Cuernavaca (kwehr-nah-vah-kah) is one of Mexico’s better-known colonial cities. It’s easy to get to—just an hour drive south of Mexico City. It even has its own airport. Cuernavaca is best known for: 1) its almost perfect weather; 2) the grand homes that are hidden behind high stone walls; and 3) its Spanish schools that attract many international students.
There’s also the Catedral de la Asunción de María, one of the oldest churches in Mexico, built in the 16th century. And just behind the cathedral in what was once a friary is the former home of American Robert Brady that is now a museum. I’d go to Cuernavaca just to see this place for he was a collector like no other.
Some may know Cuernavaca through Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano about an alcoholic Consul. The volcano in question is nearby Popocatepetl.
But for all that, Cuernavaca disappoints. The wealthy stay behind the high, stone walls and their properties—right in the centre of town—tend to have expansive lawns, huge trees, gorgeous gardens, chirping birds, and probably a swimming pool. That’s where all the colonial charm lies.
On the other side of the walls, a million people are squished into tight, steep spaces. The roads are narrow and jammed with traffic. The pool on the grounds of the church is dry. The zocalo, usually the heart of a Mexican colonial city where people gather, is divided in two small squares, both ill kept, one with a bandstand where fruit juice is sold and where you’ll find too many middle-age men shining shoes.
They say the garden Jardín Borda has been restored but this is not a place where you would choose to spend much time. At the entrance is an art gallery but beyond that it was almost deserted when I was there. There is little greenery and the water of the artificial pond a slimy green.
This is not to say that you can’t walk around Cuernavaca and take isolated photos that present the city in a more favourable light. There are short stretches with nice restaurants and freshly painted stucco. The modern art collection at the the Museo Morelense of Popular Art is well presented. I twice stayed “behind the walls” in blissful hotels.
It’s just that Mexico has so successfully preserved the historic centres of some of its colonial cities that the absence of this in Cuernavaca is rather shocking. After all, Mexico has the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country in the Americas and the sixth most in the world (27 cultural sites and 5 natural sites, with 25 additional properties on a tentative list). Take Puebla, which like Cuernavaca is at the foot of the Popocatepetl volcano, and where 2,600 historic monuments have been kept intact in a stunningly beautiful historic centre around a zocalo kept green and inviting through loving care.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014