Cuernavaca, known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, nicknamed by Alexander von Humboldt in the 19th Century, certainly lives up to its name, with a gorgeous year-round warm climate, despite its 1,550m altitude.
We’re here principally for research purposes, following in the footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, author of arguably one of the great novels of the 20th Century, ‘Under The Volcano’, inspired by and set in Cuernavaca in the 1930’s.
Cuernavaca isn’t exactly under the volcano, though close. Popocatepetl, the very active, indeed currently erupting 5,426m volcano, is just 64 k’s away. It’s supposed to loom large on the horizon, but on these hot hazy days, it’s not to be seen. However, with clearer days to come, we’re promised a good view from downtown.
The drive from Mexico City is surprisingly fast, door to door in just an hour and a half, leaving the spaghetti tangle of freeways and flyovers, with the Anillo Periférico (Peripheral Ring Road), colloquially known as the ‘Segundo Piso’ (second floor), travelling above. It’s a massive elevated highway that exactly tracks the regular road south, joining Mexico City to the Acapulco freeway – but we’re taking the 95D south to Cuernavaca, dropping 1000 metres in the process, through wooded hills to the valley below. Drivers must pay a toll to use the Segundo Piso with a fitted TAG device, so many drivers don’t (can’t afford to) use this road, including our driver, Giovanni.
The name Cuernavaca was derived by the Spanish from the indigenous Nahuatl Cuauhnāhuac (they couldn’t pronounce it either) and means ‘near the wood’, and you can see why as the surrounding area is covered in forests of pine and Holm Oak with deep dark natural ravines or ‘barrancas’ formed by subterranean streams, carving and slicing their way through the very heart of this city. The barrancas of Cuernavaca terrified Lowry and for him were ‘fearsome chasms, the perfect symbol of the demonic realm of his tripartite universe of heaven and hell, with the world precariously between, and of the abyss within the heart of man.’ We’ve only had a few quick glimpses into a barranca so far, and I can attest to them being terrifyingly vertiginous, dark and definitely dangerous.
We’re staying in a charming small boutique hotel, Villa Bonita, just opposite the impressive looking Robert Brady Museum (more on that later), so everything that downtown Cuernavaca has to offer is right on our doorstep. Villa Bonita has just 6 rooms and at breakfast there’s barely anyone there, save for some visiting Mexicans and yes, one elderly American couple who keep themselves to themselves.
First impressions from walking around town – no foreign tourists! This place appears to be Mexico for the Mexicans. The streets are thronging with people and the hectic gas-belching traffic along the narrow city roads is formidable, so you’re taking your life in your hands crossing here – or do what the locals do and simply walk out into the traffic without a care in the world. Cars do – thankfully – stop for you.
The impressive solid looking Cathedral, Templo de la Asuncíon de María and, in its precinct, the over-the-top pink baroque Capilla de la Tercera Orden, are just a few steps away from the hotel.
The Cathedral is, like many early Spanish buildings here, built in a fortress-like style in an effort to impress, intimidate and defend against the local people. The Franciscans started work on this building as early as 1526, making it one of Mexico’s earliest Christian missions. Using indigenous labour (of course), with stones and blocks from Cuauhnáhuac’s temples and pyramids as their building material. Inside the cathedral recent sensitive, austere alterations have been made, but the walls remain covered in now fading 17th frescoes, rediscovered in an earlier restoration. They’re said to show the persecution of Christian missionaries in Japan, a notorious mass crucifixion. Today, the cathedral is a beautifully restored and sympathetically modernised place of worship, very much in use by locals.
The Capilla de la Tercera Orden, positioned in the northwest corner of the complex is anything but plain, especially in this intensely bright morning light. It’s a rosy pink pile built in 1722 by the Franciscan friars in Churriguersque style, or ultra-Baroque, elaborate sculptural architectural ornamentation gone nuts. And it certainly delivers on that, with angels, some with indigenous headdresses, and one huge golden carved main altar, constructed by indigenous craftsmen.
For lunch today, we found a gorgeously lofty restaurant, Terraza Catedral, with views over the Capilla de la Tercera Orden and the distant hazy mountains. Try as we might to see Popocatepetl, the heat haze continues to keep it hidden from sight. But such a glorious spot. Mexican mariachi music playing from speakers. Fajitas de Pollo for lunch, washed down with a couple of icy cold Modelos and, on the house, a shot of local tequila. Heaven.
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Heaven indeed. Your blogs and photos should be collected into a travel volume 😍 may you finally get a clear view of the volcano
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