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.
We have now been in Tepoztlán, a city of 27,000, in the state of Morelos, about an hour south-east of Mexico City, since Friday and are beginning to feel very comfortable. It’s taken a little time. The setting of this small Mexican city is utterly spectacular. Tepoztlán is nestled in the mountains a mile above sea level, about a half-hour drive from Cuernavaca. It is surrounded by sheer rock faces towering high above on three sides, topped at their peak by an Aztec pyramid, and lower mountains to the east. The town has narrow streets which descend sharply from the heights to the main core of the town below. What appears as a valley, however, is really a plateau, as the streets south of the main core descend still further. Apart from the main drag, the streets are mostly cobblestone, built on a steep incline. In British Columbia, we are used to road signs warning of grades of maybe 8 or 9 per cent. Here, there are no signs, the grades are steeper, and the cobblestone roads are made of larger stones than I have ever experienced anywhere else in the world. The cross streets also meander up and down, up and down, such that walking up and across to our writing classes becomes a first class aerobic exercise. And you can’t go downtown without trudging back up. Take note, all you West End Y walkers.
The stores and houses are mostly low buildings, many built from pink adobe brick mortared together with flecks of the local hard lava rock. Houses are built behind stone walls, so it is impossible to tell if a particular dwelling is a palace or a shack. Where gates are ajar, farm animals appear inside; chickens and goats and geese scratching for food. There are few signs telling the names of the streets or the house numbers. If you mention the name of the person whose home you are seeking, a neighbour sitting on a bench may point in the right direction. Even experienced taxi drivers native to the community sometimes find it hard to identify particular locations.
At 5:00 a.m., in the pitch dark, the local birds and animals have been stirring for some time, and the church bells tolled five times to mark the hour. Actually there are two sets of church bells, but they are not synchronized. They both toll every hour, and shorter tolls every 15 minutes in between. At 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning, a volley of fireworks was set off. At 7:00 a.m., another volley of fireworks, and, as the sun had now arisen over the saddle of mountains, the city seemed slightly more animated. By 8:00 a.m., the bells were tolling from several different churches, plumes of fireworks smoke billowed from the hillsides, there were loud bangs from immediately below our hotel, and the sounds of a marching band got louder as it moved toward the main square of town. Again at 9:00, the cacophony of wakeup calls reverberated across the city. It’s Sunday morning on a fiesta weekend. When do these Mexicans ever sleep? And they must have nerves of steel to withstand the constant barrage of fireworks that goes on day and night. I guess you are truly acclimatized when you no longer hear the din. As I said, it is taking us awhile.
Tepoztlán doesn’t seem to have many tourists. Wealthy Mexicans and ex-pats from Mexico City use the city as a weekend retreat. Several whom we have met have lived here for years. Including a couple who hosted the entire group for a discussion of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and dinner at their marvellous home (a virtual private art gallery) on Sunday evening. He is originally from Galt, Ontario; she from England. They were most gracious and generous hosts. Malcolm Lowry wrote his novel based in the area. The writing workshop (also called Under the Volcano) is going very well with 27 participants from 15 countries. My instructor, Alison Wearing from Stratford, Ontario, is going to perform her one-woman show on Thursday evening. That will be a treat.