Located 89 kilometers or about 1 ½ hours driving time south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca has been called “The City of Eternal Spring”, and it could also be called ‘the home of second homes that become permanent homes’. Its position on the southern slopes of the Sierra de Chichinautzin mountains, which generates year-round temperatures in the mid-20s(C), lush vegetation and clean air and water, have made it an alluring retreat for the wealthy ever since the time of Aztec emperors.
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Cuernavaca is actually about 3200 years old, founded by Olmecs (to whom historians refer as the ‘mother culture of Mesoamerica’). The city has a fascinating history which is lavishly displayed in the variety of architecture in structures built during the centuries of its existence and in its many museums celebrating the cultures and customs that have left their marks on its streets and dwellings.
Capital of the State of Morelos
As capital of the state of Morelos, Cuernavaca is a hub of commerce for the state, and it’s also the ‘high society’ capital and has been for a long, long time. It has been a haven for royalty of all sorts, from the ancient Aztecs, and in the 20th century the city also became known as a gathering place for the rich and famous (and some quite infamous) from around the world. Great artists have roamed the streets here as well as prominent political figures and performers.
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Today Cuernavaca is an amalgamation of several surrounding towns that have been gradually incorporated into its boundaries, most of them a result of the influx of new residents and second-home buyers both from Mexico City and from abroad. However the old downtown is still central to much of Cuernavaca’s historic cultural heritage, as well as much of its economic growth.
The Zócalo, or town plaza is an entertainment by itself, consisting of the Plaza de Armes with the Palacio del Cortes and the Palacio de Gobierno on the east and west sides and by restaurants and street entertainers (many mariachis) on the others.
Right next to the restaurant/cafe/roving musician side of the plaza is the Jardin Juarez, a marvelous spot to stroll, relax with juice and delight the kids with balloons, ice cream and corn-on-the-cob supplied by sidewalk vendors. You could also stop at El Kiosco, a gazebo in the middle of the plaza, for a fresh fruit smoothie made with exotic fruits and vegetables, plus nuts if you like.
For a very different type of garden you should visit the Jardin Borda, an immense, extravagant estate inspired by Versailles and built in the late 1700s. Formal gardens, terraces and fountains surround a colonial mansion/museum that was Emperor Maximilian’s summer residence back in the 1860s, and offers a good look at the way Mexican aristocrats lived in the 19th century.
There is a wealth of gorgeous architecture, dining opportunities, entertainment, things to do and places to see in the old city, there is even more to experience and enjoy in the near vicinity. Various tours are available, but if you have your own transportation the options are limitless.
In any case, don’t miss the San Antone waterfall, just on the western city limits of Cuernavaca. Here you can walk along a path through the region’s typically lush vegetation to a 40 meter cascade falling into a deep green pool. A pedestrian bridge takes you right behind the falls (bring a towel; you’ll get wet.)
Parque Natural las Estacas
More water: the Parque Natural las Estacas is about an hour from Cuernavaca and more than worth the drive. An artesian spring-fed river runs throughout the park at about 7,000 litres per second, and the water is incredibly clear, clean and deep in many places. However there are ample swimming, paddling, snorkeling, rafting, kayaking and diving opportunities for both kids and adults, and that’s all year round. If you visit on a weekday there is usually no crowd, but lifeguards and guided tours only happen on weekends.
Additional attractions of this water park include a top-notch hotel, restaurant and spa plus amenities like a children’s pool, mini-golf, a climbing wall, and picnic tables. This is a friendly and well-run establishment and an ideal stop for families with or without children.
A little further south, the ancient town of Tepoztlán with just under 15,000 inhabitants has won the title of ‘Pueblo Magico’ one of about 80 towns and villages in all of Mexico to earn that distinction. The Mexican bureau of tourism holds the belief that a certain magical quality. Not just beautiful beaches and loads of sunshine exists that attracts visitors from abroad. Partly with legends and history, partly with day-to-day life, certain places have that quality of magic more than others.
In the case of Tepoztlán, there are legends and history aplenty, and even with its proximity to Mexico City the town has held on to its heritage both socially and culturally. The old town is one of the best examples of Mexico’s colonial era, in architecture and in lifestyle. The influence of many cultures and traditions, including Aztec, Spanish, American and others is apparent and celebrated with museums, festivals and magnificent art collections.
Nearby there are several state and private parks, all well worth an extended visit. One is the Parque Ecológico Xochitla, with more than 7,000 species of native trees and plants as well as a huge and ancient Gingo Biloba tree from China. Don’t miss the Arcos del Sitio, also known as the Aqueduct of Zalpa, built to carry water to Tepoztlán from the Oro River.
The Arcos is 41,900 meters long, and the highest aqueduct in Latin America; one of its spans is over a massive gorge where the aqueduct is 61 meters high with four levels of arches. The surrounding land is protected and home to countless birds, reptiles and amphibians; it’s an ideal spot for hiking, camping and mountain biking.