Since the 80’s, I have had a serious love affair with Mexico. From Acapulco (let’s forget about the tequila incident though) to Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, La Paz, Guadalajara, Isla de Mujeres, Zihuatenejo, Ixtapa, Oaxaca to Mexico City. My last sojourn and adventure was to Cuernavaca, Mexico, a place I can count on for culture with artists like Frida Kahlo, yummy food, kindness from strangers, caring and big hearts.
Without incident, I have traveled to each and every place. A dear friend whom I’ve known for nearly three decades offered me their family home pre-covid in Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state. Amongst the reports of danger that the U.S. consistently feeds us a steady diet, I told my friend that I can’t and don’t live in fear and it was perfectly safe to travel there.
A mere 3 hour and 10 minute flight from Los Angeles, and voila, there I was in Mexico City Airport. Always looking for signs from the universe so finding a 50 peso bill on the exit from the airport seemed like a good omen to me. The Pullman Morelos direct bus to Cuernavaca couldn’t have been simpler to find and my window view included the passing of tall pine trees, various green bushes, green mountains, fields of lush greens, corn fields, Disponible (available) signs, towns with small restaurants one after another, rocks that seem as if they were artfully placed in piles and less than 2 hours later, I was in the Casino de la Selva bus station of Cuernavaca. A ten minute taxi ride and I was brought to an open floor plan home complete with 2 cats including Paquito, who was instantly welcoming and slept in each and every corner of the house as if the entire house was made for him, to Mabel, the second cat, who was convinced I was going to bring her harm and ran from me at every turn. And, Juana, a gentle soul with an open heart who kept the house clean.
John Wayne, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton & actress Brigitte Bardot all had love affairs with balmy Cuernavaca. Walking the undulating hills to the colonial city center to see where Cortez made his home was straight out of a fairy tale of ancient lands.
From its colonial charm with 16th-century architecture and narrow, cobblestone streets to street merchants selling corn on the cob smeared with fiery spices, to the periodic rain storms, I was smitten with Cuernavaca.
In the nineteenth century Alexander von Humboldt nicknamed Cuernavaca “la ciudad eternal primavera” “City of Eternal Spring” because of its warm, stable climate. It’s basically constant in the 70’s. Foreign princes, archdukes, and other nobles have been attracted to this place because of its flowers, sun, fruits, fresh-water springs and waterfalls. Even Bauhaus designer Michael van Beuren had a home here while fleeing the rise of Nazi Germany where he studied and practiced his profession and a colony of Bauhaus designers grew in the city during World War II. Many Mexican residents maintain homes in Cuernavaca and many students go to study the Spanish language. Interestingly, another place that I fell in love with decades ago, Guatemala is also nicknamed “The Eternal Spring.”
Another interesting part of history is Timothy Leary tried psilocybin mushrooms in Cuernavaca for the first time in the summer of 1960 and returned regularly to repeat them. Erich Fromm founded the Sociedad Mexicana de Psicoanálisis from his home in Cuernavaca and helped promote new ideas in psychiatry, even incorporating Zen Buddhism. This attracted many artists and counterculture types.
Each city has a main square or zócolo. After settling into my room, I made my way out to restaurant Casa Hidalgo. With multiple levels to choose from, I went straight up to the top balcony and was given a view of the Palacio de Cortés and the zócolo. I ordered chili relleno, which arrived with arroz, frijoles, con queso a tortillas. (rice, beans with cheese and tortillas.) Part of what I love about Mexico is the attention to details and the ambiance everywhere.
Cuernavaca is mas tranquilo, mas agradable y major ambiente de DF (more tranquil, nicer, better atmosphere) than Mexico City. The primavera pajaros (Spring birds) make such a happy, chirpy sound when they’re singing. Juana asked me why no one in the family had visited their home and she said “No pasa nada de estar aqui, todo es tranquilo, fresco, muy agradable.” “Nothing will happen here, everything is tranquil, cool and very nice.”
I’ve learned not to hit the ground running after a full day of airline/bus travel so I spent the next day exploring the four bedroom home and enjoying my breakfast of mango and Mexican coffee with milk and toast with butter. That evening I made my way to La India Bonita, the oldest restaurant in Cuernavaca with full Mexican décor whose name came from Emperor Maximilian’s lover. From the smile I was greeted with by the hostess to the lush courtyard, I was smiling. I ordered chile en nogada –poblano pepper in walnut sauce.
After feeling rested from a good night’s sleep, I hired an Uber to bring me on a 45 minute drive to Xochicalco. Any UNESCO World Heritage Site is always on my list of first destinations wherever I travel. Even though the initial bus ride was a breeze, I wasn’t quite ready yet to tackle another one quite yet.
The name Xochicalco means “the place of the house of flowers” in Nahuatl, but it’s more like the empire of the flowers. This was a vast walled city-state, a mighty urban metropolis from A.D. 700-900. Its rise to power occurred right after the fall of Teotihuacán. Historians aren’t completely sure why Xochicalco fell but the prevailing theory is that it was destroyed from within.
My first stop is always a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What made this such a quieting experience is it’s large enough to make the drive worthwhile from Cuernavaca but not so big that it is overrun with tourists like the pyramids of Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.
As I walked around the site, I tried to imagine what this must have looked like during its zenith. As fascinating as it is today, it must have been formidable in its time. And, only about 15 percent of the ruins have been excavated. What was even better is after visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacán outside Mexico City, which is swarming with tourists, the pyramids of Xochicalco are a quieting experience, not overrun with tourists. I’m glad I saw the pyramids of Teotihuacán first.
Diego Rivera lived in a home around the corner from where I am staying so a 15 minute walk down Calle Ruffino Tamayo and there I smiled seeing the plaque ‘Diego Rivera lived here from 1951-1957’. An Italian restaurant that was recommended to me, Sapori, is also on the same street. My Bolognese pasta was excellent and tasted as if I was back in Bologna, Italy, where it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal.
Mercado Adolfo Lopez Mateos – Adolfo Lopez Mateos Market
It was time to buy groceries for my extended stay, so off Juana and I headed to the bus station to make our way to experience Mercado Adolfo Lopez Mateos. Everything imaginable is for sale here from exotic fruits like lychee, dragon fruit, star fruit to various meats, a large bunch of Astro Melia flowers for 25 MXN and smoked chilies. It’s sprawling and if not for Juana, I would surely have been lost inside the maze as my sense of direction is no bueno. Here is a bowl of fruit I bought for 200 MXN, about $10 US.
Catedral de Cuernavaca, the fortress-cathedral built at Cortes’s request. It was easy to spend 4 hours strolling through this wonder with its fortress-like style that served a purpose to impress, intimidate and defend against the natives.
Jardin Borda – quiet, leafy sanctuary built in 1700’s inspired by Versailles. There are paths, steps and fountains laid out in a series of terraces. I love the typical colonial style where the buildings are arranged around courtyards.
Museo Casa Robert Brady – 16th century Franciscan convent. He spent his life traveling around the world collecting art he loved and lived in Cuernavaca for twenty-four years.
Parque Ecológico Chapultepec – Definitely worth a visit to see people, waterfalls, a butterfly sanctuary, ducks, a running stream throughout fed by waterfalls and lined with a lush jungle, large trees, a pair of crocodiles basking in the sun, peafowl and a way to experience lush Cuernavaca.
There is a tourist initiative called Pueblos Mágicos, or Magical Towns. These are designations given to small towns around the country that provide tourists with an otherwordly experience either through culture, environment or history. In other words, an authentic traditional environment.
Tepoztlán is the only pueblo mágico in Morelos. There is an ancient temple set high atop a cliff, a 16th-century former convent. Amongst gorgeous mountain scenery, and winding cobblestone streets nestled in a green valley, it has a mystical quality and a charm. I found the zócola filled with people selling clothing, and a natural products store where I bought shampoo made with rosemary, eucalyptus, aloe vera, basil, avocado bone, nopal, jojoba, verbana, royal jelly, mint and not one chemical in it. En route to Tepoztlán, I commented to a girl sitting next to me how pretty the bread was in the basket of mixed types and styles. She offered to open it for me, to which I politely declined not just because I wasn’t hungry but I didn’t want her to break open her lovely bread basket for me.
Taxco- Another bus ride, this time from Terminal Estrella Blanco. I was speaking to a girl on the bus and asked her about how to get to the Zócalo. Google Maps had me going in circles more than once and I knew Taxco would probably confuse Google Maps and me endlessly. She walked me all the way to the center. The kindness I found at every turn in Cuernavaca was the norm, it was consistent.
As I sat on the bus from Cuernava back to Mexico City, the bus driver waved at every bus coming the other way. Waved and smiled. “Que la vaya bien” “May you be well” said the girl to me in the bus station central in CD as we both tried to figure out where to meet our respective Uber drivers. I heard “para sirvele” “I’m here to serve you” over and over throughout my stay in Mexico.
Between the ruins of UNESCO World Heritage sites, walks into the city center, colors of red, orange and blues and smells of tortillas unique to Mexico, churches, gardens and museums I visited, Cuernavaca was a soul enriching experience. More than any aspect of my stay in Cuernavaca, was the care I was given by Juana. It wasn’t just that she made each and every meal so pretty to look at with hand made doilies that she had created and beautiful ceramics to eat out of, it was the actual care and affection from a complete stranger, from someone who wanted absolutely nothing from me and gave from her heart. There were heart-centered angels throughout my journey to Cuernavaca. “Agradezco” “I appreciate it”, Juana said when she opened the card I left for her, thanking her for her care and leaving her a gift. More than just courteous, I find the people of Mexico angeles centrado en el corazón, “heart centered angels.” Even as I leave Cuernavaca, I am dreaming of when I shall be able to return.