Admittedly, I’d never even heard of Tepotzotlán until a day or two before my visit. I had a fairly long list of small towns nearby Mexico City that I wanted to see, but sadly, most of them were still recovering from a powerful earthquake from a few weeks prior. After some last-minute research, I discovered Tepotzotlán (not to be confused with Tepoztlán). I had little idea of what to expect, other than the fact that it was a designated Pueblo Mágico. These are small towns around the county promoted by the Mexican government for their history, architecture, or simply for their “magical” atmosphere. Luckily, I was able to find a bit of all three at the spectacular Museo Nacional del Virreinato, the town’s best (and only) landmark.
Museo Nacional del Virreinato
The Museo Nacional del Virreinato, or National Museum of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, is immediately noticeable as you approach the central town square. It’s known for its imposing bell tower and its Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style architecture. As you would expect, the building is very old.
It was originally constructed back in the 1590’s by the Jesuits, one of many Catholic orders present in “New Spain” at the time. It was used for awhile as a place to house missionaries and educate them in the local indigenous languages. Now, the entire space where the Jesuit evangelists once lived has been converted into a museum dedicated to Mexico’s colonial heritage.
The museum starts off with a small section with some pre-Hispanic history, but it can’t compare to a place like the National Museum of Anthropology (in fact, a few pieces were even donated from there). Most of the other former dorm rooms, then, feature all kinds of artifacts, clothing, old maps from Mexico’s time as New Spain. There’s even a section on ceramics from Asia that happened to make their way to the New World some several hundred years ago.
But by this point in my journey, I was pretty “museumed out,” having already visited at least ten or so in the capital. The real attraction here, in my opinion, is not the museum, but the building itself.
The building is one big labyrinth. It takes at least a couple of hours to fully explore, though you’ll undoubtedly get at least a little bit lost at some point or another. Deciding to take a break from the museum exhibitions, I wandered freely through the hallways, not knowing exactly where I’d end up. Before long, I discovered the Domestic Chapel, one of the building’s main highlights.
Back in its day, the Domestic Chapel wasn’t accessible to the public, but was exclusively used by members of the College of San Francisco Javier. Thankfully, the well-preserved room is now open to the common folk. The chapel is both elegant and stunning. Every bit of the main altar is covered in glittering gold leaf, while beautiful murals and paintings adorn the walls and ceiling. As impressive as the Domestic Chapel was, I’d soon find out that it was just a small preview of what was to come.
There are some opportunities for outdoor exploration as well. The museum features a well-maintained garden courtyard as well as spacious a backyard. On the way out back, you can even check out a cool display of the old College kitchen, while the exit passageway is covered in even more murals.
And there’s also a charming garden area just in front of the entrance that you’ll inevitably pass through on your way in and out of the building. But don’t go just yet. No visit to the museum complex, or to Tepotzotlán in general, is complete without a walk through the Templo de San Francisco Javier.
Templo de San Francisco Javier
The main attraction of the entire complex would have to be the Templo de San Francisco Javier, built between 1670 and 1682. Confusingly, this church is often listed as a separate location online, but it can only be accessed from within the museum. The same ticket gives you access to both. If you only have limited time in town, though, skip the museum portion and head straight to the church.
As the name suggests, the temple is dedicated to the famed Jesuit missionary Francisco Javier, or Francis Xavier, known for spreading Christianity throughout much of Asia. In addition to altars dedicated to San Francisco Javier himself, other portions of the church honor saints like St. Ignacius of Loyola, St. John of Nepomuk, and Francis of Borgia, among others. And of course, numerous other alters are dedicated to Jesus himself and the Virgin Mary.
Each individual altar is a dazzling spectacle that’s difficult to take in all at once. The level of detail is astounding, almost overwhelming, especially when presented at such a massive scale. Wherever your eyes may wander, you’re unlikely to find a flat surface. Seemingly every square centimeter of each altar has been elaborately decorated. Looking at individual parts, you’ll notice figures of angels and paintings of saints or the Virgin Mary, interspersed with all sorts of geometric shapes and three-dimensional floral patterns.
The Templo de San Francisco Javier is one of Mexico’s most stunning examples of Churrigueresque architecture, and it’s a site that should be seen in person to be truly appreciated.
The architectural style known as Churrigueresque was named after architect and sculptor José Benito de Churriguera. Popular from the 17th century up until around the year 1750, the style is known for its use of curved lines and intricate designs across multiple layers. One of the goals of the Churrigueresque style is to present the illusion of motion.
While Spanish in origin, many of the best examples can be found throughout the Spanish colonies, such as here in Tepotzotlán. Other popular examples of Churrigueresque architecture in Mexico include the Templo de Santa Prisca in Taxco and the Cathedral Basilica of Zacatecas, not to mention parts of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral.
Around the church, you can also find some evocative religious paintings, the most notable of which are by Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera (1695–1768), originally born in Oaxaca, was one of the most popular painters of his era and was often commissioned for religious paintings in addition to portraits of important figures. Some of his paintings can also be found inside the Museo Nacional del Virreinato.
The church also has some smaller areas to discover, like the Relicario de San Jose. Here you can find a sculpture dedicated to San Jose, the patron saint of New Spain. Beyond that, there are other charming paintings, scupltures and altars to discover. If you’ve made it all the way to Tepotzotlán, you really owe it to yourself to take your time and explore. And don’t forget to look up!
But does Tepotzotlán have anything else to offer visitors other than the Museo Nacional del Virreinato? According to the local brochure, the other main landmarks are on the outskirts of town. About 25 kilometers away, you can find the Arcos del Sitio, the remains of an old 17th century aqueduct built by the Jesuits. Also outside of town is a massive Ahuehuete tree. Not only is it over 600 years old, but a natural spring flows out from under its roots!
Unfortunately, I had neither the time nor the means to visit these places, so I decided to explore the town center. Near the town square, I found a traditional indoor market area with lots of booths selling all kinds of delicious Mexican food for a great price. Feeling satisfied, I ventured further.
I walked and walked, and walked some more. I went down the town’s major streets and also its smaller alleyways. A crafts market area, which seemed promising at first glance, turned out to be mostly shut down. While I did at least find a cozy coffee shop to take another break in, ultimately, Tepotzotlán offered little else to see or do.
In this particular Pueblos Mágico, at least, the magic seems to be solely confined to the town’s lone landmark. But what a building it is!
In short, to get to Tepotzotlán from Mexico City, you need to take a bus from the Toreo bus station which is outside a subway station called Cuatro Caminos. Sounds simple, right? But in reality, it’s anything but.
Looking at numerous sources, I couldn’t find much more comprehensive information than a brief summary of the process above. In one forum, someone mentioned the process being very tricky, but he didn’t provide more detail on what to do to make it easier. Now having done it myself, I can understand why.
I took the subway to Cuatro Caminos subway station. Just outside, as I’d read, was an area with all sorts of buses and minivans coming and going. I walked around, looking for a sign which read “Tepotzotlán.” While the area seemed pretty well organized and with plenty of signage, I couldn’t spot the sign anywhere.
Not finding anything, I walked around again and again. Finally, I asked someone working for one of the bus companies. He pointed me in a distant direction, where there were some other bus stands at the other end of a large parking lot.
So I walked there, only to not see any signs, or even people, for that matter. Before long, a cop arrived and told me to leave, as the area wasn’t in service. I asked where I was supposed to go, and she mentioned another bus station on the opposite side of the building.
And so I returned inside to the large subway station/shopping complex area. I walked around for another 10 or 15 minutes before I could even find the entrance to where she’d told me to go. I found myself outside again, but this time it was an infinitely more crowded and disorganized scene. It was less of a bus station than it was a massive parking lot, filled to the brim with all sorts of old buses.
Despite the huge number of buses of everywhere, there were no signs with any destinations on them whatsoever. I had no idea where I was supposed to go. After walking around with no luck, I asked someone again. They pointed me to another vague area, and said to look out for a blue bus.
Another ten minutes or so passed by. Incredibly frustrated by this point, I was ready to call it quits and find something to do in the city. And then, just next to me, a large bus drove away, revealing the windshield of the bus behind it, which displayed a sign that read “Tepotzotlán.”
I found it by sheer luck, and I don’t think I could accurately describe to anybody how to find the right bus. The ride there, at least, was smooth and without incident. But then getting back again turned out to be nearly as confusing.
As amazing as the Museo Nacional del Virreinato is, the public transport debacle sucked much of the joy out of my day. Even if you’re on a budget and normally averse to hiring private drivers, I’d recommend getting someone to take you to both Tepotzotlán and the Toltec ruins of Tula in the same day, as they are in the same direction from Mexico City. I visited both on separate days using public transport, but I could’ve saved a lot of time and energy by seeing them together.
Mexico City’s public transportation system is very efficient, so generally speaking, you’ll be fine if you base yourself nearby a metro station. However, the city is so big that it can take awhile to get anywhere. The most strategic area to base yourself in to see the main historical places would be the Centro district.
Other neighborhoods that are popular with foreign visitors are the hip Roma and Condesa districts.
I stayed at a basic, no frills hotel called Hotel Costazul. I would recommend this place to people looking for an affordable private hotel room in a convenient location. Located in Centro, it’s a fairly easy walk to the Zocalo and right by a couple of subway stations.
The best way to get to Mexico City would be to fly. The main Benito Juarez International Airport services flights from all around the world.
Coming from within Mexico, many budget airlines service Toluca International Airport instead. Some cheaper flights from abroad also go to the nearby city of Puebla.