This article is from the February 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
Tepoztlan, The Tlahiuca Take on Jack “The Bear”
The equipment was rolled in, workers were on the way. But from somewhere, Emiliano’s spirit was smiling down on his people. Some 3,500 campesinos seized the construction machinery. All the roads were blocked into town. The PRI town counsel was run out of town and a new one was elected. Sentries were placed in the 420-year-old church. And finally, the project was suspended by the Secretary of Ecology and Natural Resources.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
As a Mexico traveler, you should rejoice. Tepoztlan is a very special place. I’m about as New-Age as Bob Dole (I knew we had something in common), but this town got to me. There’s a pervasive aura that my limited vocabulary can’t begin to adequately describe. Maybe it’s the sheer beauty of its location. As you drive the winding, fifteen-mile road from Cuemavaca it is apparent where you are heading. Even when the road is taking you in the opposite direction, you know you’ll end up where you can see those dramatic, monolith spires in the distance. It reminds you of Monument Valley in Utah (you know, where they filmed all those Westerns) except with palm trees, bougainvillea and cobblestone streets. The 12.000 residents live in a verv clean air temperate climate at 5,500 feet.
This seemed the perfect place for me to visit three weeks ago. I had been diagnosed with bronchitis and it wasn’t getting much better. Tepoztlan is renown for its curanderos (healers) and the mystical powers that have been present for centuries. Witches and witchcraft also have a prominent place in the ancient folklore. I’ll go there, I thought, and despite my inherent skepticism of all things intangible, will be miraculously healed. Yes, I will become a convert to the New Age. Perhaps I can buy some Yanni music when I get home. John Tesh. A room full of crystals!
Sadly to say, after days of wheezing and sweating, I flew home to be re-diagnosed with low-level pneumonia. Nonetheless, I did feel a spiritual kinship with the gentle inhabitants who were at all times polite, gracious and friendly. Not that they don’t have a right to be a little crabby. Prior to the golf course fiasco, the Tlahuica people withstood several invasions. The first was by the Aztecs around 1400. They reigned supreme until the Spaniards arrived in 1521. Then 30 years later it was the Dominicans, who erected the magnificent church and monastery that todav stands as the centerpiece of the town. Domingo de L’Anunciacjon, who evangelized the area between 1551 and 1559, built the church on top of the ruined temples of the Aztecs. One can only imagine what might be excavated if given the opportunity. Both the monastery and church are still in use today, although the monastery is being converted to a museum. The walls are filled with remnants of murals and can be viewed Wednesday to Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The church is open daily and is really impressive, regardless of your religious beliefs.
THE CERRO DEL TEPOZTECO
High up a sheer sandstone wall, looking down on the village, stands a pyramid shrine to the Aztec God of fertility and pulque (see following article). Not a bad combination. You can actually look up from the village and see this 30-foot-high pyramid perched some 1 800 feet seemingly straight up. It seems impossible, but there is a trail leading to the top. And if you are in condition, within an hour and a halt, you can make the hike. I could barely walk a block without gasping for air, due to my illness, but I talked with others who had made the trek, and it is definitely something I’ll do next time down. To get to the trail just follow the main street in town, Av Tepozteco, north for six blocks from the marketplace/main square to the start of the trail. They close down the access at 4:30 p.m. every day, so don’t start too late in the afternoon. You can start as early as 9:00 a.m. And although the site honors the God of pulque, the guy at the top is selling lemonade.
I was told that the view would turn even a spiritually-challenged skeptic like myself into a believer. There are places I have been that have that power, that grandeur. And I have to put Tepoztlan on that very short list. (I’ve never been to Wrigley Field, but I imagine that would be another.) To add to the legendary aura, Tepoztlan is widely thought to be the birthplace of Quetzacoatl, the omnipotent serpent god of the Aztecs. It’s that kind of place. And while you’re there, you’re walking around, saying to yourself, “Yeah, I can see that.” But I’m still not buying any crystals.
SUNDAY MARKET AND FESTIVALS
Tepoztlan is quiet and uncrowded during the week, but tends to fill up on the weekends. The folks with money come in from Cuernavaca and Mexico City and with limited accommodations, the hotel prices are not really cheap. On Sunday, market day, stalls are set up all around the main square, with vendors selling crafts from all over the country. It’s a wonderfully festive scene with music, gaiety, and all types of food and drink available. It’s a great venue for diverse people watching, especially that German couple with the Grateful Dead t-shirts and brand new, too tight huaraches who had just swallowed these small red chiles. The townsfolk were far too polite to laugh out loud, hut the furtive glances were priceless.
As is typical in all of Mexico, Tepoztlan has several festivals throughout the year. September 7 is El Reto del Tepozteco, celebrated near the pyramid on Tepozteco hill. This is the big pulque bash in honor of the God Tepoztecatl The next day, September 8, starts the Fiesta del Templa. This is the Catholic celebration that was to replace the pagan/pulque ritual the day before. Not so fast. It seems the conquered didn’t want to give up the party of pulque consumption, so they have both. The latter fiesta features theater performances in the Nahuatl language.
Carnaval is also celebrated on the five days preceding Ash Wednesday in late February or early March. Feathered head-dresses and colorful, embroidered costumes are worn by the natives as they perform the dances of the Chinelos and Huehuenches. This would be a good alternative to the Carnaval celebrations in Vera Cruz and Mazatlan. Hotel reservations months in advance would be highly recommended.The week before Easter is the Fita del Brinco del Chinelo. For three days costumed dancers jump and dance up and down the streets. Food, drink and music are consumed liberally. The proprietors of the Posada del Tepozteco judged this to be their favorite festival of the year.
The fear of going more than a couple of months without a major party brought the existence of Festival Cultural de Tepoztlan. This is ten days of more music, drinking, dancing and art.
FINDING A CURANDERO
Tepoztlan has a centuries-old reputation for health and healing. People have been known to come from all parts of the world for extended treatment at the hands of a local curandero or healer. I have no first-hand experience in the techniques employed, but I have heard that words, herbs, potions, eggs, smoke and snakes come into play. And lots of faith. Blue Cross not accepted.
To find a curandero, ask around in the shops near the main square. Ads are sometimes posted. For a quick fix you can arrange a limpia or cleansing. In a matter of minutes, all the negative thoughts you have been carrying for a lifetime will be purged from your mind and body. You will be cleansed and relieved of around $15.00 at the same time.
Cynicism aside, this really is a beautiful little town, and well worth the effort in getting there. It’s an easy day trip from Mexico City if you don’t have the time or inclination to spend more time. However, you really need a few days to get the feel and understanding of what has made Tepoztlan a special place to so many people.