When there’s only one way to the mountaintop – and it’s straight up – don’t carry the guidebooks.

What possessed me to carry five pounds of guidebooks in my backpack as I hiked up 1300 feet to a 12th century temple I can barely explain.

Tepoztlan-looking up to TepoztecoLast Saturday, my class and I visited the Pueblo Magico of Tepoztlan, the birthplace of the plumed serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, in the mountains about an hour from Cuernavaca. I had this crazy goal of hiking from from the town at 5,000 feet up to 6,300 feet to visit Tepozteco, a 12th century temple dedicated to the god Tepoztécatl. Who was he, you ask? He was the god of pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from some kind of sap, from a plant called maguey. Just my kind of god! People still honor Tepoztecatl every September 7 by consuming large quantities of pulque.

I am an information geek and I LOVE having every historical fact about a particular archeological site at my fingertips while I am visiting. Yes, I am sometimes one of those travelers you see with my nose buried in a book instead of looking at what I am reading about, then taking a picture of it. Now, my first problem, you could say, is a result of having been a privileged traveler. When my school organized our trip I just ASSUMED that a mini-van would be picking us up and I could leave extra stuff (like the guidebooks) in the van while I did the hike. Why, that’s what I’ve always done, right? Wrong!

But I attend a cool school that believes in using public transportation whenever possible. So, guess what? We took the local bus that stopped every mile or so for the hour-long trip. Already I was thinking, what the hell am I going to do with all that stuff in my backpack. Well, I’m not getting rid of my guidebooks, I said to myself, I just started my trip.

What you should know is that the path to Tepozteco is not one of those beginner hiking paths that meander, gently ascending, with frequent flat sections that make the ascent seem easy. No, the 12th century Tlahuica priests made sure that they located the temple so high on the mountaintop that just reaching it was an exhausting, taxing journey, designed to make sure that you struggled each and every moment. I can imagine pilgrims crawling the last few yards, thirsty, sweaty and damn ready to thank the god Tepoztécatl, with every aching bone in their bodies, for that pitcher of pulque.

And I can tell you now, when there’s only one way to the mountaintop – and it’s straight up – don’t carry the guidebooks.

PreAztec stone pathway to TempleMy teacher, Jorge, had said that it was maybe 45 minutes, an hour walk to the top. I pictured a somewhat taxing trek through beautiful forests, after which I would pull out my lunch and water bottles, admire the vista from the steps of the temple and gaze down on the town below, happy to have added another archeological site to my personal list of places to see before you die.

Well, there were many times on the hike that I thought I WOULD die!

I told my friends not to wait for me, that I was a slow hiker and that I’d meet them at the top. Off they went. No problem.

First 5 minutes: “This isn’t so hard. I don’t see what the fuss is about. The path is paved and there are even nice people selling drinks, food and souvenirs.”

Second 5 minutes: “What happened to the souvenir stands? Hey, I’m getting a little warm. Better take off this shirt – a T-shirt is just fine.”

Third 5 minutes: “Wow, this path is steep. I think I’ll just unzip the part of my pants below the knees. Shorts will be so much cooler.”

Fourth 5 minutes: “What is in this backpack? It must weigh about 50 pounds.” I remove the first water bottle and give it to a nice couple on their way down.

Tepozteco-the final 100 yards to the top25 minutes into it: Huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf I say, “This is way harder than I thought. What can I get rid of? Ok, the lunch has got to go. I’ll eat later.” Sandwich and fruit left on a stone, my little offering to Tepoztécatl: Please get me to the top!

35 minutes: “I’m never going to make it. What if I just turn around? No one will know.” Bye-bye second bottle of water.

45 minutes: “Why the hell are all these people passing me. Look at that guy, he’s carrying a baby! And she’s wearing ballerina flats.”

50 minutes: “OK, Tepoztécatl, just how much farther is your damn temple.”

One hour: “I am going to die. No, really, I am going to die, and all that they will find of me is my titanium spine.”

One hour, 15 minutes: “Here’s the deal, Tepoztécatl, you get me to the top and I will offer you next year’s corn crop AND my best cow.”

One hour, 30 minutes: “Who f*cking cares if I’m walking on stones laid by ancient people. Why don’t they build a cable car like normal people would?”

Tepozteco-steep descentOne hour, 45 minutes: “Must.   Stop.   Now.   Can’t.   Go.   On.”

Two hours: “What’s that sound? Why, it’s cheering! Who are they cheering for? Me? Just because I made it?”

And they were. A whole crowd of people I didn’t even know. Applauding each one of us as we stepped onto the plateau at the top of the mountain. Right in front of me, Jorge and my classmates saying, You made it! You made it! We thought you would turn around, not with your back.

Ha! That’s me, I guess. The somewhat crazy, tenacious soul, overweight and middle aged, who is only now remembering that I don’t give up, that I won’t be limited by my crooked back, physical weakness and pain.

Tepoztlan-view from TempleMy reward was the MOST amazing view of jagged peaks surrounding a green valley, of a town dotted with red roofs, and churches and cobblestone streets. And while Tepozteco is not the finest temple I have visited, it is one hallowed by the labor of those believers, people who carried weights far greater than mine.

Did I need the guidebooks to know what was important about the temples? No. I had already read and learned what I needed to know, I realized.

But since I HAD carried them all that way, I sat on the steps of the temple, ignored the lady in the ballerina flats, read the descriptions and imagined that it was just me up there. Offering up my own little sacrifice to Tepoztécatl, just another pilgrim making his way through life, who HAD made it to the top.

Tepozteco-12th century preAztec temple


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