Mexico’s Garden of Eden
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  Posted May 12th, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | No comments yet.

Traveling Mexico – Cuernavaca

By: Zdenko Kahlina

The Land of Eternal spring
We arrived in Cuernavaca from Acapulco, on our way to Mexico City, and with no idea of what to do here or where to go. First impressions are some pretty impressive houses here and many narrow streets with lots of traffic. Still we easily managed to find parking close to the Cuernavaca’s main square – Plaza de Armas.

Centro Las Plazas We are used to a hectic traffic by now

We were on a mission to find small hotel without getting stuck in the traffic like in Acapulco. In the tourist office, young fellow who worked there didn’t have answer to any of our questions, but another visitor in the office did. With his poor English, he showed us general direction of where we should be looking for a small hotel. That’s all we needed. 

Las Casas B&B

Las Casas B&B
Only one block from Zocalo, we found this amazing small B&B; exactly what we were looking for, on a perfect location. We needed room for only one night stay, as this was our last night in Mexico. The very next day, our plane was leaving from Mexico City to take us back to our very cold Edmonton (it was -23 celsious). From the first glance at this place everything was perfect: location right near the city center and Cortes’ Palace, friendly and helpful young staff, stylishly designed interior and modern, quiet and comfortable rooms. 

Las Casas B&B backyard with a restaurant 
Backyard and one of the pools

In fact, it seemed too perfect because a place like this could easily compete with the best hotels in Huatulco or Escondido, so I didn’t think we could afford it, but the rates were very reasonable. Especially given the high quality and care they put into running the hotel the price was more than worth it. They even provided a secure parking space in a garage for our car. 
Very colorfull street behind our B&B

My only critique is that the wireless internet signal was not very strong in our room, but that was easily settled by walking just outside our door to browse the internet by the two hotel pools. Otherwise this place really is a gem, a marvel and a pearl. Amazing thing to me was how quiet our room was, considering we were so close to the very busy street.

About Cuernavaca city
Cuernavaca city lies just outside the Valley of Mexico and is more than 700 m lower than Mexico City and therefore serves as a popular refuge from the cold, smog and grind of the Mexico City. The city offers mild subtropical climate, floridity and old-colonial charm. 

Main Plaza is always crowded with people
Typical Mexican souvenir stands are everywhere

The area was once a great producer of bark paper and corn. It later flourished into an important religious centre, as seen at the interesting structures at Xochicalco, 40 km away. After the Conquest, the settlement was renamed Cuernavaca and became part of Cortés’ sizeable estate. Throughout history, wealthy hacienda owners, politicians and other prominent capitalinos have built homes here – most are now stealthily secluded behind high walls. The city was the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s infamous 1947 novel Under the Volcano, in which the British consul drank himself to death on Día de los Muertos. Cuernavaca gets busy on weekends, and while pleasant enough, is no longer the clean, idyllic retreat it once was. However, many foreign visitors are drawn to the city’s famous Spanish schools, which are plentiful and offer competitive rates.

Jardín Borda
So, once we settled in our hotel room, we went outside to browse the streets of this interesting town. Immediately after leaving the hotel, almost by accident, we stumbled upon hidden park “Jardin Borda”. Though it is located on the very busy street, you have to enter the building to discover a huge courtyard, where an ornate fountain, fed by a local spring, gushed water towards the azure sky. From courtyard the multi-leveled path led us to a public park in the backyard. At the time of our visit, they had some event going on and the area around the fountain was full of people. As we learned before on this trip, Mexicans celebrate something almost every day. 

Jardín Borda – fountain in the courtyard 
Jardín Borda – another fountain in the backyard

 What looked on the map like a public park, it was actually more like a private botanical garden. Entrance was free on this day, but we heard that usually they charge 30 pesos and that includes visiting the grounds and a small (pretty boring) museum. The gardens are pretty though, the air was perfumed by rare flowers and we enjoyed sitting in the sun by the two “lakes”, one of which also has pedal boats for rent (though as lakes go it’s pretty pathetic, so nobody was bothering with these). 

Young girls pose for a picture in their traditional costumes

As we walked the grounds of the magnificent terraced gardens, we realized that Jardin Borda Park, like the rest of Cuernavaca, had become a retreat, “a Garden of Eden”, for people from overcrowded Mexico. In the nearby building they keep the precious orchids. 

Jardín Borda – ornate fountain

The Borda Gardens have a secret that few people know about.
This park has its own history of being a sinful place. This is the place where (Emperor) Maximilian kept his mistress. The public knows this as the Jardin Borda (Borda Gardens) but locally it’s known as the Casa de la India Bonita (the house of the pretty Indian girl). Maximilian and the Indian girl had a child together – a son – and it caused many problems within the town – like the rest of Mexico, Cuernavaca is deeply religious – but being Emperor he could do what he liked. 

Vera by the lake which also had pedal boats
Zdenko by the statue of “Mexicano”

Cuernavaca has always served as a retreat for Mexicans, especially in winter. Its micro climate, abundance of natural springs and close proximity to the capital and Acapulco has made this a resort town for centuries.

Catedral de Cuernavaca
Like almost any city in Mexico, Cuernavaca has an impressive cathedral, but it goes one step further and has this co-located with several other churches.

Catedral de Cuernavaca
Catedral de Cuernavaca
Catedral de Cuernavaca

As you enter the church precincts and pass down the walk, try to imagine what life in Mexico was like in the old days. Construction on the church, also known as the Catedral de Asunción de María, began in 1529, a mere 8 years after Cortez conquered Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) from the Aztec, and was completed in 1552. The churchmen could hardly trust their safety to the tenuous allegiance of their new converts, so they built a fortress as a church. The skull and crossbones above the main door are a symbol of the Franciscan order, which had its monastery here. The monastery is open to the public, on the northwest corner of the church property. Also visible on the exterior walls of the main church are inlaid rocks, placed there in memory of the men who lost their lives during its construction. 

Vera in the garden by the Catedral

Once inside, wander through the sanctuaries and the courtyard, and pay special attention to the impressive frescoes painted on the walls, in various states of restoration. The frescoes date from the 1500s and have a distinct Asian style.

The main sanctuary is stark, even severe, with an incongruous modern feeling (it was refurbished in the 1960s). Frescoes on these walls, discovered during the refurbishing, depict the persecution and martyrdom of St. Felipe de Jesús and his companions in Japan. No one is certain who painted them. In the churchyard, you’ll see gravestones marking the tombs of the most devout (or wealthiest) parishioners. Being buried on the church grounds was believed to be the most direct route to heaven.

Palacio de Cortés
In the afternoon we headed to the Palacio de Cortés for a tour of this interesting place. The Palacio de Cortés is also called the Museo de Cuahnahuac and is located on the southeast side of Cuernavaca’s Plaza de Armas. This place was only a block away from our hotel. At the entrance, we paid the standard 38 Pesos admission.

There are two main attractions here – the series of murals by Diego Rivera (Frida Kahlo’s other half) and an archaeological museum, which is interesting but not a patch on the biggie in Mexico City. The murals are on the first floor, and though there are floor plans as you enter, we almost missed the stairs up. The views from up here are great, and you can take various picturesque shots of the rest of the city looking down towards the cathedral. Display information is in Spanish only.

The Palacio de Cortés is a former residence of Mexican’s conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who invaded the country in 1519 and in three short years had conquered it and along with it destroyed the Aztec empire of Moctezuma. Cortés began building the structure in 1526 and lived in the palace for several years until he returned to Spain in 1540, never to set foot in Mexico again. With his palace he left a lasting legacy in Cuernavaca, which was originally called Cuahnahuac (“Place of great trees”) by the local Tlahuica Indians. The Spaniards renamed it Cuernavaca (“Cow’s horn”) since that was easier to pronounce. 

Carriage on display in the Palacio de Cortes 
Mummy in the Cuahnahuac Museum

The building was later used as a prison, a Catholic Church and also as the seat of the Morelos State Legislature. The building’s salons display a variety of pre-Hispanic and colonial artefacts including carriages, furniture, farm implements, even a suit of armor. One of the exhibition rooms holds a Indian mummy in an open casket, well-preserved and a somewhat eerie sight. On the top floor there is also an arched gallery holding one of muralist Diego Rivera’s most renowned works: the mural Historia de Morelos, Conquista y Revolución (“History of Morelos, Conquest and Revolution”) which is intended too summarize the history of the State of Morelos.

Diego Rivera mural in the Palacio de Cortés

Cuernavaca town
Cuernavaca town has become very popular with retired Americans.The crime rate is very low and the standard of living here is much higher than in the rest of Mexico. 

Pedestrian only street in Cuernavaca

Over its history, Cuernavaca has not just attracted conquerors and emperors. Many of the world’s great writers and entertainers have called this charming place home. Legends like Diego Rivera, Carlos Fuentes, Helen Hayes, Malcolm Lowry, Ivan Illich, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barbara Hutton and David Alfaro Siqueiros, to name just a few.

The brightly coloured buildings in this colonial town are lovely.

The natural hot springs have always been the biggest draw and have given the city the distinction of having the greatest number of swimming pools – per capita – than any other town in the world. One pool in the centre of Cuernavaca can hold up to 30,000 swimmers and is the largest public pool in Latin America – maybe even the world. 

Italian pizzeria restaurant Marco Polo where we had very good pizza

During our walk around the centre of town and Cuernavaca’s Plaza de Armas – Main Square, we noticed they were building a skating ring in the middle of the square. That just reminded me on what will be facing tomorrow – a big skating ring called – Edmonton.

Beautiful courtyard with small craft shops

Final thoughts
We had a super day in Cuernavaca but a day wasn’t enough to see everything we would like to see if we had more time. We got there about 11am and left the next morning after breakfast. There are a few hotels in Cuernavaca if you want to stay over. We loved our small B&B here and would like to return again. If you are in the Distrito Federal it’s well worth a visit though, as it’s a very pretty town with proper Mexican flavour. The centre is very compact and easy to explore on foot, which is basically the only option anyway (though there is also a tacky tourist tram thing). 

Restaurant with the view

Last stage to Mexico City
Back on the autopista towards Mexico City. Again the road was beautiful and easy to drive. From Cuernavaca the road crosses over a mountain range and we climbed to 3100 meters – I looked it up 3.28 feet per meter – over 10,168 feet. The Volkswagen drove like a charm, but used ¼ tank of gas! Part of the drive was through wonderful pine forests – quite a difference from the beach scenery we were used to. In the shady areas there was early morning frost! Also it COOLED off and the humidity went from 59% to 28%. Alternatively the route is quite an easy drive if you have a hire car. 

Mexico City

Unfortunately there is no way to completely avoid driving in Mexico City. We had to go through the outskirts and across the city as airport were on the opposite side. We took the Periférico around the city, got lost several times, but suddenly we found ourselves close to the airport (still don’t know how). This time we didn’t have problems with the police and we arrived early at the Avis rent-a-car agency to return our rental that served us well for the whole duration of this trip.

I was wrong about the weather, through. It was roasting in Cuernavaca and Mexico City is not a patch on this place. It reminded me why we came to Mexico in the first place, and I would seriously consider moving there if I had the chance, for the climate alone.

I hope you enjoyed reading my blogs about this trip. The trip lasted only three weeks, but three weeks that were well spent. We went thru so many towns and different places, that I should start reading my own blogs from the beginning to remind myself on all the good times we had. 

Vera and Zdenko – Mexico on your own
The route we covered in three weeks: Mexico City – Puebla – Oaxaca – Huatulco – Puerto Escondido – Acapulco – Cuernavaca – Mexico City;

total distance of 2,200 km

Hope you have a good year!

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