Cuernavaca, the most significant city in the state of Morelos, has a population of over a million. It is a half hour’s drive via the toll road, down into the valley from Tepoztlán. There, the temperature is ten degrees higher, the vegetation semi-tropical, and the city teeming with paved streets, businesses and people, like many cities of similar size.We didn’t hear roosters crowing in Cuernavaca, but we did step into history in a breathtaking way.
This is the city where Malcolm Lowry lived in the 1930s and the 1940s. He renamed it Quauhnahuac for the purposes of his novel, Under the Volcano (published in 1947). In the novel, he described the city of his time with what is considered incredibly accurate detail. Lowry-lovers who have managed to embrace his meandering prose for the 20th century masterpiece it is considered to be, come to this city to retrace his footsteps and find the home where he placed his principal character. Lowry interests me because he lived for many years, and largely wrote his most famous novel, in Dollarton, British Columbia, on Burrard Inlet, east of North Vancouver. My high school English teacher was his neighbour and friend, and was always encouraging us to read the book. I knew it was difficult and never did. I read it for the first time only this past month, preparing for this writing workshop called Under the Volcano in his honour. We did not have time to do a Lowry pilgrimage in Cuernavaca. Next time.
The Cortés Palace dominates the historic downtown, set back across the plaza as it is from the roadway to better emphasize its stone façade. The Spanish came to this area from the east in 1517, the beginning of a 52-year cosmic cycle in the Aztec calendar. The locals greeted them as the prophecy come true. There was an ancient Aztec temple on the site which was considered holy ground. Cortés and his Aztec allies used the slaves taken by the Aztecs to demolish the original temple and rebuild the palace using its stones. When Cortés initially attacked Mexico City and was repulsed, he retreated to Cuernavaca. The city and the palace became a strategic base for his successful conquest of Mexico City several years later.
The Cortés Palace is the oldest civic building on the North American continent, and has been used over the centuries as an imperial summer palace, a jail, a government building, and now a beautiful historical museum. It is a two-storied dark stone structure with strikingly high ceilings and massive wood beams. Apart from the excavated remains of the ancient Aztec temple, its most important artifacts are a gallery of Diego Rivera murals painted on the walls of the second floor balcony, depicting the history of Cuernavaca. I have never seen Rivera murals in real life before; their deep colours and powerful images are striking.
Cuernavaca has a cornucopia of rich historical treasures, including the Cathedral and the Borda Gardens. Well worth a visit.