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Living the Bohemian Lifestyle in Tepoztlán

Tepozteco Mountain Morelos, Mexico
Credit: visitmexico.com

Expat communities seem to start in places where people can satisfy their bohemian urges. Over the years, many expats have been living the bohemian lifestyle in Tepoztlán, Morelos, known for attracting a colorful mix of foreigners looking for a more unconventional way of living.

Jutting up from the valley floor more than an hour’s drive south of Mexico City is craggy Tepozteco Mountain. There is a small pyramid at the top, attesting to its spiritual importance long before the Spanish Conquest. Although accessible only by a steep, rustic and often slippery trail, thousands make the trek up each year to enjoy the breathtaking views.

Tepotzlán, Morelos, Mexico
Credit: Leigh Thelmadatter

The town itself is equally attractive, maintaining cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. The center is dominated by the Church of the Nativity, a complex built by the Dominicans between 1555 and 1580. It is one of fourteen fortress-monasteries built by the conquistadors, which collectively have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The church maintains its religious function, but the rest is now a regional museum. This church is distinguished from others in the area by a tradition of decorating the atrium gate with an arch in which thousands of seeds, grains and beans are arranged to create both Biblical and pre-Hispanic images. This arch is designed and recreated communally each year for the celebration of the town’s patron saint, the Virgin of the Nativity on September 8. Unfortunately, the monastery complex, and its nearby brethren, were heavily damaged in the 2017 Puebla earthquake and rebuilding has been slow.

The town has also conserved much of its traditional rural lifestyle. This means, love it or hate it, fiestas, fireworks and barking dogs are part of the ambiance. Market days are Wednesdays and Sundays when the most authentic food, such as the local mole, cecina and wild blackberries, can be had.

Northern Morelos state is known for its agreeable climate and scenery. Straddling the sub-tropical and temperate zones of central Mexico, wind patterns keep both temperatures and rainfall amounts in moderate proportions. For much of the 20th century, nearby Cuernavaca was the draw for tourists and expats alike, but it has lost much of its shine because, quite frankly, it has sprawled out of control.

What most distinguishes Tepoztlán is its bohemian lifestyle and “New Age” reputation, very similar to places like Sedona, Arizona, which attracts many of the same people for the same reasons.

A spiritual center for centuries, the pyramid at the top of the mountain is dedicated to the god Tepoztecatl, credited with inventing pulque, a fermented beverage that was considered sacred. Nearby is the community of Amatlán, which is believed to be the birthplace of King Ce Acatl, the possible historical basis of the god Quetzalcoatl.

Pre-Hispanic beliefs remain important to the town’s identity. They live alongside Catholicism and now New Age practices and Eastern mysticism. Tepoztlán offers services such as meditation, photos of auras and temazcals, pre-Hispanic ritual saunas.

Most residents can tell you of one or more “characters” who lend color here. One of the most famous was Carlos Díaz, an ardent UFO believer. He took a photograph of a supposed space ship he claimed abducted him in 1981, which was published internationally. Diaz mysteriously disappeared from the area four years ago.

More than a few artists and writers have lived in Tepoztlán, finding it a place of refuge. One is Surrealist/Expressionist artist Wolfgang Paalen, who lived and worked in Tepoztlán from 1954 to 1959. Today, one can find creative types from the U.S., Europe and even Asia and South Africa.

Mural in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico
Credit: Leigh Thelmadatter

A testament to the strength of the local art community is Dilao, an open-air sculpture gallery that was established by artist Philippine Eduardo Olbés. More recently, it has become popular with urban and street artists painting murals. Authors include Alison Wearing, a Canadian writer and performer who offers writing retreats in the area.

Much of Tepoztlán’s charm and interest in conservation comes from a local governance system that has all but died out in many parts of Mexico. Until the early 20th century, the municipality was almost inaccessible, allowing it to preserve a communal system of land use that was established in the early colonial period. This system is recognized under the 1917 Mexican Constitution, under the name communal. It is similar to, but not the same as, the ejido designation, which has caused headaches for many foreigners looking to buy property.

Tepoztlán was exclusively an agricultural community. The first change came when anthropologist Robert Redfield published the book “Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life” in 1930, painting the village as an idyllic contrast to modern life. Soon after, the first expats and tourists arrived. A highway connecting it to Cuernavaca, a little over a half-hour drive south, in the 1940s allowed tourism to begin in earnest.

Tepoztlán continues to attract expats and other Mexicans. Relations between locals and foreigners are mostly friendly. Most expats are interested in conserving the Tepoztlán they found. The same cannot be said for domestic tourism.

Since the 1930s, locals have successfully fought against various large development projects. One of the first successes was getting the mountain and the surrounding area designated as a national park. Twice, golf course-based developments were thwarted. In fact, Tepoztlán is the only municipality in Mexico with a law expressly prohibiting their establishment. Although tourism long ago eclipsed agriculture economically, locals are very aware of what has happened in Cuernavaca.

That said, the number of outside residents and tourists has grown since the 1930s. Many own their houses here, even though 90 percent of the municipality – the town and surrounding area – is designated communal land.

Land that can be purchased outright with an escritura is nearly impossible to come by. Purchases by both foreigners and Mexicans are done though the approval of the town assembly, which grants a constancia, the right to use the land. It is not as secure an escritura legally, but the system seems to work for those willing to go through the process and maintain good relations with their assembly after purchase.

Tourism drives up housing prices, so Tepoztlán is not one of the cheapest places to live. House prices are similar to those in the Lake Chapala area. Rental prices are high in the area, especially with the popularity of Airbnb.

The expat community is present in Tepoztlán, but does not dominate, and is much more varied. The town’s population is a mix of locals, other Mexicans and foreigners. Since the 1950s, there have been many Americans and Canadians, but also Europeans, especially British and French, and even people from South Africa and Asia. If you are thinking that Tepoztlán might be the place for you, you should know that you will need at least some Spanish for day-to-day living.

Neighborhood mural in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico
Credit: Leigh Thelmadatter

The smaller and diffused expat population means that there are fewer organizations and activities that cater to non-Spanish speakers, but they do exist. There are book clubs and service organizations that tend to be collaborations between Mexicans and expats. Longtime resident Gillian Ball has offered bilingual Anglican services for decades. TepozRosa is a health organization for local women. Prisma (Programa de Retribución e Impacto Social Mediante las Artes) organizes performing artists to teach workshops in very rural schools. Flying Beetle primarily creates street art murals in the La Santísima Trinidad barrio.

Since Tepoztlán is still a relatively small town, many of the amenities of other expat enclaves are not available. Shopping here is mostly limited to basic needs and businesses catering to tourists. There is no hospital in town, and many do not want one. There are local clinics, government and private, for routine care and small emergencies. A few doctors speak some English and ambulance service to Cuernavaca is provided. Modern conveniences are available in Cuernavaca and, of course, the amenities of a major metropolis are not that far way.

But perhaps the biggest drawback to living in Tepoztlán is that it is a weekend tourist mecca. The town is jammed from Friday to Sunday evening, longer if it is a holiday. This has been getting worse with no obvious solution. Despite community efforts, the town continues to grow. The municipality currently has population of 41,629 (2015 census) with almost all in the town proper. Projections are for a population of 54,000 by 2030.

But if you love the bohemian lifestyle, it may not matter at all.

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Leigh Thelmadatter
Leigh Thelmadatter has lived in central Mexico for 17 years. Initially she came to teach English, but fell in love with the land and the culture, so she did what any good writer does... document. With her photographer-husband Alejandro Linares Garcia, she has traveled extensively in the country, with the purpose of putting information not before available online or in English. Her work has culminated so far in the blog Creative Hands of Mexico https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/ and her first book, Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019).https://www.schifferbooks.com/mexican-cartonera-a-paper-paste-and-fiesta-6738.html. She also is a cultural correspondent for Mexico News Daily and does freelance writing.