We were already at 5,600 feet above sea level: over a mile high. Add another 1,200 feet elevation gain, and my poor lungs weren’t quite sure they could keep up. But the path was busy, and families with two-year-olds bustled up the steps. While we pulled over to catch our breath for the fifteenth time in 700 feet, an old abuela using a cane to steady herself carefully made her way up the rocky stone steps. Apparently, hiking to the pyramid Tepozteco wasn’t as difficult as my legs believed.
My husband and I had come to Tepoztlán on a day trip from Mexico City. Once an ancient center of worship, the small town is now a popular modern destination known for its New Age energies. Over the years, it’s attracted swaths of enlightened Americans looking for tarot readings, a photograph of their aura, or good energy. Bed & Breakfasts advertising massage, reiki, reflexology, and floral therapy abound on the narrow streets.
We didn’t need any bad energies cleared before our hike, but we decided we did need pulque, the fermented sap of the agave plant. The temple at the top of the mountain was for Tepoztecatl, the god of fertility and one of the 400 deities of pulque. He was the son of Mayahuel, on whose grave the first agave plant grew. From that single plant, the gods gifted tequila, strong fibers for weaving, thorns for tools, and pulque. The milky beverage comes from the very center of the agave, and can be left plain and white with a hint of natural sweetness, or flavored any which way.
In Mexico City, I had tried fresa (strawberry), piña (pineapple), a pio (celery), and avena (oatmeal). Today, we decided to share a big cup of piña pulque, which tasted delicious, but proved to be a bad decision once the hike began in earnest. Strenuous exercise on a hot day while a fruity alcoholic beverage ferments in your belly is never a good plan. But Tepozteco awaited.
Hiking in Tepoztlán
The hike begins in the town itself, walking down the Avenida 5 de Mayo, which later becomes Avenida Tepozteco and eventually deposits hikers directly at the temple, high above. Walking away from the town center, the street becomes a wide walkway with stone steps that wind through the forest. Meditation retreats and restaurants hide along the path, and stalls selling woven mats and other goods beckon.
On the way back down, we failed to resist the call of freshly made sopes, the masa harina flattened in the vendor’s palm before grilled on an open cooktop. The path up gets steeper and gains elevation quickly. The stairs transform into jumbled stones, and roots from nearby trees wind their way onto the path as if trying to climb up to the pyramid themselves. I had to rest at the top of each small ascent, my lungs straining to pluck oxygen from the thin air.
The final ascent is wedged into a canyon, so steep that a metal staircase is there to offer help. Beyond the cliffs, rocky pinnacles peek above the layer of green trees. I wondered what gods hid behind them. We made our way through the open gate and up the staircase in a series of metal switchbacks. Finally, we reached the top, welcomed by a booth selling water and sodas to tired, thirsty pilgrims regretting past pulque choices.
From the top we could see the town, so far away and tiny. Was that the market where we got lost in rows of fabric and pottery? The 15th century church? The ice cream store where we tried dulce de leche and the mysteriously fruity, delicious mamey flavor?
Furry coatis pulled our attention back to the mountaintop. A member of the raccoon family about the size of a house cat, each coati had light brown fur with a pointed snout and dark rings on its tail. Native to the area, the creatures were accustomed to hikers, and skittered around the site looking for food crumbs and lapping up spilled water. They stayed close to the food vendor stall and showed no interest in the ancient pyramid.
We were paying our 42 pesos entrance fee for the pyramid when I spotted my abuela friend once again. She, with some help, had made her way up the narrow steps of the ancient stones to the very top, cane in hand, for a photo opportunity. She glowed with pride. Did she do this every year, or was this a once-in-alifetime experience?
When it was originally built in the 1300s, the pyramid shrine drew worshippers from as far
away as Guatemala and Chiapas. Now empty inside, it is thought to have once housed a statue of Tepoztecatl, god of fertility and pulque. Lungs still straining from the elevation and muscles sore from the hike, I thought about the god. We’d been to the top of his shrine, duly exclaiming awe over the god’s realm. We’d drunk of his pleasures. As for the fertility, we visited Tepozteco in May. I didn’t know it then, but the next May our daughter would be born.
If You Go:
The bus is the easiest way to arrive from Mexico City. The trip will take about an hour and a half via Pullman de Morelos or Estrella de Oro .
The market is on Saturday. It’s fun to visit, but the town and the hike will be much busier.
The hike starts right from the main street (there are signs). It’s about 2 miles up, but it’s steep and the altitude makes it a challenge. The hike is free, but there is a 42 peso (about $2) charge for the pyramid.
Be sure to visit one of the Tepoznieves locations at either side of town for 100 varieties of delicious ice cream.
Author Bio: Katrina loves to eat, drink, and explore, and is currently figuring out how to do those things with a 1-year-old in tow. She’s lived in Amsterdam, San Francisco, and the cornfields of Nebraska, but Portland, Oregon has been home for the past 8 years and counting. Find her Pacific Northwest adventures and beyond at www.katrinaemery.com.