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Confessions Of A Reluctant Traveler

I embarked upon my Mexican vacation with less than an open mind.

Too many attention-seeking headlines about cartels and kidnappings had unconsciously affected my impression of our neighbor to the south. But since my 20-something decided to make Mexico City her home—and my husband wanted boots on the ground to ensure his baby girl

was okay—I reluctantly boarded a plane. Two days later, I found myself calculating how quickly we could sell our home and spend our retirement years in the multi-layered, historic country of Mexico.

My daughter chose three of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns), defined as towns with “magic symbolic attributes, legends, history, or transcendental aspects” by Mexico’s Secretariat

of Tourism. To begin with, I was unprepared for how happy, loving, and welcoming the Mexican people would be. Shopkeepers, restaurateurs, cabbies, and townsfolk enthusiastically shared their history and culture with long, engaging answers to any questions we asked. While I was eager to practice my high school Spanish, they were proud to try out their English on me (usually followed by a bashful apology and my assurance that their English was muy bueno).

We began our journey in San Sebastián Bernal, a colonial village in the Mexican state of Querétaro, two and a half hours from Mexico City. It was there that I fell under the spell of the Peña de Bernal, the third highest monolith on the planet. In this case, it was pillar- shaped, erupting out of lush rain forest. The Peña de Bernal is almost identical to Devils Tower in Wyoming (itself featured in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Both are believed to attract extraterrestrials and to be some of the world’s hotspots when it comes to UFO sightings. I found myself walking sideways or backwards as we explored the town just so I could keep my eyes on its spectacle. Bernal is known for its holistic healers and spiritualist advisors, which were as ubiquitous as Starbucks in New York City.

Also in the state of Querétaro, we visited the magical town of Tequisquiapan. Both spots were quaint in the best sense of the word, featuring cobblestone streets, rustic and brightly-painted houses, elaborate cathedrals, and riots of pink, red, and yellow bougainvillea. Both had warm, welcoming residents and a large indigenous population, outstanding cuisine, and abundant and affordable shopping with locally- made souvenirs, arts and crafts, and clothing all on display.

While Bernal and Tequisquiapan both offered the quintessential Mexican experience, the third town we visited really stole my heart. Tepoztlán, in the Mexican state of Morelos, is a valley town surrounded by the Tepozteco Mountains. By

our second day there I wondered why anyone would choose to live anywhere there aren’t mountains. Also a Pueblo Mágico, Tepoztlán is a popular location for expats to settle. Its walls and impossibly steep streets are mostly cobbled from volcanic rock, making the cheery colors of the homes and businesses even

more intriguing. An outdoor market stretches for blocks on the main street with booth after booth of one- of-a-kind, hand-crafted goods offered by affable merchants. Massive privacy gates hint at what we guessed must be lavish expat residences tucked along unassuming streets.

The highlight of our stay in Tepoztlán was our hike to the remains of El Tepozteco temple, a smallish (approximately 39-foot) pyramid atop the Tepozteco Mountains, believed to have been built in 1502 as a tribute to Tepoztecatl, the Aztec god of the alcoholic beverage pulque. No mountain climber am I. But we set off determined to give it our best shot. The town of Tepoztlán is already 5,610 feet above sea level, a challenge for the lungs of this flatlander. The climb took us up another 1,968 feet (as high as a 120-floor skyscraper). So we had to stop often to regulate our breathing.

Our climb began easily enough on stone ramps and staircases. But that quickly gave way to a rough rock trail, uneven but worn smooth by centuries of pilgrims. In some places, the rocks we were expected to climb were thigh-high, but as soon as I’d consider giving up, I’d see a small child or abuela with a walking stick pass me by and I’d renew my resolve. The trail itself was lovely with waterfalls, lush vegetation, and massive, Seussian trees impossibly clinging to the rock face. I learned once again that smiling is a universal language, as I shared this personally herculean task with complete strangers, laughing, grunting, rolling our eyes, and wordlessly offering or accepting a hand-up.

The climb took an hour and a half but was more than rewarded with the panoramic view at the top. As far as the eye could see was Mexican rainforest, sparsely dotted with clumps of civilization. Breathtaking! Our hour-and-a-half decent ended where it began, in the canopied marketplace on the Avenue Del Tepozteco with cold cerveza and the best street tacos imaginable. As our leg muscles twitched and burned and we pantomimed encouragement to those just embarking on their climb, it was hard to believe that just days before I’d been reluctant to set foot in this country. Dirty and sweaty, yet buoyed and triumphant, I felt like I was at home away from home.

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