Story and photos by Jimm Budd
“A sunny spot for shady people” is how one resident of Cuernavaca describes his home town. True, there have been some shadowy figures who sought refuge beneath the local bougainvillea, but Cuernavaca – just 38 miles outside Mexico City – prefers to be known as a retreat for the rich and powerful of this world. And it is a nice place to keep in mind for those looking for what I like to call “a little bit of heaven where the weather is balmy and the company congenial.”
At about a mile high (roughly the elevation of Denver), Cuernavaca comes close to having a perfect climate. Eternal spring is how the German wanderer Alexander von Humboldt described the weather. "No one bothers urging you to have a nice day here," said the manager of one of the many appealing hacienda hotels in the area. "That is taken for granted."
The city has attracted all kinds of important and otherwise colorful people over the centuries. Some examples: Aztec monarchs are said to have been fond of holidays in Cuernavaca...Hernán Cortés dreamed of retiring there and even built a palace in the city (it's still standing)...both the Emperor Maximilian and his empress are said to have found love there (each in his and her own way)...and Malcolm Lowry found sanctuary in the local cantinas while writing his classic novel (featuring many of the cantinas) “Under the Volcano.”
There's more: Aviator Charles Lindbergh met his wife in Cuernavaca (she was the daughter of Dwight Morrow, the American ambassador who commissioned Diego Rivera to paint murals in Cortes’ palace)...Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton ordered the construction of a Japanese palace there for her Vietnamese consort (it is now the Camino Real Sumiya)...and Cuernavaca is where the last Shah of Iran went into exile.
The late Robert Brady, both an artist and collector, bought a 16th century mansion in Cuernavaca because he liked the climate. The place became something of a salon, attracting whatever celebrities happened to be in town (and in Cuernavaca there always are a few). The Brady home is now a museum, both a showplace for the Iowa-born painter's work and an example of how many expatriates would enjoy living.
Considering the notoriety of those who once strolled its streets, Cuernavaca is somewhat tame today. Love does not come at first sight in Cuernavaca. It appears to be a large and ugly city of narrow, treeless streets that twist through unappealing, tacky neighborhoods. More than a million people call Cuernavaca home, so it hardly qualifies as a village. And with Nissan making cars there while Firestone turns out tires, the place seems at first more an industrial center than a resort.
The many hotels with their gorgeous gardens and appealing pools are hidden away behind walls. From the street nothing can be seen, yet paradise lies beyond the gates. The same is true of Cuernavaca's restaurants, many of which rank among the best in Mexico. The palatial estates are also hidden away, but they need not be invisible.
Around the three plazas in the heart of downtown are the shops, the sidewalk cafes and Cortes' palace – now a museum, and the city's main sightseeing attraction. Visitors also enjoy wandering over to the castle-like cathedral, remarkable both for its age (circa Cortes' palace) and its stark, almost Scandinavian interior decor.
Cuernavaca's Borda Gardens have been attracting visitors for some two centuries. They were laid out along classical French lines by the family of José de la Borda, an immigrant from Paris who in Taxco became a silver mining magnate. Later the Borda Gardens were said to be where the Empress Carlota dallied with her handsome guards while Max was away playing court to a lady known to history as La India Bonita.
Going back to the pre-Hispanic era, Cuernavaca was said to be the capital of the Tlahuicas, a people subjugated by the Aztecs. Rubble from Tlahuica temples and halls reportedly went into the construction of the palace of Cortes. Almost on the outskirts of town is Xochicalco, one of the most impressive ancient sites in Mexico. Elaborately carved glyphs decorate the small pyramids and ceremonial structures at Xochicalo where, according to some experts, Maya and Toltec priests would gather to coordinate their calendars.
With the coming of the Spaniards, the Cuernavaca area became a sugar-growing region. In recent years some manor houses on the sprawling haciendas of the sugar barons have been converted into splendid resort hotels.
Boomers can find out more about the joys south of the border in “Jimm Budd’s MEXICO” -- quick glimpses of places that you thought you knew, places that you would like to know and places that you never have heard of. Just go to www.kindle.com and write “Jimm” in the search box. Looking costs nothing.
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