A Mexican Paradise
( Originally Published 1912 )
"Go to Cuernavaca," said an American friend, as I sat by a diminutive oil stove in his office in Mexico City one morning, discussing the cold weather which had lasted through the first weeks of November. "Cuernavaca," he continued, "is a place of orange groves and flowers; it is always warm, and it has the finest climate in the world." This certainly sounded attractive, and as I was determined to get thawed out after my chilly experiences in the capital, I decided to take his advice. The next morning found me on a train bound for the mid-winter paradise.
Cuernavaca is about seventy-four miles from the city, and the journey is one that never loses its charm. Not only is the route of the Mexican Central Railway marvellously rich in scenic attractions, but it also has some historical interest. It follows, in fact, part of the ancient mountain trail by which the looting Spaniards passed to and fro between the oceans in the old romantic days. Loaded with Spanish goods, the galleons would sail from Barcelona or Cadiz for Vera Cruz, where they would discharge their cargoes. A large portion of this freight was taken overland, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast, being carried in huge carts drawn by oxen, over rough trails through the wondrous wooded mountains. The port of Acapulco, on the Pacific, was a busy place in those days, and it was there that the galleons from the Philippine Islands and other parts of the East unloaded their precious freights of gold and jewels, the silks of China, pearls, jades and ivory. Packed in the lumbering carts, this treasure was borne over the mountains to Vera Cruz, where it was shipped for Spain.
From the train one sees today the long lines of patient burros threading their way up and down the mountain-side with loads of fruit and farm produce from the hot lands; and in this sleepy, unprogressive country it is easy to picture those ancient pack-trains commanded by the filibusters of Cortes. The railway has already reached Balsas, the centre of a rich mining district in the mountains; it will some day reach Acapulco, and it is safe to prophesy for the old port a wonderful trade revival.
On leaving Mexico City, the train crosses the plain and then starts an ascent, winding in and out among the mountain peaks, always on an increasing gradient, till before the lucky passengers one of the most wonderful views it is possible to imagine unfolds itself. Stretching to the horizon, which is broken with mountains, lies the Valley of Mexico, as the plain upon which the capital stands is called, dotted over with villages and lakes. At this great height Mexico City looks like a toy city, flashing a silver gray in the sun-shine and dominated by the two towers of the cathedral, reduced to pygmy size. As the train climbs higher, the semi-tropical vegetation is left behind and the region of pines is entered. Far away among the ridges occasional patches of snow can be seen, and now and again a glimpse may be caught of the great snow-capped peak of Popocatepetl dwarfing the lesser mountains. The highest point is reached at La Cima (the summit) 9895 feet above sea-level. Then the train passes the stations of Toro (the bull) and Tres Marias (Three Marys), the latter so called in reference to three pine-covered peaks near by.
A road noticeably good in a country where the roads for the most part are execrable runs from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, crossing the line at Tres Marias and disappearing among the pines. This road was built for motoring; the track of an old road was partly used and miles of new road were made, the money for the undertaking being sub-scribed by motor enthusiasts, assisted by the government. So excellent is the road and so direct the course it takes that it is actually quicker to motor to Cuernavaca than to take the train.
Even at this great altitude peons may be seen ploughing, and in many places the soil seems to be black and rich. Mosses and flowers of northerly regions are seen growing among the rocks. The air, even in summer, is often quite nipping at Tres Marias.
At the gaunt, gray peak of Ajusco, over thirteen thou-sand feet high, the train reaches the top of the ridge and begins the descent into the Valley of Cuernavaca. You see then the other panorama of the mountain range stretching westward ; a sea of rolling hills and ancient lava-flows miles in length, with here and there small lakes and Indian villages dotted over the valley, almost hidden between the mountains, the grayness of the scene brightened by emerald patches of sugar-cane.
Cuernavaca was called by the old Indians Cuauhnahuac, meaning "Near the trees." The Spaniards — forerunners of American abbreviators—shortened the name to Cuernavaca, meaning "Cow's horn." Running through the town is a deep, rocky ravine covered with trees, which probably gave rise to the ancient name. The pretty Spanish-Moorish looking town, with its cream-colored houses, some flat-roofed, others red-tiled, stands on the side of a vast valley, ringed in by volcanic hills and mountains. Sur-rounding it are plantations of rice and coffee, orchards of oranges and groves of bananas, mangos and mameys.
It is 4921 feet above the sea and combines a tropic warmth with a mild and temperate climate, making it an almost perfect resort for invalids, particularly for those suffering from lung or bronchial troubles.
When I left Mexico City at half-past seven in the morning, the sky was cloudy, the sun was invisible and the air chill. In Cuernavaca there was a clear blue sky, and the sun was shining with all the warmth of a summer day. Passengers who wore their heavy wraps and overcoats were glad to take them off, and were soon perspiring in this balmy atmosphere. Cuernavaca profits by the great mountain range which lies between it and the capital, effectually guarding it from the northern blasts and the depressing clouds which accompany them.
The town is about half a mile from the station, and being shut in by the hills cannot be seen from the train. Outside the station there were three little street-cars, each drawn by two mules ; these take the passengers and their luggage down to the town for eight cents apiece. People who are more exclusive can take a carriage for half a dollar and get their bones well shaken in riding over the cobble-stone streets. I rode in one of the tram-cars with several blanketed Indian senores, some senoras in their rebosas and a few white fellow-travellers. On the way the hotel porter pointed me out a hill commanding a fine view of the valley. This is the site of an American model city for well-to-do Americans and others, which is to be laid out with trees and flowers and equipped with all modern conveniences. Already several picturesque white stone bungalows, with red-tiled roofs, have been built. Fine golf links have also been laid down. The scheme has obtained much support, and there are so many people anxious to join the colony that the spot looks like becoming one of the most popular resorts in Mexico.
Our car, which took the lead, went merrily on its way for a time, and then through the reckless driving of our Indian Jehu ran off the line. All the passengers got out and lent a hand in lifting the car back on to the metals. Later we crossed a fine stone bridge over the ravine or barranca, and then passed through a pretty little plaza with the inevitable fountain and bright flower beds. Growing all over the rocks in the ravine, I noticed a beautiful convolvulus of sky-blue. , This I afterwards saw in other parts of Mexico. Then the car clattered down the main street, paved with rough cobble-stones and lined with picturesque two-storied houses with their flat roofs and barred windows. Through the wide-open doorways there were occasional glimpses to be had of quaint patios, cool fountains and flowers of many colors. Thus we progressed to the main plaza, planted with orange trees, where the car stopped.
There are two hotels in Cuernavaca, both under American management. The one I chose had been an old Spanish mansion, and was to some extent brought up-to-date to serve as a hotel. In the large tile-paved patio, open to the sky, were two pretty little gardens filled with tropical plants and flowers, and in each was a fountain of sparkling water. My room, with cool, tiled floor, seemed quite refreshing, and the heavy lattice to the windows was a welcome protection against the blaze of the sun which would otherwise have poured in. For the first time since reaching Mexico I really felt grateful for shade and a cool breeze. My window commanded a beautiful view of the old cathedral and several other time-worn churches, with their soft red walls and quaint gray towers. Later on, when I walked around the beautiful little town, I could understand why it is the Mecca of kodak fiends and the despair of artists who find its glowing tints and wonderful effects so hard to catch.
Adjoining the main plaza is the market-place, with its thick stone walls and red-tiled roofs. Here, every morning, the Indian women are found selling their wares, — oranges, bananas, grenadines, mangoes and other tropical fruits, with a varied assortment of dry and fresh beans and other vegetables,—squatting patiently on the ground with their little piles of produce before them. The stalls of the pottery sellers, with their bright red stock-in-trade, give a dash of color to the scene. In the centre of the market-place, which is open to the sky, is the circular stone fountain where the market people get their water. Round the market square, under the massive portales, are some queer, old-fashioned shops or general stores.
In the middle of the town stands the Government Palace, a beautiful little building of white stone, which was once the palace of Cortes, and was finished in 1531. The garden here, although it was December, was ablaze with flowers of many hues — bright red hibiscus, great masses of magenta bougainvillea, geraniums, roses and lilies, set in a velvety green lawn, and over all the orange and grape-fruit trees loaded with fragrant blossoms and golden fruit. From the rear of the palace there is a magnificent view of Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, towering above the clouds, their snow-caps glistening bright beneath the deep blue sky. In this picturesque old palace meets the legislature of the State Morelos, of which Cuernavaca is the capital.
Not far from here is the venerable Cathedral of San Francisco, founded by Franciscan monks in 1529. This also owed something to Cortes, having originally been a convent which he liberally endowed; in later years it became the parish church, and has now reached its present dignity. It is really a series of churches and chapels, with connecting roofs and walls. In the main tower there is a clock, which was once in the Cathedral of Segovia and was a present to Cortes from Charles the Fifth.
The neighborhood of Cuernavaca is full of reminiscence of the Conqueror. Close to the town is the hacienda of Atlacomulco, once his property, and still owned by his descendants, the present proprietor being the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone of Italy. In the ancient hacienda house, constructed of massive stone after the fashion of the early Spanish builders, there are preserved some great wooden chests which are said to have been brought from Spain by Cortes. Some large brown earthen-ware jars, which are carefully guarded, are also reputed to have been in use in his time. Most of the estate is still devoted to the cultivation of sugar-cane, and sugar refining is its chief industry.
During his short-lived empire, Maximilian had a pretty home, known as Olindo, near Cuernavaca; and here he used to retire with the Empress Carlotta for a few days' rest from cares of state.
I spent a very pleasant week in Cuernavaca, strolling daily about its cobble-paved streets which wind up and down hill, charmed with its romantic old houses and churches. With its background of rolling mountains, the deep blue sky, its red roofs, sunny gardens and quaint byways, Cuernavaca bears a striking resemblance to one of the old Italian towns , but it is more than picturesque wit is unusually clean and well-kept. The last observation also-applies to some of its inhabitants, for even the Indians look clean, and their cotton clothing is more often white than gray-tinted. This may be due to the fact that the town has an excellent water-supply and a fine public bath.
A beautiful spot in the old town is the Borda Garden. Near the cathedral is the mansion built by Jose de la Borda, a Mexican silver king who lived in the good old days when George the Second was king of England. Marvellous tales are told of this Mexican Croesus, who dug from forty to fifty million dollars in silver from his mines at Tlalpujahua, Taxco and Zacatecas. He was a generous patron to the church, and spent a million dollars or more on the edifice at Taxco, fifty miles from Cuernavaca. Jose was a French Canadian who had wandered into Mexico, and there made three fortunes and lost two because of his devotion to mother church. In the State of Hidalgo he built several churches, and his devoutness was such that after losing his second fortune, the Archbishop of Mexico returned to him a magnificent diamond-studded ornament which he had presented to the church at Taxco. The sale of this altar-jewel brought him a hundred thousand dollars, which proved the foundation of another fortune of many mil-lions.
Long ago the Bordas disappeared from Cuernavaca and the glory of their old mansion has also departed. By paying twenty-five centavos any one may enter the old garden which adjoins the long, rambling house, with its tiled courts and patios. Here are trees and flowers of the tropics, terraced slopes, lakelets, cascades and fountains which in all are said to have cost a million dollars. The whole place is in a state of decay, but there is beauty even in its ruin. The stuccoed walls and palisades are a soft pink tint, streaked with green moss; the stone paving and steps are also softened by the hand of time; the statuary and fountains all show the same signs of neglected age. On the little lake, bordered with mango trees, which were loaded with fruit when I visited the place, was a thriving colony of swans and ducks, but otherwise there was no vestige of life in the old pleasure-ground. At two corners of the walls are quaint stone arbors from which there are magnificent views of the valley and the rugged mountains. One of these nooks overlooks the Indian village of San Anton, with its crumbling stone church, very much like one of the ancient wayside churches of southern Italy.
I spent many a restful hour in the old Borda Garden, and derived a good deal of amusement from the walls of the shady arbors, which bore hundreds of inscriptions by enthusiastic visitors, chiefly American tourists from such romantic places as "Union City, Neb.," "Grimesville, 0.," and "Tin Can, Wash." But such comments as "Hey, fellows, Cuernavaca's all right, and don't you forget it," or "Say, why can't we annex Cuernavaca to Grand Rapids?" however well-meaning, scarcely harmonize with the antique. Some of the Mexican young men and maidens who had visited the place had evidently been aroused to a state of sentimental frenzy, and there were numerous Spanish verses pencilled on the stucco — lovesick outbursts such as, "Ah! mi adorada !" (Oh, my adored one), etc.
I shared the garden's solitude with myriads of bright-eyed lizards, browns and bronzes, greens and yellows, forever darting over the mouldering walls or lurking in the crevices and blinking out at the invader of their haunts. But even here one was not safe from the Mexican beggar. The wall at about three feet from the roadway was pierced with a series of square holes at intervals, and as I sauntered down the path I was startled by a voice crying to me from some unknown place, "Un centavo, senor." A Mexican urchin had spotted the stranger and was serenading me with the cadging cry through each hole !
Cuernavaca has a number of visitors all the year round, and during the tourist season, from Febuary till April, large parties come down form the City. In the main street I noticed the "English Tea Rooms," the "American Curio Store" and the"American Tourist's Supply Depot," the outward and visible signs of the tourist invasion. Motoring trips from Mexico City to the town are very popular, and every Saturday cars make the trip across the mountains, bringing weekend parties.
The deep, rocky ravine called "the barranca," which runs through 'Cuernavaca, is a favorite ride for visitors, who mount the patient burro or the restless Mexican bronco. There are Indian huts amid groves of oranges and bananas scattered through the ravine, and in its winding depths runs a clear mountain stream. A zigzag rocky path leads into the barranca, where an old stone bridge crosses the stream, and toiling up the other side one reaches the little Indian village of San Antone. Here a fierce battle was fought between the Spaniards under Cortes and the Tlahuica Indians, whose descendants are still living on the spot, probably much in the same way as their forefathers did at the Conquest.
I often crossed the barranca to San Antone in the cool of the afternoon, passing the ancient pink-tinted little church, with its mouldering walls and its neglected church-yard, in which stands a moss-streaked stone cross with a half-obliterated inscription. The village street is bordered with rude adobe huts, embowered in tropical foliage, orange trees, palms and sometimes the gorgeous bougainvillea and poinsettia. Most of the natives of San Antone are potters, producing the famous red Cuernavaca ware; and they can be seen at work in their yards turning out vessels of classic shape that might have been moulded in ancient Greece or Rome. There, too, you may see the potter at his wheel, "thumping his wet clay" in true Oriental style. The squatting earthenware makers are picturesque enough ; but here and there by the roadside may be seen even a prettier picture, just a young, dark-eyed Indian lassie sitting on her straw mat, beneath the shade of a red sarape, making some bowl or jar of graceful design, her sole utensils being a piece of broken glass and a horse-hair. With the latter in her teeth she will trim the lip of a water-jug, smoothing the edges afterwards with the glass, bending her small black head untiringly over her work.
On one side of the village street runs a mountain stream, and here the Indian women, as the evening shades are falling, can be seen washing their household ware and cleansing the linen; while from the huts comes the sound of the patting of tortillas for the family meal and the low, crooning voices of women singing melancholy Indian songs. The smoke from the wood fires fills the air with pungent fumes. Indian girls with water jars poised gracefully on their heads patter homeward from the village well. Peons swathed in their red blankets trudge wearily back from work. Then from the old church is heard the soft chiming of the angelus, and a hush falls on the village as you wend your way back towards the twinkling electric lights of Cuernavaca, the steep barranca alone separating the ancient from the modern.
A bright young mozo with whom I struck up an acquaintance gave me some interesting information about the Indians of San Antone and their peculiar customs. In his broken English he told me that there were two ancient women in the village who were alleged to be witches and possessed of wonderful powers as fortune-tellers. "They take old Indian figure dug from the ground," he said (meaning one of the old Aztec idols), "and then they put burning flax before it at night, look in fire and tell you all that happens." "Did you ever have your fortune told?" I asked. "No, no, senor," he replied, "I too much fear. Our padre he say if you deal with those people you go to bad place." One could easily imagine that an old wrinkled Indian crone kneeling, on a dark night, and gazing into the smouldering fire before some horrible Aztec idol, would make so weird and terrifying a scene that my friend the mozo might well be excused for hesitating to consult the powers of darkness.
No description of Cuernavaca would be complete without a mention of its exquisite sunsets and evening effects. The height and the-
the mountain air conspire to create some of the most glorious sky pictures that it is possible to imagine ; such bewildering masses of scarlets, blues and gold, giving soft hues to the snow-capped peaks, and lighting the domes of the old cathedral and the soft red roofs of the houses nestling below. No one who loves nature could stand unmoved before the spectacle of this sky splendor; and one sympathizes with the stranger of whom the story is told that he would stand hat in hand, in reverent attitude, on the flat roof of a house at Cuernavaca, looking towards the setting sun as if in worship. The distant hills, shaded in exquisite opalescent tints, standing clear against the sky, with groups of the white-trunked royal palms in the fore-ground, crowned with their glories of dark green, make such a picture as lives in the memory forever.
But one might go on indefinitely in praise of Cuernavaca, its wonderful climate and its lovely views, which remind one of what Mark Twain once said of a New Zealand town: "People stopped here on their way from home to heaven, thinking they had arrived." The sunshine and soft, dry air do much to make the place a veritable subtropical paradise, while the delicious coolness of its streets is due to its fountains and streams, which are fed from the surrounding mountains. But above and beyond all its beauties is the wealth of flowers each little patio being an oasis of exquisite bloom. One street of half a mile was actually bordered by oleander trees loaded with blossoms of pink and white.
There are plenty of interesting sights to be seen in the country about Cuernavaca, especially the Aztec remains, which are very numerous. I made a trip of eighteen miles one day to the ruins of Xochicalco, which are believed to represent what was once a fortified post ox military colony established by the Aztecs to maintain their authority among the hill tribes of the western slope. The ruins, which are situated on the top of a steep hill, are in the form of a large rectangular pyramid, constructed of well-shaped granite blocks, ranging from four to six feet in width. Sculptured in relief on the upper walls are colossal figures of warriors in feathered head-dress, wearing elaborate earrings, bracelets and breastplates. Most of them are broad-nosed, with sloping foreheads the peculiar Aztec type. Surrounding these figures are feathered serpents, the emblem of Quetzalcoatl, — and rabbits, birds and wolves, supposed to represent certain years and events. There are also a variety of other hieroglyphics, the key to which has never been discovered. The carvings are wonderful in execution and exceedingly artistic. Some of the warriors might almost have been copied from the sculptures of Egyptian temples.
Remarkably well selected was the site of this ancient stronghold, for it commands a view of the country for miles round. Beneath it there are several passages faced with cut stone, one of which ends in a square chamber 75 feet long and 68 feet wide, which may have been a temple. The central ruin and some smaller structures which are scattered about are being slowly destroyed by time and the rank vegetation, the roots of trees and huge creeping plants pushing their way between the stones and forcing them from their places.
A day's journey to the westward from Cuernavaca takes one to the caves of Cacahuamilpa, which are among the wonders of the world and surpass even the famous Mammoth Caves of Kentucky. In the village of Cacahuamilpa there is a small hotel, clean and comfortable, the proprietor of which provides guides for visitors. The caves have been explored for over twenty miles, the winding passages leading to a series of natural halls, glittering with enormous stalagmites, which are still in process of formation. Some of these have taken grotesque shapes or formed huge pillars of a hundred feet or more in height. One curious figure, called the camel, from its resemblance to that animal, is said by geologists to have taken from seventy to eighty thousand years to attain its present dimensions. All this wonderful subterranean work has been done by the action of water which once flowed through the caves and is still oozing through the rock. Two rushing rivers still flow beneath the caves, and are probably hollowing out other caverns for completion ages hence.
Among the most wonderful chambers is the Sala del Trono or Throne Room, which is upwards of seven hundred feet in length, two hundred and fifty feet wide and over five hundred feet high. An American writer in attempting to give an idea of the size of this immense cavern, humorously says, " If one of the great New York skyscrapers three hundred feet in height, were placed inside the Throne Room, a man standing on the top of it would need a feather duster with a handle two hundred feet long to sweep the cobwebs off the cavern ceiling." On one side of this vast chamber are two masses of stalagmites and stalactites, forming two beautiful thrones, from which the cavern derives its name. When lighted with magnesium light, the glittering effects of this hall of crystal are wondrously beautiful. Another majestic chamber is called the Vestibule, the walls being covered with stalactites and stalagmites resembling the purest Parian marble, carved in various graceful forms and beautifully polished. Not far off is El Campanario, so called from a number of stalactites in it which give forth a bell-like sound when struck.
The passages are so winding and confusing that it is dangerous to penetrate even a short distance inside the caverns without an experienced guide. A melancholy reminder of this fact is a gloomy cavern known as El Pedregal del Muerto, where the skeletons of two tourists who endeavored to explore the caves without a guide were found some years ago.
The "hot lauds" borderinthe Pacific Ocean are reached by railway from Cuernavaca, the present terminus, Balsas, being in the State of Guerrero. This important State, which stretches along the coast for nearly three hundred miles, has nearly half a million inhabitants and approximately covers twenty-two thousand square miles. The climate is very hot the whole year round. In this part of the country some wonderful scenery, with mountain ranges clothed with the dense verdure of the tropics, rushing rivers, and precipices thousands of feet high. Until the railway is complete, which has as its eventual goal. Acapulco, mule pack-trains carry goods and travellers over the mountain between Balsas and the Pacific coast.
Guerrero abounds in prehistoric ruins which are believed to have been in the same condition when Montezuma reigned in Tenochtitlan, and then, as now, little was known of the builders of these ancient structures. Professor William Niven, an American archeologist, says that tens of thousands of ruins of buildings which had been substantially built of stone are still in existence. During his work of exploration in this part of Mexico, Mr. Niven has unearthed some beautiful objects of gold, including idols, amulets and dress ornaments of artistic design, proving that the prehistoric goldsmiths were workmen of great skill.
Some Mexicans believe that the mysterious region from which Montezuma obtained his supplies of gold — which was never revealed to the Spaniards — is situated some-where in Guerrero. The country is certainly rich in minerals, and numbers of English and Americans are engaged in mining there. More than five hundred mining properties, with a total area of fourteen thousand acres, are being worked in the State. _ Copper, gold, lead and silver, with other minerals of less value, are all successfully worked, and from the miner's point of view the district is practically virgin. So far, the difficulty of access has kept prospectors away, but with the extension of the railway a wonderful era of mining development is bound to follow.