A slice of Aztec life in the mountains of Mexico

November 25, 2007|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

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 easy, or 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 residents 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.

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.

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.

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 (or bath house) 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.

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 -- all these noises, hemmed in by the mountains, bounce around Tepoztlan like bugs looking for an open window.

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 soup and sorted squash blossoms, which frequently turn up in the local quesadillas every fall.

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. 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.

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.

I suppose it's possible to get a 3-year-old to the top of this climb, 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 sampled the local food at Axitla, a sprawling restaurant surrounded by dense foliage at the foot of the trail.

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