While in Mexico City on business not long ago, my partner and I were looking for a little badly needed R&R, and interested in an out-of-town excursion that was interesting but not too obvious or cliché. So we asked some locals their opinion, and they were in pretty much unanimous agreement: Tepoztlán. A little town in the dusty hills of the state of Morelos about an hour outside the capital, it has cobblestone streets, colonial-era churches, and even a modest set of ancient ruins atop the steep mount right above town.
The Mexican tourism folks have it on their list of eighty-something “Pueblos Mágicos” (“Magical Towns”), but the difference in this case is that not only do the locals here take that quite literally, but they’ve turned it into a cottage industry. According to myth the birthplace of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, in recent years Tepoztlán has become not just a weekend getaway for Mexico City-slickers, but also sort of like Sedona without the vortices – Mexico’s woo-woo mecca par excellence – and one largely known to Mexicans but not yet discovered by international tourists on a large scale.
So, work week over, we hopped in a taxi in the Zona Rosa down to the Terminal Central del Sur to catch one of the various motorcoaches connecting to Tepoztlán. On Pullman de Morelos it cost 112 pesos each way – less than the cab ride from the hotel – and for that we scored plush seats and a Disney nature video of animals chasing each other across the African veldt (though I must admit I’ve never been frisked before getting on a bus before – as were all the other male passengers; apparently they weren’t concerned about the members of Girl Guide troup Benito Juárez, en route to Meztitla Scout Camp School near Tepoztlán).
But the views outside the windows were actually interesting enough – after leaving the capital’s grubby outer boroughs behind, we zoomed along on a mostly impeccable blacktop highway past hilly, rocky, semi-arid open country, farm fields, woods heavy with pine, electric pylons, and the occasional unlovely cement-block town – and this all before leaving the federal capital district. After a bit of traffic a bit out of town, we finally pulled into a rinky-dink bus station, then strolled 15 minutes down a neat sidewalk into town.
After passing a succession of workaday shops and businesses (including a nice little coffin shop) along main drag Avenida Cinco de Mayo, suddenly we came across the Zócalo, the lively main square, where the stars and the planets started to align. Eastward along the square, Avenida de la Revolución is lined on both sides with vendors hawking everything from crafts and local food specialtiies to botanicals – and yes, all manner of New-Agey paraphernalia and services. There are also plenty of permanent shops, galleries, and establishments – probably my fave being the “Luz Azul Mystic-Holistic Center,” whose main schtick is “photographing auras” (right) with a bloody big flatscreen computer setup.
The spacey fun continues running north of the Zócalo on Avenida Tepozteco (which actually I find one of the more picturesque parts of town), with spot after spot eagerly offering the likes of reiki; Hindu vegetarian cuisine; various kinds of massage and a host of other spa services; temazcal Mayan sweat lodges imported from the Yucatan; meditation and yoga; dreamcatchers; Celtic rune readings; chakra alignment; bio feedback; acupuncture; homeopathic remedies; tarot and palm readings; Inca Pachamama rituals; and something I’m not quite sure what to do with angels. I was bummed to spot no kaballah and voudon/santería/candomblé – but hey, I guess you can’t have everything.
Avenida Tepozteco pretty much fetches up at the foot of the hill at the edge of town, and it’s here that those who wish to make the pilgrimage up to the eponymous Aztec site of El Tepozteco can find their starting point. We were short of time, so had to leave it to our next visit. But if you’re willing to hike and climb 45 minutes each way between pretty fair-size boulders, you can check out the 11-foot-high temple at the top (below left), dedicated to Tepoztecatl, god of one of Mexico’s most characteristic firewaters, pulque, and a sacred spot since at least 1,300 BC. The site itself is hardly on the order of, say, the great Teotihuacán north of Mexico City, but I’m told the views from here are quite the bonus.
There are also a couple of other traditional “sights” in town worth a peek. The big kahuna is the rather austere 16th-century single-nave church and former monastery of Our Lady of the Nativity. Inside, the church sports several points of interest, such as a sunken, stone-enclosed baptismal font in the rear that I don’t ever recall seeing in any church before, as well as floor-to-ceiling frescoes throughout the apse. Alongside it, along with the highly appealing simplicity of the Franciscan monastery you’ll find nifty details such as black-and-white illustrations in the columns of its tranquil cloister; an upstairs bathroom with a row of latrines illustrated with rather saucy commentary regarding everyone’s need to wipe his culo, from humble friar up to the pope; and a cool set of modern art installations.
Before leaving, I went up to one of the terraces to gaze up at the surrounding hills, to find a gentleman sitting there with a telescope, offering peeks up at Tepozteco for 3 pesos. As I stood there, suddenly I could make out a low, quivering sound wafting in from below – yes, the unmistakable vibration of an Australian aboriginal didgeridoo. (Woo-woo!)
In any case, behind this church is the town’s other main “sight,” a small archaeology museum gathering some artifacts from the area’s pre-Columbian cultures. It’s interesting but there’s not much to it, so a relatively quick visit – especially if you don’t speak Spanish, since there are no texts in English (but admission’s just a pittance at 10 pesos, so what the heck – well worth worth 20 minutes or so).
Between the church and the Zócalo is that inevitable part of every Mexican town and city – the open-air market, which usually makes for a fascinating bit of local sociology (and sometimes even archaeology). In this case, much of what’s on offer is fairly mundane household products, clothing, and the like, but there are some crafts, as well – all packed together so tightly it feels like an enclosed warren rather than an outdoor market. And then of course there’s the “food court” – sit-down stalls serving up all kinds of tasty local edibles as well as the occasional startling sight such as a pair of grinning goat skulls). It all looked appealing, but not wanting to push our luck too much with the street food in view of another important upcoming business meeting, though (after having done so several days earlier in Coyoacán), we decided to act on another recommendation and head to the nearby El Ciruelo restaurant, centred around a lovely little courtyard with striking views of the hills. Good choice; in addition to trying one of the local Morelos specialties, cecina de Yecapitxtla (a thin steak of cured, marinated beef) I had a go for the second time in my life at chapulines (fried crickets), this time not straight-up but with goat cheese and red onions on toast. Um, crunchy – but I’m done.
Instead of sticking around there for dessert, we decided to save it for something else this town is known for: tepoznieves – ice creams and sorbets in a remarkable, almost bewildering variety of flavours. At one of many shops, the brightly-festooned, banana-hued premises of Embajadores Tempoznieves on Avenida Revolución (right), there’s a list of dozens and dozens that puts Creams Café and Baskin Robbins to shame – including many of the traditional flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry – plus uniquely Mexican variants like cactus, tequila, horchata (cinnamon/rice, rather different from Spain’s version), avocado, lettuce, fig mescal, and coconut chile.
I actually wished we could’ve stuck around for an overnight , but twas not to be, this time. I did note a couple of fine places well worth staying, however, such as the Xacallan log cabin colony, La Buena Vibra Spa Hotel, and Casa Fernanda. Well, I’ll give the ol’ crystals a rub and hope for the best next time…