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.