Then and Now – and Pizza

Tim, who runs Juanito’s restaurant in town, wants to open a second place, with a different menu. One of his motivations, he told me, was a slice of pizza he had a while ago, which was soggy, and flopped in his hand. Tim has worked in foodservice for most of his life, and he knows his pizza, and he knows the proper recipe.

All the news media have been running retrospective lists of everything that happened in 2019, so I’ve found myself reflecting back through the year and then back to my own earliest visit here around 2006. Tepoztlan was a quieter town then, and Amatlan, my village, was perhaps twenty percent less populous. From a certain point along the road into town, I could see the lights down in the plain below, and there were fewer of them than there are today.

There were also just two places in town offering uniformly limp pizza, something I’ve successfully avoided in Mexico since.

J, who has lived here since the 1980s, tells me Tepoztlan was a paradise when she first came here. I don’t know if that observation includes the experience the local people had of their lives, but it was definitely much quieter and more traditional. My first visit showed me a place that seemed barely awake at 10.00 am on a weekday. There was no Moroccan restaurant, nor an Indian one, almost no bars, and far fewer hotels. And no Juanito’s, of course, so the only available burgers were pretty bad. The town that attracted filmmakers (The Magnificent Seven and Two Mules for Sister Sara were partly shot here) because of its unchanged nature is now filling up with souvenir stalls and posadas offering weekend getaways.

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The main square, pictured here with a half-dozen fruit and food stalls around 1950, is now home to the main Tepoztan market.

The specific trigger for this post today was the sight of three men trying to heave a large metal signpost into place. It indicates which way to drive for this hotel or for that location, where ten years ago, a visitor would simply have asked a local person for directions. Even now, travel articles still refer at times to Tepoztlan as a village, despite it having around 14,000 permanent residents.

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Inside the market today, on a quiet Tuesday. There are about 60 stalls, more on special market days. The fountain is still there in the middle, though it’s often dry.

There’s little point complaining about the changes, since all of us who’ve come here have helped drive them. Weekend refugees from Mexico City have bought or built houses here, and Airbnb has had a bad effect on the availability of rooms and apartments, helping push up rental costs by more than half in the past four years.

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The Avenida de la Revolucion 1910, pictured c. 1950. There were, reportedly, only two or three cars in the town then. The big church is the Convent of the Nativity.

This being Christmas week, the town is full of visitors and people here to stay with family. The Avenida Revolucion de 1910 is closed to allow the slightly (or severely) drunken to wander safely past the stalls selling t-shirts with cutesy Frida Kahlo images on them, quasi-shamanic tchotchkes, or gaily painted terracotta skulls. I go there to buy food, but I don’t stay long when the town is so full.

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This week, Avenida de la Revolucion 1910 is closed so more people can stroll the stalls. The Convent towers peek into the frame, top left.

I have no cause to complain about the changes, since my presence here helps fuel them. My village is still a farming community, with splendid views from the right spots, and clean air. There’s no rush-hour, no pressure, no harried commuters. The micro-bus gets full in the evenings, but people retain their courtesy and mutual goodwill.

The year-end being a time to consider what’s worthwhile in life, this is a pretty good place to be. But like all things, it’s changed, and it keeps on changing. The next generation of expats might need to look for somewhere else.

Unless, of course, Tim has, by then, improved the pizza.


The plaintive request is predictable: “No tiene cambio?” “You don’t have change…?”

No, I don’t have change, which is why I gave you a 200-peso bill that the ATM spat out this morning. You’re the retailer, you should have change.

But quite often, nobody has change.

Many things we buy here are inexpensive by Canadian standards. The microbus costs eight pesos, a fresh grapefruit juice in the market is 25, a taco 20. At a little over 14 pesos to the Canadian dollar, that means a half-hour bus-ride into town costs me 55 cents, a juice $1.73, and the taco $1.40. (All amounts approximate, since my math gets lousier with the years, plus the rates change all the time). But this means that for most purposes, the 200 peso bills from the ATM are simply annoying, most everyday purchases requiring a fraction of that.

Even worse are the times when the bank machines are stocked with 500-peso bills. This means joining a line-up to see a bank teller who can break them into more useful denominations. Except for paying things like the rent, a 500-peso bill is a huge nuisance. Bus-drivers, understandably, won’t even look at them.


Sor Juana, a 17th Century nun and author,  glowers from 200-peso notes.

Part of the problem is a dual-track economy. On the weekends, better-off families from Mexico City roll into town for a day, buy a meal and drinks in one of the better restaurants, and then dad pulls out several 500s to pay the bill. Those people expect to buy things at that price-level, as they do at home.  Whereas, a local couple or a pair of backpackers might head to the market, and buy a couple of quesadillas plus a juice or pop, paying under 100 for food that might be just as satisfying as the high-priced plates at El Ciruelo or El Pan Nuestro.

But in the market, there isn’t the opportunity to impress others.

Some local people are doing quite well, thank you, but many shoppers – and stall-owners – in the market are watching their pesitos.  Mexico demands a lot of hard work to achieve a modest income. But poorer people still can’t avoid the change problem. And many small operations rarely start the day with much change.

In Toronto, I lived in an apartment building that still had coin-operated washing machines. For those, I hoarded quarters and loonies, but they weren’t hard to come by. The supermarket, the drug mart, my old hangout the Goat Coffee House – they all had change, all the time. They had rolls of quarters and nickels that the boss got at the bank in the morning.

And yes, the banks here can and will supply coins. But for some reason, that sort of efficiency doesn’t penetrate to the people in the marketplace. Or, maybe some of them live too hand-to-mouth to be able to set the coins aside; I can never be sure, so I’m cautious about judging.

On my visits back to Toronto, I’ll debit purchases, and dig out my Presto card to ride on the TTC. I’ll pull out my Visa card in restaurants and in clothing stores. Nobody will be impressed at this, as the country heads towards becoming a cashless society.

But I’ll miss digging for that extra five-peso coin in a corner of my back pocket. Every purchase I make with a card is traced by The Great Them. Here, only a few people casually monitor the eggs and fruit I buy, or my cross-town travel habits. I mix my own muesli, and there’s a stall where they know my face instantly as the person who buys oats and nuts. A woman with a fruit stand has sold me melons and tomatoes for eight or nine years. A couple of bus-drivers know I’m their customer on the Amatlan route.

I grew up in such an emotionally withdrawn society, that even now, Mexico still surprises me at times with its general willingness to appreciate the mere presence of other people. It might not last forever, but while the small-coin habit persists here, I can both be frustrated by it and enjoy it. There’s a trivial yet sometimes worthwhile human moment when you either apologise graciously, or find the coins and pass them over, that you’d never enjoy using a card with a magnetised strip or chip.

Having change, or sadly confessing its absence, is a very ancient ritual, and the more I reflect on it, the less I want to see it gone.