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.
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With its refreshing spring-like climate, CUERNAVACA has always provided a place of escape from Mexico City, but it isn’t always as refreshing as it claims to be. The state capital of Morelos, it 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 away or in districts far from the centre, and many of them belong to narco-barons, whose rivalries brought a spate of violence in 2010. The spring of that year saw discotheques attacked and castrated corpses hung from bridges as deputies of a local kingpin fought for succession in the wake of his assassination by Mexican marines. The ensuing conflict left some fifty people dead, although the situation has calmed down somewhat since then.
The Aztecs called the city Cuauhnahuac (“place by the woods”), and it became a favourite resort and hunting ground for their rulers; the Spaniards corrupted the name to Cuernavaca (“cow horn”) simply because they couldn’t pronounce Cuauhnahuac. Hernán Cortés seized and destroyed the city during the siege of Tenochtitlán, then built himself a palace here. The palace-building trend has continued over the centuries: Emperor Maximilian and the deposed Shah of Iran both had houses here, and the inner suburbs are packed with the high-walled mansions of wealthy Mexicans and expats.
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.
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 however, the silver trade saw a revival, sparked by 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.