Go see the Aztecs! A Christmas story from Tepoztlán and a New Year's Message

chrismas in tepoztlán, firework
Christmas Atmosphere in Tepoztlán. (Photo: Václav Lang)

Why I went to see the Aztecs and why you should too. A photo story from the pre-Christmas Tepoztlán, one reflection and one thank you.

Sometimes you just happen to get up in the morning and want to see the Aztecs. Then I can't do anything, I even skip breakfast and have to go. Anywhere to the pyramids. Where the mysterious power lies. And peace. Anything beyond 25 million souls encased in concrete with no horizon. And you only have to go a short distance to the ancient artifacts to get a charge. Whether it's the castle of Chapultepec, or Tepoztlán with its pyramid and UFO rumors, or Teotihuacán, which came from nowhere. Or the ruins of Tenochtitlan, where we now live and feel the quakes of the earth. It has shaken countless times in the past week alone.

It was the morning after the first Tigres vs. América final. And that's what it looked like the morning after. The morning when you don't know if you'll survive the day. I went for a walk in the misty haze - most people think that here in Mexico, everything is eternally covered with sun. But for the past two weeks the sun hasn't shone, the streets have been covered in cold fog since morning, and the temperature drops below ten degrees in the evening.

I bought an over-sweetened cafe de olla for about approximately one dollar at a stand on the corner of Cuahtémoc Avenue, which divides the hipster Roma Norte district from the barrio of Doctores. I was sipping it in the Jardín Dr. Ignacio Chávez park, and suddenly was seized with this crazy urge to get away somewhere unfamiliar and free of the noise of the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere.

Aztec warrior Cuauhtémoc on canvas in Chapultepec Castle. (Photo: Václav Lang)
Aztec warrior Cuauhtémoc on canvas in Chapultepec Castle. (Photo: Václav Lang)

It's happened to me a few times. You wake up in the morning and you know you have to do something different. Once, sometime last year, with burn-out from work and all, the Aztecs appeared in my dream, and I suddenly woke up with a jolt - the kind of thing where, like in the movies, you rise straight from sleep into a sitting position and look like a zombie. In the shock, I was delirious: I must see the Aztecs. And so I ditched work and the whole routine and went to Chapultepec Park, the largest park in Latin America, with a castle, a zoo, a botanical garden and several museums. The park has preserved artifacts proving that it was inhabited by indigenous people some three thousand years ago. And it's in the adjacent museums that you'll learn the most about Mexico's history.

I'm not generally a fan of exhibitions and galleries and museums. It's too passive entertainment for me. But here, I was mesmerized. I've seen Aztecs, or rather examples from all periods of the history of the Mexican people. Plus all sorts of artifacts from pre-Hispanic times. Tzompantli, towers made of the skulls of sacrificed ones, pierced with stakes like some beads in a counter, which used to grace Tenochtitlan, the predecessor of our city. A representation of the times when Moctezuma and Cuahtémoc defended it as the last of the Mohicans against the white colonizers. And so on. Mostly, though, it was peaceful. The peace of breaking the stereotype dictated by the hectic times: have breakfast, create value, rest, die. And then again and again. Here, it was the other way around. After all, in Aztec culture, death was an honor.

A similar urge to reverse this order caught me that Friday morning, then more like noon. I knew I had to go look for the Aztecs. And once again, break out of the stereotype of the doomed cycle. I longed to wander into some barrio, what they call isolated, usually local gang-dominated neighborhoods, "hoods" in English. But I decided that I lacked the sober judgment to do so at that moment. So I finally decided to go to Tepoztlán, the most famous Pueblo Mágico in the area.

The magical city of Tepoztlán. Somewhere in the wisps of clouds, a pyramid is hidden on top of the mountain.
The magical city of Tepoztlán. Somewhere in the wisps of clouds, a pyramid is hidden on top of the mountain. (Photo: Václav Lang)

Pueblos Mágicos, magical towns, are villages or smaller towns particularly notable for their picaresque and historical value. They are usually inhabited by descendants of the indigenous people, and boast many historical artefacts. It's a bit like going back to the Middle Ages. And for the record, they're not necessarily Aztec cities; Tepoztlán, of all places, was inhabited by the Xochimilcas. My point, however, was simply to get to those magical places of ancient cultures.

So, I took the subway to the southwest corner of the city. Inside, as always, it smelled rancid, and there had been no movement on the train since the switch at Chabacano station. But at Tasqueña, all was back to normal, with homeless people lying outside and lovers kissing goodbye, and inside, you could buy tickets to the farthest reaches of the country, where you either fly three or four hours or take a bus for three or four days. I bought a ticket to Tepoztlán, which is normally one to two hours away. And even at that point - it was after one in the afternoon - I suspected I would miss my intended purpose for the trip, which was to hike up the Tepozteco pyramid, perched on a cliff high above Tepoztlán.

I didn't say it out loud, but I was kind of just going for the michelada anyway. A beer lemonade popular mainly for its refreshing, healing effects, especially in times of major hangovers. A drink based on sour juices and salt can sometimes work wonders. And in Tepoztlán, it's available in liter cups at every turn. It was there I tasted it for the first time in my life, and I was going crazy like every good Czech, because you don't spoil beer with some juice.

Atmosphere in Tepoztlán before Christmas
Atmosphere in Tepoztlán before Christmas. (Photo: Václav Lang)

I walked through the beautiful stone streets of the city. In the pre-Christmas rush, they were surprisingly not full of tourists as they usually are. Beyond the horizon I could already see a rock massive scratching into the clouds, and on its top the aforementioned pyramid. Rumour has it that a UFO landed there. But - as a knowledgeable local friend of mine once answered me - magic mushrooms are also widely consumed in the area, so who knows. But seriously, Tepoztlán is a truly mystical place and I wouldn't be surprised about the UFO.

At this point, for me, the mystique this time was going to end at the second cup of michelada I got on my return from the entrance gate to the trail to the top of the mountain. I verified that I had missed the opening hours, so I was determined to treat myself to a second drink and head back to Ciudad de México. Even a short visit to the origins is sometimes enough.

But as I approached the main square, I saw a truck pull out of one of the adjacent streets, on the back of which sat children clutching a kind of masquerade, a giant man's head made of a canvas-wrapped wicker ball, like a big balloon, as they do in Mexico. In that pre-Christmas time of parties and festivities, I was not surprised. But then I saw other masks and various musicians gathering in the heart of the city, and decided to wait a while for their performance.

Festive parade in Tepoztlán.
Festive parade in Tepoztlán. (Photo: Václav Lang)

In a little while, it was decided that I would stay. That's when several ladies from the aforementioned company approached me and handed me a shot glass-like container made from the tube of a severed bamboo branch. They filled it to the brim with Mezcal from an unmarked bottle and I, of course, did not protest. On the contrary, apparently due to the action of the mystical karma here, the jar filled up again after a while and then several more times. In the meantime, the group in costumes, masks and musical instruments formed up to march together through the town.

I discovered it was a rural school from the state of Oaxaca, south of the country. Their professor, who led the parade and fired fireworks into the air set in a bamboo stick, explained to me that the locals had learned that they were the ones who could do these village fiestas very well, so they had called them in. I did not, however, learn much from him about the significance of such a procession. It was simply a celebration of life. Of which there are many in Mexico.

Parade through Tepoztlán.
Parade through Tepoztlán. (Photo: Václav Lang)

Together with a large group I walked through the city. The mood was cheerful. The girls at the head of the procession, dressed in colorful dresses, gave out smiles and twirled their colorful skirts. The boy leading the procession deafened the streets by cracking a thick whip on the ground while others threw homemade tortillas and plastic bags with the famous coffee from Oaxaca among the spectators.

At dusk and the pattering of rain, the group scrambled high above the city to the church, where an audience was already waiting. The students went to change and were soon on stage performing traditional dances. Fireworks were flying through the air, mezcal was circulating in the audience and the dancers were dancing wildly on the stage.

Man drinking mezcal during a Christmas fiesta in Tepooztlán
Christmas in Tepoztlán. (Photo: Václav Lang)

I finally enjoyed one more michelada and had to go home. As you can see, I ended up spending more time with the natives than I expected. And again, I experienced something I didn't expect. Only because I decided to break the routine.

Break the routine!

For those of you who have read this far, please know that at the beginning of the writing process, I was expecting a maximum of three paragraphs. But that's what happens sometimes, that you forget to stop. That's what sometimes happens when you're doing something that makes sense to you.

I wish these writings of mine would make sense, and not just to me, in the coming year. I will be glad if you continue to keep me in your good graces and feel free to write from time to time what you have to say, what you didn't like, or what you would like to read. Or if you'll say a word about this project in front of your friends, I'd absolutely love that. After all, in these overwhelmed times, being an indie creator is a bit of a path through the thorny bush, and every additional mention or subscription makes it a little more pervasive.

In any case, I'm glad I started this project this summer. Even though it was a journey into the unknown. I've been motivated by the steadily growing readership to keep going and to add more and better posts. For that, I would like to thank everyone.

And finally, one wish for 2024: Don't be afraid to break the routine. And go looking for Aztecs every now and then. Even though it may seem unfeasible, if not dumb, at first. When you throw away fear and habits, life will reward you with new adventures. And that's worth the risk.

So let's get to the pyramids!

PS: Are you looking to go to Mexico but don't know where to start? Download my itinerary for a three-week trip with the most important things to see in Mexico. Now is the best time to go.

PS2: Those who would like to help contribute to this project might consider upgrading to the paid version. It's something like $6 a month, and in exchange you get access to all the content, including exclusive subscriber-only articles.

So once again, happy holidays to all and see you in 2024.