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Find your own path to tranquility in the Mexican town of Tepoztlan

By Ruth Samuelson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:51 AM

It takes a lot of energy to "cargar energia."

The devotional journey up to Mexico's Tepozteco pyramid requires lots of water and snacks, as well as muchas pausas (breaks). And then, when you reach the top of the mountain where the pyramid perches, something amazing happens: A wrinkled old woman with a cane plods by.

How'd she get up here? And what about the lady in heels? And that family with four children under 5?

It's troubling, really, to be proud of a hike that the wheezing elderly can conquer. But what impels people here is faith, not just a steep hour-or-so nature walk. I visited last spring, a time when Mexicans load up on energy - that's what cargar energia means - by ascending various ancient pyramids, like this one in Tepoztlan, a town of about 33,000 an hour and a half south of Mexico City.

At the top, believers and nonbelievers alike share the same gorgeous view overlooking the town. And the truth is, they've all probably come to Tepoztlan for roughly the same thing: A little tranquillity. The town is unofficially dedicated to soothing and centering its guests, regardless of how the job's accomplished.

I visited Tepoztlan numerous times while studying at a language school in nearby Cuernavaca earlier this year. It's at once cute (the cobblestone streets) and beautiful (the mountains and abundant purple flowers) and cheesily modern (the flier promoting a man with knowledge of "the mysteries of life and death").

Here, therapy is a choose-your-own-adventure experience. In at least two places, you can get your aura photographed. A local tour guide advertises an obesity therapy. Tagline: "Lose weight with magnets, without dieting."

"Whatever word you want to add to 'therapy,' " says Larry Prater, he's heard it. Prater moved to Tepoztlan after retiring from his medical practice in Oklahoma a few years ago and now owns a day spa called TepozSpa that caters to gay men.

"I just got an e-mail about 'hielo,' or ice therapy," he says. "As a psychiatrist, I've never heard of 'hielo therapy.' Until, I guess, yesterday in the e-mail."

Of course, Tepoztlan also offers more traditional therapies: Plenty of local hotel spas, some quite high-end, advertise a range of massages, yoga classes and various skin therapies.

One day on the streets of Mexico City, I met a businessman who also happened to be an enthusiastic yogi. When I mentioned that I was heading to Cuernavaca, he immediately fumbled through his cellphone for the number of his favorite Tepoztlan instructor.

For whatever reason, I accepted the unsolicited advice of this adamant stranger and headed to his recommendation: La Buena Vibra Retreat and Spa. I didn't need shelter, but a yoga class sounded good.

And visiting the hotel provided a glimpse of Tepoztlan's highfalutin side (no aura photographers in sight). I strolled past Buena Vibra's pristine grounds, the pool, the terraces with plush couches and adobe sauna huts so beautiful I half-expected to see miniature craft re-creations of them in the town's market.

Unfortunately, I've always considered yoga to be a workout rather than a path to enlightenment. When I'm in Mexico, my "happy place" generally means "the taco stand where I am now eating." And "being in the zone" signifies the numbness I feel after leaving an outdoor market, overstimulated by copious crafts, T-shirts, silver jewelry, Lucha Libre masks, etc. (Most markets have roughly the same stuff.)

Luckily, Tepoztlan allowed me to both go to my happy place and be in the zone.

Market stands line the streets around the town's central square, right behind which, down some stairs, there's a maze of stands with tacos, quesadillas, mole, etc. The local ice cream chain Tepoznieves also attracts tons of people, even with such indecipherable flavors as "ofrenda a los muertos" (offering to the dead) and "oracion de amor" (prayer of love).

Beyond indulging my own stomach-approved therapeutic preferences, however, I wanted to learn more about some of the older local rituals: I wanted to meet a curandero or curandera, a Mexican medicine man or woman.

Through a friend, I met a woman from Amatlan, just a few twists in the road from Tepoztlan. She suggested that I go there to find her uncle Don Aurelio, a curandero.

The next day, I took a 20-minute bus ride from Tepoztlan to Amatlan. I went to his house, but he wasn't home. So I walked back up a small hill to the main road, where there was a little quesadilla stand, and waited around for about an hour. Just as I was about to give up, a truck pulled up and a small man carrying a bag of eggs hopped out and set off down the hill. It was the curandero, someone said, so I ran after him.

Luckily, this did not unnerve him, and we started chatting. We strolled through the stone archway to his property, and Don Aurelio showed me his temazcalli, a traditional sauna chamber. In the center of Tepoztlan, there are temazcallis for tourists, too. But they're mostly billed as purification and detoxification saunas rather than medicinal ones. Don Aurelio, on the other hand, advises people with knee pain and skin rashes to use his temazcalli, which resembles a brick pizza oven big enough for humans.

Before he treats, he diagnoses. That's where the eggs come in. When people visit Don Aurelio, he often assesses their problems with what he calls a "limpia," or cleansing. He passes an egg over the person's body, just above the skin, and when he feels the yoke rattle inside the shell, he knows there's a problem. Then he cracks the egg open, drops it into a glass of water and "reads" the bubbles and the white mucus in the yoke.

As Don Aurelio got up to show me the procedure, he suddenly reached over and started groping the back of my head. Apparently, I had a "susto," a word I didn't know.

I figured it meant a cyst, which got me momentarily worked up. (Way to kill the good times, Don Aurelio.) I told him that when I was a toddler, I'd had a little bump on the back of my head that had had to be operated on. It had turned out to be a non-threatening cyst (but a scare for my parents, who'd been worried that it might be cancerous).

He nodded and flashed an affirmative smile that seemed to say, "So it was just as I said."

Soon after, Don Aurelio went inside the house, and I scrambled for my Spanish-English dictionary. Susto, susto, susto. It didn't mean "cyst." It meant "fright, alarm."

Hmmm. Yes, just as he'd said.

I never tested out the full-on limpia procedure because, frankly, I felt quite healthy. But I had a separate brush with superstition on the Tepozteco pyramid.

After climbing atop the structure, I headed toward the edge, where people were leaning against a short wall, and pondered what to do about water, since I'd nearly run out, and it was hot.

Eventually a friendly woman from Mexico City, in Tepoztlan with her husband and three kids on a day trip, awoke me from my stupor, and we began chatting. Pretty soon, the whole family chimed in. Then, out of nowhere, another man nearby passed me a small turquoise stone.

"Tomela, guera," he said, which roughly translates as, "Take it, pale girl." (The term is used frequently here, without offense.)

He'd given the family stones, too, and told us to place them on the ground, which would somehow help with the whole "cargar energia" attempt. A few of the family members stood near the rocks with their eyes closed and their arms stretched out, waiting for the good vibrations.

When they were done, I retrieved my stone. It was time to turn around, my battery hopefully powered-up.

A hiker bottleneck plugged the narrow top of the trail. Local police officers orchestrated traffic control.

"Make way for your friends carrying lots of new energy," said one cheekily, as he paused the upward-journeying line to allow people down.

I don't know whether it was the stone or that oft-mentioned energy, or my lunchtime sandwich (probably) or newly purchased bottle of water (wonderful decision), but I felt great on the walk down.

travel@washpost.com

Samuelson is a reporter living in Mexico City.

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