The best way to truly know a place is to stay in a private home, be entertained and shown around by longtime residents, and to hear their personal accounts of how their village once wascomplete with colorful asides and anecdotes. And this is exactly how I came to know Cuernavaca.
I had long wanted to visit this fabled enclave of famous residents including Barbara Hutton, Evelyn Lambert, Robert Brady and none other than Hernán Cortésa place so beautiful that my husband drove down from Mexico City just to enjoy lunch-but I was also aware that Cuernavaca had lost some of its charm over time. Following the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, thousands moved to this paradise-to-the-south, turning a town of 50,000 residents into a city of over one million in a few short years. I had overheard visitors in San Miguel lament that Cuernavaca no longer featured picturesque streets for strolling, and that they found the city disappointing. But when our friend, CB, phoned and invited us down for the weekend, I was thrilled to have the chance to finally experience Cuernavaca first-hand.
The city had changed so much since Rick's last visit that we agreed to meet CB and her driver in front of Cuauhnahuac Museum, then follow them to the house. Once inside the enclave of our Cuernavaca home, old Cuernavaca magically reemerged and the outside city disappeared.
Rick and I were introduced to the staff then shown our room, and there on the secretary lay the typed social agenda for the weekend. CB had joked that we would be running with the "geriatric crowd", but this full schedule indicated anything but! I couldn't wait to meet CB's energetic, young-at-heart friends.
I am not going to detail the many historic and beautiful highlights of Cuernavaca. The internet can fully inform about the Borda Gardens, the Cathedral, Cuauhnahuac Museum, the Zócalo, Barbara Hutton's Sumiya Japanese Gardens, and Cuernavaca's outstanding Municipal Market. For now I want to recall the many wonderful moments that gave us a true sense of what it was like living in Cuernavaca, for most of our group, since the 1950s.
After visiting museums and better-known sites with CB, I was at last going to lunch at the famed Las Mañanitas. We joined our friend, RD, for a late comida Mexican-style. After being seated on a lovely veranda overlooking the impressive grounds for cocktails (as is the tradition before dining at Las Mañanitas), both Rick and RD were surprised at how casual the world had become. The fact that most diners were wearing shorts and tennis shoes came as a shock as both remembered a time when one dressed for lunch, and such attire was not even permitted at this upscale eatery. But the big news this day was that R, who had worked at Las Mañanitas since day one, starting as a bus boy and eventually rising to manager of the entire enterprise (which now included a hotel), had just been let go under scandalous circumstances. The departed R had been like a son to RD, and she was quite upset about the whole affair. During lunch I came to fully appreciate how important Las Mañanitas was to RD's own history in Cuernavaca.
As we enjoyed cocktails, RD recounted how her now-deceased husband had first dined at Las Mañanitas on opening day, and returned every single day thereafter his entire life when in Cuernavaca. When RD's husband passed away, she asked one special request of the establishment that had become her husband's home away from home. With a gesture of her hand, RD motioned to a beautiful tree where half her husband's ashes were scattered. In a sense, RD's husband was joining us for lunch in spirit. How marvelous! By the way, the other half of his ashes reside upon RD's mantle at home.
Our assigned waiter appeared and motioned us towards the best table, center stage on an elevated patio. As we moved over, RD asked for Rick's arm stating that she was in her eighties and was not about to fall down and break her hip now. We were both amazed. RD could have easily passed for someone 15 years younger, and in attitude, for someone 25 years younger! This age defying zest-for-life would become a reoccurring theme with CB and all her Cuernavaca friends throughout the weekend.
Now settled at our table, we studied the menu while glancing up to admire the famous strutting peacocks. I had hardly noticed, but CB and RD's sharp eyes noted that our drinks had not been replenished, and that waiters had not been at the ready to offer insight and suggestions into today's menu. While I was enjoying every moment, RD lamented that service had in fact already gone downhill but we would make the best of this afternoon. RD was very excited to see that a seasonal specialty was offered, and immediately ordered enough for all to try. Upon learning that the ordered delicacy, escamoles, was indeed ant's eggs, I politely declined but that would not be the last word. RD firmly insisted that I try the dish and proceeded to demonstrate how to properly spread the white pearls on a warm tortilla, then enjoy. I reluctantly prepared my ant egg taquito and took a timid bite. The escamoles were absolutely exquisite, and have since become one of my favorite treats thanks to RD! It was a wonderful comida ending with a stroll through the extensive grounds of Las Mañanitas to admire the lush landscaping and many Zuniga sculptures.
Next on our social agenda, dinner that evening would be at Gaia with CB and good friend, T. Having just read about this outstanding restaurant in Bon Appétit, I could hardly wait to sample the menu at one of Mexico's best-known tables. T is the perfect companion in all situations. He is a walking history book, knows everyone in Cuernavaca thanks to his many charitable endeavors, and is the type of person that I imagine is never in a bad mood. As our driver dropped us off, we entered a sumptuous space, the focal point being the azure pool in a magnificent courtyard. Sitting again at the best table in the house, CB and T recounted their many fond memories before Gaia became a restaurant, as this was in fact the former personal home of a departed close friend. Not only were we treated to a marvelous dinner, but it was explained where the living room, bedroom and art studio once were, and the various changes the stunning home had undergone while their friend was in residence. Once again, a public restaurant had been transformed into the setting for many wonderful stories and personal memories. After CB and T's good friend passed away, CB had the chance to purchase this home but was deterred by the fact that there was a deafening disco next door. She lamented that she should have known that the disco would be short lived, but on a different trip to Gaia we discovered that a new disco had loudly taken its place. It seems that Gaia was meant to be a restaurant, not CB's Cuernavaca home. While enjoying dessert, T imparted that Evelyn Lambert resided "just over that wall", and was still entertaining at the age of 96. Ah, another example of vitality and longevity (as was T and all his pursuits). Is it something in the water?
The next day we were off on a merry outing with CB, RD, and friends, P and C. Our destination? The village of Tepoztlán. We all piled into the Suburban and were chauffeured to the nearby village (the private car and driver were a welcome amenity of the house). Once in Tepotzlán, our independent group scattered in all directions, each knowing exactly which stalls and shops they wanted to see. P took us to a particularly wonderful ice cream stand and urged me to try a mysterious flavor (it was wonderful, but I can't recall the name of the fruit). P navigated the crowds in an elegant Mexican dress, inquiring about prices in her flawless Spanish. Her husband, C, was very dapper in his pith helmet and safari khakis. C used an ingenious hearing aid accessory with great success: A microphone held up to each speaker by C himself, giving the impression that one was being interviewed for television all day! CB and P steered us toward a lovely folk art store that featured finer things. When I looked at a traditional painted rattle made from a dried tabuchin bean, CB quickly noted that the painting was not very fine and she knew of better, larger and less expensive examples in Cuernavaca. CB knows the markets inside and out and is extremely knowledgeable regarding locally-made folk art.
After exploring the picturesque village, we reconvened at the appointed restaurant at the appointed time. One of the joys of Tepotzlán is to dine under the expansive canopies of the several open-air restaurants, surrounded by mountains that only can be described as mystical. The food, company and vistas made for another memorable meal.
On our return, we stopped at one of the many nurseries for which Cuernavaca is known. With several avid gardeners in our group, we were shown species of orchids, palms and flowering plants that thrive here like no where else, and is one of the reasons why Cuernavaca is rightfully known as "The City of Eternal Spring". RD shared that one of San Miguel's most-famous residents always bought her plants in Cuernavaca, then hauled them all the way home knowing that plants nurtured in Cuernavaca were the best in all of Mexico. After visiting the plant nurseries of Cuernavaca, I concur.
Our final stop today was at the stunning former hacienda of Hernán Cortés. The massive scale of the ancient stone walls, four-hundred-year-old amate trees, and now dormant sugar mill were equal to the conqueror's impact on the history of Mexico. If only these trees, whose roots had become entwined with the stone walls over centuries, could talk!
Rick and I returned exhausted. Ready for a nap, I'll admit we were having difficulty keeping up with the so-called "geriatric crowd". But there was little time because we were due at E's for cocktails followed by dinner back at the house. E apologized profusely that she was not serving us a proper dinner as she ordinarily would have done. But she certainly felt up to company, canapés and cocktails following her very recent heart surgery. How do they do it?
Between outings and engagements, CB was the ideal hostess encouraging us to explore the house and gardens, and to make ourselves perfectly at home. Possessing a talent with flowers, CB had created beautiful arrangements for every room using only blossoms cultivated on the home's grounds.
Breakfast at the house each day was glorious. Served on the veranda, the driver had already delivered the day's papers (in San Miguel the newspapers don't arrive until after 11:00 am). A perfect table was set complete with a silver bell used to summon the staff. It was a surprise to learn that staff lived on-premise which is not the custom in San Miguel (Rick thought this an excellent idea). He quickly (and quite naturally) took to ringing the silver bell while I repeatedly startled the kitchen, entering to pour my own refills. We both agreed that having a chauffeur-driven Suburban at one's beck and call was heaven!
A word about running a proper house in Cuernavaca. RD, our lunch partner at Las Mañanitas, had shared her philosophy that a house staff is a direct reflection upon the lady of the house. RD recounted how she always insisted that fresh flowers be placed in every room, towels changed, and beds turned down regardless of if the house was occupied. RD cleverly returned from trips abroad unannounced, and expected to find every detail attended as if she had been directing the various duties without interruption. But RD's flair for expertly running a house was not always so. Arriving in Cuernavaca in the 1950s with children in tow, not knowing a word of Spanish, our exhausted RD at last settled into a hot drawn bath. You can imagine RD's complete shock to find herself stark naked before an attentive female maid. After several Texas-sized whoops and screams, it was somehow communicated that the frightened woman was attempting to towel dry her mistress. In that moment, RD realized that she was a very long way from south Texas. From this awkward beginning, RD became a much-admired hostess, well-known in Cuernavaca for her beautiful home and its seamless service.
The home's owners had previously occupied another house in Cuernavaca, but when they sold their Houston house and moved to a high-rise dwelling, it was decided that a larger home in Cuernavaca would be the perfect outlet for the wife's considerable gardening skills. CB related that early photos of the house when purchased (circa 1950), showed barren grounds and no organized plantings. Today, looking out upon the created landscapes including a formal rose garden, one would readily admit that the wife's gardening skills were indeed considerable. Our friend, CB, was a very dear friend of the home's surviving owner, and following her death (in this Cuernavaca home at the age of 103!), CB continued to manage the business and financial matters of the Mexican house for many years.
Even with a full schedule of sight-seeing and social engagements, there was time for relaxation. At the far end of the property stood a colorful pool house, but one had to walk beyond the crest of the hill before the pool revealed itself. The water was perfect and I was glad to swim a few laps after eating my way through Cuernavaca. Beside the pool was an inviting staircase leading down. With every step, the temperature dropped another five degrees and lacy ferns thrived along its curved descent. CB explained that the staircase eventually ended in a cave which she never explored. Could this be part of Cortes' fabled tunnel under Cuernavaca enabling visits with his native mistress, La Malinche? Preferring the sunshine, I never found out.
As all good things must (which I never understood), our weekend was coming to an end. We had been welcomed, feted, toured and entertained by Cuernavaca's old guard and they were some of the most intelligent and energetic personalities that one could ever hope to meet. And most of all, CB was the perfect hostess, social director, guide and companion for this exquisitely planned weekend. A weekend we will never forget.
When someone casually complains about the decline of Cuernavaca, including that it's no longer a place worth visiting, I am quick to interrupt. They do not know "the real" Cuernavaca, and they definitely did not have the pleasure of meeting the indefatigable "geriatric crowd".
I first ventured to Cuernavaca with these same assumptions believing that a little disappointment might be in store. But instead, I discovered the Cuernavaca of my dreams.
I am sending this fond Valentine
to the "Cuernavaca Crowd"
Rick and I did return for another
visit to Cuernavaca, but it would be our final visit to this house. The
home featured in this account sold in late 2004.
All photos taken by Deb Hall, 2003-2004.
For more information about Cuernavaca and its many sights, go to http://www.tourbymexico.com/morelos/cvca/cvca.htm
For more information about Tepotzlán, go to http://www.tourbymexico.com/morelos/tepoztla/tepoztla.htm
For more information on Las Mañanitas (hotel & restaurant), go to http://www.differentworld.com/mexico/hotels/las_mananitas/pages/entrance.htm
For more information on Gaia (restaurant), http://www.tourbymexico.com/morelos/cvca/restau/gaia/gaia.htm
For more information on Hacienda de Cortés (hotel & restaurant), go to http://www.surf-mexico.com/states/Morelos/Cuernavaca/hacienda_cortes.htm
For more information on Barbara
Hutton's Sumiya (now a Camino Real Hotel), go to