In the 1950s and ’60s — nearly five centuries after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés built himself a palace in Mexico’s lush Cuernavaca — Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper and Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton followed suit with their own lavish hideaways. Other notables attracted to the city have included Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I and his wife, as well as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former shah of Iran, who began his exile there in 1979. Along with sun-seeking foreigners, the pastoral destination has drawn weekend visitors from nearby Mexico City, the wealthier of whom have built extravagant holiday homes with canyon vistas.
For years, news about drug crimes and kidnappings eclipsed the town’s storied past, frightening off tourists. But more recently, travel advisories have been scaled back. So, with visions of opulent Hollywood Golden Era mansions in my head, I planned a one-night getaway to Cuernavaca as part of a winter escape to Mexico City.
A driver, arranged by a friend, picked me up for the 60-mile trip south along the Mexico-Cuernavaca highway to what the 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt referred to as “la ciudad de la eternal primavera,” or the city of eternal spring.
We drove up into the verdant hills above Mexico City until the capital vanished from sight. The road turned serpentine, eventually reaching an elevation of 5,000 feet amid ravines and thick pine groves. Then, as we descended into the valley, I could see Cuernavaca, capital of the state of Morelos, in the distance, as well as the Popocatepetl and Ixtacihuatl volcanoes to the east. Instead of the mansions that had filled my imagination, we passed tidy bungalows, schools letting out for the midday break, modest storefronts and splashy ice cream parlors.
Deposited at my hotel, I climbed the terra-cotta steps leading through the garden entryway and patio, and immediately knew I’d be reluctant to leave. The Hotel Boutique and Spa La Casa Azul envelopes the senses from the moment guests enter its bucolic courtyard, which includes a small, enclosed plaza with a mosaicked fountain at its center. The whitewashed walls shrouded in bougainvillea and plush sofas in the surrounding open corridors add to the welcome. My room at La Casa Azul, which shares its name with artist Frida Kahlo’s startlingly blue Mexico City abode, was equally intimate and tasteful, furnished with beautiful folkloric tapestries and carved wooden furniture. A window with wooden shutters looked out onto the courtyard and an inviting blue-tiled pool.
When I was able to pull myself away, I encountered the same exotic, dreamy ambiance at La India Bonita a short walk from the hotel. The restaurant, which opened in 1933, is tucked into a patio encircled by palm trees, orchids, birds of paradise, bougainvillea and ferns. That afternoon, as I ate a burrito generously plated with rice and beans, the terrace was nearly all mine. I luxuriated in that, as well as the gallant service of the older waiters in their pressed shirts and slacks.
After lunch, I strolled to the Plaza de Armas, where I bought an ice cream cone from one of the several vendors parked around the edges. Perched on a wrought-iron bench, I watched children cling to balloons and scamper among their parents, who were deep in animated debate, and the comings and goings of newspaper vendors and older men having their shoes shined. I realized then that instead of experiencing Hollywood’s glamour days, it was as if I’d stepped into one of Kahlo’s folkloric pageants.
But still, I didn’t need to look far for wealth and excess. Adjacent to the plaza is the conquistador’s magnificent home — the Palacio de Cortes — which was constructed in the 1520s atop an Aztec tribute-collection center. The imposing structure, built in a style that blends Gothic and Islamic elements, is one of the country’s oldest colonial-era edifices. It now houses the Museo Regional Cuauhnahuac, named after the original appellation for the city, which means “place of trees.”
I took my time at the museum with the detailed displays on the indigenous Tlahuica, who arrived in the Morelos Valley around 1200 and were conquered first by the Aztecs, who were conquered by the Spanish. I began in a room dedicated to fossils found throughout the area, then viewed intricate stone carvings and funeral regalia from the colonial era, as well as an exhibition conveying the breadth and totality of the European occupation. Another one focused on the Franciscan friars who would eventually build Cuernavaca’s cathedral, and how the sugar trade enriched the region.
On the second floor, I found Diego Rivera’s immense, impressive 1930 mural, which depicts in sweeping fashion the history of Morelos, the Spanish conquest and the Mexican Revolution, which grew out of a 1910 peasant uprising in the state.
As the sun was nearly setting, I visited the 16th-century Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria. Unlike other such churches of the era, it is not planted at the city’s main plaza; instead, the cathedral and its monastery are in an enclosed compound a few blocks away. Before entering, I admired the elaborate pink and white portico, which made me think of a wedding cake, of the Capilla de la Tercera Orden, a Baroque chapel in the same complex.
In the cathedral, I appeared to be alone. As I slowly walked through the nave, I searched for, and eventually found, frescoes I’d read about that were uncovered during renovation work in 1957: a barely visible, 17th-century panorama depicting the 1597 martyrdom of San Felipe de Jesus in Nagasaki, Japan.
My last stop before heading back to Mexico City the following afternoon was the Museo Robert Brady inside Casa de la Torre, the former home of an American artist, collector and expatriate who settled in Cuernavaca in 1962. Originally part of the monastery adjacent to the cathedral, it now showcases the bon vivant’s excellent and chic collection, which includes more than 1,300 pieces of native and colonial art, antiques and furniture, as well as works by Kahlo and Miguel Covarrubias.
The generous, stunning collection in a mansion proved a natural denouement to my stay in Cuernavaca, which had been inspired by my curiosity about a bygone era of exotic and gilded glamour. In Brady’s gorgeous villa, I put aside thoughts of the drug violence, border conflicts and trade disputes of today, and reveled, however briefly, in Cuernavaca’s eternal spring.
Zach is a writer based in Northern California. Her website is elizabethzach.com.
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& Spa La Casa Azul
Arista N. 17, Colonia Centro
This beautiful whitewashed boutique hotel is near Cuernavaca’s city center but is quiet, as it is surrounded by high walls. Guests can use the small, blue-tiled pool and lounge in the courtyard. A continental breakfast is included in the room price and there is also a wellness salon offering massages, as well as sauna and Jacuzzi. Rooms from $100 to $200.
La India Bonita
Dwight Morrow 15-B
This is among Cuernavaca’s oldest restaurants; it opened in 1933 and retains that era’s charms, including a shady patio with fountains and waiters in starched shirts. Dishes include stuffed chile peppers, burritos and tacos. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Prices range between $10 and $20 for meals, including an appetizer and drinks.
Museo Casa Robert Brady
This little museum can easily hold your attention for much longer than larger cultural destinations. Brady’s cornucopia of paintings, furniture, tapestries, all manner of face masks, sculptures and figurines collected from across the globe are wonderfully displayed. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission, $3.
Palacio de Cortes
A stone palace on the Plaza de Armas, this 16th century palace built by the conquistador Hernán Cortés is now a regional museum featuring an immense Diego Rivera mural. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission, $4.
Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria
Hidalgo at Juan Ruiz de Alarcon
Originally a Franciscan monastery founded in 1526, the building was elevated to cathedral status in the late 19th century. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Free.