They say altitude sickness resembles flu, or a hangover. What they don’t tell you is the swirling, odd dreams. Under the shadow of Xinantecatl, the Naked Mountain, I slept a restless night with Nahuatl patterns behind my eyes, with smoke in my nose and the sounds of animals and shaking pine needles of the trees around me in my ears.
Waking up in the shadow of Nevado de Toluca is interesting.
It’s December 30th, my sister’s birthday. Stuart was comfortably huddled in his sleeping bag. The temperatures were low — literally freezing, actually. Even the stray dogs around our campsite huddled up for warmth together under a small roof.
We’d spent enough time in Toluca and the area of México City – so once Stuart was up, we decided to set off with a just a little coffee. The road out is a nice, fairly well packed dirt road and is a blast to ride. We saw two other riders on their way in, wheeling heavy 1200GSes over the gravel. We stopped in Toluca for a quick bite of the most Mexican of breakfasts: bread with sugar on it.
They did have a beautiful painting of Nevado de Toluca, though:
We want to spend New Year’s Eve in a nice city that isn’t México City, and we had a fun idea for a ride: from the volcano campsite, we could pop down by Tehuantepec to visit the Nahuatl mountaintop ruins of Tepoztlan, allowing us a night in a hotel before crossing the Pass of Cortez (Paso de Cortez) between Mexico’s biggest volcanoes: Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. The road down from there is a fun if somewhat technical sand and dirt road that eventually rolls into Cholula (yes, that Cholula, from the hot sauce!) and on into Puebla City, our New Year’s Eve spot of choice.
Our route today:
It was a pretty nice route in, about three hours of riding.
I’d found a hotel that wasn’t completely full (most hotels were sold out, likely for festivities?) and this one sounded just fine. We were slightly surprised to find our cheap hotel was… a tube.
Not the most secure parking for our bikes but it’ll do.
The main attraction of Tepoztlan, the small town south of the grandiose basin of México City, is El Tepozteco. The town itself cowers in the view of a near-vertical range of mountain cliffs, which is in turn adorned with a temple at the very top. Dense forest covers the tops of the cliffs like some sort of dense vegetative foam. We were here, we might as well lock up our stuff and start hiking up.
Tepoztlan is now mostly surviving on tourism, so as you walk the single pathway to the mountaintop, the town gives way to small shacks for a mile on end selling all manner of products. Indigenous woodworks, beads, jewelry, food… ah, food.
We love the cutting of sweet fruits with lime and chili on top. It was hot, absolutely sweltering tropical heat, a strange change from freezing temperatures in the morning. We were melting, and the cool fruit gave a welcome respite despite its spicy kick.
The trail up wasn’t too hard – perhaps a few miles, and tons of people were hiking up. It made us happy, as a trail like this was unlikely to see this much traffic in the US. A fairly steep climb made it somewhat unfriendly to families, but we saw tons families with kids and teenagers hiking up. Once at the top, a small manned gate demands your dineros before letting you into the site. It allows for a free hike up (a rare thing) and a smart upsell: you came all this way, you might as well go see the temple…
Even without the temple, the hike is worth it. Not only is the climb up a crazy, jungly affair of long tangled vines and vegetation, the panoramic views atop the mountain are gorgeous.
It takes little imagination to see how the sheer jagged cliffs could be the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god.
The temple itself was once the shrine to Tepoztecatl, an Aztec god of booze. Particularly, pulque, the agave pulp drink you can find in Central México. I’m not a huge pulque fan, but the Aztecs believed it was one of the best things you could imbibe and even had an entire god dedicated to it.
Disheartening and obnoxious to see people systematically ignore signs put up to prevent further wear to the ruins and climb on the 1500 year old carved stones. We could yell them down, but masses more would come up to take selfies. Not the ancient ruins or meticulous carvings or the views: no, their own ratty faces. It’s unfortunate that sacrificing youth isn’t a DIY affair at these places today.
We spent a few hours up there, as the sun was setting late.
It was the last sunset of the year, and we looked as the mountain ridges all around us shone, glowed, and finally bathed in the blood from the reddened sun that was impaling itself on the ridges. Purple light cast on the face of the pyramid, now quiet from the crowds, and in the jungle around the warm rock life began to stir.
We were the last ones up there when a park worker came to yell at us to leave.
As we turned down the path to the town, a majestic gradient of peach color cooling into cobalt blue dominated the sky. On the cliff above us, the temple lay there, with the resplendent grace of petrified gods.
When we got down, our warm night was spent walking through town and its old, central market. It contrasts heavily to the tourism-centric main streets, which are thinner in crowds and sees more backpackers and resettled hippies. We sat and chatted with one, which was kind enough to brew us some delicious tea to cap off our night as we talked about paths, travels and living all over the world.
Somewhere, a feathered serpent shrugged.