102km (63 miles) S of Mexico City; 80km (50 miles) N of Taxco
Often called the "land of eternal spring," Cuernavaca is known these days as much for its rejuvenating spas and spiritual sites as for its perfect climate and flowering landscapes. Spa services are easy to find. More important, Cuernavaca exudes a deep sense of connection with its historical and spiritual heritage. Its palaces, walled villas, and elaborate haciendas are home to museums, spas, and extraordinary guesthouses.
Wander the traditional markets and you'll see crystals, quartz, onyx, and tiger's eye amid the trinkets. These stones come from the Tepozteco Mountains -- for centuries considered an energy source -- which cradle Cuernavaca to the north and east. Mexico begins to narrow here, and several mountain ranges converge. Cuernavaca sits at 1,533m (5,028 ft.) elevation. East and southeast of Cuernavaca are two volcanoes, also potent symbols of earth energy: Ixtaccihuatl (the Sleeping Woman) and the recently active Popocatépetl (the Smoking Mountain).
Cuernavaca, capital of the state of Morelos, is also a cultural treasure, with a past that closely follows the history of Mexico. So divine are the landscape and climate that both the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II and French Emperor Maximilian built private retreats here. Today Cuernavaca remains the most popular weekend getaway for moneyed residents of Mexico City. As a result, the roads between the capital and Cuernavaca are jammed almost every weekend, but you can avoid some of the crowds by traveling early in the morning. Cuernavaca even has a large American colony, plus many students attending the numerous language and cultural institutes.
Emperor Charles V gave Cuernavaca to Hernán Cortez as a fief, and in 1532 the conquistador built a palace (now the Museo de Cuauhnáhuac), where he lived on and off for half a dozen years before returning to Spain. Cortez introduced sugar-cane cultivation to the area, and African slaves were brought in to work in the cane fields, by way of Spain's Caribbean colonies. His sugar hacienda at the edge of town is now the impressive Hotel de Cortez.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain, powerful landowners from Mexico City gradually dispossessed the remaining small landholders, imposing virtual serfdom on them. This condition led to the rise of Emiliano Zapata, the great champion of agrarian reform, who battled the forces of wealth and power, defending the small farmer with the cry of "¡Tierra y libertad!" (Land and liberty!) during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Today Cuernavaca's popularity has brought an influx of wealthy foreigners and industrial capital. With this commercial growth, the city has also acquired the less desirable byproducts of increased traffic, noise, and air pollution -- although still far, far less than nearby Mexico City, which you may be escaping.
You Wouldn't Know It, But . . . -- The city of Cuernavaca has nothing to do with bull's horns, as the direct translation of its name would suggest. The Aztecs were much more succinct when they named their favorite leisurely retreat Cuauhnáhuac (pronounced Kwow-nah-wak), or place of the trees. Cortez and his men had trouble getting their tongues around that word, so they just named it after something that sounded similar.