Cuernavaca Palace of Cortés
Morelos state, Mexico
The medieval Spanish castle was built on the site of a Tlahuica (Aztec) pyramid. Its exhibits are rightly from both the cultures that shaped the city. A must if you like to know the history of the places that you visit.
The palace is also referred to as Cuauhnáhuac Museum. In the Nahuatl language it means ‘near the forest’, the name given by the Tlahuicas, people ethnically related to the Aztecs, to the capital of their province of Tlahuican.
You may want to choose what to see as the museum has 19 halls with collections of objects from pre-historic mammoth fossils to post-Hispanic exhibits: objects from the Spanish conquest and from the Mexican revolution.
I personally found the museum a little bit depressing. The courtyard walls were badly in need of repair (that was in 2014) and the objects of the conquest and suppression of the local people made me feel really sad. What hard years these were.
What I did like were the city views from the balconies and galleries. And Diego Rivera's splendid mural. However, taking photos was not easy, I found the whole place a bit gloomy.
The first inhabitants were Tlahuica people; they belonged to the Aztec group; numerous local ethnic groups were linked together by a common language (Nahuatl). They all come from the mythical land of Aztlán. Once these groups reached central Mexico, they founded city-states and dynasties. The Tlahuica people settled on the land of today’s state of Morelos and the original pyramid in the place of today's palace was used by them for collecting tributes from conquered tribes, their vassals. It seems the history of the place is interlinked with conquest after conquest.
Next it was Cortés who conquered the Tlahuica people and settled here. He brought his second wife, Doña Juana de Zúñiga, to live at the palace, where she stayed until after Cortés’ death in 1547. He was soon busy elsewhere, conquering further places, building ships on the Pacific coast and introducing crops such as sugar cane. Their son was born here and inherited the palace. The legend has it that during one of his visits to the palace, Cortés was attacked by Tlahuica warriors. The place where this occurred is called the Callejón del Diablo (Devil’s Alley). Apparently Cortés reached safety by jumping a 5m wide crevasse on his horse. Today there is a hotel in the alley, Hostería del Sol. As it happens, we stayed the night in this hotel during our visit in December 2014. We had a meal in the restaurant, and yes, there is a deep valley down below the restaurant terrace. We enjoyed contemplating that chase and the jump. Not sure how feasible it was. But even if they caught him, they would not have been able to stop the conquest as the Spanish crown kept sending more and more people to govern today's Mexico.
In the 18th century, colonial authorities used the palace as a barracks and jail. In the 19th century it was a summer residence of Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota as they made frequent visits to Cuernavaca (they also used Jardín Borda as his residence here). In 1872 it became the seat of government. In the 1970s, the building was converted into the Museo Regional Cuauhnáhuac.
The FOCUS: Diego Rivera’s murals
The real highlight for me was Diego's mural on the second floor, titled 'The Conquest of Cuernavaca'. It depicts the history of the conquest, subjugation and revolution of independence. The government at the time was seeking to redefine the nation and create a new national identity because by then the population consisted of a racial merger of the indigenous people with European whites. The fusion of Aztec and European cultures made Mexico unique. Diego portrayed the conquest and the effects of colonialism in multiple panels: the Aztec slavery to the new masters, abuses by the Catholic Church, Revolution of Independence.
I liked the powerful portrait of Emiliano Zapata. He is standing with the white horse of the owner of a hacienda, who is lying defeated (dead?) under his feet. Zapata holds the reins of the horse, which you could take to mean that he has control of his country. Zapata, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, appears often in Rivera's murals. He was native-born, and he is wearing the white clothes of the Mexican peasants. The scene's message, it seems, is that the peasants were taking back their country on their own, without the European-trained generals of Mexico (note how Zapata is standing on the sword of the hacienda owner). This message of hope and courage is relevant even today, in a country where many Mexicans still live in extreme poverty and the indigenous peoples are still treated as second-class citizens.
Don't miss: The Chimalli Stone
This stone, also referred to as the 'Shield Stone', is displayed in front of the Cortés Palace. It bears a carving of a feathered shield and two dates in glyphs. One date has been identified as 1469, perhaps the commemoration of the death of Moctezuma I in that year. Some scientists argue that there is another glyph of the place of Chalco, which could mean an attack on Cuauhnáhuac (Cuernavaca) by the Chalcas in 1502.
The stone could be a commemoration of that victory.
Yet other scientists suggest that it commemorates the election of Axayacatl as Aztec Emperor after a military victory in Tehuantepec. Thousands of captives were destined for sacrifice at his coronation.
I find it interesting that one old stone can tell us so much history, even if we can't interpret it fully yet.
How to get there:
The Palace sits on the zócalo (the main square). There are lots of vendors, shops and restaurants around the palace. Literally next door is an arts and crafts open-air market. The entry fee was 55 pesos when we visited in 2014. The museum is closed on Mondays.
MIX and Match
Cuernavaca is rich in museums. In fact, it has 14!!! I personally recommend visiting the extraordinarily rich Robert Brady Museum, which will shake up your views on how to decorate a home.