Thursday, November 27, 2008

Between the Mountains, a Pueblo Mágico

Early last week, I got another chance to break free from Mexico City's sprawling clutches, hopping a bus up and over the rocky ridges that rim the southern border of the Valley of Mexico. Destination: the pueblo mágico of Tepoztlán. It's a designation that fits.

A cobblestoned main street stretches through the village, each end touching one of the mountainous mounds of stone that frame this little hamlet. It passes the zócalo, a square bustling with snack vendors and school kids and brightened by the sunflower-yellow stucco of the buildings surrounding it.

Local sorbet chain Tepoznieves operates several shops on the main drag, selling flavor upon flavor of refreshment-in-a-cup to sweating tourists. Church steeples break the horizon in pairs here and there, and a dry, mildly hazy heat hangs from the sky, putting a premium on the odd patch of shade.

Behind the zócalo spreads the market, covered stalls linked together in an endless chain of retail, stocked with everything from pottery and fabric to wrestling figurines. And just behind the market lie the grounds of the Ex-Convento Domínico de la Natividad.

Constructed in the 1500s, the convent complex is now open to visitors, free of charge. On display are its intricately muraled hallways, a profoundly picturesque and peaceful atrium complete with fountain and orange trees, and a number of terraces that afford the nicest views of the village and its spectacular backdrop of mountains you can find. Given the fact that I basically stumbled upon this made it all the more magical.

But there was magic at Tepoztlán well before the arrival of Christianity. According to legend, the cliff faces to the north are the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent creator deity of the Aztecs. The pre-Columbian link is still strong; in fact, Nahuatl is taught in the schools here.

A more visible reminder of the past, though, is the Aztec pyramid temple of Tepozteco, perched high above town on the mountain that gives it its name. You can see it from the zócalo, a tiny but transfixing white speck set atop the dark rock. This is what brings most of the tourists; indeed, it brought me. The promise of a centuries-old ruin combined with a taxing hike jumped off the guidebook pages and pulled me in.

"Taxing" is an adequate description of the steep, rocky trail that winds 2km up through the folds in the vertical cliffs. The sweat started flowing early, stinging my eyes with sunscreen. I took it slow, stopping frequently to gaze back on the village through the canopy. And I wasn't alone. There was plenty of panting, perspiring company on this Tuesday morning as the path climbed ever higher.

As I finally neared the little plateau on which the pyramid temple rests, I began to hear rustling all around me. Something was moving through the dry leaves that covered the steep rock faces on either side of the path. Suddenly, I spotted one. And then another. And another. They were coatí, I learned later, a cross between a raccoon and an aardvark. The archaeological site is guarded (or overrun) by a pack of at least 30.

Once I made it past the coatí, I was free to explore the grounds. The temple stands at the highest point, looking down on descending rows of terraces that once housed Aztec priests, and then over the cliffs to the long drop to Tepoztlán in the hazy distance. There was just enough visibility to hint at the outline of further mountains beyond the town, ridge after ridge stretching into nothingness.


wind-upbird said...

I am in love with Mexico.
I have only seen Puerto/Nuevo Vallarta and the surrounding areas me, the desert is enchanting :)

(Oh, I found your blog off Matador!)

hal said...

Thanks for visiting, wind-upbird.

I'm from Texas, so I've got a thing for deserts too. I hope to make it to NW Mexico someday soon.

Stop by anytime!