Travel story: Tepoztlan, Mexico
TEPOZTLAN, Mexico ” Unless you have Aztecs in your family tree, you might find this city’s name hard to pronounce. But so much else about the city is irresistible. The Aztec echoes, the steam baths, the ice cream, the pyramid, even the corn smut.
Tepoztlan — pronounced teh-pose-LAWN ” is a smallish city that sits in a lush valley rimmed by mountains that appear to have been smuggled out of a Chinese landscape painting. At its center, a 16th-century convent and church rise above a marketplace full of locals making tortillas, nibbling on fried grasshoppers and licking locally concocted sherbets.
Just north of town stands Tepozteco, the pyramid built on a mountaintop by the Aztecs about 700 years ago to honor Tepoztecatl, god of fertility and pulque, also known as Aztec moonshine.
If it weren’t for the influx of big-city sophisticates every weekend, you never would guess that Mexico City is just beyond the mountains, 47 miles north, or that Cuernavaca, the language-school capital of Mexico, is 11 miles south.
We arrived late on a weekday, a few hours too late to enjoy the traditional Wednesday farmers market but in good time to spend two quiet days before weekend visitors started streaming in.
Because it’s always good to have a quest, I decided I had to make the short, steep climb to the pyramid. My wife, Mary Frances, and our daughter, Grace, were interested in the hike, too. But mostly, my wife and I just aimed to explore, to the degree that our 3-year-old would permit.
Tepoztlan has been fascinating strangers for a long time, first conquistadors and missionaries, later dueling academics, now tourists and movie stars. (Anthropologist Robert Redfield came from the University of Chicago to write a book analyzing the town’s social structure in 1930, only to be followed by Oscar Lewis of the University of Illinois, who published a rival volume in 1951.)
These days, with about 35,000 residents, Tepoz is not so tiny. But it’s thick with myth and history, it’s walkable, and the weather is mild. (Even in the more humid summer months, average highs top out around 78 degrees, and average winter lows are in the 40s.)
The city’s eight neighborhood churches keep their calendars crowded with festivals, but if you need solitude, you can always duck into the darkness of a purifying temazcal and chant amid the steaming rocks and herbs.
We started by taking measure of our hotel, the Posada del Tepozteco, and what a happy task that turned out to be. It was built in the 1940s as a mansion on a hill two blocks from the town center, and the property was converted into a hotel about 10 years later. Its views of the valley and jutting mountains are commanding in three directions, the landscaping is immaculate, and the service is crisp and bilingual.
Over the years, it has grown to include 22 guest rooms, a barrel-vaulted dining room and a swimming pool, kept at about 80 degrees. Guests are mostly foreigners during the week, mostly from Mexico City on the weekends. Angelina Jolie, whose picture hangs on a wall behind the desk, took up residence for about three weeks during the shooting of the 2001 film “Original Sin.”
Everywhere you turn, there’s another elegant arch or a lily pond, a burbling courtyard fountain, a sculpture placed just so, or a patio table facing a vista that spreads from the spires of the Parroquia de la Natividad church to the jagged outline of the surrounding mountains. One night as we dug into dinner, a party of English-speaking foreigners stepped up to that view for the first time.
“My Lord!” one said.
There are other agreeable lodgings in and near the town. If we returned and had a rental car, I would be tempted to book the half-as-costly Hotel Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, about five miles outside the city — but of those I saw, the Posada del Tepozteco ranks first.
The only flaw we found is one the hotel can’t control: If you go to bed with your window open, you’ll be sleeping with all of Tepoztlan. It’s not a raucous town, but the church bells, the roosters, the dogs, the occasional bottle rocket from somebody’s street celebration ” all these noises, hemmed in by the mountains, bounce around Tepoztlan like bugs looking for an open window. In the end, we chose muffled stuffiness.
On the morning after that first night, we marched down to town ” careful marching, on a cobblestone down slope — and checked out the quiet zocalo, or square, the market and main streets.
In the market, tarp-shaded and smell-rich, butchers sharpened their knives and vendors peddled peppers, stirred vats of saffron-colored soup and sorted squash blossoms, which frequently turn up in the local quesadillas every fall.
On a corner, the Centro Holistico Arcoiris offered tarot readings, massages and a circle of fire. The Taj Mahal shop was selling crystals, fossils, masks, wood carvings and Asian imports. Cafe Isis offered “mokachinos” for about $2, and a dozen stands sold local art.
Almost as common as churches were the bright-hued outlets of Tepoznieves (“ice cream of the gods”), the menu running to scores of whimsically titled flavors. (I recommend Song of Mermaids, with bits of pear, apple and pine nuts.)
Just off Avenida Revolucion, worshipers and visitors tiptoed into the Parroquia de la Natividad or filed into the hushed cloisters of the adjacent ex-convent, or circled back to the Carlos Pellicer Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art.
We followed, reminding ourselves that when the church and convent went up in 1580, the Spanish had resided in North America less than 60 years. But there was another fine reminder outside: an arco de seminas, a mural-covered arch in front of the church showing an Aztec being baptized by a priest, the whole scene made entirely from colored seeds, grain and other local crops.
Even with the crystal vendors and detoxifiers here and there, Tepotzlan remains traditional and earthy enough to please anyone who would rather not put his chakras in the hands of a stranger. Every few blocks, another church looms or a shrine to Mary peeks from a wall niche. Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent god, is said to have been born just a few miles from here.
You can still buy pulque, made from fermented agave juice, all over town. Some of the old-timers apparently still speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl, which can be blamed for the tongue-twisting propinquity of T’s, L’s and Z’s in the names of local towns.
After the city center, we headed north down the town’s main drag, Avenida del Tepozteco, past more ancient walls, bold-colored eateries and modest lodgings. But it’s not the lively storefronts or even the brooding La Santisima neighborhood church that makes Tepozteco a memorable street.
About six blocks north of the town center, the road narrows to a pedestrian path. Then it creeps uphill, into an area that’s been designated a national park, toward a smudge of gray atop a high canyon wall. At first the path climbs gently, bordered by ramshackle refreshment stands, the loose stone steps thick with black beetles in the shade.
Then the path gets steeper, your breath gets shorter, and you remember that the floor of this valley is more than 5,000 feet above sea level.
You climb about 1,300 feet in 1.2 miles. Sure-footed hikers can manage it in a little less than an hour, and at the top they find Tepozteco itself.
The actual pyramid is only about 30 feet high with 13 steps, but the top-of-the-hill payoff is still terrific. Not only can you clamber around on a pre-Columbian monument, you get an IMAX view of the town and mountains, a vista made dreamy by the shifting mists.
And don’t be alarmed by the rustling at your feet: At least one family of raccoon-like coatimundis dwells on the mountaintop, living well on snacks begged from hikers.
I suppose it’s possible to get a 3-year-old to the top of this climb; I’m told that, to stay in shape, some local women carry their infants up the slope daily. But after about 20 minutes of the loose stones and the steepening path, we resorted to Plan B.
While I summited on behalf of the family, Mary Frances and Grace turned back, explored the neighborhood and took a table at Axitla, a sprawling restaurant surrounded by dense foliage at the foot of the trail. Once I was down the hill again, we consulted the menu, and I got my chance to face the corn smut.
Huitlacoche, also known as corn smut, is a black fungus that grows on corn. If you found some in a corner of your shower, you would pay big money for a professional to banish it. But it tastes creamy and mushroomy, and it’s been a delicacy in these parts for decades.
There were no grasshoppers on the Axitla menu, nor was there pulque. Nor did we seek them out anywhere else. But I was curious about those Aztec steam baths.
The temazcal is a purification ceremony, usually run by a leader who takes a handful of sweating subjects through a series of introspective exercises. Depending on where you sign up and how many people crowd into the circular enclosed space where the steaming rocks lie, you can pay $20 to $130 per person for a ceremony that lasts about an hour.
The venues look like little stone igloos, with ventilation holes in the roofs and a fireplace for heating rocks nearby.
Within three hours of descent from the pyramid, I was in swim trunks, approaching the little igloo on the grounds of the Posada del Tepozteco and meeting a guide named Minerva, who had come from Cuernavaca. A few steps away, a half-dozen laborers were swinging axes at a rock pile.
Joining me in the igloo while the hot rocks hissed in the middle, Minerva explained what was coming. Then, brandishing a fistful of herbs and speaking of fire, water, earth and air, she thwacked me on the arms and legs and pelted me with exotically scented droplets.
Seated in the humidity, darkness and three-digit temperature, we conducted the four-part ceremony in Spanish, and the low stone dome gave our voices more resonance than I’ve found in any shower.
Every syllable resounded like a Pavarotti aria without the pitch control. In vain, I tried not to imagine the smirking of the men outside. And then Minerva instructed me to chant about “flying like an eagle,” leading to a vision of the singer-songwriter Steve Miller, circa 1976, in a dripping sombrero. Bad Aztec. I was a very bad Aztec.
But as a physical exercise, the temazcal was an inarguable success. I came out of the igloo calm and refreshed, and I padded up the path to join my family in that 80-degree pool.
Facing north, I leaned against one side and once again scanned the serrated skyline. We had a fine dinner at Sibarita yet to come, and an excellent lunch with a view at El Ciruelo, and a happy prowl through the crowds at the Saturday-morning crafts market.
Teh-pose-LAWN. Easy, once you have the hang of it.