Built by the Chichimeca and conquered by the Aztecs, Tenayuca has one heck of a story to tell

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Tenayuca’s grand pyramid is observable from the surrounding streets, but once inside you truly get an idea of its scope and beauty. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Amid the hustle and bustle of the city of Tlalnepantla, just barely across the Mexico City border, sits one of the most impressive yet most ignored archaeological sites of central Mexico.

Before the draining and filling in of the great lakes which dominated what today is Mexico City, Tenayuca sat at the northern end of Lake Texcoco. 

The city was a major regional power during the post-classic period and exhibits an architectural style heavily reminiscent of Teotihuacán.

Serpents are a constant motif in Tenayuca, and come in all shapes and sizes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

According to the Xólotl Codex, Tenayuca was founded in the 8th century by Chichemec migrants moving in from the north. 

The city continued to grow its power and influence for several centuries, but in the 13 century was ultimately defeated by the Aztecs.

Palm trees offer some much appreciated shade in Tenayuca, Mexico State. Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Meaning “the fortified place” in the Náhuatl language, Tenayuca is thought to have been no slouch militarily and gave the Aztecs quite a fight. 

The Aztec empire was made of several ethnic groups, most of whom spoke Nahuat, and organized into a powerful empire that flexed its influence all the way to Central America. 

How exactly the term Aztec should be used has been the topic of much debate since German scientist Alexander von Humboldt established its common usage in the early 19th century. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The takeover of Tenayuca was executed by Aztec forces from all three of the empire’s founding members, known as the triple alliance: Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Tenochtitlan.

Given that Tenayuca was conquered by the Aztecs, one would think that the Teotihuacán-inspired architecture found would be of a later date. 

But evidence suggests that the Mixtec occupying the valley of Mexico had opted to integrate their cultural, religious, and architectural practices with those of the region — perhaps to be seen as on equal footing. 

The archaeological remains of Tenayuca are divided into two sections with their own entrances called Tenayuca I and Tenayuca II. 

Tenayuca II is completely gated off to protect the monuments within but can be accessed with permission from INAH guards at its southern end. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Tenayuca II is dominated by a large residential complex built for the city’s elite. 

Because of the growth of the surrounding city, only a handful of the largest ancient structures survived the pillaging of materials for construction, making the actual size of the ancient city impossible to determine. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As is the case in several similar elite residential areas, the complex had at least a handful of nearby Temazcalesm or steam baths. 

Tenayuca I is dominated by a large Mixtec-style pyramid, very similar to that found in the Templo Mayor in the heart of Mexico City — though in much better condition. 

As interesting as the Templo Mayor is, when arriving at Tenayuca one gets a much better idea of what this famous temple must have looked like in its heyday. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This type of monumental construction, sometimes referred to as twin pyramids, is topped with two large but separate chambers dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli.

In Aztec mythology, Huitzilopochtli is the patron god of Tenochtitlan and the god of war, as well as the sun.

Other than its impressive size, one of the most striking things about this pyramid is the great number of snake sculptures that adorn its facade. 

A closeup of one of the many snake figures adorning Tenayuca’s grand pyramid. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In total, 138 snake figures still survive on the temple, though likely this only represents a fraction of those visible during antiquity. 

An entrance to the inner chambers of the grand twin pyramid of Tenayuca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

To the sides of the pyramid survive two tzompantli, where the skulls of defeated enemies were put on display. 

Though the bases of these tzompantli are still visible onsite, their skull-covered platforms have been moved indoors to the adjacent museum. 

The base of a tzompantli in Tenayuca, Mexico State.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Detail of a skull-covered tzompantli platform inside Tenayuca’s onsite museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Alongside the tzompantli, it is possible to see two sculptures of Xiuhcóatl, a powerful snake being who is said to have served as a living weapon of war for the god Huitzilopochtli.

Xiuhcóatl is said to have been wielded by Huitzilopochtli to defeat all 400 of his brothers in battle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like virtually all major Mesoamerican cities, Tenayuca had elaborate aqueducts which likely fed water into the city via the nearby lake Texcoco. 

The aqueducts in Tenayuca are thought to have been extremely extensive and likely stretched past the ceremonial center and into the surrounding agricultural fields. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Tenayuca’s onsite museum houses several impressive artifacts found during excavations and serves at the entrance and exit point for the site itself. 

View of the entrance to the museum and surrounding businesses in the city of Tlalnepantla.  Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The museum has several infographics to help visitors place Tenayuca in the greater context of Mesoamerican history, both geographically and temporally.

Crossed-armed human figure found inside Tlanepantla’s Xolotl museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

If you are staying in Mexico City, getting to Tenayuca is quite easy. There are several options including public transit on Mexico City’s metropolitan area Metro Bus system, as well as taxis and ridesharing apps. 

A map shows the location of Tenayuca, just north of Mexico City. Image: Google Maps

If you are planning to visit Tenayuca, you really ought to do so during the weekend when traffic is not quite as bad or make sure to avoid rush hour — unless you want to spend hours in one of Mexico City’s infernal traffic jams. 

Tenayuca’s hieroglyph is rendered on the facade of the Xolotl museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The entrance fee to Tenayuca is 65 pesos and the site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID.

Despite its easily accessible location and impressive architecture, Tenayuca is seldom visited by tourists. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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