CUERNAVACA, MEXICO - We had just stepped into the Jardin Borda, where the air was perfumed by rare flowers, when Maria turned and whispered: “This is a sinful place.”
How could anything this beautiful be sinful, we thought?
In hushed tones, Maria, our guide, explained. “This is the place where (Emperor) Maximilian kept his mistress,” said Maria. “The public knows this as the Jardin Borda (Borda Gardens) but locally it’s known as the Casa de la India Bonita (the house of the pretty Indian girl).
“Maximilian and the Indian girl had a child together – a son – and it caused many problems within the town – like the rest of Mexico, Cuernavaca is deeply religious - but being Emperor he could do what he liked.”
As we walked the grounds of the magnificent terraced gardens, Maria told us Borda, like the rest of Cuernavaca, had become a retreat, “a Garden of Eden”, for people from overcrowded Mexico.
“You won’t see anything this beautiful in Mexico City,” said Maria of the hectic capital that sits 50 miles to the north. “Only in Cuernavaca is such beauty – such tranquility.”
During our stroll, Maria pointed out some indigenous plants and flowers until the multi-leveled path led us to a huge courtyard where an ornate fountain, fed by a local spring, gushed water towards the azure sky.
“Over there,” said Maria, pointing to a nearby building, “is where the precious orchids are kept.” Cuernavaca has always served as a retreat for Mexicans, especially in winter. Its micro climate, abundance of natural springs and close proximity to the capital and Acapulco has made this a resort town for centuries.
The city first gained fame when Cortes decided to make this the seat of his empire during Spain’s 16th-century rule of Mexico. Maximilian again made it popular during his three year reign of the country (1864-1867) and the upper class that followed the Emperor here built stately mansions that now serve as gated homes for rich Europeans and Americans.
“Our town has become very popular with retired Americans,” said Maria, who pointed out that crime is very low in Cuernavaca and the standard of living here is much higher than the rest of Mexico.
Left: The Borda Gardens safeguard a secret. Right: The brightly coloured buildings in this colonial town are lovely.
Over its history, Cuernavaca has not just attracted conquerors and emperors. Many of the world’s great writers and entertainers have called this charming place home. Legends like Diego Rivera, Carlos Fuentes, Helen Hayes, Malcolm Lowry, Ivan Illich, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barbara Hutton and David Alfaro Siqueiros, to name just a few.
The natural hot springs have always been the biggest draw and have given the city the distinction of having the greatest number of swimming pools – per capita – than any other town in the world. One pool in the centre of Cuernavaca can hold up to 30,000 swimmers and is the largest public pool in Latin America – maybe even the world.
There are signs of Cuernavaca’s former prominence scattered throughout the town in the fading terracotta colored homes and buildings. The city’s Old Quarter – there’s really not much new here – is where most of the ancient architectural treasures can be found.
Splendid buildings like the Cathedral Franciscan and the Convent of La Asuncion, featuring an open chapel, are relics from 1529 and the focal point of the old town. Both rest in the town’s Zocalo (main square) where locals gather to share gossip and linger under the shade of ancient trees.
The town’s cathedral is one of the largest in the country and features awesome murals depicting the crucifixion of the 16th century Mexican martyr St. Felipe de Jesus in Japan.
Cuernavaca also boasts a rich indigenous past. This is where the Aztec Indians, who built amazing Xochicalco a short distance from here, lived during the temple’s construction – 800 to 900 A.D. In fact, Mexico’s native peoples called this home 500 years before the Spanish conquerors turned up.
The Palacio de Cortes a few blocks from the zocalo is the most impressive structure in the town. Built in 1526, the palace now serves as a national museum where many of the artifacts left behind after the Spanish left are now displayed. The handsome statue of Cortes that stands outside the palace is the only monument dedicated to him in Mexico. The palace is the oldest civic building in Cuernavaca and once served as a state legislature.
The most enjoyable time you’ll spend in Cuernavaca will probably be at the local market on Guerrero St., where handmade crafts like baskets and pottery, bark paintings, and gold and silver jewelry sell for just a few dollars.
The natural hot springs are a byproduct of the black volcanic mountain range that surround Cuernavaca, which is often referred to as the “eternal city.” The mountains, which provide a dramatic backdrop for the town, are part of the Transverse Volcanic Range.
Cuernavaca’s nightlife is spiced with local bars and clubs and some of the finest restaurants in all of Mexico, where traditional dishes come accented with local vegetables and lots of hot chilies.
But what else would you expect from the hottest vacation value in Mexico.