My love affair with Mexico has lasted for many years. It was over 12 years ago, in April of 2003, when I made my second trip to Mexico City, with my eyes set on an extended weekend destination one hour to the south of DF: Cuernavaca.
Often called the “City of Eternal Spring,” Cuernavaca sits in a 5,000-foot valley south of Mexico City’s volcanic southern slopes, and features a wonderful year-round climate. Cuernavaca has been a long-time weekend destination for many wealthy Chilangos (Mexico City residents), and I’ve heard – but have not been able to verify – that Cuernavaca has more swimming pools per capita than anywhere else in the world. Fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the Shah of Iran once had a house in Cuernavaca!
I was infatuated with a Chilanga when I visited Cuernavaca in 2003. Her name: Verónica. She worked the front desk at the Mexico City hostel in which I stayed during my first visit to Mexico City just five months prior. Vero lived with her parents, and we had discussed wanting to spend some time together “in a more private setting” than her parents house, and thus settled on Cuernavaca.
I met her at MEX (Benito Juárez International Airport) on a rainy Wednesday afternoon and we embarked for Cuernavaca directly from the airport. A series of first class, direct buses serve several cities directly from the airport; Cuernavaca, Querétaro, and Pachuca are among them. We checked into our hotel, the basic – but spacious – Hotel Juárez, and headed out for dinner. I noted the hotel’s large backyard pool.
Our hotel was situated on a quiet, cobblestone street. I was immediately charmed by Cuernavaca’s colonial moonlit look, but was soon underwhelmed by its selection of restaurants. One pedestrian street just two blocks away was lined with tables, but they fronted bars, not restaurants. We finally founded a restaurant to our liking; it boasted considerable ambiance in its courtyard setting and tapas-like cuisine. The restaurant’s entertainer, a crooner/comedian, immediately noticed my conspicuous gringo entrance and cracked rapid-fire Spanish jokes in my direction. For better or for worse, they flew over my head. 🙂
The next day was spent exploring much of what Cuernavaca had to offer. Our first stop was the aptly-named Catedral de Cuernavaca, housed inside fortress-like walls. Although the chapel itself was small in size, the gardens were nice and the exterior façade was quite ornate. Of special note was the fact that it was Palm Thursday. Older women in traditional clothing sat on the ground outside the main entrance and fashioned palm fronds into offerings, similar to what Jerusalem’s Christians did for Jesus so many centuries ago.
We headed for the city’s zócalo (main square), in this case one of two equal-sized plazas sitting kitty-corner from each other. Although one of these plazas features a lovely bandstand, Cuernavaca’s zócalo is said to be the only zócalo in Mexico that is not fronted by a cathedral or church on one side. Cuernavaca is the capital of Morelos State, and on one end of the zócalo sits the requisite federal building, where anti-Iraq War banners were hung in protest at the time of our visit. The U.S. had begun its unpopular Iraq War not even one month prior. (Hopefully the aforementioned crooner/comedian’s jokes at my expense the night before were not of the “Ugly American” bent.)
Not far from here was the city’s main historic attraction: el Palacio de Cortés. The 500-year-old Palace of Cortés, built by conquistador Hernán Cortés, today functions as a regional history museum, although it originally was a Spanish stronghold built over the remains of a pre-Hispanic temple, which Cortés ordered razed. The final symbolic nail in the coffin: stones from the temple were used in the palace’s construction.
After our self-guided tour, we peeked inside the adjacent craft market (bric-a-brac, mostly), then sought out lunch. We found a ho-hum restaurante where I tried my first gringa, which is marinated pork meat and cheese, wrapped completely inside a tortilla. Not bad, but nothing to get excited about, either.
As we were eating, several touts approached us, flaunting their wares. Some sold bracelets, others – children, mostly – sold chewing gum, others sold sombreros. I was impressed at how they would brazenly enter the restaurant and interrupt the diners. I began wondering: Did they pay the restaurant owner a kickback for his permission? How many diners actually buy from them? Vero bought gum from one of them, but how many five-peso sales like that would they have to make to earn enough to survive?
This is an interesting sidebar. Although the concept of tireless “hawkers” (such a negative word, although it sometimes fits) invading one’s personal space is a very common preconceived notion that Americans have about their neighbors to the south, I’ve only ever found it to approach nuisance levels on two occasions whilst in Mexico: in Tijuana (¡Drogas! ¡Cerveza! ¡Viagra! ¡Poosy!)…and in Cuernavaca.
(If you’re wondering, I didn’t buy anything that day; I simply smiled and said “No, gracias.” Does that make me an Ugly American? I’d like to explore this topic in more depth in a future post. Meanwhile, if you keep reading today’s entry you’ll learn that I eventually succumbed.)
As we dined, we discussed a possible swimming pool break, then decided to continue our city tour instead. I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook about a waterfall near the city center, and we set off in pursuit of that instead. Salto de San Anton is a year-round, 36-meter (118-foot) cascade from the Zempoala River. The waterfall flows over a sheer cliff, and a pathway that was closed at the time of our visit leads visitors behind the falls. I was somewhat surprised to find that the falls abut a sketchy neighborhood, and that the picnic areas at the falls gathered an unfortunate amount of trash. The falls themselves are impressive, though, and the ravine walls are made of hexagonal basalt rock similar to what you’ll find at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland!
Never sated, we sought out one more sight in Cuernavaca. The Aztec ruins of Teopanzolco sit on protected land near the upscale Vista Hermosa neighborhood. A long walk from the city center would take you there, although it was too far off the LP map to be featured on the inset, so we decided public transport would be a better option. We hailed a combi (small minivan-type bus) heading in that direction. A light rain began to fall and more and more passengers climbed aboard to escape the rain, but that didn’t stop a trio of mariachis from boarding as well. Passengers climbed onto each other’s laps and the van’s suspension groaned, but it was a memorable ride as the mariachis serenaded us for a small propina (tip).
We alighted two blocks from the ruins and descended to the barely-marked, easy-to-miss site entrance. Cuernavaca has a population of over 300,000 people, but at the time of our visit we were the only ones on the temple grounds! The grass was yellow, as the dry season was just coming to an end, but I still enjoyed the opportunity to snap a few pics without others in the frame – lending the ruins a more “mysterious” air. There isn’t much to them; they were built during the final days of the Aztec empire, and never given the chance to expand a la Tenochtitlan or Xochicalco. One interesting feature of the main structure, a never-completed pyramid, is that it contains a second pyramid rising from inside the first one!
For our second full day in Cuernavaca, Vero suggested a day trip Taxco, a legendary silver city and “Pueblo Mágico” (as of 2002) roughly one hour to the south and 900 feet higher in elevation. As is common in Mexico, direct buses from Cuernavaca deposited passengers at a bare-bones station on the outskirts of Taxco; combis took them closer to their ultimate destination. In our case, the destination was Los Arcos, a remnant aqueduct next to which tourists can ride the teleférico (gondola) to Montetaxco, a high point on the opposite end of town and location of a grand hotel of the same name. The views were okay, but there was nothing to do unless you were a guest of the hotel, so we didn’t linger long.
We rode the teleférico back to its base station, where we hailed a taxi to the center of town, home to a dazzling parish church, the silver market, and endless street-after-winding-street. Taxis were not permitted on certain streets, so we had a steep uphill walk to the main square, Plaza Borda, where the parish church in question, la Parroquia de Santa Prisca y San Sebastian, is located. Simply put, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in Mexico. Its exterior façade is soft pink sandstone; the carvings are covered by mesh to protect them from pigeon droppings. You may notice that the church is skinnier than most; the lack of level ground had something to do with that. Step inside, though, and you don’t feel claustrophobic at all – tall ceilings and floor-to-ceiling gold altarpieces distract you from any nervous feelings. Look closely, though, and you can notice cracks in the plaster, courtesy of earthquakes and mining vibrations.
Our visit to the church was rushed, as a wedding was about to take place. The midday sun was hot, so we detoured to a restaurant overlooking Plaza Borda for beer and popcorn. The view was muy romantic, better than anything from atop Cerro Montetaxco.
The full name of the city is Puebla de Alarcón, and it achieved status as a Pueblo Mágico (magic town) in 2002. This magical feel is most obvious as you wind downhill from Plaza Borda towards the main road. Colonial-style gas lanterns line the cobblestone streets. Several churches and silver shops are fronted by tiny plazuelas with benches perfect for lingering. Red roofs crown most colonial buildings, and unfold in front of you like a Russian nesting doll.
The town’s informal silver market gradually emerges as you approach the main road. The market is less of a formal building and more of a hodgepodge of tianguis (open-air market stalls) and boutique shops. I wasn’t really shopping for anything in particular, but I found a silver barrette that I thought my mom might like. I picked it up to examine it. I turned it over and saw “Made in China” stamped on the back. D’oh!
I discovered two things on the bus ride back to Cuernavaca while Vero dozed. First, I read up on Taxco in my guidebook and learned that the town’s supply of mineable silver has been exhausted. Second, I marveled at the traffic approaching the Cuernavaca city limits. It was a Friday afternoon, and we may have caught some of the traffic from Mexico City that pours into Cuernavaca every weekend. The city limits seemed to stretch on forever.
Finally, we arrived at our hotel and took a much needed dip in its simple backyard pool. A great day!
The next morning, we took a half-day trip to another Pueblo Mágico, the village of Tepoztlán. We stopped for lunch before heading out, however, and we hadn’t been seated for more than five minutes when another tout, this one an old man, approached us, hawking colorfully-painted maracas. I gave my usual, polite “No, gracias” response, and the man left. I then remembered that my sister was pregnant, and thought that a maraca would make a cute baby rattle. I sprinted down the street after the old man, and paid his asking price of 25 or 30 pesos. Money well spent.
Tepoztlán is a magic town indeed. Situated at the foot of an imposing mountain face, the whole place is said to possess a sort of mystical energy. It is said that the vernal and autumnal equinoxes are especially potent in Tepoztlán. The source of said energy could be the mountaintop ruin of Tepotzeco, an Aztec site featuring incredible views of the town below.
Access to the site is via a precarious 1.5-mile hike that winds its way up the ravine in no-nonsense fashion. Children, parents, and grandparents were able to complete the hike, but it’s no walk in the park. I did the hike in sandals, and without water, and was gasping when I reached the top. In complete honesty, I was disappointed to arrive at the summit and discover a single, flat-topped structure. This may be one tourist attraction in which the journey is better than the destination itself.
There is more to see and do around Tepoztlán than just hike to Tepozteco. The former convent of a parish church set back from the main road plays home to another regional history museum, and I’ve heard that there are balnearios (natural mineral springs) in the area. Vero and I, however, gave that all a miss in favor of cold refreshment. She spotted a heladería (ice cream parlor) called Santa Clara on the edge of town when we first arrived from Cuernavaca. I already knew of her love affair with ice cream. I pointed out several other heladerías on our way back towards the bus station, but for Vero, only Santa Clara would do.
I once again marveled at the thru-traffic as we rode the bus back to Cuernavaca. The bus dropped us off near the Central Market, which is a labyrinthine commercial behemoth that sprawls over several levels and even traverses a major thoroughfare via a pedestrian bridge that simply must be straining under the weight of so many tianguis. We finally found an exit that deposited us two blocks from the zócalo, then made a beeline for our hotel and one last dip in the pool.
The next morning was Easter Sunday, and time to return to Mexico City. I remember stopping at an ATM machine and then being yelled at by a Good Samaritan that I had forgotten to remove my card from the machine. There are nice people everywhere, and Mexico is filled with them. 🙂
Vero and I took a quick stroll through a serene gorge on the edge of the city center, then caught a combi to the bus station. Our destination: Mexico City, where I was to meet her parents for the first time! (gulp!)
I have spent time in Cuernavaca on two other occasions since my April, 2003 trip, and the city’s traffic, smog, and general crowding is getting noticeably worse. And yet, the shortage of restaurants continues to be a black mark against the city. Another black mark: a spike in crime. A park near the long distance bus station that I’d once noticed, in passing, to be an oasis of verdant greenery, is now said to be a hideout for muggers and bandidos. I mention this not as a sad footnote to an otherwise nostalgic post, but simply as a reality check: travelers – myself included – tend to see places they visit with rose-colored glasses. Cuernavaca still has much to offer, but it might be a bit too close to the Mexico City-Acapulco highway for its own good.