Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mexico - Day 2. Cuernavaca

After a good night sleep and a lazy morning, Georgina, Raul, Maya, andI headed south of Mexico City, toward the city of Cuernavaca. To get there one first has to go over the volcanic range that forms the southern limit of the basin where Mexico City is. It is a beautiful mountain range, decked on pine trees and high mountain meadows, and the site of the small village of Tres Marias. Since time, immemorial travelers have stopped at this tiny town to eat delicious Mexican food, and we were not going to be the exception.

It was about noon, the sun was shining, and the café de olla was sweet and delicious. The specialty of the region are quesadillas filled with yummy things like wild mushrooms, papas con chorizo, the flower of the zucchini plant cooked in a tomato sauce, braised calf brains, huitlacoche (a black mushroom that grows on the corn ears), chicken, and, of course, cheese. Every bite brought me happy memories of the many outings I did with family and friends when I was young.

Immediately after we got out of Tres Marias we were surrounded by a heavy fog. This is common in this stretch of the road, which goes down the precipitous edge of the Mexican Altiplano to the south. It is a mountain front nearly a 1,000 m high, against which bank the clouds coming from the south. One can see places where lava flows spilled over the steep slopes, not unlike the pali of Kilauea in the big island of Hawaii. In the distance, one can see the remnants of a gigantic Pleistocene lahar (a debris flow), which ran at least 30 km into the plain below and now forms a series of steep mounds several hundreds of meters thick. (We actually saw this on the way back, when the fog had burned out).

At the bottom of the steep incline is the valley of Cuernavaca. This city has been a favorite rest place for people from the city since the time of the Spanish conquest. It lies at a much lower elevation than Mexico City, and accordingly has a much balmier weather. Flowers are to be found everywhere, and the whole city has a general feeling of bonhomie. We headed for the historic downtown, to dust off some more memories of my youth. For example, we went to the Jardin Borda, which is an enormous botanical garden right in the center of the city. It was probably the creation of a rich nobleman from colonial times, but it has been preserved over the centuries to the great delight of kids and lovers.

From there we went to visit the cathedral, which is a tasteful combination of very old and very new. From the outside it has all the hallmarks of a sixteenth century religious complex, built more like a fortress ready to stand siege than a church. However, the inside ofthe main church (there are four of them in the complex) was restored sometime during the last 20 years in a very sober modern style. Blood-red skylights give a solemn ambiance to the enormous nave, decorated only with the remain of frescoes that must have been added during the seventeenth century. Something about these frescoes seemed peculiar to me. They showed sailing vessels coming to a shore, and friars bringing banners and crosses to the new land, but none of the landscapes looked like Mexico. Then there was a scene with a good number of friars being crucified, and that reminded me of the Martyrs of Nagasaki, in Japan (see my blog of Japan for more details). Well, it turns out that it was exactly that event that was being represented, as I learned by laboriously deciphering the writing accompanying the scenes. Why was the Cuernavaca Cathedral commemorating this particular event is something I couldn’t figure out.

Our third stop in downtown was in the Palace that Cortez had built for himself, as Marques del Valle de Mexico, around the main plaza. It now houses a small museum that explains the pre-Hispanic history of the valley, and the main events of the colonial era and the events that led to the war of Independence. Incidentally, this year Mexico celebrates the 200th anniversary of the war of Independence, and the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary war.

On the way to the car we went through the main plaza, where a music group was loudly entertaining the crowd with music from northernMexico. Nice.

Our final visit was to the waterfall of the Salto de San Anton, a favorite destination of the family when I was a kid. A small stream, today engorged by the copious rain, hurls itself over a ledge formed by a lava flow. It drops a good 50 m, forming a nice waterfall. Unfortunately the small path that leads to the base of the waterfall was closed, reportedly because some of the columns of the columnar-jointed lava flow have fallen and destroyed the path. Too bad, because it was great to get behind the waterfall and look up into the gorge. Other attractions of the area are a nursery with the most amazing tropical flowers, and a restaurant where you can eat some very exotic dishes (but we played it safe by ordering food we could all recognize) —well, I had to have a sopa de medula for old times sake.