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 locals 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.
If it weren't for the influx of big-city sophisticates every weekend, you never would guess that Mexico City is just beyond the mountains, 47 miles north, or that Cuernavaca, the language-school capital of Mexico, is 11 miles south.
We arrived late on a weekday, a few hours too late to enjoy the traditional Wednesday farmers market, but in 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.
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. (Even in the more humid summer months, average highs top out around 78 degrees, and average winter lows are in the 40s.)
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
and chant amid the steaming rocks and herbs.
My wife, 3-year-old daughter, and I started by taking the measure of our hotel, the Posada del Tepozteco. 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.
It has grown to include 22 guest rooms, a barrel-vaulted dining room, and a swimming pool, kept at about 80 degrees. Guests are mostly foreigners during the week, mostly from Mexico City on the weekends. Angelina Jolie, whose picture hangs on a wall behind the desk, took up residence for about three weeks during the shooting of the 2001 film
Everywhere you turn, there's an elegant arch or a lily pond, a burbling courtyard fountain, a sculpture, or a patio table facing a vista that spreads from the spires of the Parroquia de la Natividad church to the jagged outline of the surrounding mountains.
There are other agreeable lodgings in and near the town. If we returned and had a rental car, I would be tempted to book the half-as-costly Hotel Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, about five miles outside the city - but of those I saw, the Posada del Tepozteco ranks first.
Just know that 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, the occasional bottle rocket from somebody's street celebration - all these noises, hemmed in by the mountains, bounce around Tepoztlan like bugs looking for an open window.
In the market, butchers sharpened their knives and vendors peddled peppers, stirred vats of saffron-colored soup, and sorted squash blossoms, which turn up in the quesadillas every fall.
Almost as common as churches were the bright-hued outlets of Tepoznieves ("ice cream of the gods"), the menu running to scores of whimsically titled flavors. (I recommend Song of Mermaids, with bits of pear, apple and pine nuts.)
Just off Avenida Revolucion, worshipers and visitors tiptoed into the Parroquia de la Natividad or filed into the hushed cloisters of the adjacent ex-convent, or circled back to the Carlos Pellicer Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art.
We followed, reminding ourselves that when the church and convent went up in 1580, the Spanish had lived in North America less than 60 years. But there was another fine reminder outside: an
arco de seminas
, a mural-covered arch in front of the church showing an Aztec being baptized by a priest, the whole scene made from colored seeds, grain and other local crops.
All over town, you can still buy pulque, made from fermented agave juice. Some of the old-timers apparently still speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl, which can be blamed for the tongue-twisting town names with so many T's, L's and Z's.
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 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.
And don't be alarmed by the rustling at your feet: At least one family of raccoonlike coatimundis dwells on the mountaintop, living well on snacks begged from hikers.
Once I was down the hill, we consulted the menu at Axitla, a sprawling restaurant surrounded by dense foliage, and I got my chance to face the corn smut.
, also known as corn smut, is a black fungus that grows on corn. It tastes creamy and mushroomy, and it's been a delicacy in these parts for decades.
There were no grasshoppers on the Axitla menu, nor was there pulque. But I was curious about Aztec steam baths.
is a purification ceremony, usually run by a leader who takes a handful of sweating subjects through a series of introspective exercises. Depending on where you sign up and how many people crowd into the circular enclosed space where the steaming rocks lie, you can pay $20 to $130 per person for a ceremony that lasts about an hour.
The venues look like little stone igloos, with ventilation holes in the roofs and a fireplace for heating rocks nearby.
Wearing swim trunks, I approached the little igloo on the grounds of the Posada del Tepozteco and met a guide named Minerva, who had come from Cuernavaca. A few steps away, a half-dozen laborers swung axes at a rock pile.
Joining me in the igloo while the hot rocks hissed in the middle, Minerva explained what was coming. Then, brandishing a fistful of herbs and speaking of fire, water, earth and air, she thwacked me on the arms and legs and pelted me with exotically scented droplets.
Seated in the humidity, darkness and triple-digit temperature, we conducted the four-part ceremony in Spanish, and the low stone dome gave our voices more resonance than I've found in any shower.
Every syllable resounded like a Pavarotti aria without the pitch control. In vain, I tried not to imagine the smirking of the men outside. And then Minerva instructed me to chant about "flying like an eagle." I was a very bad Aztec.
But as a physical exercise, the
was an inarguable success. I came out of the igloo calm and refreshed, and I padded up the path to join my family in the hotel's 80-degree pool.
Facing north, I leaned against one side and once again scanned the serrated skyline.
Teh-pose-LAWN. Easy, once you have the hang of it.
Aeromexico, American, Continental, Delta, Mexicana, United and US Airways fly to
, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $497. Continental flies nonstop from
From Mexico City,
is about 90 minutes by car. Taxis usually cost $130 to $140 each way.
Dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (the country code for Mexico) and the local number.
Places to stay
Posada del Tepozteco
3 Calle Paraiso, Tepoztlan
This hotel was converted from a mansion about 50 years ago. Commanding views, meticulous landscaping, restaurant, pool. Doubles from $280.
Hotel Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl
The hotel is about five miles outside Tepoztlan, with a big pool, tennis court, stables, spa services. Kid-friendly. Rooms from about $79.
Places to eat
Posada del Tepozteco
3 Calle Paraiso, Tepoztlan
This is the fanciest place in town, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees from about $6.
17 Zaragoza, Tepoztlan
Large, sophisticated restaurant near center of town, with a covered patio and broad mountain views. Dinners from about $6.
Local governments and travel agencies offer a variety of tidbits. See