Many tourists arrive in Tepoztlan with plans to race to the top of the mountain to see the pyramid, a steep climb perfect for mountain goats.
Others come to see the famous seed arch that leads to the centrally located 16th-century church and former convent. Each year, local artisans design a mural and then construct it entirely of seeds and beans. The mural tells a religious story: Some years it’s a more classically Christian depiction of Jesus’s birth and resurrection; other years, stronger references to Mesoamerican culture and the “feathered serpent” Quetzalcoatl predominate.
Still others visit for the ice creams, in such wicked combinations as pineapple with chili and tequila with limon.
But I’ve come for the market. The central market, which operates Wednesdays and Sundays, is alive with color. There are beans and maize everywhere, sold by women who use their spare time to shuck the dried corn from the husk with a clever tool made just for this purpose. The corn varies from pale bisque to bright yellow, deep carmine red to purplish blue, and sells for about $2 for a “sardinio,” a scoop fashioned from a large sardine can.
In the center of the marketplace, a large stall sells every possible variety of dried chilies, heaped in tall stacks. These chilies are fresher and more potent than the ones in my Washington grocery store, and there are varieties seldom seen in the United States. There are several types of habit-forming peanuts, heavily spiced with salt and chilies, and a fantastic mix of chickpeas, peanuts, soy nuts and sunflower seeds all orangey-red with chili powders.
But I am on a mission. I head straight for the cecina man, Hipolito Cortes Avila, who sells “the best cecina in Morelos,” according to my host, Janet Dawson, an art historian who retired to Tepoztlan with her husband, Doug Clark, several years ago. An enthusiastic cook, she once did a blind tasting of several vendors’ cecina offerings.
Cecina is a treasure. It’s sort of bacon, made from beef, and it’s sort of fajita meat, but thin — so, so thin. Avila butchers papery slices from the back leg of the cow, salts them generously, air-dries them for about 30 minutes, then layers two-foot-high stacks of cecina, brushing the pieces between the layers with pork fat. Locals eat this flavorful, moist, addictive meat cooked quickly for breakfast, lunch or dinner, usually wrapped in warm tortillas with fresh crema (like sour cream) and a healthy squeeze of limon, the local lime.