Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone while Traveling to Tepoztlán, Mexico + Who are Los Chinelos?
As I walked the cobblestone streets of Tepoztlán (ok, more like hiked the cobblestone mountains) I kept seeing this image.
Slightly eerie or at least made me feel unsettled — a man with a giant hat and beads strung along the hat covering parts of his face. His eyes looked intentionally lifeless.
I kept thinking, “I wonder what this means. It seems important.” But each time it caught my eye, I was in the middle of exploring, slightly out of breath, and on to the next thing.
On one of the crisp mornings looking out to the mountain tops and sipping some tea, I was just Googling what else to do in Tepoztlán, plus a little worried that our cash would run out and hoping I could find non-cash things to do, I stumbled on a blog unknowing that it would tell me the history of this.
My curiosity and questions were finally answered!
Side story: We were transferring money to a debit card that had better perks for traveling. Of course, the Thanksgiving holiday delayed several of our money transfers and it wouldn’t clear until the following Monday. We were definitely spoiled in Mexico City, with most places accepting credit cards and hardly needing cash, but it wasn’t the same in this small mountain town.
When Mexicans talk about Tepoztlán Magico — I totally get it now. So many exact and perfect timings happened on this 3-day trip that I can’t even put to words! Truly a magical adventure that pushed us out of our comfort zone. And if you’re highly sensitive and intuitive, both of which I’ve been practicing and trying to tune into them more intentionally these past two years, it’s a very interesting place to be at.
History on Tepoztlán
Tepoztlán has been populated since at least 1,500 years before Christ, inhabited by various indigenous groups. The Spaniards later built the Convent of the Nativity which in 1994 was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and is dedicated to the Virgin of the same name.
Tepoztlán is derived from Nahuatl and means “place of abundant copper” or “place of the broken rocks.”
As the bus first enters the city, it circles the statue dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, the feather serpent god. It is said that a woman saw a feather drop softly on the floor. Without thinking, she put it in her womb. Little did she know that it did not come from a bird but from a Mexica deity, who magically created a child in her womb.
Kinda random. And mystical. Adding to the charm of this mountain town.
Tepoztlán now has a long reputation as a center for mysticism and spirituality. The cobblestone streets are full of small crystal shops or stalls, incense, temazcales (read more about my first experience in a temazcal!), and massage wellness centers.
I’ll be honest that I didn’t feel called to explore any of the temazcales here. While I was definitely intrigued, the plethora of them almost felt gimmicky and I decided not to try one here. I would love to do more research and get some recommendations next time before I go back!
Some memorable places I checked out:
Beautifully colorful. Authentic and delicious food. I loved the consome (Mexican Chicken Soup) here. This was the start of our cash adventure since it ended up being cash-only.
One of the main attractions of Tepoztlán is hiking to Tepozteco. At the top is the ancient temple to dedicated to Tepoztēcatl, the Aztec god of fertility and pulque (a fermented alcoholic drink).
The first part of the hike is full of souvenirs stalls, crystals, and snacks. After a while, the hike isn’t as well paved and gets slightly harder and while the temple wasn’t open because of covid, it was still really fun to hike and a great view of the unique mountains.
Tepozteca Pizzería and people watching
We were mostly looking for locations that would actually accept cards (two different locations said they accepted cards but they didn’t. One time we already ordered stuff and we had to use my phone to hotspot the wifi for the server to run our cards) — we stumbled on this second-floor pizza place.
Tired from a day of walking and figuring out how we would return to Mexico City since the train station ALSO wasn’t accepting cards, we sat down ordered a few appetizers and Sangria. We soaked in the sun overlooking Avenida Del Tepozteco.
Full of people walking — enjoying the clean air, snacks or drinks in their hands, and the joys of the weekend.
Coffee and Breakfast at Casa Fernanda
The town is small so we actually came here several times. This boutique hotel has an adorable coffee shop during the day and a great dinner spot in the back at night. I’m a sucker for beautiful things and it was so enchanting. A perfect distance between our Airbnb and the downtown area so it was the perfect spot to stop for coffee in the mornings.
Ok, so back to all the murals and masks I kept seeing and the history of Los Chinelos.
As I mentioned, I stumbled on a cool blog, Jenny’s Mexico, where she gave a lot of cool ideas for what to do. What I wasn’t expecting was to learn the history behind all these images.
“Chinelos” comes from the Nahuatl word “zineloquie” meaning disguised. I’m not sure how zineloquie is pronounced or how that turned into chinelos but I’m finding it interesting.
So let’s go back in history a bit, like 1521 history.
Hernan Cortes defeated the Aztecs which meant the Spanish colonist were on their way. Fast forward to 1870 they are there and renamed it, Nueva España. Feeling festive they would organize elegant dances preceding Lent (Mardi Gras) but only people born on the Iberian Peninsula could attend.
At some point, native-born young men got tired of being excluded in their own freaking town, and disguised (chinelos!) themselves in old clothes, covered their faces, and skipped through the streets mocking the Spanish.
A celebration in protest
This type of celebration by native-born young men became a thing. Each year young people organized in the streets and their outfits became more and more intricate — they added beards, mustaches, and blue eyes to their masks in order to make a statement and further ridicule the Spanish for humiliating them in their own home country.
El Chinelo evolved gradually and over time became ritualized as a subtle yet fun way to protest.
The storytelling continues
I find it fascinating that the storytelling of Mexican history continues. So much of Mexican history and roots are so beautiful expressed whether it’s street names in Nahuatl, the metro bus stop with symbols that represent their indigenous roots, the murals not only a beautiful piece of art but a message and story to tell as to not erase the efforts of those that rose up and stood up.
As I found myself right on the edge of my comfort zone in Tepoztlan, Mexico — I found this beautiful piece of history empowering and calming. The rest of the trip, while still freaking out about having 0 cash in a mostly cash town, I somehow knew that everything was going to be alright. We rode the bus safe and sound back to Mexico City.
Hasta pronto Tepoz.
Photography Art found in Museo Soumaya