Under The Volcano – In The Footsteps of Malcolm Lowry

We’re saying farewell to Cuernavaca after two glorious weeks in what Alexander von Humboldt referred to as ‘La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera’ (City of Eternal Spring)  – that’s two weeks of gorgeous warm sunshine and flawless blue-sky days, so the city really does live up to its name. 

In the early to mid-decades of the 20th Century, Cuernavaca was ‘the’ place to vacation for the rich, the famous and notorious, attracting the likes of Rita Hayworth, Bugsy Siegel, Al Capone, Gary Cooper, Barbara Hutton and latterly, even Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran, who began his exile here in 1979. Sun and clean-air craving visitors have been flocking to Cuernavaca from Mexico City for eons, the wealthier of them building extravagant homes set in large lush gardens with high stone walls to hide their opulence. All of them with swimming pools of course, and often, vistas over the jungle-like barrancas or canyons that secure this heavenly climate. 

These days, Cuernavaca is a much bigger town which has seen its population explode from the few thousands in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s to more like 370,000 with over 1 million in the greater  metropolitan area. So with population growth comes pollution of course and sadly Cuernavaca today is choked with gas-guzzling traffic, particularly the collectivos (local buses) that belch along the main throughfares of town. It’s often so bad here, coupled with the heat haze, that the nearby twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl completely disappear from view – something unheard of back in the day, when these two monsters, Popocatépetl being the active one, dominated the skyline. 

Sadly, back in 2010 Cuernavaca made it on to Mexico’s Narco map, when marines killed a drug kingpin in a shootout in his downtown apartment. The battle that ensued for control of his cartel left dozens dead and horrific discoveries of bagged body parts in the city. What really unnerved residents (if that wasn’t enough!) was an email that was circulated warning people to stay indoors after 8pm, otherwise run the risk of being mistaken for ‘our enemies’. This closed city bars, restaurants and schools and terrorised the city and completely frightened off tourists – devastating the city economy for years to come. However, in more recent years the situation has calmed down and travel advisories have been scaled back, but it has clearly ruined the tourist trade here as we’ve been among the very few international visitors that we’ve seen.

It was in 1936 that Malcolm Lowry came to Cuernavaca with his first wife, Jan Gabrial, and began to write his short story, ‘Under The Volcano’, which went on to inspire his celebrated 1947 novel of the same name – and the reason why we are here. Looking at old photos from the 1940’s and 50’s, the volcanoes are ever present, often snow-capped in winter and clear as day from downtown. Views today are rarer, but the light here is still wonderful, the town full of vibrant colour at every turn. There are still gorgeous gardens, some I’ve posted about, but many other private oases are hidden behind doors, some of them discovered by us through cracks and left-open gates over the last couple of weeks. 

There’s sadly not much left of Lowry’s Quaunahuac, the pre-Cortés name of this place (Near to Woods) that he used in his novel. Most of the sites he describes no longer exist or have been inevitably obscured by time. The addresses on Calle Humboldt where he lived whilst here are controversial and confusing, but there are still some sites hanging on such as the Hotel Bajo el Volcan, its gleaming white turreted rooms and swimming pool clinging to the side of a deep dark barranca. One of his favourite bars, La Universal is still here too, which has become a favourite spot for us for an ice-cold beer in the heat of the afternoon. We met up with Dany from the Lowry Fundación one morning and he took us for a short walk to see some of the more hidden sites that still exist, most notably one of Lowry’s infamous Cantinas, Cantina El Danubio, which still opens its doors today, a classic example of a ‘real Cuernavaca’ bar. It looks so authentic that I doubt it has changed since the 40’s, save for the bulky digital  jukebox in the corner. Another haunt of Lowry, La Estrella, is also still there but sadly lies derelict, its dubious ownership preventing any Lowry fan from buying it and restoring it to its former glory. However the Fundación has attached a plaque quoting Lowry’s fervent extolling of the joys of early-opening hours.

Still, it’s been wonderful walking in Lowry’s footsteps, imagining this place as he would have encountered it. The recurrent themes throughout ‘Under The Volcano’ are the ever-present twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, and the barrancas, symbols of division, death, and rebirth in this City of Eternal Spring.

“Slightly to the right and below them, below the gigantic red evening, whose reflection bled away in the deserted swimming pools scattered everywhere like so many mirages, lay the peace and sweetness of the town. It seemed peaceful enough from where they were sitting.” 

– Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Kerrie says:

    Thanks Paul, very interesting story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bevanlee says:

    I have the Blu Ray of the movie, which I must watch. I trust your visit and attendant researches have KYd the dildo of creativity.


    div>Excuse my vulgar metaphor, but it did rather make me chuck

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re lubed and ready


      1. Bevanlee says:

        Tee hee. Creative mischief of a Lowry kind 😍

        Liked by 1 person

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