This article is from the April 2006 The Mexico File
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by Lisa Coleman
Lisa Coleman is a Pluma de Plata winner and has been freelance writing in Mexico for more than twelve years.
Resting atop an enormous dry lakebed in a highland basin, Mexico City stands tall in historic grandeur. At an altitude of 7,400 feet, it’s the highest city in North America. In the 16th century, this same area was known as Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec empire. The Aztecan kings and social elite struggled with winter’s chill and searched the lower regions of the countryside for a sanctuary, a magical retreat beyond the mountains with ideal weather and lush landscape filled with flora and fauna. About 50 miles south of the capital, they found their perennial paradise. They discovered Cuernavaca.
The Aztec name, Cuauhnahuac, is said to have meant “place of great trees.” Legend has it that when Hernan Cortes and the Spanish arrived in 1521, they loosely translated what they heard to be “Cuerno de Vaca” (horn of a cow), and hence the name Cuernavaca. As Cortes and his men conquered the Aztec empire, they quickly realized the incomparable natural resources and possibilities of this popular hideaway. Cortes himself built a palace in the city center and it has been a known as a prominent getaway ever since.
Just an hour and a half from the Mexico City airport, and 2,000 feet lower in elevation, modern day Cuernavaca is capital of the Mexican state of Morelos. Though it has grown immensely over the past decade, it remains startlingly intimate and closely tied to its pre-Columbian roots. In addition to its striking cultural offerings, the city is primarily known for its nearly perfect climate, which provides some of the most prolific growing atmospheres and gardening possibilities in the entire country. The moist, semi-tropical environment breeds fertile Eden-like terrain, an array of exotic plants and flowers, and verdant landscapes highlighted with traditional sculpture, statues and fountains. Though most of city’s luxurious gardens are locked away behind private walled estates, there are several public domains that showcase the intense greenery, cohesive traditional design, and flourishing beauty that have made the gardens of Cuernavaca famous for centuries.
The Hacienda de Cortes is a living monument to Mexico’s rustic past. Built by personal order of the conquistador himself, this massive hacienda was once the most significant sugar refinery in New Spain. Now a hotel, the Hacienda is a fascinating combination of antiquity and modern amenities. The buildings remain almost completely intact and the gardens have been in existence for hundreds of years. Consistent with the masculine style felt throughout most Mexican structures, the overall theme is anchored by huge ancient laurel trees, abundant clinging vines, exposed roots, palms and colorful ground shrubbery to highlight the meandering brick pathways. The planting patterns are simple and can best described as symmetrical rather than artistic. The majority of foliage survives almost completely in the shade of the immense architecture, creating a thick blanket of greenery. The courtyards and gardens are also accessorized with a magnificent selection of fountains, iron sculpture and stone statues. At the time of the conquest, the Spanish were known for tangible displays of power, hence the copious number of images crafted to be displayed throughout the hacienda. Even in modern times, the use of sculpture has become an integral part of the Cuernavaca’s garden styling. The subtle, yet alluring beauty of the gardens at Hacienda de Cortes lies in their ability to frame and accentuate the strength of the classic Spanish colonial architecture.
As Cuernavaca began to grow and evolve, more and more posh hotels, fashionable restaurants, boutiques and spas began to open everywhere. From a structural perspective, most venues have successfully intertwined the glory of the past with the contemporary needs of the future, and this holds true with the garden scenario as well. When the world famous luxury hotel Las Mañanitas opened its doors in 1955, they were very careful to adhere to the influence of their Spanish roots. As is common with Cuernavacan elite properties, the splendor is found behind the closed doors and towering walls of the perimeter. Stepping through the lobby to the garden at Las Mañanitas is nothing short of breathtaking. Tightly manicured rolling lawns, enormous shade trees, tile rooftops and blossoming bougainvillea in handmade pots give the hotel an elegant, authentic feel. Much more sophisticated than neighboring Hacienda de Cortes, Mañanitas adds a touch of the exotic making their gardens among the most stunning in the entire city. Their conventional lush palms and bountiful shrubbery are interspersed with vibrant ginger plants, birds of paradise and an array of flowering trees in striking orange and rich yellow. Again, the feel is of grandiose greenery rather than attention to specific details. Aged stone fountains and life sized statues from renowned sculptor Francisco Zúñiga dot the landscape and keep the theme consistent with its 16th century predecessors. And perhaps most intriguing are the glamorous peacocks, flamingos, African cranes, and an absolutely magnificent lapis blue Hyacinth macaw that wander freely throughout the grounds to complete the unique setting of this refined, peaceful estate. Woven chairs and tables are clustered on the lawn to allow patrons to totally immerse themselves in the idyllic scenery. Las Mañanitas is the perfect example of cultured Colonial-era styled gardens.
The abundance of luxuriant greenery, the bold and expansive planting patterns and the predominant use of sculpture as garden accents continues at Hosteria Las Quintas. One of the finest resort spas in all of Mexico, Las Quintas was once an eight-room private home. In 1965, the family converted the residence to a hotel, and 1994, expanded to include the spa. Now 90 rooms, Las Quintas has some of the largest and most extraordinary public gardens in the city. With 100,000 square feet of ponds, gigantic laurels and imported plants and flowers, garden connoisseurs will find the grounds not only scenic, but fascinating as well. The foliage is labeled with the origin and name of the plant so a stroll through the property is not only a treat for senses but an education as well. Though most collections are found in private estates, Las Quintas also boasts an incredible compilation of bonsai trees. Some more than one hundred years old, the Japanese phenomenon found its way to Mexico through the passage of the conquistadors. This cultural blending has led to diverse and interesting concepts in terms of design in both homes and gardens, but the overall perception in Cuernavaca is still strongly anchored in the Spanish influence. With that in mind, Las Quintas has been able to successfully combine the harmonious aspects of nature with classic colonial architecture. The gardens here have more ground cover and brightly colored flowers than some of the other hotels, and the perpetual spring-like weather allows them to remain almost constantly in bloom. Though not as intimate as its counterparts, the attitude is decidedly more artistic. Nonetheless, the gardens of Las Quintas still remain powerful with simple lines and an emphasis on aesthetic beauty.
Cuernavaca, the “city of eternal spring,” has the remarkable ability to incorporate a spirited heritage into the modern world. Though each landscape throughout the city is unique in its own right, the similarities in scheme and emotion are a constant. Here the handsome architecture and bold garden design unite to maintain an everlasting tribute to the colonial past. They stand as a noble symbol of a history and a reflection of times gone by. The entire city possesses an undeniable dynamic energy and charm. And whether your interests are strictly sightseeing, or you’d like to discover more about the Mexico’s impressive history and traditions, Cuernavaca holds the key.
*Both AeroMexico and America West offer service directly to Mexico City. You can take a luxury Pullman bus directly from the airport to Cuernavaca for about $10.00.
Where to Stay in Cuernavaca
Hosteria Las Quintas – One of Mexico’s best spas. Ninety individually decorated terrace rooms are nestled throughout a five-acre estate. Complete spa packages are available. For reservations and information call toll free from the U.S. 1-877-784-6827. Website: www.hlasquintas.com
Las Mañanitas – Cuernavaca’s landmark hotel. 21 elegant suites can be found in the privacy of a serene garden setting. For reservations and information call tollfree from the U.S. 1-888-413-9199. Website: www.lasmananitas.com.mx
Hacienda de Cortes – A masterpiece from the past. 25 luxury suites bring this original hacienda to life. For reservations and information call direct from the U.S. 011-52-7-315-8844. Website: www.haciendadecortez.com
Where to Eat in Cuernavaca
GAIA (pronounced “guya”) – Quite simply, the best restaurant in town. Possibly the best restaurant in all of Mexico! Built in the home of Mexican actor, Cantinflas, famous Mexican painter and muralist, Diego Rivera, is said to have designed the mosaic in the pool, which is the centerpiece of the restaurant. Astonishing fusion Mexican and Mediterranean cooking. Blvd. Juarez 102 in the center of town, in front of the Palace of Cortes. Local phone number (73) 12-36-56.
Casa Hidalgo – Beautiful restaurant with a fantastic view of the Palace of Cortes. Patio seating, romantic atmosphere and continental cuisine. Great jazz music on the weekends. Jardin de los Heroes, #6 in the Center – also across from the palace. Local phone number (73) 12-27-49.
El Gallinero – Means the “chickencoop.” Very interesting, artsy and modern with a quirky atmosphere. Also has a gallery, live music, and part time theater. Good prices, good food. Francisco Leyva, #94 in the center. Local phone number (73) 12-74-25.
Las Mañanitas – A must for any trip to Cuernavaca. Both lunch and dinner are excellent, but be sure to have a cocktail or a snack in the garden in the afternoon. Ricardo Linares, #107. Local phone number (73) 14-14-66.
Hosteria Las Quintas – All meals are outstanding, but the breakfast buffet is particularly impressive. Enjoy dining in the garden. Blvd. Diaz Ordaz, #9. Local phone number (73) 18-39-49.
Day Trips from Cuernavaca
Taxco – A Postcard Comes to Life
Vibrant colors, Old World style, ornate architecture, cobblestone streets and distinctly locked in time – this describes the mystique of Taxco. An hour from Cuernavaca, this is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque towns in all of Mexico. In the early 1500’s, Jose de la Borda (a Frenchman living in Spain) heard of rich mineral deposits in the New World and rushed to Mexico to try his luck. He struck it rich in Taxco. Since then the city has been deemed the “Silver City” and is known worldwide for its pure silver jewelry and handicrafts. Borda developed the city and is credited for the construction of the city masterpiece – the Santa Prisca church. He imported artisans from France and Spain who created the most powerful and elaborate examples of 18th century of baroque architecture. The interior is astounding with twelve intricately carved and gilded altars arranged according to size and religious content. It will rival most any cathedral in the world. There are plenty of cozy eateries surrounding the Town Square for a relaxing lunch. Not only will it be the best shopping day of your life (over 150 silver shops), but it will also leave you with a lasting sense of Mexican history and charm.
Tepoztlán and Tlayacapan – The Magic of Ancient Civilizations
A short 30 minutes from Cuernavaca is the mystical town of Tepoztlán. The legendary birthplace of Quetzalcoatl (“plumed serpent” of ancient Aztec and Toltec folklore), the area is considered a prominent “energy center.” It very well may be the Sedona of Mexico! The towering vertical cliffs of Tepozteco Mountain frame this inviting Mexican village. Ruins from a 15th century temple can be reached after a rather strenuous 3,000-foot hike to the top, but the breathtaking view is well worth the effort. Do some shopping in the marketplace and stop for lunch at Casa Piñón. The food is fantastic, the view wonderful and they usually have live jazz music in the afternoons. (Av. Revolución, No. 42. – your driver should know the way.)
Just up the road (maybe 25 more minutes), you’ll find the enchanting village of Tlayacapan. Lined with colorful shops, and filled with local handicrafts, you can spend hours exploring and enjoying the kindness and warm smiles of the local people. In the 15th century, Tlayacapan was a passageway between the capital of the Aztec empire and southern Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, they built the San Juan Bautista convent that is still the pride of the community. Incredibly well preserved, with a majestic façade and amazing frescos on the walls, this may very well be one of the most intriguing convents in central Mexico. The marvelous chapel is still in use and the museum inside the convent is astounding.