Cuernavaca is today one of Mexico’s best-known colonial cities. The city has a history that dates back to at least 1200 AD, when the location was an important agricultural and artisan center. The city was conquered by the Aztecs around 1380 and, after the subsequent conquest by the Spanish, the city became an important agricultural center and popular get-away location for the well-heeled Spaniards living in the capital.
Today, more than 400 years later, during weekends and holidays, the highway from Mexico City to Cuernavaca becomes packed with capitalinos (Mexico City residents), heading out of the city to get away for a break.
The city’s original name, “Cuauhnahuac” (kwow-NAH’-wak) translates into ‘place of great trees’, although the Spanish renamed it to its present-day name, which sounds similar, but literally translated means ‘horn of the cow’.
A principal attraction of this colonial city is its year-round temperate climate. Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th Century naturalist, once described Cuernavaca as ‘The land of eternal spring’, a phrase that seems to have stuck as it’s still used extensively today when the city is described by journalists, long-standing residents and even the local government promotional signs.
Besides the principal colonial buildings and monuments in the historic center, for example, El Palacio de Cortes (lately renamed to Museo de Cuanahuac), Palacio de Gobierno, the Cathedral and Casa Maximiliano, much of Cuernavaca’s colonial-era elegance and charm is hidden away from view. Behind some of the tall walls are beautiful gardens and residences owned by wealthy local families, politicians and celebrities: houses and estates which host some marvelous scenes of colonial architecture and life.
Some of these colonial residences, dating back to the 15th century, have been converted into fine hotels, restaurants, spas and museums which give visitors an opportunity to get a glimpse into what lies beyond the protective stone walls; with scenes including cool green garden patios bursting with flora, stunningly preserved original colonial courtyards, elegant rooms and hallways with tall ceilings and original wood beams, and sub-tropical blossoms in quiet colonial gardens where birdsong echoes and water trickles down stone fountains.
For peace and quiet that is open to the public, visit the Jardin de Borda that is a short walk from the center of town; or the Chapultepec Park and the San Anton waterfall which are situated away from the city center but well inside the city limits.
Semi-precious stones from the surrounding mountains, said to give off energy, are sold in various typical markets all over Cuernavaca. In fact, this whole area is said to be surrounded by natural energy sources including springs, rocks and volcanoes, and it’s one of the reasons why there are a number of top quality spas located here. See the Mexico Spas guide on Mexperience for more information about how you can enjoy a wonderful experience at one of the country’s top spas situated here in Cuernavaca.
As a reward for his endeavors, Hernan Cortes was given what the Spanish Crown then termed as the ‘Valle de Oaxaca‘, an enormous expanse of land south of Mexico City encompassing some 22 towns, including Cuernavaca. Cortes retired here and you can visit his old estate, including the Palacio de Cortes (recently renamed to Museo de Cuauhnahuac, although most people continue to refer to it by its former name). Maximilian and Carlotta had a weekend retreat in Cuernavaca—it too, is an important museum open to the public. And one of Mexico’s oldest churches, built in 1592, can be seen here in Cuernavaca.
A large community of foreign expatriates live here, part-time or full-time. Many relocated to Cuernavaca to enjoy the great climate and access to modern facilities, while others find it convenient being so close and well-connected to Mexico City which is just fifty-six miles north east of the city and connected to the capital by a modern four-lane highway. Cuernavaca has an airport situated on the southern perimeter of the city, and there is also a direct, two-way, bus service from Cuernavaca to Mexico City’s international airport.
Cuernavaca is known as one of the country’s major Spanish language study centers, boasting over fifty Spanish language schools. Many foreigners come here to study or improve their Spanish language skills. For more details connect to our section about Learning Spanish.
You can enjoy Cuernavaca as a day trip from Mexico City, but you’ll get much more from a visit to the area by staying at least a couple of nights at one of the local hotels. The city offers some very comfortable hotels, including restored colonial-era residences and haciendas, so your accommodation can become an experience in its own right.
Organized tours of Mexican colonial cities usually include a stop-over in Cuernavaca. Some people stay here for a week or more, making it a base from which to explore and discover more of Mexico’s southern colonial region, or as a stop-over on the way to the nearby colonial city of Taxco and the world-famous port city of Acapulco.
Cuernavaca offers an abundance of attractions and activities to visitors. It’s a good place to visit for a day, but’s it’s a better place to stay and relax for a weekend or longer.
If you drive here, leave your car parked and walk around the colonial center, or take one of the official guided tours.
Key attractions include the Cathedral, Catedral de la Asunción de María, one of the oldest churches in Mexico; started in 1529 and completed in 1552. The city Zocalo (Main Plaza) hosts some magnificent colonial architecture— including the Plaza de Armas and Palacio de Gobierno— leading on from here is also the Palacio de Cortez, now also known as Museo Cuauhnahuac (see note above). This is the only Zocalo in Mexico that does not feature a Cathedral.
In 1987, the Gardens at Jardín Borda, were completely restored after years of decay. The house and gardens were originally commissioned by a wealthy silver magnate in the 1700’s and this place was also host to Maximilian and Carlotta during the French reign in Mexico.
If you like art, go to the Museo Casa Robert Brady, which is actually a private house turned into a magnificent art gallery. Here, you’ll find a permanent collection on display which includes works by Rufino Tamayo and a self portrait by Frida Kahlo. The house and collection belonged to Robert Brady, an American who resided in Cuernavaca from 1962 to 1986.
Art lovers may also enjoy a tour to the workshop (taller) at the Taller de Alfaro Siquieros, a very famous Mexican Muralist, which is also found here in Cuernavaca’s colonial center.
Away from the Colonial Center
There are two main attractions to bring to your attention a couple of miles outside of the City’s colonial center. The first is the Salto de San Antón, which is a small village hosting a magnificent waterfall. You can walk behind it and picnic there. The second is Casa Maximiliano (Maximilian’s House), which was built in 1866 and also hosts the Museo de Medicina Tradicional (Traditional Medicine Museum) and a Herb Garden.
Learn Spanish in Cuernavaca
There’s no better way to learn Spanish than by becoming immersed in it at a language school in Mexico. Cuernavaca is well-known as a cultural and language center and there are number of fine language schools here. Read our guide to Learning Spanish in Mexico for more details and to find a language school in Cuernavaca.
Spas in Cuernavaca
Cuernavaca is host to some the best spas in Mexico. For more information about spas, and how to benefit from a magnificent health spa experience in Mexico, connect to the Mexperience guide to Mexico Spas.
Getting There & Around
By Air – There’s a small airport here, which receives some domestic flights although most people drive or take the bus from Mexico City. Ground transportation is available from the airport to the center of town. For detailed information about flights and flying, see the Mexperience guide to Air Travel in Mexico.
By Bus – You can travel to Cuernavaca on a first-class bus from Mexico City— the trip takes between 60 and 90 minutes — depending on the weight of traffic in and out of the capital. Buses are frequent and this is the most common way of getting to Cuernavaca from Mexico City besides driving a car. Buses can be boarded at the southern bus terminal (Central de Autobuses del Sur) , and now also directly from the airport in Mexico City. Connect to the Mexperience Travel Center for National Buses.
By Car – Driving to Cuernavaca is very fast and efficient with a six-lane toll highway direct to Cuernavaca from Mexico City. See additional information about Driving in Mexico and Mexico’s Toll Roads on Mexperience.
Car Rental – To explore Mexico’s colonial towns and cities, consider renting a car for your visit. Having your own car will give you more flexibility than using public transport options and, in some cases, offer you access to places which are otherwise difficult to visit without the use of a car. Read our guide to Car Rental in Mexico to learn what you need to know about car rental in Mexico.
Taxis – Taxis in most of Mexico’s colonial towns and cities are not metered, so agree your price before you get in. Taxi travel is very affordable in Mexico, in comparison to the USA, Canada and Europe, and so provides a viable means of public transportation in Mexico. Your hotel can arrange taxis for you; some post their rates on a board in the lobby; taxi hotel rates are usually higher than cabs you hail off the street. If you speak Spanish, you will have a distinct advantage and be able to negotiate a price with the driver. For detailed information, read the Mexperience guide to Taxi Travel in Mexico.
Telephone: Connect to the guide about Communications in Mexico on Mexperience for detailed information about keeping in touch and the latest table of national dialing codes.
Exchanging Currency: Banks with ATM machines are found throughout the downtown area of Cuernavaca. During business hours, they and the local Casas de Cambio will buy traveler’s checks and cash from you as well. For detailed information about exchanging and managing your money, read the Mexperience guide to Money in Mexico.
Travel Insurance: We recommend that you are adequately covered with travel medical insurance and/or travel assistance insurance when you are visiting Mexico. Read the Mexperience guide to Travel Insurance in Mexico for full details and links to specialist insurance suppliers.
Internet Access: Internet cafes can be easily found in towns and cities across Mexico and WiFi is increasingly commonplace–from cafes, shops, hotels, and some cities even offer free WiFi in some defined public spaces.
Busy Times in Cuernavaca: All weekends are busy in Cuernavaca, and if you want to stay at one of the hotels, it’s best to book ahead of time. Cuernavaca gets especially busy during Holiday weekends, and in particular, at Easter and during the Independence Day celebrations around September 16th. The roads out of Mexico City towards Cuernavaca get particularly heavy during long holiday weekends in Mexico, during school holidays, and during the Easter, Christmas and Independence Day periods. The roads from Cuernavaca back into Mexico City get jam-packed on the last days before the holiday period ends. If you can, avoid ‘traveling with the crowds’ by leaving earlier and returning later or vice-versa.
Cuernavaca’s climate is temperate and very comfortable all year-round, although the summers can get quite hot in the center and south of the city. The areas north of the center are more temperate year-round, and areas in the far north are temperate in summer and can get cool or cold in the winter months. It’s a city situated approximately 1,530 meters (just over 5,000 feet) above sea level, and during the winter months, early mornings and later evenings can get cool, and cold in the northern parts of the city, so pack layers of warmer clothes if you visit during the late fall and winter months.
Weather & Climates in Mexico
Learn more about the weather and climates through the seasons and regions by connecting to the Mexperience guide about Weather and Climates in Mexico
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