Few people have heard of Tepoztlan in Mexico. If you’ve never been to Mexico, why would you have? It’s not a major hub like Mexico City, it isn’t a beach-tastic partyville like Cancún, nor was it once the heart of an ancient civilisation like Teotihuacán.
You’re probably thinking it sounds pointless. Why even bother going at all?
Welcome to another one of my Unhelpful Guides. This is where I tell stories about some of the weird and wonderful stuff I get up to in my job as a documentary producer. Along the way, you may learn one or two fun facts about the places I visit, but if you’re hoping for hardcore information and serious advice for your next trip, I’m afraid you’re about to be disappointed. Happy Reading!
Why visit Tepoztlan in Mexico?
In my case, the reason was because I was sent there to make a documentary about the Aztecs. To be more specific, we went there to build an Aztec pyramid. As you do.
Ok, I know that sounds weird, but hear me out. The aim was to learn more about Aztec engineering – and make some cool telly in the process – by building a scale model of an Aztec pyramid using traditional tools and techniques. Why speculate about how the Aztecs did it when you can have a go yourself?
So we tracked down an energetic experimental archaeologist named David and a very talented Mexican architect named Lucas, and gave them 10 days to build the best and most accurate Aztec-style temple they could, by hand, while we filmed it.
And it just so happens that Tepoztlan is conveniently close to Mexico City, and Lucas happened to own some land there where we could build this thing, and that’s how we ended up spending 10 days shuttling back and forth between Tepoz (as it’s known for short), and various other filming locations.
If you have no plans to build an Aztec pyramid, or any other kind of ancient structure, not to worry. Tepoztlan is actually cute and colourful with pretty cobbled streets, a buzzing market, and it even has its own small set of genuine Aztec ruins. So it’s definitely still worth a visit if you’re in the area.
How to get to Tepoztlan, Mexico
My dynamic Assistant Producer/camera guy Richard and I fly to Mexico in February 2020, just before the pandemic kicks in (hence the lack of masks and general Covid malarkey in the photos, in case you were worried). This is our second filming trip for this project; the first, in December 2019, is covered in An Unhelpful Guide to Aztec Ruins in Mexico, in which you’ll learn how to prepare for the risk of being kidnapped and why you shouldn’t order the ants’ eggs.
Rich, who knows important people at British Airways, gets upgraded again, and swans off into First Class like he’s been doing it all his life, while I curl myself into the foetal position and rock back and forth for 10 hours in Economy.
Since it’s our second visit in two months and we are now pros at the Mexican arrivals process, we march straight up to the trolley porters’ cartel with the extortionate fee already in hand, and sail through customs with only moderate levels of pain. Then, after a night in the nearest airport hotel, we are whisked off in our spacious crew minibus to Tepoztlan (journey time: approximately 2-3 hours depending on traffic).
I imagine you won’t have a crew minibus, so I guess if you want to visit Tepoztlan you’ll need to get a regular bus, or a taxi, or somesuch. I dunno. Google it.
Things to do in Tepoztlan
Other travel guides are full of advice about what to do in a destination, but not this one. I can’t tell you the best things to do in Tepoztlan, but I CAN tell you what WE did when we were there. Maybe it’ll inspire your own plans (but probably not, let’s be honest).
So here are some things we did in and around Tepoztlan, Mexico.
Build an Aztec Pyramid (Part 1)
Some people enjoy browsing markets or visiting museums, but the first thing we do on our visit to Tepoztlan is drive about 15 minutes outside the town to the place where we are going to build our pyramid. This is a rustic and picturesque patch of wilderness at the end of a long and tooth-chatteringly bumpy dirt track. The land belongs to Lucas the architect – he plans to start an artists’ retreat here and has decided the new pyramid will be his first installation.
We’re quite surprised when we see the place. I’d been a bit worried because when we checked it out back in December it was completely overgrown and jungly and didn’t look remotely like a suitable location for a building project. But site manager Jose – who has a big black moustache, luxurious dark hair and a machete in his back pocket – has had his boys in to clear it and now it looks very promising indeed.
If you’re planning to build an Aztec pyramid, the first thing you’ll need to do is decide where to put it. This presents a slight problem for us, because Lucas wants to put it on one side of the site, but for telly purposes we want to put it in the middle where the trees won’t cast shadows on it. In the end we are forced to compromise – it is Lucas’s site after all, and he’s going to have to live with the thing for ever more after it’s completed.
We tape a couple of Go-Pros to nearby trees so we can record a timelapse of the entire build and the team gets to work, marking out the footprint of the pyramid with wooden stakes and string, and digging holes for the foundations using sticks the way the Aztecs would have done. But the sticks keep breaking, so the team soon switches to metal hand tools. The Aztecs didn’t have these, of course, but nor did they have a 10-day filming window and an edit schedule to meet.
The digging soon gets repetitive, so while Rich carries on shooting, I wander round the rest of the site thinking grand editorial thoughts (a bit) and (mostly) waving my phone in the air trying to get a signal so I can check Twitter.
At lunchtime we hop back in the van and judder our way back up the dirt track to the village where we meet the lady who’s going to cook us lunch for the rest of the shoot. This is proper authentic Mexican food at its best: made from fresh local ingredients over an open fire by a dark-haired Mexican woman and delivered to us in plastic tupperwares which we return at the end of each day. She feeds us variations of stewed meats with rice, beans, and handmade corn tortillas and all of it is absolutely delicious.
Quarry a stone
If you want to build a pyramid, one of the main things you’re going to need is stone, and lots of it. So while the team continues digging the foundations, Rich, David the archaeologist and I head off to a local quarry where they extract tezontle, which is the type of porous volcanic rock the Aztecs used for their temples.
Here we meet Alejandro, who is going to show us how to cut stone, Aztec-style. He goes for a wander round the quarry looking for a suitable rock to cut. My health and safety alarm bells are going wild because everywhere there are trip hazards and vertiginous freshly-cut cliffs that look like they could collapse on someone’s head at any moment, and losing my expert under 300 tonnes of rockfall is not something I want on my CV. But eventually he finds a safe location, and we can start filming.
Alejandro has brought home-made tools. Nothing useful like drills and diggers of course – the Aztecs didn’t have those – instead he has a basket of what looks like small rocks tied to wooden handles. Which is exactly what they are. He uses them to demonstrate how the Aztecs would have cut the soft tezontle; unsurprisingly it isn’t easy and takes ages. Plus the tools keep breaking, which makes great telly but isn’t so good for actually cutting a stone.
By lunchtime we realise that if we’re going to successfully quarry a single stone, we’re going to need help. So we rope in the quarry supervisor, who strides in with metal wedges and a sledgehammer and makes short work of our rock in about 10 strokes. I’m a bit sad that we didn’t get to complete the job Aztec-style, but it does bring home just how much effort those guys put into building their amazing temples.
Make new friends
One of the things I highly recommend you do during your stay in Tepoztlan is to get to know the locals. After a couple of days at the build site we begin to make friends with the construction crew, and you could not hope to meet a nicer or more hardworking bunch of lads.
Even though I’m the only woman on site I never once feel objectified, patronised or intimidated – instead these guys are tirelessly welcoming and enthusiastic. One of them – I won’t name names for fear of getting him into trouble – even offers to take us for a hike into the mountains to a place where you can find genuine Aztec pottery just lying about on the ground. It sounds like an amazing day out but unfortunately we don’t have time – and anyway I’m not sure I fancy getting arrested in the airport for smuggling antiquities.
We get on well with our driver, too. Luis is an easy-going older chap with a big silvery moustache, who picks us up at our hotel every day to drive us to the construction site and then naps all day in the van until we’re ready to head back again. It’s a nice job, I guess, but it isn’t always easy.
One time, Luis has a bit of a shocker when we send him to the nearest town to buy something and he doesn’t return or answer his phone for four hours. After leaving him increasingly frantic voicemails and missed calls, he eventually rolls up as if nothing has happened.
On another day, while he’s doing more important napping, someone parks in front and blocks him in. We return after filming, covered in building dust and insect bites (yes, TV is just as glamorous as they say) and ready to head back to the hotel, only to discover we’re definitely not going anywhere.
Luis valiantly attempts to perform a 48-point turning manoeuvre to try to squeeze the van out between the parked car and a wooden post wrapped in barbed wire, but it’s a challenge that defies the laws of physics. We end up having to wait two hours while one of the builders tracks down the owner of the parked car and summons him back. By which stage I must admit I am more than a little tired and frustrated.
Build a chinampa
Once you’ve finished making local friends, you might be looking for something fun to do with them. Why not take them to visit the canals and ‘floating gardens’ at Xochimilco?
Xochimilco is a district of Mexico City that was created by the Aztecs over 700 years ago. Back then, the area was a huge lake, but they reclaimed the land and created man-made islands – called chinampas – so that they’d have somewhere to grow food.
Today, it’s a popular tourist spot, where you can rent a barge and go for a peaceful float along the waterways, the calm sounds of nature only disturbed by the loud blaring of cheesy mariachi music and the drunken shouting of gangs of youths enjoying a pissed-up afternoon on the water. Most people visit as a day trip from Mexico City, but the area is also only about an hour and a half’s drive from Tepoztlan so easy to visit in a day trip.
Of course, we didn’t want to just visit. We had telly to make, so as part of our ongoing mission to find out how the Aztecs did stuff, we’ve persuaded Ricardo, a local chinampa farmer, to teach us how to build one.
But first we have to get there. Ricardo’s told us to meet him at a waterfront jetty, from where he will take us by barge to his chinampa. But our unfortunate driver Luis takes a wrong turn and we end up down a very narrow side street with a dead end.
Poor Luis has no choice but to show off his nerves of steel yet again, performing another tooth-clenching 395-point turn in a space the size of a wheelie bin, with all of us standing around and wincing every time he scrapes the wall. It takes about 20 minutes, but eventually we are free and on our way to Ricardo’s floating farm.
If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend travelling to work by canal. It takes about an hour of cruising down the sparkling waterways in the sunshine, and because it’s early there isn’t a booze cruise or mariachi band in sight.
Once we’re there and set up, Ricardo and his team show us how to build a mini chinampa. They hammer wooden stakes into the muddy floor of the canal and bind them together with branches to make a square. Then they fill the centre with grass, more branches, and loads of stinky canal mud until it makes a solid structure.
Top it with soil, and lo and behold… one genuine Aztec-style chinampa ready for planting. And we didn’t even have to cut corners this time!
Get food poisoning
I’m not saying I’d necessarily advise you to deliberately get food poisoning on your trip to Mexico, but if you did happen to accidentally eat something that disagrees with you, you’d certainly be getting the full authentic Aztec experience. Why do you think they call it Moctezuma’s revenge?
We, of course, being dedicated and thorough in our work, do exactly that.
Rich gets it first, and far worse than me. At dinner the previous evening we fortunately ate different things, so while he’s up all night suffering the full and dramatic effects, I merely wake up the next day feeling a little feverish and faint.
As the less sick of the two, and the Spanish speaker on the team, it therefore falls to me to stumble around bringing Rich bottled water and extra rolls of toilet paper, and translate when the doctor arrives to shove an injection into his bum. This, apparently, is the preferred procedure in Mexico: who knew?
In an unfortunate twist of timing, we are due to check out of the hotel and drive back to Mexico City for filming the next day. Rich is in absolutely no state to spend 3 hours in a car, so we beg the hotel to let us extend our stay another night.
Unfortunately, it’s Valentine’s Day, and our charming boutique hotel is fully-booked with loved-up couples down from the city for the weekend. We’re forced to vacate the rooms so the staff can clean (I don’t envy whoever had to do Rich’s bathroom), so we drape ourselves on the sofas in reception waiting for the team back in London to find us somewhere to go. I doubt our sickly pallor and miserable demeanour was a very encouraging welcome for all the couples arriving to check in for their romantic weekends!
Take a trip to Mexico City
Since Tepoztlan is quite close to Mexico City, you’re likely to either start or end your journey there and might be looking for advice on things to see and do. I can’t help you with that, but maybe some of these other top travel blogs can help you.
The best I can offer is advice on visiting Aztec ruins, or you could carry on reading to discover what we did.
Rich decides he’s got nothing left in him and will be OK to make it back to Mexico City, so we pile back into the van, with Rich lying across the back seat and grimacing as we go over every bump. We make it back without incident and check into our new hotel, by which time I too am feeling pretty ropey. We’re supposed to be filming the next day, so another doctor is summoned and I also get the bum jab treatment in an attempt to bring on a miraculous overnight recovery.
What did I say? Glamour from top to toe!
But the next morning, the jab has taken effect and I have in fact made the desired miraculous recovery. Rich, not so much, but then he has just expelled every millilitre of fluid from his system and needs time to de-desiccate. So we’ve hired a local camerawoman to replace him for the day while he drinks rehydration salts and watches crazy Mexican satellite channels from the comfort of his sick bed.
Our first stop is Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument. I’ve got David the archaeologist in tow, and I want to do a short interview with him standing in front of it.
Did you know? The monument has 23 steps, but when it was first built it only had nine. They’ve had to add 14 extra steps because the land all around it is sinking. But why isn’t the monument sinking too? That’s thanks to its sturdy piling foundations that are keeping it at its original height, while the land around it subsides.
An actual helpful fact! That bum jab must have gone to my head.
Today the Angel stands in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout, which makes doing an interview especially challenging. We don’t have permission to film in front of the monument itself, so I have to pick a spot on the opposite side of the road. That means there are four lanes of traffic between me and my subject, and every time David tries to answer a question, a bus pulls up right behind him, blocking the view. We end up having to time the delivery of his answers between buses and changes of the lights, but we get it done eventually.
Next stop is a rooftop café overlooking Templo Mayor, one of the most important Aztec sites in Mexico. Here we have to do another interview, but there is a man on the street selling juices and smoothies who continually interrupts us with the sound of his blender. I send Alex our helpful fixer down to ask him if he can take a break for half an hour, but he declines, so we are forced to film with the intermittent sound of carrots and apples being pulverized in the background.
As is always the way, the second we finish the interview, he stops. Which is annoying because now I actually need him to carry on so we can record the racket for ‘wild track’ – a sound recordist’s trick where you capture the noise of the room to help smooth over cuts in the edit.
I send Alex the fixer back down to buy a smoothie so he’ll fire up the blender again, but of course now he has run out of bloody carrots.
Build an Aztec Pyramid (Part 2)
After our exciting day in Mexico City, it’s time to return to the build site to film the last part of the pyramid construction. Once more we drive back to Tepoztlan and bump our way painfully along the bouncy mud track to the build site.
Except we can’t get there, because in true glamorous TV fashion our way is blocked by a herd of cows, who appear to have taken up residence in the road and will not be moo-ved (sorry). I get out of the car to shout at them, but they just stare at me with bemused expressions. Luis revs the engine and is flatly ignored. It looks like we are going to be waiting a long time.
Just when I start to panic that we’re going to be there all day, salvation comes in the form of a pair of stray dogs, who appear out of nowhere and charge at the cows, yapping in excitement. The herd panics and scatters, fortunately away from the car, otherwise I might have ended up getting flattened. Dying in a Mexican cow stampede sounds like an exciting way to go, but I’m not ready to shuffle off my mortal coil quite yet. We’ve got a pyramid to finish.
Except unfortunately it’s nowhere near done, because it turns out that Aztec building projects are just the same as any other building project: they will always overrun.
Lucas the architect is mega stressed, running around like a crazy person trying to get extra stone and extra workers so they can build faster, and I wave my phone around at the far end of the site, hunting for a signal so I can report back to the office and get an extension approved. It’s not like we can fly home without finishing the task, so eventually we get the green light to stay a few more days.
While the builders crack on we find a quiet corner to do a summing-up interview with David, except this is Mexico, so of course it isn’t quiet. Once we’ve waited for the stray dogs to stop barking and located the guy with the radio blaring and asked him to turn it off, we are overjoyed by the arrival of a man in a digger, who has decided that today is a good day to start finally repairing that bumpy road. We’re forced to offer him a few dollars to take an early lunch break just for an hour’s peace. At least, until the dogs start barking again…
Make a TV documentary
Eventually, after all our adventures, Lucas and his team manage to complete the experiment to build an Aztec pyramid using Aztec tools and techniques. And isn’t it magnificent?!
It’s still there, so if you are visiting Tepoztlan, you might want to pay him a visit and go see it.
And if you’re able to see it in person, why not watch the programme and find out what all the fuss was about?
It’s called Lost Pyramids of the Aztecs, and if you’re in the UK, you can find it on All4.
Or if you’re in the USA (or you have a handy VPN) you can watch it on Science Channel.
For more information about the challenges of building an Aztec pyramid, check out this piece I wrote for Broadcast Magazine.
If you enjoyed this post and want more behind-the-scenes stories, there are loads more Unhelpful Guides for you to read. Check out these ones: