Heading south from Mexico City, you climb over the mountains and descend to Cuernavaca, which brims with colonial mansions and gardens, and draws visitors on account of its proximity to several important archeological sites, notably the hilltop pyramid sites of Tepoztlán and Xochicalco. An hour further south the silver town of Taxco straggles picturesquely up a hillside, making it one of the most appealing destinations hereabouts.Read More
Cuernavaca and around
Cuernavaca and around
Cuernavaca has always provided a place of escape from the city – the Aztecs called it Cuauhnahuac (“place by the woods”), and it became a favourite resort and hunting ground for their rulers. Cortés seized and destroyed the city during the siege of Tenochtitlán, then ended up building himself a palace here, the Spaniards corrupting the name to Cuernavaca (“cow horn”) for no better reason than their inability to cope with the original. The trend has continued over the centuries: the Emperor Maximilian and the deposed Shah of Iran both had houses here, and the inner suburbs are now packed with the high-walled mansions of wealthy Mexicans and the expats who flock down here from the US and Canada each winter.
For the casual visitor, the modern city is in many ways a disappointment. Its spring-like climate remains, but as capital of the state of Morelos, Cuernavaca is rapidly becoming industrialized and the streets in the centre are permanently clogged with traffic and fumes. The gardens and villas that shelter the rich are almost all hidden or in districts so far out that you won’t see them. It seems an ill-planned and widely spread city, certainly not easy to get about, though fortunately much of what you’ll want to see is close to the centre and accessible on foot. Food and lodging come at a relatively high price, in part thanks to the large foreign contingent, swelled by tourists and by students from the many language schools. On the other hand, the town is still attractive enough to make it a decent base for heading north to the village of Tepoztlán, with its raucous fiesta, or south to the ruins of Xochicalco. If you are at all interested in Mexican history, it may also be worthwhile taking a trip to Cuautla, where Emiliano Zapata is buried under an imposing statue of himself in Plazuela de la Revolución del Sur.
Silver has been mined in Taxco since before the Conquest. Supplies of the metal have long been depleted, but it is still the basis of the town’s fame, as well as its livelihood, in the form of jewellery, which is made in hundreds of workshops here, and sold in an array of shops (platerías) catering mainly to tourists. The city is an attractive place, like some Mexican version of a Tuscan village, with a mass of terracotta-tiled, whitewashed houses lining narrow, cobbled alleys that straggle steeply uphill. At intervals the pattern is broken by a larger mansion, or by a courtyard filled with flowers or by the tower of a church rearing up; the twin spires of Santa Prisca, a Baroque wedding cake of a church in the centre of town, stand out above all. Unfortunately, the streets are eternally clogged with VW Beetle taxis and colectivos struggling up the steep slopes, and forming an endless paseo around the central Plaza Borda. Once you’ve spent an hour or so in the church and a few museums there’s really nothing to do but sit around in the plaza cafés. Still, it is a pleasant enough place to do just that if you don’t mind the relatively high prices, and the profusion of other tourists.
Though it might seem a prosperous place now, Taxco’s development has not been entirely straightforward – indeed on more than one occasion the town has been all but abandoned. The Spaniards came running at the rumours of mineral wealth here (Cortés himself sent an expedition in 1522), but their success was short-lived, and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that French immigrant José de la Borda struck it fabulously rich by discovering the San Ignacio vein. It was during Borda’s short lifetime that most of what you see originated – he spent an enormous sum on building the church of Santa Prisca, and more on other buildings and a royal lifestyle here and in Cuernavaca; by his death in 1778 the boom was already over. In 1929, a final revival started with the arrival of American architect and writer William Spratling, who set up a jewellery workshop in Taxco, drawing on local traditional skills and pre-Hispanic designs. With the completion of a new road around the same time, a massive influx of tourists was inevitable – the town has handled it all fairly well, becoming rich at the expense of just a little charm.