The magic mountain

I have finally climbed the magic mountain of Tepozteco and the experience was phenomenal. This is part of the mountain range (sierra) that encircles Tepoztlán, a sleepy market town one hour south of Mexico city. Tepoztlán is a Nahuatl name and means "place of abundant copper" or "place of broken rocks”. There is not much copper to be seen today – either in the landscape or being sold in the market – but rocks there are a plenty.

What makes the mountain so special is that an ancient pyramid, named after Tepoztécatl the God of pulque, drunkenness and fertility, was erected on its summit around 1200AD and the ruins remain to this day. Pulque is made from the fermented juice of the maguey (a kind of cactus) and by modern standards is generally considered rather unappetising (given its resemblance to human saliva) but it was a popular Aztec drink and pre-Columbian was used in religious ceremonies. (Tepoztécatl is evidently an Aztec version of Dionysus). Pulque is still sold today, although in far less quantities than the ever popular tequila. In a nod to the cult of inebriation, market sellers continue to tout alcoholic beverages at the foot of the mountain.

Between 1150 and 1350AD, the city of Tlapechacalco flourished in a small valley surrounded by hills. The Aztec inhabitants carved out terraces from the rock  and built their palaces, and temples. Today, you can see the archaeological ruins of the city at the foot of the mountain and at the top of cerro Tepozteco is the temple ruin.

Today there is no road to the top and the only way to see the remains of the pyramid is by hiking up the mountainside for 1.3 miles (2km).

I have been meaning to climb this mountain for four years. Sunday at midday probably wasn’t the most propitious moment to choose. Hordes of people decided to ascend at that hour and at least three different generations, if not four, were climbing at the same time as us. Dense vegetation overhangs most of the path, creating natural shade but adding to the humidity, and in places, we were scrambling up an almost vertical precipice. I was amazed to see babies and dogs, quite literally, being hauled up the mountainside. All shapes and sizes and all manner of clothes and shoes were on display. Amazingly, often those people wearing flip-flops and Crocs proved the most sure-footed.

Many websites describe the climb in terms of ordered steps and this is very definitely not the case. At times our staircase to the temple was just a mound of rocks and, in places, water trickles over the rock making the climb slippery and more arduous. We applied a note of magic realism to the journey by imagining it to be the sweat of all those who had climbed before us.

All too often we, rounded a bend only to be confronted with another precipice to be scaled. At times, those descending caused dangerous bottlenecks where neither person could pass without causing risk to others. False hopes were raised when the sun broke through the foliage, fooling us into believing that we were near the top. One man scaled the mountain three times – during the three hours it took us to ascend and descend.

Inevitably, the highlight was arrival – drenched in sweat – and the awe-inspiring view. Tepoztlán laid out before us in all its glory.  The pyramid itself is stunning – even more so when you see the Mexicans camped out on its terraces – munching on their picnics, chatting and laughing. Unbelievably they were selling refreshments on the summit – someone evidently had to lug numerous bottles of lemonade and water up the mountain earlier in the day.

I was amused to see the following sign, asking for payment, at the top. All those climbing on sundays are exempt from the 37 peso fee (about £1.60) . But it was the exemption for "disabled visitors" that struck me.  I cannot contemplate how anyone suffering from any sort of injury or disability would make it up the mountain!  Having myself been partially disabled just 3 weeks ago, I was amazed at the ability of my knee and ankle to hold out and that I survived the journey intact.

As someone who suffers from vertigo, the descent was murderous. I was touched by the amount of helping hands offered to me. My rigid concentration on the stones in front of me, rather than the tremendous vista surrounding me, must have told a tale. I am amazed that there are not more accidents on Tepozteco. Just the sheer number of people at the weekend attempting to climb and descend is a hazard.

We may now be in considerable pain but remain exhilarated by the experience. The memory of the ascent, with its stunning natural architecture, foliage and small ferns flourishing in the rock is unforgettable. The summit is indeed a fitting stage to celebrate deities and kings. The temple ruins and view from the top of the mountain are ample reward for the rest of us lesser mortals.