MEXICO CITY -- Do you believe in magic?
Not pulling rabbits from hats, cutting showgirls in half, or any of that foolishness. True magic. Mystic vibrations in Sedona. Vanishings near Bermuda. Auras at Aborigine bora rings. Stonehenge. And, of course, the pyramids.
Even nonbelievers have to admit pyramids are fascinating. Their seductive symmetry, awesome heights, and labyrinthine tunnels invite exploration. What dark forces linger at their sacrificial altars? Do they channel spirits, mystic energy, luck? Pictorial carvings of gods and rulers fill the walls, all rendered centuries ago and preserved as if by -- magic.
Mexico has been called the top pyramid destination outside Egypt. Unlike Egypt's, Mexico's most famous pyramids are scalable. They are bustling with magic seekers. Unlike their Egyptian cousins, built as monuments to the dead, the Mexican pyramids are holy sites that still draw worshipers today. The magic lives.
Arriving in Mexico City this spring, I went to Pirmide Tepanapa first, about three hours south of the city by bus. It is Mexico's largest, and therefore of obvious allure to us Americans, adorers of all things super size. Before erosion took its toll, Tepanapa's base was even broader than Cheops, Egypt's largest. Each side is 480 yards long. Since it was constructed in 250 BC, however, the elements have worn away the pyramid's limestone exterior, exposing spotty supports of black volcanic rock. I suspected the real wonders lay underground.
So did archeologists, who began excavating Tepanapa in 1910. They quickly unraveled the mystery of its size: It's three pyramids, built one atop the other. The archeologists built 5 miles of stone tunnels inside to see what the Olmec and Cholultec peoples were up to when they started building back in 200 BC. I made sure to arrive during the week, rather than the weekend when admission is free for locals and the tunnels fill rapidly. A $3.30 admission covers a tour of the pyramid and a nearby museum of artifacts. To decipher all the archeological findings, consider hiring a guide at the tunnel entrance for the flat rate of $7.
My guide, Jose Velasquez Hernandez, explained that unlike the Aztecs, Tepanapa's builders never offered human sacrifices. I despaired immediately. No lost souls? No curses? The only thing giving me the heebie-jeebies was the low ceiling. Tepanapa may be super size, but its tunnels are narrow and only about 5 feet high. Still it was irresistible, the lure of the labyrinth, calling me to venture deeper. Every few feet the rough gray stone gave way, feeding my curiosity with a glimpse of Tepanapa's original grandeur: an impossibly steep flight of stone steps, slanted walls, or one of 18 rain gutters that correspond to months in the Mayan calendar.
Hernandez has been leading the curious through Tepanapa for years. He puts little stock in magic, but he was happy to lead me back outside when I asked. In the shadow of the nearby volcano, Popocatpetl, we padded across fields of singed grass to the Patio de Los Altares, or Grand Plaza.
I could imagine sacrifices here, despite his disclaimer. Archeologists recovered jade and onyx tools from the grounds, earthenware bowls, and figurines; hundreds are on display at the nearby museum. As we approached, Hernandez stopped me.
''Stand there," he said, indicating the center. I obliged. He walked a few paces, then started clapping. As he circled the altar, past the grasshopper head meant to ward off plagues of locusts, I stood transfixed by the echoes.
''Acoustics," he said in Spanish. ''Of course, the people did not have a microphone."
Still, I heard laughter. Claps echoed back like high-pitched voices. I stared up the hill, where Spanish conquistador Hernn Cortz arrived in 1519 and followers later built a church atop the pyramid. The foundation cracked in 1999 during an earthquake, and the pyramid only reopened this year after repairs. Are those who built Tepanapa's altar laughing? Have they exacted magical revenge?
Next on my list was Palenque, an ancient Mayan city of pyramids founded in 100 BC that is about 630 miles southeast of Mexico City, a 16-hour bus ride.
The city has more than 500 buildings, though only a handful have been excavated. Their names sound magical: Tomb of the Red Queen, Temple of the Skull, Temple of the Inscriptions, Temple of the Foliated Cross. Some Mayans are said to still worship in the nearby jungle. So are Bohemians, drawn by ''Psilocybe mexicana" -- psychedelic mushrooms.
I took an overnight bus from Oaxaca to San Cristbal de las Casas, home to dozens of tour companies. Most offer day trips to the ruins and nearby waterfalls for less than $40. I arrived in early evening, with two hours to go before the gates closed at 5 p.m., paid $4 admission and began to ascend the Temple of the Skull, eager to see its namesake sculpture at the summit. As I climbed the steep stone steps, clinging, without the benefit of railings, monkeys roared from nearby cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees, sounding more like lions than primates.
From the top, I could see the grinning skull and details on other temples, such as stone inscriptions of serpents twined around crosses. Some historians claim the snakes signify earth, air, fire, and water. The symbols are common to Native American and Nordic mythology: a magic, transcontinental connection.
After Palenque, I returned to Mexico City to climb the most popular and mystic pyramid of all: The Temple of the Sun. It is the largest of 600 pyramids built on the site, with a 700-foot-square base the size of the Great Pyramid in Giza. At 200 feet high, it's much shorter than Giza, but that translates into nearly 300 steps.
It was adopted by the Aztecs as the center of the ancient city of Teotihuacn, ''Place of the Gods," and is said to exude supernatural vibes. That's made it popular with New Age travelers as well as the city's population of more than 20 million. I made sure to visit on a weekday. I grabbed a first-class bus late in the day at a downtown metro station for $3. Buses make the 30-mile trip all day, stopping near an information booth staffed until 4 p.m. Admission: $4, with free tours if a group gathers.
I chose to climb alone. Unlike Palenque, the pyramids of Teotihuacn feature railings. I still reached the temple summit winded, my mind reeling. I passed two women striking the lotus position, and asked them to snap a photo with my digital camera, hoping to capture some supernatural image. The digital image appeared to take just fine. Disappointed, I descended and headed for the Pyramid of the Moon next door. By the time I reached the top and asked some Colombian tourists for help, the previous photo had vanished. I asked whether they thought it might be magic, and they called a Welsh companion over.
''Do you believe in all that stuff?" he asked.
''You know, force fields and pyramid magic?"
Well, not exactly . . .
''Because we saw all these people meditating inside, standing where the showers used to be and sticking their heads in this mystic hole," he said. ''And they sounded American."
Sure enough, there were groups absorbing sacred vibes all over Teotihuacn. Try to ask questions, they wave you past. Nothing to see. Just routine spiritual cleansing. The Colombians snapped pictures. Then they had the Welshman stage a re-creation.
We stayed until closing, then combed nearby stands for sacred souvenirs. The Colombian girl bought a turquoise necklace. The Welshman bought a clear plastic pyramid paperweight that contained likenesses of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the pope.
''Hey, look at this," I said, holding up a larger version.
My find was more than a souvenir. It was a voodoo charm often used by ''brujas," or Mexican witches. It contained lucky charms -- bits of garlic, seeds, coins, miniature plastic horseshoes, elephants, magnetic sand, milagro hands, and the image of San Martin Caballero, patron saint of wealth and good fortune. At the center, in a spherical chamber of red fluid, floated a miniature Buddha.
The Welshman was mesmerized.
''This," he said, ''is genuine tack."
It could have been mine for $10. But the blood-red liquid center was creepy. Too much magic for me. I opted for a smaller $5 version, about 5 inches square. Inside, a golden pyramid glitters amid a carpet of pesos. As I shake the plastic casing now, the glitter lifts. My pyramid becomes a mystic snow globe, brilliant, tantalizing, obscured by magical mist.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske is a freelance writer in Albany, N.Y.