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by Bob Brooke

The vivid greens of the majestic sierra drop down abruptly. At the bottom lies the small village of Tepoztlan, clinging to the rocky face of the mountain. Cobblestone streets criss-cross dust-filled paths. The people still speak the Nahuatl tongue of their ancestors, the Aztecs. Nevertheless, this almost bucolic scene takes place in today’s world, a little more than an hour from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City in the State of Morelos—so close, yet a world apart.

I’m standing next to the ruins of a temple, a one-hour climb above Tepoztlan, dedicated to the ancient god Tepoztecatl, the patron of both fertility and pulque, an inebriating drink obtained from fermenting the maguey plant. As I look out, I notice that the villagers and their small adobe houses are but a preface to the elegant weekend dwellings of wealthy chilangos, Mexico City professionals and artists who have chosen this lovely Valley of Tepoztlan as their second home.

The view is spectacular. At the end of the valley, I glimpse Amatlan, said to be the birthplace of Quetzacoatl, the plumed serpent , a prehispanic deity who stood for peace and understanding, but was driven from these lands.

Far below, the bells of the 16th-century Dominican Convent of Maria of the Nativity chime a morning mass, as people scurry through the market buying their day’s ingredients.

Later, as I wander through its corridors, I think of the men who toiled there, hewing rock and stone. Built in 1530, it’s one of the most magnificent of Morelos’ 22 convents—convent refers to both monastery and convent in Mexico. A priest, in white vestments accented by a purple sash, sits reading quietly under the watchful eyes of Saints Cecilia and Magdalena. The interior is draped in ropes of fresh pine and blue and white flowers to honor the Virgin Mary. Their sweet fragrance overwhelms me. I wander on through the former cloister, its ceilings decorated with dramatic black and white frescos, its columns adorned with terracotta flowers. Through the former kitchen and up a flight of stairs, I find the original cells. For a moment, I think I hear the shuffling of the footsteps of the former inhabitants. But, alas, it’s just the wind.

Tepoztlan is a mystical place. Even present-day residents of Morelos come to watch for UFOs on clear nights. Many claim to have seen them.

Traveling down a well-kept road passed houses with stone walls masking lemon orchards, I come to another of the Morelos’ 16th-century convents, that of Saint John the Baptist in the village of Tlayacapan, a pottery center from Aztec times. This fortress-style Augustinian convent, built in 1554, has a series of bell towers, capped by pyramid shapes, across its front. Its atrium, or front courtyard, is filled with old amate trees. Magnificent old doors lead into a rather plain church, beyond which are the real treasures, finely restored black and white murals painted on the walls and ceilings of the former cloister. I noticed a design with a sacred heart, a sombrero, and three arrows representing the trinity, the emblem of the Augustinian order, painted over 400 years ago..

A Quartet of Beauties
Located in northeast Morelos are the towns of Yecapixtla, Tetela del Volcan, Zacualpan de Amilpas and Temoac. Many compare the surrounding countryside to Switzerland. The majestic 16th-century monasteries contrast with the fields of sugarcane and lush vegetation. On the horizon, the volcano Popocatepetl peaks out from the clouds, as smoke and ash spew from its top.

The Augustinian Convent of Saint John the Baptist in Yecapixtla, Nahuatl for “Where the thin air blows,” was built by Friar George de Avila between 1535 and 1540. Its atrium preserves its four chapels, and the church, itself, still has its original wall and ceiling paintings and a beautifully carved pulpit. The Gothic rosette and bas-reliefs on its facade are fine examples of colonial Mexican architecture. Since Yecapixtla is also known for its cecina, or cured meat, I decided to stop and sample some in small cafe opposite the church. This somewhat salty dish is best when smothered in sour cream.

The cool climate and the incomparable beauty of the 16th-century architecture of Tetela del Volcan (“The place where the ground is stony.”) add to its charm. The Convent of Saint John the Baptist first served as the first secular parish in Morelos. Later, under the guidance of Brother Juan de la Cruz, it became a Dominican monastery and later an Augustinian one. The profusion of plum and fig trees around town give the air a sweet fragrance.

As I head south on the road to Zacualpan de Amilpas (“Where something is hiding.”), I pass a field with men sitting in circle threshing amaranth, the ancient grain of the Aztecs. It as originally given to Moctezuma, the Aztec king, in tribute. Because of this, the Spanish forbade its growth. Today, as in ancient times, its seeds are made into palaquetas amaranito, sweet cakes made of these seeds soaked in honey, a delicious treat with cold fresh lemonade.

The quaint village of Zacualpan de Amilpas lies in full view of Popocatepetl in a hilly region cut by deep ravines. The Convent of the Conception, also of Augustinian origin, features a large atrium, enclosed by an ornate white wall with bright red trim, with elaborate outdoor chapels at each corner. Two baroque chapels in the rear date from the beginning of the 19th century. The restored church and its adjacent Chapel of the Rosary house two splendid retablos, or paintings, one of the Rosary and the other of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Nearby, the town of Temoac(“On the water that goes down.”), the newest in the state as of 1977, produces a bounty of coffee, nuts and guavas. The small church, the Iglesia del Cerritos (Church of the Small Hill), actually much older and dating from the beginning of the 19th century, sits on a hill overlooking the market. Though this technically isn’t a convent, I can’t help walking up the cobblestone street through the arch to see its exquisite mosaic cupula. Set within its facade above the door are pre-Hispanic images of the sun and moon, emphasizing the townspeople’s connection to their ancestors’ religion. Inside, dressed saints adorned the altars. The Mexican have a saying that refers to a woman who never marries: Se quedo para vester santos.(“She’s out dressing the saints.”), implying she doesn’t have anything else to do.

Afterwards, I head back down to the market for homemade tortillas stuffed with fresh avocado, onion and cheese, washed down with ice-cold Coca Cola. Actually, the town is known for its delicious spicy mole verde (green mole) with tamales, a bit hot for my taste.

On to Johacatepec
Further south, I stumble on to the impressive Augustinian Convent of Saint Augustine, begun in 1540 and completed in 1560, in the town of Jonacatepec. Most 16th century Mexican convents were built over pyramids, with stones from them used for the new construction. Such was the case with this one, which features oval windows, called ojos de bueyos, or eyes of the oxen. The convent, its white and gray-speckled walls, modeled with black splotches, sits serenely within its wide atrium. Numerous outdoor altars cling to its walls. These were originally used by un-baptized Indians, who weren’t allowed in the church.

I decided to walk through the village. A rooster crows, as men sit and talk of the day’s news under the shade of an amate tree on the zocalo, or town square. Up a side street, Indian women selling fruits and vegetables sit conversing under temporary flies, providing shade from the noonday sun. One of them bags some bright red apples for a young woman, carrying a child on her back . A nearby school lets out and mothers and their sons head to the market looking for a cool fruit drink. A man in straw hat jokes around, as one old friend greets another. All this goes on to the accompaniment of a tune on a primitive flute.

The Balnearios of Atotonilco
Just below Jonacatepec lies the town of Atotonilco, site of Termas de Atotonilco, one of 36 balnearios, or mineral bathing spas, in the State. This large aquatic park, with several sprawling free-form pools, offers every amenity for swimming and watersports, including a complex of waterslides. Sulfurous water spas are popular in Morelos. Others like Agua Hedionda, with the largest pool in Mexico, Agua Linda, Los Limones, and El Almeal are but a few favored by Aztec kings, who sought out their mineral waters for relaxation and rejuvenation. Their descendants from Mexico City today seek the same on weekends. All are modern, clean, and inexpensive, costing about $3 for an adult. Some are set inside of 16th-century haciendas, like the one at Temixco. Others are in ecological reserves like Las Estacas (The Stalks, referring to the reeds growing along the riverbank).

Las Estacas, an hour from Cuernavaca, Morelos’ capital city, is the closest to Eden modern-day Adams and Eves will ever get. Though there are no serpents, the lushness of this ecological reserve offers a peaceful retreat from the hectic pace of 20th-century life. Here, I was able to relive my love for old Tarzan moviesT.V.’s “Tarzan” with Ron Eli was filmed here--as I floated down the Rio Las Estacas in an inner tube under drooping palms and amate trees covered in vines. Originally part of the orchards of the old Hacienda de Temilpa, it’s now a large wildlife preserve full of exotic birds and butterflies. Admission to this piece of paradise costs just over $4 for adults, who can swim, dive, or snorkel its crystal clear waters. A campground and contemporary motel offer cheapless than $15--overnight accommodations.

Pampering at Hacienda Cocoyoc
However, I chose to pamper myself at two of Morelos’ newer world-class spas. Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc, 30 minutes from Cuernavaca at a subtropical 4,000 feet above sea level, is built around an original Dominican convent, the first in the Americas. Originally, this fine hotel was a hacienda built by Cortes’ son to raise sugarcane and process sugar. Its many buildings lie in a lush garden movie-set-like setting surrounding the ruins of the sugar mill. An 18-hole golf course now winds its way through the original mango grove and part of the old sugar mill has become the disco.

Here is where I had my first facial, a truly relaxing experience. At least seven different procedures followed a coating with cleansing cream—washing, coating with an astringent, followed by more creams. Eventually, someone else came in and gently massaged by neck and hands and palms. By this time, I was in heaven.

Spa Cocoyoc lies at the heart of Hotel Hacienda Cocoyoc, a modern resort with two golf courses, three tennis courts and four swimming pools, restaurants and bars. Housed in a building constructed around an existing arch, it consists of a Jacuzzi, juice bar, beauty salon, three rooms for facials, two for massage, a hydromassage room, herbal wrap room, workout center with Nautilus equipment, and two “wet” areas, one for men and one for women, including dressing rooms, showers, saunas, steam baths, pressure showers, Swiss showers, loopha scrub rooms, and sunning areas. Designed and outfitted by Romanians, it offers the ultimate in European spa service, including an Alpha Jet capsule, just one of several state-of-the-art pieces of equipment. The basic two-day/one-night package selling for $230 per person double and $320 single, includes a medical checkup, two entrances to workout room, two entrances to the wet area, a relaxing massage, loofah bath, facial, manicure, pedicure, fruit or fruit juices, three meals room and transfers.

Restoration of the Body and Soul
Unlike Hacienda Cocoyoc, Hosteria Las Quintas fits into a small 500-square-meter parcel of land called a quinta five minutes from downtown Cuernavaca. It, too, began as a more modest eight-room home, which has now grown into a 60-room hotel. The hotel grounds are a riot of color. Flowers, all marked by species, are arranged in a tropical wonderland punctuated by a huge old ceiba tree, two pools, a fountain and bronze and terra cotta statuary. Most of the rooms are terrace suites and six have private Jacuzzi.

Las Quintas Spa, which is separately owned and managed, occupies 10 percent of the hotel space. It blends the interior with the exterior through murals, which integrate earth and man. The whole effect is not only artistic but very soothing. It’s almost like taking treatments in an art gallery. A large open salon on the second level has benches on rollers so guests can look out into the garden while receiving manicures or pedicures. The third level features an exercise gym with all the main machines, and the roof will soon be revamped for nude sunbathing of both sexes. Spa Las Quintas has gone one step beyond most spas, they not only recreate and restore beauty and health to their guests, but they do it in an atmosphere of beauty and color. Packages are also available which offer a definite number of activities and treatments. A two-night package sells for $379 double.

Cuernavaca’s City Life
Within five minutes of Las Quintas, I was in downtown Cuernavaca. To the ear of the conquistadores, the Aztec name for it sounded like “cow’s horn, “ and so it became Curena de Vaca, shortened to Cuernavaca. Cortes built a palace here in 1530, and the silver barons adopted it as a favored place to build their secluded haciendas.

Long the get-away-from-it-all retreat of the world weary from Hernan Cortes to Kevin Kostner, it offers sparkling air, crystal clear blue skies by day, and dreamy nights with stars that seem close enough to pick. But most of all, Cuernavaca is a city of flowers, alive with blooms festive as fireworks in their explosions of oranges and reds of the flamboyant, lavenders of the jacarandas, and purples of the bougainvillea--all behind private walls. Private--as in exclusive.

Many of the city’s charms are completely hidden from the casual tourist. Behind stone walls topped with shards of broken glass are heavenly haciendas of the rich and famous. Take, for instance, Netzualcoyotl Street, behind Cuernavaca’s’ ancient cathedral. Here side by side neighbors include Bolivian tin king Don Patino and fashion prince Ken Scott.

Buried with his dog in the courtyard of Casa de la Torre, a former 16th-century Franciscan convent turned town mansion, is trucking heir artist Robert Brady. He claimed that Emiliano Zapata demolished the third story of the tower during the 1910 revolution.

Ninety years before the Pilgrims set their sodden boots on Plymouth Rock, Cortes ordered stones from an Aztec pyramid be piled to build a cathedral. It still stands, and at sunset, shafts of brilliant scarlet shine through its stained-glass windows to electrify its ancient interior. Outside palm and Norfolk pines reach for the sky, nurtured by the gentle climate of this sanctuary city.

After visiting the cathedral and perusing the Palace of Cortes, now a museum, with its murals by Diego Rivera, I headed over to sample the city’s most famous restaurant, Las Mananitas.This splendid former aristocrat’s house turned restaurant and cozy inn, is everything the guidebooks say it is. While waiting to be served, I sat in a garden alive with all types of birds—guacamayas, toucans, flamingoes, cockatoos, macaws, parakeets, lovebirds, pheasants, and peacocks. My waiter, dressed in crisp black and white, took my order of chiles en nogada (stuffed peppers with white sauce topped with red pomegranate seeds), cream of avocado soup, and huachinango almandine(red snapper almandine) while a quartet played soft Mexican melodies. This is definitely where wealthy Mexico City weekend refugees “do” lunch. Though expensive, the superbly prepared cuisine was worth it.

Embraced by an aura of beauty, many travelers consider Morelos the earthly paradise, the “Tamoanchan” of traditional Nahuatl mythology—a place where nature and man drew samples of their most exquisite handiwork. After criss-crossing the state, I’d have to agree.

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