Sunday July 7 2013

Cacti, tequila and great ice cream

By Julius Ocwinyo

It is a weekend, and it is to Tepoztlán that the multitude of tourists and Chilangos (Mexico City residents) clogging the north-bound road – in cars, vans and buses, and on motorcycles – are headed. Located in central Mexico, Tepoztlán, a town in the state of Morelos, is about 80 km north of Mexico City. It is one of the repositories of Mexico’s rich and enviable history and traditions. To get there, we depart from the Allende métro station, located at the Centro Histórico, for Taxqueña, where we get on a tourist coach that charges 204 pesos (about Shs44, 000) each for the round trip.

Clumps of trees and clusters of cacti
It is a quiet and comfortable journey up and down a tortuous road cut into the sides of hills- sheer in some places and gentle in others- that fall away towards the basin that enfolds Mexico City. They are reminiscent of the hills of Kigezi and Rwanda. The land is, however, parched and ashen, and the grass dry, brown and brittle, and thus devoid of the lush green that we take for granted. In contrast to the sweeping blanket of banana fronds that tightly hug the hills, here there are. Scattered clumps of trees and clusters of cacti. We swoosh past smaller towns and a graveyard of mangled vehicles. After an hour and a half, we arrive at our destination.

Tepoztlán means the “place of abundant copper” or the “place of broken iron” in Nahuatl, the most widely spoken indigenous language. It nestles in Tepoztlán valley, hemmed in on all sides by the imposing Tepozteco mountain, atop which broods the awesome remains of a pyramid millennia old. It is believed to possess magical powers, and around its base cavort hordes of tejones- furry animals, the size of a big domestic cat, which look like a cross between an anteater and a mongoose. The tejones have become so habituated to humans that they will beg you for food by literally climbing up your leg. To take a look around the pyramid one has to pay a fee of 42 pesos (about Shs9,000).

Home of exotic ice cream
Besides the mountain, another attraction is the ex-convent Domínico de la Natividad, a World Heritage Site, constructed between 1560 and 1588. On either side of the its ungated entranceway stand two exquisite seed murals. There are a number of adults strolling around its grounds, or simply idling around on its many concrete benches. There is also a gaggle of children frolicking noisily about, oblivious of the need to keep these hallowed grounds serene.

Tepoztlán is famous far and wide for its exotic ice cream flavours, of which it boasts more than 100. As we walk through the town towards Mount Tepozteco, lots of hands proffer dollops of ice cream in tiny translucent cups as an enticement to taste and buy. The same happens after we are done with the mountain hike and return to the town. I neither taste nor buy any ice cream. Instead I stroll into a shop and purchase a tequila service set, comprising two small cups, a salt cellar and a small tray, all of them made of china. I make friends with the vendor and his wife instantly. I even have a photo taken with them.

I notice adverts for traditional Mexican massage. I also notice people appreciatively breathing in smoke from sweet-smelling herbs being burnt in earthenware bowls and pots (in a ritual called temazcal).

The spirit of Mexico
As in other parts of Mexico, tequila is one of the buttresses of social life and festivities here in Tepoztlán. Tequila is a spirit quite akin to Uganda Waragi that is produced from the agave fruit. It is either imbibed neat or with a pinch of salt laced with lemon or lime.

Or it is mated with a side of sangrita, made by stirring orange juice, tomato sauce and hot chillies into a spicy blend. There is a strong preference here for beer flavoured with lime juice, chilli powder or tomato juice, which is rubbed on the rim of the drinking vessel. The beer brands – such as Barrilito, Corona, Victoria and Léon – either come in six-packs of 325-millilitre bottles or single 1.2-litre bottles.

After eating a light lunch of tinga de pollo (shredded barbecued chicken wrapped in tortillas) with grated cheese and green chilli sauce and chugging down a 1.2-litre bottle of Victoria lager, I amble down to the bus station for the trip back to Mexico City.