Like nearby Cuernavaca, Tepoztlán is known for its temperate climate and abundant, varied plant life. Surrounded by craggy and dramatic peaks, the town has in fact taken over to some extent from its larger neighbor as a weekend retreat for overworked urbanites.
Much smaller than Cuernavaca, with fewer than 25,000 residents, Tepoz (as it’s called for short) is a close-knit community that’s acquiring a reputation as a New Age town. Some say its tradition of healing arts dates to pre-Hispanic days; others say a significant number of UFOs have been spotted in the area. Whether it’s something in the air or just the allure of a pretty little community with plenty of services, Tepoztlán is a popular destination for day-trippers and weekend travelers.
Recently named a “Pueblo Mágico” by the Mexican government, this borough of one- and two-story adobes is surrounded by wooded hills perfect for long walks or horseback rides. Spas and small inns offer Temazcal steam baths, saunas, swimming pools, and holistic treatments. Mild temperatures permit outdoor cafes and ranch-style restaurants both in town and in the surrounding villages.
The ceremonial center at Tepoztlán was built soon after the demise of Teotihuacan (by about AD 800—900) but before the Aztecs immigrated and rose to power in the Valley of Mexico. On a high escarpment overlooking Tepoz and the densely wooded Atongo Valley, the Nahua inhabitants erected a temple to Tepoztecatl, god of fertility, a successful harvest, and the intoxicating beverage pulque.
Built on an artificially made platform, the ruins of this pre-Hispanic temple can be visited after an uphill hike of 40 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on your level of fitness. The change in elevation is approximately 549 meters (1,800 feet). Acrophobics should note that while the hike isn’t technically difficult, there are places where the trail nearly disappears into the cliff face. Those who persevere are rewarded with magnificent views which, on a clear day, can stretch all the way to Puebla and Guerrero states.
Tepoztlán was conquered by the Aztecs during the reign of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (r. 1440—1469) and, half a century later, by the Spanish. As was customary, the conquering Europeans used local labor to build mission-monasteries for the purpose of converting the “heathen.” Tepoztlán’s mission church, dedicated to the Virgin of the Nativity, was the first in the region.
Today the church and the adjoining monastery are free to the public and in reasonably good condition. There are good views of the town and surrounding hills from the upstairs rooms, and one of the monk’s cells (large by the standards of the day), can be seen from behind a restraining rope. After Benito Juárez’s Reform Laws stripped the Catholic church of much of its power, the building was used for non-religious purposes, including as a barracks by French troops during the reign of Maximilian von Habsburg. Graffiti currently being restored in the monastery is thought to have been doodled by troops of Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution.
In the 1930s the Tepoztlán monastery was declared a national historic monument by President Lázaro Cárdenas. In the 1990s, UNESCO declared this and 13 other former monasteries on the flanks of the Popocatepetl Volcano as World Heritage Sites. Among them are examples of Franciscan, Dominican, and Augustinian constructions, making it interesting to compare the iconography and architecture favored by the three Orders.
Wednesdays and Sundays are market days. Wednesdays are primarily for foodstuffs, while merchants take advantage of weekend visitors to offer a variety of handicrafts as well. Also on weekends and holidays, boutiques around town spring to life, offering designer cheeses and whole-grain bread, vegetarian tamales, and gifts, as well as incense, meditation-inspiring CDs, and other “New Age” accoutrements.
Some of Tepoz’s restaurants, cafes, and shops are closed midweek: so come then if you want a mellower scene, or on the weekend if you prefer the Full Monty. By Thursday night or midday on Friday, visitors begin to trickle into town. Seekers hoping to siphon off some of Tepoz’s “positive vibes” check in to upscale lodgings with spas and temazcal steam baths or cheaper, more basic lodgings in the center of town. The locals spring to action, baking fresh bread and tortillas and tamales and vats of redeeming soups for their city-dwelling brethren. Tepoztecos with more space and less culinary prowess rent out parking areas and bathrooms. The spruced up streets surrounding the main plaza and church hum with low-key activity, while just a few streets away, the vibe is as laid back as ever.
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