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.
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.
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.
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 dominated by a large residential complex built for the city’s elite.
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.
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.
In total, 138 snake figures still survive on the temple, though likely this only represents a fraction of those visible during antiquity.
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.
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.
Like virtually all major Mesoamerican cities, Tenayuca had elaborate aqueducts which likely fed water into the city via the nearby lake Texcoco.
Tenayuca’s onsite museum houses several impressive artifacts found during excavations and serves at the entrance and exit point for the site itself.
The museum has several infographics to help visitors place Tenayuca in the greater context of Mesoamerican history, both geographically and temporally.
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.
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.
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.