Green to the point of garish. Cool and fresh. Humid like stepping out of a much-needed shower. Pure, lush, and quiet.
Except for 10 feet of narrow space as you slip between the edifice of two giant sentinel rocks, every step on the Tepozteco trail is a step up.
Up and up and up.
I climb and imagine the Aztecs making this trek to build the temple on top. I’m dwarfed by their genius and devout perseverance. I carry only a light backpack. In the misty quiet, it feels like this place is a secret.
It’s not of course.
Tepozteco is one of the most famous hikes in Mexico. Located in the beautiful and artsy town of Tepoztlán, the Tepozteco ruins are an archeological site managed by the Instituto Nacional de AntopologÍa e Historia.
South of Mexico City, Tepoztlán is accessible via a smooth, well-maintained toll road. The trail head to Tepozteco is nestled in the north end of town.
Driving with my parents in my bulky 2009 SUV, my Mom notes that Google Maps is taking us along a route she compares to traversing a mountain pass. A bit of an exaggeration, but I see where she’s coming from. The roads are very narrow and curve sharply. At times the cobblestone streets appear to drop off; and I’m left creeping up to the edge, neck outstretched to ensure there is in fact, a ramp and not a staircase. The locals around me don’t bat an eye at my obvious lack of finesse.
Their generosity reminds me not to scoff when I see foreigners in the Rockies, passing my parents’ home in rented Jeeps without the requisite acumen.
Thankfully the town in so distractingly beautiful in it’s flower-clad colonial style, that I don’t have the bandwidth to worry that I’ll come to a dead-end and be forced to perform a 32 point turn.
This hike caters to tourists both foreign and domestic. So once we get to the trailhead, there is plenty of parking and clear signs indicating where to go. Parking is only 40 Pesos (USD ∼ $2). Bathrooms are what you would expect.
It’s 9:45 am. A late start for my avid-hiker parents, but I wanted to nurse my daughter before we left her with my husband. I would not recommend this hike with young children. And though it feels selfish to say, I’m glad to be out in the fresh morning air with only the sounds of birds and running water; vendors calling back and fourth to each other as they unfold little stands along the road to our climb.
There is art and jewelry. Souvenirs and bottles of water. Mist and the smell of freshly made tortillas.
Climbing the stairs
It’s not raining, but water falls from the canopy as though it were. Before we left the house, our friend came over to see my husband. “¿Vas a Tepozteco? Tenga cuidado de no resbalar” he says to me, gesturing to the wet, misting morning, warning me to be careful not to slip.
Thankfully, the trail is well maintained. Fortified with constructed stone steps through the majority; the remaining stretch a gentle scramble up what are either rminents of ancient steps, or the most amazing natural cascade of stepping-stones I’ve ever seen. Near the top, there is a small ∼ 20 ft vertical portion fashioned with metal stairs.
My hair is damp and the rocks are shining with water. Mercifully I don’t find the path to be slippery. We continue to climb up and up. Ascending with steady, labored breaths into the spectacular canopy, skirting cliffs. You might be wondering how my parents (both on the cups of 60 years old) are faring. I wouldn’t recommend this for every grandparent out there. But my folks, in their Chacos and Patagonia fleece, are no strangers to mountain climbing. They move competently over the jagged terrain, all but besting me with their speed.
“They would be handy, but it’s nice without safety precautions” my mom reflects. She’s right. Except for the metal stairs, there are no railings, no safety barriers or switchbacks. We free climb just like hundreds of people, hundreds of years before us. It doesn’t feel dangerous, just raw in a way that makes you appreciate the effort you’re expending all the more.
Reaching the summit
While the trek is steep, it is not far (∼ 1.25 miles each direction). We reach the summit within 1.08 hours according to my watch. We gain 5,533 ft of elevation and it shows. While not on the highest peak these beautiful mountains have to offer, we are far above the town, above the tallest trees clinging to the mountain side, above some of the clouds even. No wonder El Templo de Tepoztecalt was built up here.
At the top there is a small table where you purchase your tickets if you want to walk the temple ruins. At 50 Pesos (USD ∼ $2.50), it’s well worth the price. Bonus, they have discounted prices for Mexican citizens who are students, teachers, seniors, or researchers. And how fantastic that the whole hike is free for those of any demographic who might simply want the exercise.
The INAH staff member manning the ticket table is 65 if he’s a day. I ask him if he climbs up here daily. With a weathered smile under a gray mustache, he smiles and says of course he does.
Open every day from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm, the temple ruins are believed to have been built in 1502 A.D. I feel lucky to get to walk them. To sit on the edge and take in the spectacular view.
While on at the top I spot a Coati, quite common on this hike given the plethora of signs devoted to this member of the raccoon (Procyonidae) family. My years of working as a terrestrial biologist had me watching him forage for food from a distance until I realized I too was hungry.
Vegan lunch in Tepoztlán
The decent is fast. It takes us 35 minutes and some serious thigh muscles to reach the town. My Dad’s had three knee surgeries, but finds it tolerable (if you’re likewise concerned about knee pain).
I read that many days the trail is packed and people have to ascend or descend most sections in single file, presumably maintaining the pace of the slowest hiker that day.
We are fortunate for the trail’s sparse population, but even more fortunate for the congeniality of everyone we DO pass. People smile and greet us as we hike down; ask how much further it is to the top; wish us well on our way. Not that you don’t find friendly hikers in the USA, but here, it is literally each and every hiker.
We arrive back at my car with grumbling stomaches and happily tired legs. My mom suggests a vegan restaurant, Corazon Sonoro, that she’s found on Happy Cow (a fantastic tool for finding vegan cuisine).
We find the restaurant, but alas, it is closed on Tuesdays. We wander the streets for a while, poking our heads into various cafe’s and restaurants, perusing menus and soaking up the smells of the local chocolateria.
Wandering off the main drag (if there even is one), we are about to call it a day and head home when we stumble across a vegan cafe the old fashioned way: without GPS, and by pure dumb luck.
El Milenio. If you are in Tepoztlán and looking for vegan food, I highly recommend it.
In addition to making delicious cuisine, they have a little grocery area where you can stock up on fare you typically find in a health food store. The proprietors did not appear to be expats, and offered me my first opportunity to hear the difference between veganism and vegetarianism explained in Spanish (to the patrons in front of us).
We share three dishes. they were all delish, although the veggie burger and falafels get my endorsement.
We drive home with full bellies and content feet. I know I will hike Tepozteco again. I foresee it becoming my version of the New York High Line; a beautiful destination you don’t want any out-of-town guest to miss. But unlike the High Line or SF Ferry Building, I foresee myself coming back to hike alone as well. To heave my way up the majestic stairs as a meditation. Among all the song birds, waterfalls and friendly faces.