MEXICO CITY: Birthday in the Rainforest

Whenever it’s my birthday, I refuse to be somewhere boring or worse — home. I made a promise to myself that I will forever be somewhere exciting or doing something thrilling when my age advances. Last year (well two now, I take forever to write these things!) it was Luxor, Egypt, and it was the greatest birthday of my life. I hope you remember my rapturous post about the glories that I experienced that day: the staff of the Winter Palace wishing me repeated good wishes, complimentary Opéra cake, my bed covered in flowers and herbage spelling out happy birthday, Debbie and Mina at the Lantern giving me free gin and well wishes, both of my dear Hassans inviting me over for lunch. It was a perfect day. It was probably the greatest day of my life thus far. And then the year before that I was in Turin, Italy, and I was beautifully thin and eating focaccia bread and exploring the newly renovated Museo Egizio. I dined at Mario Batali’s restaurant (which was less problematic back then), wandered through piazzas, and enjoyed wine in a box for the first time. Birthdays are special, and I don’t ever want to let one go to waste. In Mexico, I had to find a way to make the greatest memories I possibly could.

So when I first planned this trip, I looked online for interesting excursions. Using Atlas Obscura, that beloved resource that has led me on so many wondrous wanderings, I happened upon a town about two hours from Mexico City called Tepoztlán. It’s famous for being a hotbed of extraterrestrial sightings, paranormal activity, and for an absurd number of health retreats. In reality, these are usually small spas that offer indigenous healing rituals and therapies. But these  weren’t the major pull for me to speed off to a new city — though they certainly were a pull. No, reader, Tepoztlán is also famous for ice cream AND a pyramid! You know how much I love a good pyramid. And how could I turn down the thrill of ice cream in addition to my favorite architectural structure? I simply couldn’t! It was going to be a day that dreams are made of. Hold up, it’s been far too long since we’ve had a Lizzie McGuire interlude:

God, I love that movie.

As is my custom and as is my wont, I was unable to wake up at a decent hour, so I grimaced at my hair and blamed my newfound old age on its disastrous appearance. Here I was, reader, with a bad hair day on my first day of being twenty-eight. I did what I could, shrugged, and then darted out the door down into the train.

After making my way out to Teotihuacan, I had much less trepidation about taking a day trip than I would have otherwise. And I’m not entirely sure why I’m more daring in Mexico than in my beloved France. I’m very wary of doing excursions when I’m there. I haven’t a clue why; I suppose I don’t want to look foolish or misunderstand anything and end up in some village in Belgium. That probably wouldn’t happen. And wouldn’t that be a fun story? I’d enjoy myself tremendously, I suppose. Belgium has delicious chocolate. More day trips on my next excursion to beautiful Paris.

Actually, I think this new bravery — a horrible word choice — in foreign lands is just that I’m getting older and I’m not so bothered by anything and don’t really give two hoots about making a fool of myself. I mean I barely speak half a dozen words in Arabic and I willingly hop into taxis in the Middle East and go gallivanting out in the middle of the Sahara without thinking twice. And in Italy I ride buses and trains without worry — even after the disastrous train journey I took there in 2015 that involved a man’s suicide, cheap cigarettes, pigs in blankets, dozing like a homeless person in a piazza on the French border, ghost towns, and a peculiar machine that sold champagne. I’m still willing to explore there. I’m not sure, but Paris just makes me want to be perfect. I don’t want anybody to think I’m not a Frenchman after completely accepting and assimilating the culture. I apologize for this lengthy digression on public transportation and my character development. Thank you for staying with me.

I grabbed a bottle of jamaica water at a small tienda at the bus stop, ordered my ticket completely in Spanish, and easily found the bus that was to take me on my birthday excursion. I was really quite ecstatic to be out of the city and to have the chance to see more of the beautiful landscapes that mesmerized me each time I left Mexico City. I must do more day trips when I’m back down in this wonderful part of the world this summer. I’m so excited to be back and I can’t wait to eat churros and tortas and tlacoyos and tarts from the French bakery that makes me feel like I’m back in Paris and drink unimaginably cheap tequila. I can quite easily see myself living down in Mexico City for the rest of my natural days. It’s a wonderland. But let’s try and stay focused on the narrative — my side stories are getting to be a bit too much.

The bus soon took off, and unfortunately first class was the only option — a line I’m sure you never expected from me — so no ice cream vendors hopped on, no random musicians boarded to serenade us for a quarter of an hour. Instead, the last film in the Hunger Games series played on television screens. This couldn’t hold my attention for long because as soon as we left Mexico City proper, I was endlessly trying to catch my breath. Everything out the window was so beautiful. Too beautiful to be real. It all looked like a confection. Iowa is so endlessly dull in comparison. Don’t know why I bother staying in a place that fails to thrill me. I shouldn’t say that, I suppose. There are much worse places to be and things to do than live in a fairly peaceful state in a comfortable country estate with an espresso machine on each level. It’s just so cold and there isn’t a beach nearby and the most exciting thing you can do is go to the mall until the outdoors thaw for half a year. I need a bit more than that to feel like I’m living a life worth leading. But enough of this bitter diatribe, I already do it all the time.

The scenes outside my window were absolutely wondrous, and I couldn’t stop looking at the glorious vistas that rose up unexpectedly. Mountains and hills and cities and cliffs and more and it was a dream. We drove through misty jungles, and I wondered just how far down we’d fall if the bus were to careen off the side of the road. I decided not to think about it after I was distracted by an armed police squadron driving past us, lights blazing, escorting the longest hearse I’ve ever seen. On top of trucks, men stood holding mounted machine guns, and I had to wonder what this was all about. There’s so much about Mexico I don’t understand. I suppose it will take endless experiences being there to begin to comprehend the culture and even then, I’m sure there are aspects that will never make sense.

I kept track of our progress on my phone and impatiently awaited my destination. Using the spotty cellular connection, I researched everything I could about Tepoztlán, my enthusiasm getting more and more overwhelming. And finally the bus came to a stop and we were on the outskirts of town. Instead of driving into the village’s center, the bus uses a station alongside the highway for convenience. From here you can take a taxi, but after looking at my map and conferring with an old woman at the bus stop, I decided to walk. This was a tremendously good idea.

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The walk would take about half an hour, and back at that point, I wasn’t quite aware of the physical exertion I was going to experience later. And maybe I wasn’t exactly dressed appropriately for climbing ancient ruins, but it has become my aesthetic to never dress down. It makes me uncomfortable. I only recently bought a pair of tennis shoes in the vain attempt that I would work out in a gym. Reader, that’s a laugh out loud statement. The closest I come to breaking a sweat in the gym is if there are new lightbulbs in the tanning bed. It’s just not who I am, you know? Not part of my journey.

So, you probably wonder how I looked. Let me endeavor to elucidate you on my birthday ensemble. Gorgeous denim shirt, slim black pants, black leather chelsea boots, and my skin was flawless. I was radiant, but I didn’t quite look this gorgeous on the route home. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here and now I’m still fresh and young and hip and new and not at all sweaty.

The walk into town was a thing of beauty. A sidewalk followed the winding road into town, and on either side big beautiful trees stretched up into the heavens. Bright pink and purple flowers festooned the crumbling stone walls that lined some more hazardous parts of the route, and all along were agave, birds, and the odd amphibian. I was sighing dreamily with regularity.

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It didn’t take long until the gorgeous village appeared, and I, as I so often do, fell head over heels in love with it from the onset. Mexico, reader, is probably the most beautiful place that I have ever been. Now, you know that I love the lush routes along the Nile in southern Egypt, and I adore the decadent harshness of the deserts in Africa. I love walking through the twisting streets of the Marais in Paris. I worship the galleries in Turin. I adore the nonsensical alleys in Villefranche-sur-mer. I am endlessly in love with the canyons of Los Angeles. But there is something acutely special about Mexico. It just might be the newness of being there, but still I feel there was a deeper pull. The colors were riotous, the smells intoxicating, the flora and fauna lush and stunning, and the people were all so kind. Every day brought greater and greater sights, and when my mind wonders, I often find myself mentally wondering through Mexico City again remembering the thrills I felt when I first saw the beautiful streets, the soaring architecture, the intricate churches, all of it. I can’t wait to be there again. I’m going to be saying that endlessly until June 4th when I do return, so please excuse all of my desperate longing…even though I’m really not that sorry. Sorry, not sorry, like the kids say. (God I really am old.)

Tepoztlan’s main thoroughfare stretched out before me, and I couldn’t wait to wander down either side, poking into the shops and restaurants, maybe picking up some herbal remedy or getting a witchy massage or something. It was my birthday and I was going to treat myself, and the first treat I wanted was ice cream.

There are several many locations of Tepoznieves in town, and the first one that I came across was massive. My jaw actually dropped a bit when I first entered the shop. There are huge amounts of space for people to sit with their chilled treats, which was impressive enough, but nothing could compare with the huge selection of ice cream. Several employees stood behind four counters that formed a square, each counter held easily twenty varieties. You could blend to your heart’s content or just have a single flavor. And if you aren’t sure, you are more than welcome to try a sample of absolutely anything.

I had dozens of samples. The man helping me seemed to delight in finding me interesting flavors — many of which were infused with adult beverages. I finally decided on one that was tequila-lemon and then another that was tamarind. Together, reader, they were insane. I couldn’t get over the flavor profile. I felt like one of those hyperbolic travel show hosts that scream and moan and get wide-eyed over street food in Asia. Maybe they’re being more authentic than I ever thought?

Unable to get over how delicious the ice cream was, I decided that I needed to vacate the shop before I bought every single flavor. I would have died happily of morbid obesity in that little village. And I should not have been concerned for my waistline, for there was something tremendous happening that would probably cause me to shed a dozen pounds, but that’s for a little later in my narrative.

Clutching the remains of my ice cream, I made my way back out onto the street and slowly walked by all the shops, thinking about where I would treat myself for my birthday dinner before heading back to Mexico City. Everything smelled divine and I wanted to gorge myself on tacos and tequila. But I decided that I had to be patient when I saw the first sign that my destination was at hand. There was a small plaque on an electric pole that proudly proclaimed PYRAMIDE.

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A thrill coursed through me as I thought about the joys of climbing a pyramid. Now, reader, I admit to being a wee bit confused. I had looked all over the place for a pyramid. I had been scanning the horizon for absolute ages to no avail. I remember reading that you had to go on a bit of a hike, but my understanding of a little hike was certainly not climbing a mountain, for that is what I really had to do.

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It started off easily enough. You would think I’d know better by now. The street narrowed and the shops gave way to a long avenue of tented vendors. Here I was teased by some delicious looking blue triangles that were sizzling on griddles all over the place. And then finally there was nothing but nature and a paved path.

The journey to the pyramid of Tepozteco is treacherous and somewhat misleading. You begin by walking along a wide sidewalk and climbing occasional sets of stairs. You don’t mind because the scenery surrounding you is the dictionary definition of gorgeous. You walk beneath the canopy of an actual rainforest and all signs of civilization begin to fade. The path becomes less and less manicured until it’s nothing but a stony path…if you’re lucky. Trees soar up into space and your eyes lose track of them as they all blend together. Vines cling to the trunks and make their way over the path. A little stream gushes beside you and everything is wonderful.

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And then something goes wrong.

Very wrong.

The path is completely gone and you have to cross the stream — which is now more of a fast flowing river — in expensive boots that are made for stomping around West Hollywood not for climbing a mountain. I hopped from boulder to boulder, praying that my footing wouldn’t slip on the wet stones. What a way to die, I chuckled macabrely, jumping for the last one. Imagine slipping, hitting my head on a rock, and then drowning in a shallow stream. Not really my idea of a memorable death. No, I imagine I shall perish elegantly one day in a yachting accident on the Mediterranean as I clutch a flute of good champagne. Now that’s a death worth memorializing.

No signage existed on the path to share the hiker’s progress, so you continue on blindly up the mountain, never knowing how far you were up or down, never entirely sure what lay ahead. Atlas Obscura had mentioned some people climb it in an hour, and it takes others many more hours. I assumed it would take me about an hour. I’m fairly fit, but this was a hike like nothing else I have ever done. I was sweating prolifically, leaving puddles of my DNA behind. Disgusting. I hate sweating.

Just look at these images of the climb and try to empathize with my misery:

 

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The trail wasn’t too crowded, and I was surprised by the number of American tourists there. In Mexico City, I honestly can’t recall seeing many. I’m not sure if they aren’t there or if I’m just going to places that tourists don’t normally go to. The Zocalo is one of the most popular places for locals and tourists alike, so I doubt this is true. But then again, maybe most tourists don’t make a delighted day’s journey to Walmart and take the most nonsensical route to get there. That’s my idea of a good time.

Lost in thought, I nearly bumped into a gathering of people looking up at a break in the canopy. I followed their line of sight and smiled merrily. There it was — the pyramid!

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I knew that it was going to be small, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite as small as it was. I imagine it’s shorter than my house. Well maybe a bit taller. The Internet tells me that it is about 31 feet high. Nothing compared to the pyramids of Teotihuacan or Egypt. But it was still a pyramid and there are no pyramids that fail to thrill me.

My archaeologist side was activated from first glimpse and I sat down on an outcropping, grabbed my iPhone, and began doing more intensive research than I had managed to do on the bus. I wondered why on Earth the people would build a religious complex so high up in the mountain? And I wondered about the ancient priests. And I was curious about the pilgrims that came in ancient times to this tiny pyramid in the rainforest.

The Internet couldn’t answer all of my questions, but I did learn something delicious. The pyramid is dedicated to Tepoztecatl, the Aztec god of pulque! Now, reader, I discovered how awful and disgusting and unsettlingly viscous pulque is on one of my first glorious nights in Mexico City at the Plaza Garibaldi. You remember that, I hope. I can’t stand the stuff, but the thought of Aztecs dedicating a pyramid to a god of an alcoholic beverage was very on brand for me.

Another fascinating bit of mythology that I learned was that the village was thought to be the birthplace of a very important god, Quetzalcoatl. We are sadly poorly educated on Mesoamerican culture, history, and mythology, but most people who take more than a cursory interest in the subject will have heard of this god, the Feathered Serpent. When those nightmarish conquistadors arrived from Spain, legend has it that the Emperor Moctezuma II believed that Cortes was the living embodiment of Quetzalcoatl arriving to fulfill a prophecy. Of course this wasn’t true, but Cortes didn’t bother sharing the truth of the matter and allowed his newly supposed divinity to aid him in the slaughter and ruination of the Aztec empire. (I should mention that this is supposition and that there are many reasons to believe that the Spanish historians themselves began this legend in the horrible ethnocentric fashion of glorifying ourselves that we horrible white people have a bad habit of doing. History is told by the winners, as we’ve all heard. And it’s true. But in this case, history was written by the survivors.)

And even though the pyramid was in sight, there was still an agony ahead of me. To get up to the level of the pyramid, you have to climb a winding metal staircase that is coated in dew from the fog that settles on the mountain top. Quite slippery, so hold the handrails. Up and up and up and then you finally reach flat land and the ticket office. It’s a pittance, only fifty pesos, and it allows you access to the entirety of the archaeological site.

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I made a beeline for the pyramid, of course, which was even less imposing up close, but still fabulous. Climbing this adorable little pyramid was hardly strenuous, which honestly was a relief after SCALING A MOUNTAIN. It took no time at all to ascend the little walkway. The most perilous part of the entire endeavor was sliding along the perimeter around other people who were sitting, staring out at the stunning view. One wrong move and you would fall off the side of this ancient structure. I was fairly sure that you wouldn’t fall off the entire mountain, but a drop of three stories is hardly enviable.

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I made it to the side that faced the village, and I could hardly believe how stunning it was. The mountain range stretched out in a semicircle with Tepoztlán in the very center, seeming even smaller and quainter than it was. I sighed dreamily. Look at it, reader!

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I was startled by a buzzing noise, and if I had watched Ingobernable before my trip to Mexico, I might have suspiciously thought it was a government or cartel drone sent to assassinate somebody. God, I love that show. Have you watched? If you’ve read any of my other blog series, then you surely know all about it. And if you don’t, then watch this trailer and educate yourself on one of the greatest shows of all time.

But anyway, the drone belonged to one of the pyramid’s visitors, and he showed the footage to everybody as it streamed live back to his iPad. It was really very impressive to see ourselves sitting on the ledge of a pyramid on top of a mountain. I don’t think I’ll start traveling with a drone to take pictures and videos, because I like to travel light, but I was deeply intrigued.

I don’t remember how long I stayed in my spot, thinking about the ancient priests, pulque, and about all the modern visitors. I don’t know how long I pondered life and how much fun it can be, and of course I thought once again of my favorite quote by Joan Rivers, “Things are fine and life is fine. And life is so much fun. It’s one big movie.” It is, reader, it really is a beautiful film. We are all the scriptwriters of our lives. It’s up to us to make it as glorious and wonderful and enviable as we possibly can. Things that are actually impossible are far and few between, you know? It’s up to you to live a remarkable life. If you’re whining and whinging about how you can’t or why you daren’t, then your main issue is a tragic lack of imagination. You can do anything. You can go anywhere. I never thought that I would sit on a pyramid. I never thought I would yacht down the Nile. I never thought Angela Lansbury would shake my hand or Prince Charles would nod at me or I’d be on the BBC during a royal wedding or I would wander through the streets of Cairo at midnight. These aren’t normal situations, but you can absolutely make them normal and commonplace. I’ll stop my rant.

I was also on top of the pyramid for a while longer than I expected because I really didn’t want to go back. It was hard enough to climb the mountain in my slippery boots. I was dreading the return. I was drenched in sweat. My hair was flopping down into my eyes in a stringy mess. I was far from cute. But I was starving and I needed to get back before nightfall.

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But then I saw something happening below and I leapt to my feet and I hurried down. THE COATIS WERE OUT!

Now, I haven’t mentioned this, yet, but these animals are one of the major reasons I decided to visit this village over a handful of others. Coatis are basically daytime raccoons that are half monkey. They are all over the mountain, and the ones near the pyramid have become quite tame. They come up to visitors and reach out their greedy little paws for whatever you can give them. If you put your bag down to rest, they are known to unzip or unbuckle them and take anything they want. They’re a nuisance, but I LOVE THEM and I want to adopt them all and have a colony of coatis at the farm.

By the time I made it to the spot of their gathering, they had hurried back into the jungle, and I was left with nothing to look at but a patch of dirt and an excited woman who was tittering at the images she had captured moments before. I waited in vain for them to return, but they never emerged from their home again. The complex was beginning to shutter, and I really didn’t want to be stumbling down a mountain after dark, so I began the perilous journey back to the village.

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Several people chortled at my boots, but I couldn’t be too perturbed. I still looked fashionable even if I was literally a hot mess. I won’t go into all the details, reader, but this was worse than going up. Once you start going down, you don’t stop going down, and wet rocks are awfully slippery. I never tumbled to my death, but I sank into a seat at the very first food vendor I found upon my return.

The rains had started to fall, darkness was reaching out to Tepoztlán, and I was famished. I ordered something new called an itacate, which is a traditional dish from this region. It’s like a sandwich of thick triangular blue masa filled with whatever you wanted. I wanted whatever wasn’t dead animal.

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So, I had two itacates sloppily stuffed with a delicious assemblage of mushrooms, onions, squash blossoms, nopales, and cheese. It smelled divine and tasted equally good. Even the beer I had to wash it down wasn’t awful. I knew then that I was dehydrated. No other good reason for me to enjoy beer.

It was quite gorgeous, reader, to sit there, munching on good street food, watching the tired people make their way out of the rainforest, watching vendors close up their shop, watching the children rush through the streets that were glittering from the gentle rain. It was everything I could have hoped for in a birthday, and I was so thankful.

I made the long walk back to the bus stop, pausing for a moment at a little tienda for a bottle of water but instead choosing a can Jack Daniels. What a wonderful nation, I beamed, walking past the stone walls cascading with flowers, sipping apple whiskey.

Getting back on the bus wasn’t challenging once I figured out how to read the ticket, and soon we were motoring back to Mexico City. The scenery was gorgeous and the sunset was more perfect than it had any right to be. I was really quite overwhelmed with contentment, and in that moment a somber feeling of regret was born. I was nearing the end of my stay in Mexico. I was days away from leaving this place I never expected to care much for. The thought that I only had a few more adventures left in this brilliant country sobered me, but I made a promise that I would be back a million times. Like Egypt, Mexico is alive and lovely. There is a hint of danger and yet the ease of good living is too great to damper any spirits. I wanted to remain for a million years, I had no longing to return to the sterility of American life. But I can’t control that quite yet. There were still a few more days to live this dream.

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