many cool and interesting things, and it makes all the stress and anxiety worthwhile.
Surprise visitors at Malinalco
The final destination on our tour of Aztec ruins in Mexico is Malinalco, another hilltop retreat 70 km out of Mexico City. Here the over-zealous security guard refuses to let us in without buying entry tickets, even though we have permits and have paid filming location fees. Our efficient fixer waves various receipts and documents in his face, but to no avail, so to avoid wasting any more time we cough up and crack on.
The Aztecs seemed to enjoy building their temples in hard-to-reach places: getting to this one involves lugging all our kit up 428 steps, and this time we don’t have a pair of burly policemen to help. Instead we are joined again by the Hat-Wearing Archaeologist, who has come down with a cold and isn’t too happy when I make her walk up and down some of the steps a few more times while we get shots, but she bears the experience with her usual good humour.
When we finally make it to the top, the (now slightly knackered) Hat-Wearing Archaeologist shows us round. The main temple sits at the top of 13 steps flanked by (now headless) statues of jaguars. At the top, the temple entrance is carved into the shape of a snake’s open mouth, and inside are seats shaped like eagles and jaguars. All these carvings, says the HWA, are evidence that this temple belonged to the Aztec military elite, the eagle and jaguar warriors, who came here to study, pray, and perform initiation rituals which included self-cutting and spilling their own blood. There’s even a little hole in the floor where the blood goes, which is masochistic, but also charmingly practical.
As usual we’ve arrived early so that we can have the place to ourselves and film without being disturbed, but after about an hour of blissful quiet I’m horrified to discover that no one remembered to mention this plan to one of the nearby schools, which has decided that today is FUN FIELD TRIP DAY! Our peace is shattered by the arrival of about 150 chattering, shrieking school pupils, who swarm all over the temples and steps like voracious locusts, making filming absolutely impossible. We take an enforced break and retreat to a small nearby monument, from where we sit and glare at them meaningfully in the hope that they’ll get the hint and bugger off, which, mercifully, they eventually do.
Which is a relief, because we need to get back to the city for our fight home early the next morning.
But it’s not quite the end of the story. We still have the second half of the series to film, which involves building a replica Aztec pyramid of our own – as you do. So we’ll be coming back to Mexico again soon, and if you want to find out what ridiculousness we had to go through to get that done, and maybe learn a little more about the Aztecs, check out my full, thorough, and entirely unhelpful report at An Unhelpful Guide to… Tepoztlan, Mexico.
Watch Lost Pyramids of the Aztecs
If all this has whetted your appetite and you’d like to find out more about the Aztecs, why not watch my documentary?
If you’re in the USA and have a subscription, you can watch it on the Science Channel website.
In the UK, it’s available on All4.
If you enjoyed this post and want more behind-the-scenes stories, I have more Unhelpful Guides for you to read. How about these ones: