Tell your friends that you've been on a trip to Mexico in midwinter, and they're likely to ask which coast you've visited. But Mexico is a big country, with plenty of charming areas that are nowhere near surf or sand. One of these is the mountain town of Tepoztlan in the state of Morelos, which is about as far as one can get from the tourist-thronged honkytonks of Cancun and Acapulco.
Approaching on Highway 115 leading southeast about an hour's drive from Mexico City, one begins to understand the appeal of Tepoz, as it's known to locals: The hilly hamlet is surrounded by the irregular Tepozteco mountains, offering warm days and cool evenings, beautiful vistas, and a rich history. In 2002 Mexico's tourism secretariat named the town one of 32 "magical villages," or pueblo magicos, around the country, due in part to the legend that holds it to be the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the ancient Aztec feathered serpent god. The spiritually inclined still congregate here to soak up the vibes, or perhaps to indulge in a temazcal, or sweat bath, said to cure any number of physical ills and induce a sense of well-being.
What to Do
Everyone else can enjoy a range of activities, from absorbing the area's natural beauty to viewing archeological wonders and Mexican art, taking cooking or writing classes, shopping for handicrafts, enjoying the local cuisine, or observing one of the near-continuous fiestas.
The area's foliage is lush even in midwinter: Bougainvillea and huge poinsettia adorn most every yard and patio. There are birds of every description, from tiny hummingbirds and goldfinches to squawking grackles and the vermillion flycatcher.
High above the town is the Tepozteco pyramid, a strenuous 1.3-km, one-hour hike away. Dating from around 1100 A.D., the small edifice here was erected to the god of pulque, a milky alcoholic beverage made, like tequila, from the agave plant. Stone benches and ancient carvings adorn the site. The view of the town below is dramatic.
Drive 45 minutes south to see the even more impressive ruin of Xochicalco (dating from 200 B.C., with its most notable structures from 1000 A.D.), famous for its sizable pyramids, three ball courts, relief carvings of ancient dignitaries, and a much-speculated-about observatory.
On the way back from Xochicalco is the now-sprawling city of Cuernavaca, which features a range of cultural and commercial institutions, including the recently completed Centro Cultural Muros, a museum featuring contemporary artworks, and the Mexican art collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. Notable pieces include works of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, and Maria Izquierdo. Also of interest is the Robert Brady Museum, a former private home that is chock-full of the work of the same Mexican luminaries, along with colonial religious sculpture, African artifacts, and an over-the-top bedroom once frequented by chanteuse and Brady pal Josephine Baker.
Back in Tepoz, visitors can choose among reasonably priced local crafts from a number of shops. The museum shop at the Convento Dominico de la Natividad (pictured above), which is a World Heritage Site, is especially good. Tepoz also has a good English-language bookstore, La Sombra del Sabino, which does a nice side business in arranging day trips on horseback.
If your interests tend to the culinary, Cocinar Mexicano offers intensive, one-week cooking classes led by local women and celebrated restaurant chefs. For the literary visitor, Under the Volcano, named for the celebrated Malcolm Lowry novel, offers creative writing workshops in English and Spanish coordinated by New Yorker Magda Bogin, a novelist and translator of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A range of North American literati, including novelist Russell Banks and poet and essayist Breyten Breytenbach, have taught here.
Enough activity—mealtime beckons.
Where to Eat and Sleep
The top restaurant in town is El Ciruelo (www.elciruelo.com.mx) on the Avenida Zaragosa, which dazzles with both its imaginative, nouvelle Mexican fare and vistas of the Tepozteco mountains from beneath a domed roof. Specialties include enchiladas de pato en pipian verde (duck enchiladas in a green nut sauce), rollos de pechuga con huitlacoche (chicken breast with a mushroom-like corn fungus), and, for the less adventurous, a satisfying range of pasta dishes. The restaurant has a full bar and a selection of wine and Mexican beers. Average cost of a meal for two with drinks? About $25.
For an even lower price, Tere, at No. 29 Matamoros, serves down-home comestibles such as chiles rellenos (poblano chiles filled with meat or cheese) and enchiladas con mole rojo (red mole enchiladas) in what feels like a neighborhood kitchen. The host may sit down at a table near you to enjoy her lunch or call out the window to patrons in the street below. Have a Nochebuena or Dos Equis with your comida.
A range of places to stay await the visitor. At the top end is La Posada del Tepozteco (www.posadadeltepozteco.com), a 19-room former private home. It features a spectacular location, a heated swimming pool, paddle tennis and billiards, Internet access, numerous terraces with views of the town—and a bar/restaurant with the best margaritas and guacamole in the region. There is an on-site temazcal, and massages can be arranged. Rates vary with the season and room size, from $125 to $430 including taxes and a complimentary full breakfast.
At the other end of the scale is the peaceful and unassuming, four-room Posada Las Golondrinas. The inn, a 15-minute cab ride from the center of Tepoztlan, features a magnificent if small garden, tiny swimming pool, and an honor-system bar. Rooms are decorated with the artwork of owner and innkeeper Marisol Fernandez. The daily rate for a double room is $135, with spectacular breakfasts included.
Those contemplating a longer stay may wish to contact a real estate agent. An increasing number of Americans are getting second homes here. According to agent Martha Ketchum, expect to spend $400,000 to $500,000 for a four-room house with pool and hookups for satellite TV and high-speed Internet. Short-term rentals can be easily found listed on local message boards.
Fiestas are nearly continuous in Tepoztlan—especially since each barrio, or neighborhood, celebrates both major holidays and its own saint's days. In fact, there are at least 30 major and minor celebrations, some stretching for several days. And nearly all are attended chiefly by locals, with few shorts-wearing gringos on hand. And, yes, while you won't find swim-up bars serving frozen margaritas or large pulsating nightclubs, you will find out why the lucky few who have discovered Tepoz keep coming back year after year.
Where to go for more about the individuals and businesses in this article:Activities: Cocinar Mexicano (www.cocinarmexicano.com), Under the Volcano (www.underthevolcano.org)
Dining: El Ciruelo (www.elciruelo.com.mx)
Lodging: La Posada del Tepozteco (www.posadadeltepozteco.com), Posada Las Golondrinas (http://homepage.mac.com/marisolfernandez/LasGolondrinas/Menu12.html)Real estate agent: Martha Ketchum (e-mail: email@example.com)