State of Morelos, Mexico
Loved throughout history for its tranquillity, landscapes and springlike weather, by Aztec emperors, Spanish conquerors, princes, artists and a large number of retirees.
If 'Cuernavaca' was a Spanish name, it would mean something like 'cow horns', but it's an old Nahuatl name, Cuauhnáhuac, and means 'near the woods'. The woods are still there, particularly in the Lagunas de Zempoala national park to the north of the city, and even the city centre has a feeling of refreshing greenness. The great Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt called it the 'City of Spring' – these names have a way of catching on!
It has always attracted the wealthy and powerful; it's been called the Beverly Hills of Mexico City, which is only 86km (53 miles) to the north, up a winding road with volcanoes on both sides. The Olmecs established a settlement here as early as the 12th century BC. The Aztec emperors built their summer palaces here, then Hernán Cortés, and later Maximilian, when he was briefly Emperor of Mexico from 1864 until his execution in 1867. He stayed at Jardín Borda, just west of the city centre. It's not part of this story, but Maximilian could have escaped from prison and avoided execution, but the plot involved him shaving off his distinctive (and rather silly) beard, which he refused to do. There's also a Casa Maximiliano in the Botanical Gardens, where he used to meet his 'indigenous lover'. It was only built in 1866, which didn't leave him much time for dalliance. I'm confused.
It's not part of this story because we didn't even get as far west as Jardín Borda. We just wandered along Miguel Hidalgo, the street that connects Palacio de Cortés with the cathedral: power and religion! Both the palace and the cathedral were built from the stone of the ancient Tlahuican pyramid, which Cortés pulled down. The Tlahuica, whose economy was based on cotton, were fiercely loyal to the Aztecs and Cortés had some difficulty in subduing them. Perhaps stone speaks, because although Cuernavaca today is clearly a 16th century Spanish Renaissance city, it feels much older, even mediaeval, with its thick walls and narrow streets.
We stayed at the Hostería del Sol in the Callejón de la Bolsa del Diablo, opposite Casa Hidalgo and a stone's throw from Palacio de Cortés. There you are: Sun Hostel in Devil's Bag Alley! Who could resist? It was like a delightful set of secret boxes. First the alley itself is a tiny slot off Miguel Hidalgo. It leads you into the hidden but spacious reception area and then the staff take you up a tiled winding staircase to one of their six bedrooms: low-beamed, charmingly decorated, and in our case overlooking the greenery below and the cathedral to the left. I immediately felt I was within the heart of the heart of Cuernavaca and I was ready to explore.
Although I'm basically a Maya nut, I'm willing to stretch a point for Olmecs, Tlahuica and even Aztecs, but of course I keep tripping over the Spanish trail of Hernán Cortés. Cuernavaca is dominated by the forbidding exterior of his palace, built bang on the site of the Tlahuica pyramid to rub their noses in Spanish power. Well, forbidding but welcoming: in the middle of the fortress-like walls, four slender arches invite you to step inside (as long as you're unarmed). I sometimes wonder if the astounding technology of the arch was even more impressive than gunpowder, horses and Christianity in convincing the Aztecs and their allies that they were facing a superior civilisation.
We had an enjoyable dinner on the terrace of Casa Hidalgo, facing Palacio de Cortés, and watched its walls gradually fading from military fortress to cultural palace in the floodlit night.
There's an identical row of arches on the first floor, where Diego Rivera painted an extraordinary series of murals depicting the history of Mexico. It's all here: the battles, the religion, the passion, the heroism, and above all – the people: the vibrant mix of Spanish and native that has created modern Mexico. And isn't it wonderful that Rivera was encouraged (admittedly with American money) to create something utterly modern within the walls of a historic building? Cuernavaca seems to have all the elements of that tension between creation and destruction. It once had a Casino de la Selva, which was not just a casino, but like the Palacio de Cortés, a collection of powerful murals. It was pulled down in 2001 so that Costco could build a couple of warehouses. So that's where American money goes now. Can we get a modern Mexican muralist to break into the warehouses and turn them into temples of popular art?
At the opposite end of Cuernavaca is the cathedral, not bang on the central square as in other Spanish colonial cities, but tucked away in its own rather private collection of religious buildings. Again, it felt like secrets within secrets. It was all dressed up for Christmas, but soberly separated from the Disneyland lights of the zócalo and the celebrations in the streets.
Immediately below the cathedral is the equally secret Casa de la Torre, home of the Robert Brady Museum. Brady was an American artist and collector, who lived in Cuernavaca for 24 years until his death in 1986. Don't be misled by 'museum'; this is a house we would all want to live in, filled with light and colour and the most eclectic objects. The tiles alone are worth a visit; I don't think I've ever enjoyed bathrooms so much! The calm central courtyard is dominated by the cathedral and the building was once part of it. I leave you with the tolling of the cathedral bells over the leafy streets and squares of the city of spring.
How to get there:
There are regular coaches to Cuernavaca from Terminal Sur 'Tasqueña' (the smallest of Mexico City's four coach stations) or a service every 30 minutes direct from the airport.
And yes, you can get to Cuernavaca directly from Puebla: use ORO coaches (almost hourly) from Puebla's CAPU terminal. The ORO terminal in Cuernavaca is on the outskirts of the city.
Mix & Match:
We combined it with a visit to Puebla and the volcano Popocatépetl.