[Part one of a two part post on my travels to Mexico.]
Cuernavaca is a town in Mexico that has attracted people for millennia. Specifically, Cuernavaca is currently a town in the state of Morelos in the country of Mexico. But the political and geographic realities only solidified in the 1800’s. As early as the 7th century, the area was inhabited by a subgroup of the Aztec Indians known as the Tlahuica Indians. Intertribal battles were followed by incursions from Mexico. The Mexicans were followed by Americans and later the French. Throw in major influence from the Catholic faith, movie stars, and hippies, and you now have one of the most colorful, culturally rich, verdant areas on our planet. Let me be clear: Cuernavaca is wonderful! It is called the City of Eternal Spring and it proved the righteousness of that name during our stay.
It is not, however, antiseptically polished for the tourist set. I suppose it could be in areas…if you stayed ensconced in a lovely hotel. But life in Cuernavaca plays out for real people in the markets and on the street corners in astonishing colors. Children run up to your car at stoplights peddling Chiclets and roses at hours that make Western mothers “tsk tsk,” but this is simply the reality of the economy. Graffiti is rampant, but so much so that it is really a part of the fabric of the town. You can hate it or you can be interested in it…that is your choice. The grand homes of Cuernavaca are behind high walls. Gates draw back to reveal stunning oases in the middle of what can be a humble area, judged from 100 feet down the road. But, dear God, the Bougainvilleas and Birds of Paradise and Staghorn Ferns and green green grass and lovely trees…it is as if you are opening a simple box filled with gemstones.
[Left: the veranda where we ate our meals and sat to talk; Center: the tiles on the stairs; Right: the view from the veranda]
We stayed in a lovely home, owned by a lovely woman, which my companions rent on a regular basis. The costs seem miniscule considering the near constant attention of the couple who work on the property. It is high on a hill and gives you a hint of the other nearby compounds. And, I could have happily stayed behind those walls indefinitely, but the fun was out in the real world. Then again, I am endlessly entertained by trying to use my juvenile smattering of Spanish to buy a Coke at the convenience store. I’m perfectly serious about that. The inhabitants of Cuernavaca are kind and patient beyond measure, and frankly, throughout the country, a smile was always returned. But, I was extremely fortunate to be traveling with my friend, Tina Stansbury, who is completely fluent in Spanish and retrieved me from any number of bizarre (and stupidly simple) linguistic snafus. I was able to play, knowing full well that I could call out “Tina!” and she would come to my rescue.
We ventured out to Tepoztlán one afternoon. The drive was lovely, volcanoes in the distance, green everywhere, and life simply happening on the side of the road. Thirty miles from Cuernavaca, it was an easy excursion and not to be missed. I would love to stay there for a few days at some time.
Tepoztlán remains small and steeped in legend and mystery — it lies adjacent to the alleged birthplace of Quetzalcóatl, the Aztec serpent god — and comes about as close as you’re going to get to an unspoiled, magical mountain hideaway. Eight chapels, each with its own cultural festival, dot this traditional Mexican village. Though the town stays tranquil during the week, escapees from Mexico City descend in droves on the weekends, especially Sunday. Most Tepoztlán residents, whether foreigners or Mexicans, tend to be mystically or artistically oriented — although some also appear to be just plain disoriented. The village wears its New Age heart on its sleeve — homeopathic pharmacies and health-food stores coexist happily alongside Internet cafes, tortilla stands, and satellite-dish companies. –Frommer’s Online
I can’t really say it any better than that. Though, I must say that I didn’t see anyone who was the least bit disoriented, other than myself. We did not make the climb up the hillside to the Temple and ruins located at the tip top of the mountain, which is considered a must. We puttered about town and strolled through the markets. Color. Color. Color. So much color!
I saw so many kinds of produce that I knew, but had never seen in such colorful glory, and many kinds of produce that I had never seen at all. It takes a moment to adjust to the very un-USDA notion of having meat sitting about outside for hours, but then again, I fairly ate my way through Central Mexico and felt like a champ. And now I truly believe we are the only country in the world that refrigerates eggs.
The food was not only lovely in its unadulterated form, but there was also a large tented area in which cooks were cooking and people were laughing, all in a buzzing area of commerce that was intoxicating. The smells and colors and methods and ingredients were all so magnetic to me. I would have liked to have stayed and sipped horchata and eaten whatever they had to offer. Pitts has been telling me about horchata for years, since he spent time during college in San Miguel. It is a cold, creamy, drink made with rice and cinnamon and often vanilla. It was as good as the fifteen years of stories, truly. Also, there were tents filled with artisans. Some were selling the dime a dozen items you will also find at the airport, but then there were the artists in the booths painting or beading as we browsed.
After we strolled the markets we simply walked the streets a bit to see a day in the life, if you will. We saw a group of school kids exiting a stone gate, all atwitter and jovial. They were, perhaps, five-year-olds. They were all smiling and happy and singing songs in response to the teachers prompts as they bumped and skipped down the street. It was a lovely little moment.
Back in Cuernavaca, Tina and I accompanied our wonderful cook, Aurelia, to the main market there. Again, COLOR! There was food everywhere. And it was right in your face. And by that I mean, that I came face to face with several severed heads. But no matter. Things are just done differently in the bazaars. Meat is sitting out but it seems to move quickly. Vegetables and fruits are stacked precariously and wonderfully. Giant buckets of prepared mole line booths. I saw dried insects, a million different beans, candles, dresses, bags, more fruit, and more meat. It was a dreamy place in which to wander with a camera.
[Right: Aurelia and Tina]
Our shopping list at the market was precise. We were on the hunt for ingredients for a regionally well known dish called Chiles in Nogada (which I continually called “chiles in Nogales,” which is a town in Mexico and not a dish at all…much to the amusement of Tina and Aurelia. But, it is a stuffed poblano pepper covered in a creamy sauce and decorated with pomegranate seeds. The result is a festive dish that is green, red and white…the colors of the Mexican flag.
As I watched our bags fill with the precise ingredients, I was sort of amazed that they would all come together. And, yes, the pig is judging you. I’m kidding. But that is, in fact what your pork chops come from so give it a look in the eye and be grateful. And, why on Earth would I not be overjoyed at a market sporting giant vats of creamy lard. I thought the term “tub of lard” was just a figure of speech. Not so. And, I’m pleased to report that even the lovely grocery store that we went to the prior day (a WalMart cousin) had fresh lard in the refrigerated meats section. We may yet get there.
[These are the grasshoppers of which I wrote. The little taco stand on the right was positioned going up about 10 steps so that the seats also had to go uphill. Easy solution…one end of each of the red benches had short legs and one end had long legs. The seats just climbed the steps right along with the taco stand.]
Back at the house I was able to see how our strange assortment of ingredients came together. Aurelia would cook and talk and Tina would fill in the blanks of my shabby Spanish. Aurelia is patient, talented, and kind, and was happy to have us lurking in the kitchen.
Chiles, pork, beef, raisins, almonds, pomegranate, pecans (usually walnuts…but the pecans were great), citron, pears, peaches, sweetened condensed milk, cream cheese. It was not something I could wrap my mind around in theory. But, in practice, I was blown away. It is not complicated. However, there are lot of ingredients. You sauté the meats with onions and garlic, add the chopped fresh and dried fruits and almonds, and continue to cook and season. The peppers were roasted and peeled, and a pocket was created and seeds removed. Aurelia stuffed the peppers with the savory and sweet filling and finished them with the sauce and pomegranate seeds. Some go a step further and fry the peppers in an eggy batter but it wasn’t missed. I can hardly imagine the dish prepared better than the one Aurelia prepared. And we tested that theory at one of the nicest restaurants in town that evening. Aurelia’s won, hands down. And the restaurant version was not shabby at all.
Tina had been telling me about this dish for ages and I’m honored to have watched Aurelia prepare it and get to actually taste it. Aurelia is also the mother of the Cream of Zucchini Soup which I posted last year. She made that for us on this trip and I’m here to tell you that her version of that wins, too. It was so smooth and lovely.
Speaking of the lovely restaurant…there are two restaurants in Cuernavaca that are worth talking about. There is a singular, popular and storied restaurant and hotel in Cuernavaca called Las Mañanitas. Again, enter through a humble street entrance and walk into a lush garden roamed by peacocks and inhabited by macaw parrots. El Madrigal was started later by a former chef of Las Mañanitas and it is an homage to the original but on a grand, new, lush, and artistic scale. I can only comment on the service and food at El Madrigal because we merely glimpsed briefly into Las Mañanitas, but El Madrigal was lovely. The courtyard is beautiful and spacious. We ordered our meal and sat comfortably in the courtyard in big comfortable chairs for cocktails and coffee before being moved to the dining room just as dinner was served. Our server was even kind enough to show us all around the restaurant after our meal. It was a wonderful experience.
Our time in Cuernavaca was short…we needed to move on to Mexico City. But I will return. There is much more to be done, more people to see, more photos to take, more words to practice and more food to eat. If you get the opportunity, visit. And, don’t stay behind a wall the whole time.
NOTE: Much is made in the news of the violence occurring in Mexico right now. It is serious and it is real, as evidenced by the very graphic newspaper coverage we saw everyday. However, as a tourist, I never encountered any problematic situations in Cuernavaca or Mexico City. In fact, I never even encountered a rude person, much less an armed thug. Security was ever present in both cities. Granted, we stayed in nice places and we were very pragmatic about our plans and travel arrangements. But in case you hesitate to visit because of what you have heard on the news, consider reconsidering.