Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés chose Cuernavaca as his base of operations, partly due to its central location. But, like the Aztec rulers before him, he surely enjoyed its mild year-round climate. And up until fairly recently, ‘The City of Eternal Spring’ was considered the place to be for high-society Mexicans and expats alike. In the following Cuernavaca guide, we’ll be covering the top things to do in the city as well as nearby Tepoztlán.
Cuernavaca, the capital of the state of Morelos, is about a 60-90-minute drive from Mexico City. As such, it makes for a convenient day trip from the capital. While Cuernavaca’s highlights could potentially be seen in a single day, consider staying for at least several.
In addition to the attractions – both modern and ancient – featured in the Cuernavaca guide below, the city makes for an excellent base for day trips. The ruins of Xochicalco and Chalcatzingo, as well as the Magic Town of Taxco, are all within easy reach.
To learn more about how to reach Cuernavaca and where to stay, be sure to check the end of the article.
Palacio de Cortés
The most historically important building in this Cuernavaca guide is easily the Palacio de Cortés. Built in 1526, it happens to be the oldest standing colonial building in all of the Americas!
As the name suggests, the building was the former residence of Hernán Cortés upon his conquest of the Aztec Empire. As with many important colonial structures, the palace’s location was deliberate, having been built over the former tribute center of local Aztec (and prior to that, Tlahuican) leaders.
As you’ll notice, it more closely resembles a fort than it does a palace, as the defeat of the Aztec Empire did not guarantee an era of peace and calm. Many groups throughout Mesoamerica still wanted to drive the Spanish out, and Cortés was under constant threat.
More recently, the palace served as the local government headquarters before being converted to a museum in the 1970s. Unfortunately, it had already been closed for years for renovations at the time of my visit.
The Robert Brady Museum
If you’re visiting the city as a day trip and only have time for a few locations in this Cuernavaca guide, put the Robert Brady Museum at the top of your itinerary.
Admittedly, I’d never heard of Robert Brady before visiting Cuernavaca, but his former residence turned out to be my favorite place in the city.
Born in Iowa, USA in 1928, Brady grew up in an artistic family and eventually majored in art in university. Not long after, he began traveling the world, gradually building a personal collection of interesting objects.
In between travel to far-flung corners of the globe, he made Venice, Italy his base. But upon the suggestion of his friend Peggy Guggenheim, he traveled to Central Mexico, ultimately falling in love with the city of Cuernavaca.
Buying an abandoned 16th-century monastery, he refurbished it and made it his new home.
Though he lived here during his life, he envisioned the public being able to enjoy his collection after his death. And so in his will, he granted his house and art collection to the municipal government so it could be turned into a public museum.
If you’ve already been to Valladolid, Yucatán, the Robert Brady Museum looks and feels similar to the Casa de los Venados. The difference here, however, is that the art comes from all over the world and not just Mexico.
As you’ll soon realize, this certainly isn’t an anthropology museum. Folk art from far corners of the world are often placed in the same room, together with contemporary paintings. Apparently, Brady arranged his collection based on aesthetics alone.
In some of the earlier rooms, you will indeed find a large assortment of Mexican art, such as masks and dolls from Guerrero and cardboard dolls from Guanajuato. Brady also collected a sizable amount of pre-Hispanic art from places like Veracruz.
But you’ll find them interspersed with masks from Ghana and Peru, along with numerous figurines from South Asia and other far-away lands.
Clearly, Brady was incredibly well-traveled – especially for his era. And if you’re also a dedicated traveler, it can be fun to scan each room with your eyes, guessing where certain pieces are from.
While you won’t find any labels on the walls, laminated sheets will tell you the origin of each object if you’re stumped.
The house is teeming with color – even the kitchen and bathrooms. One room, however, which seems to be dedicated to colonial Catholic art, could be called somewhat minimalist compared to the rest.
Among the most beautiful rooms at the Robert Brady Museum is the so-called Yellow Room, which functioned as a living room.
In addition to pieces from Mexico, India and indigenous folk art from Canada, the room features numerous contemporary paintings.
Among them is the original copy of ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’ by Frida Kahlo and Robert Brady’s own portrait of Peggy Guggenheim, along with several other Brady originals.
While, as mentioned, most of the collection is quite random when considering each piece’s origin, the upper floor contains an ‘Oriental Room’ focusing on Asia. Among the works on display here are paintings from Rajasthan and Japan and various sculptures from Southeast Asia.
The collection includes a 17th-century bronze standing Buddha made in the Ayutthaya style. Thai visitors would shudder, however, to see that Brady chose the bathroom, of all places, to display it!
As with every other colonial city in Latin America, one of Cuernavaca’s most important pieces of architecture is its central cathedral. Constructed in the 16th century, it was built to evangelize the local indigenous population shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Uniquely, unlike most other churches from the era, it doesn’t face the city’s central square but is tucked away in its own complex.
Stepping inside, over to your right is the ornate Tercera Orden Chapel. It was constructed in 1772 in the Churrigueresque, or ‘Ultra Baroque’ style. Notably, some of the sculptures of saints on the facade wear indigenous headdresses.
Before stepping inside the main church, you’ll notice an open chapel over to the right, believed to date back to the time of Hernán Cortés. Its open format made it an ideal place for the conversion of the local natives.
Construction of the main church began in 1529 and it was largely finished decades later. But continuous renovations and remodelings would take place over the next few centuries.
Despite all the renovations, the church maintains plenty of original frescoes. Among them are the 17th-century murals depicting the 26 Martyrs of Japan, a group of Catholic missionaries who were executed in Nagasaki in 1597.
Other highlights include a stone baptismal font and the large cross hanging over the main altar.
During your visit, also be sure to check out the Museum of Religious Art for a small fee, accessed via the open chapel mentioned above.
Items on display here, most of which relate to the Catholic liturgy, date back as early as the 17th century. One particularly notable piece, however, is a salvaged statue of Tonantzin, the local fertility goddess in pre-Hispanic times. Amazingly, it was discovered beneath the main altar during renovations.
Other sections of the small museum, meanwhile, are dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi and the efforts to evangelize Mexico in colonial times. The collection includes a myriad of both paintings and sculptures.
More Cuernavaca Museums
In addition to the Robert Brady Museum and Cuernavaca Cathedral’s Museum of Religious Art, the city is home to several additional museums to check out if you have the time.
The Folk Art Museum
The local Folk Art Museum is arguably the best of Cuernavaca’s minor museums. Dedicated to traditional art from throughout the state of Morelos, the small museum is home to a nice collection of colorful and eye-catching sculptures and costumes.
Often touted as one of the top things to do in Cuernavaca, Jardín Borda doesn’t quite live up to the hype. In the 18th century, the property once belonged to José de la Borda, a silver magnate from nearby Taxco.
Later in 1778, his son Manuel inherited the land and commissioned a large botanical garden. The space would later be occupied by Maximilian, the Austrian archduke who briefly ruled Mexico in the 1860s.
Exploring the gardens today, the fountains are largely dry with many of the plants having seen better days. You will, at least, have access to a museum featuring the history of the site as well as some modern art exhibits.
The location is quite central, making it quite easy to squeeze in between visits to other locations in this Cuernavaca guide.
Centro Cultural Juan Soriano
The city’s premier contemporary art museum was mostly off-limits during my visit. I was, however, allowed to tour the gardens which are home to a collection of large bronze sculptures.
The sculptures were created by Juan Soriano (1920-2006) himself, a well-known Mexican sculptor and painter, and many of them depict birds.
The Ruins of Teopanzolco
While Cuernavaca makes for a great base for visiting numerous archaeological sites (such as Xochimilco and Chalcatzingo), the bustling city happens to be home to some ruins of its own.
Formerly known as El Mogote, the site was established by the Tlahuica people in the 13th century before being absorbed into the Aztec Empire in 1427.
The ruins may be small and relatively unimpressive compared with many other sites around Central Mexico. But there’s a noteworthy architectural feature that pre-Hispanic archaeology enthusiasts will surely find interesting.
The well-preserved main temple closely resembles how Templo Mayor, the prominent temple of the Aztec Empire, would’ve looked before its destruction.
The same two deities were worshipped here as well: Tlaloc, the Mesoamerican rain deity, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war who was also worshipped as the Aztec patron deity.
Thinking I was alone at these relatively unknown ruins, I did encounter one other visitor. It was a (presumably) local woman who was performing some type of extravagant dance routine or ritual in front of the pyramid.
Was she perhaps in her own way trying to keep the religion of her ancestors alive?
I waited, and waited, and twenty minutes or so later I was finally able to capture an unobstructed shot of the pyramid. Notably, it was built in two separate phases.
The second phase seems to have been an attempt at enlarging the temple, though construction was halted upon the arrival of the Spanish.
Elsewhere around the complex, one can encounter temples to Tezcatlipoca, the god of fire and the dead, and to Ehecatl, the wind deity who’s better known today as Quetzalcoatl.
Despite its small size and relative obscurity, I was surprised to see them charging $85 MXN at the entrance. But perhaps this was to offset of the cost of extensive renovations that were taking place from 2017-2022.
Teopanzolco is indeed located in the center of an urban area, and it was a bit odd to explore the site as a fashion event was happening next door at a venue overlooking the ruins!
Tepoztlán is one of the most popular Pueblo Mágicos in Morelos and Central Mexico as a whole. Not only is the area considered to be the mythological birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, but Tepoztlán is also home to frequent UFO sightings.
But as fascinating as all that sounds, and in spite of its beautiful natural surroundings, I found Tepoztlán to be underwhelming and quite boring overall.
Tepoztlán’s main attraction is the archaeological site of El Tepozteco, which consists of a pyramid built atop a small mountain. I first learned about it when researching for my trip to Central Mexico in 2017, though it got damaged by the devastating earthquake which struck just before my arrival.
Visiting five years later, I was disappointed to find it still closed as a result of the same natural disaster.
As for what else there is to do around Tepoztlán, the answer is not a whole lot. A couple of museums I’d researched prior to my visit, such as the Collection of Carlos Pellicer, was closed as well.
The only open attraction, it seemed, was the Templo y Ex Convento de la Natividad, a former 16th-century monastery.
The monastery was constructed by local Tepoztecos upon the orders of Dominican friars between 1555 and 1580.
Now abandoned, the building functions as a museum. Visitors are free to explore the halls and admire their well-preserved frescoes. The monastery should be of special interest to those with an interest in early colonial history.
After your visit, you can wander the streets of the colorful town at eat to the local mercado, where many vendors specialize in pre-Hispanic cuisine. Tepoztlán is also renowned for its local ice cream, and you’ll encounter shops on nearly every block. I can confirm that it is indeed delicious.
GETTING THERE: The easiest way to reach Tepoztlán from Cuernavaca would be to catch a bus from the main market. Run by the Estrella Roja company, buses depart every thirty minutes or so. The Pullman de Morelos company also run buses to Tepoztlán, though seemingly not as frequently.
If the pyramid is still closed during your visit, I would recommend the town of Malinalco as an alternative to Tepoztlán, as it has a very similar look and feel but with a lot more going on.
Malinalco too has a hilltop archaeological site which is actually open, while the nearby town of Chalma is home to a fascinating pilgrimage spot.
But while Malinalco is relatively close to Cuernavaca, it’s actually easier to visit from Mexico City, with direct buses to Chalma departing every half an hour or so from Terminal Poniente.
Cuernavaca is a fairly well-connected city, and it can be reached by bus from numerous other cities and towns within Central Mexico.
From Mexico City, it can be reached from Terminal de Autobuses del Sur. And in the south of the city, the Pullman de Morelos company offers transport from their small station near Hotel Royal Pedregal. The same company also provides direct transport from the airport.
Coming from Acapulco, you can take the Estrella Roja company or Alta Mar.
And if you’d like to travel in between Cuernavaca and Puebla without having to transfer in Mexico City, the Autobuses ORO company is the only one with direct routes between the two. Their station in Cuernavaca is quite a distance from the center, so you’ll need to take an Uber or taxi there.
Speaking of bus stations, I’ve never seen so many bus stations in a single city as I have in Cuernavaca! It’s normal, of course, for smaller second-class bus companies in Mexico to run their own stations. But in Cuernavaca, I counted at least eight different bus stations, and there still might be more I haven’t discovered!
The locations of all these bus stations become a factor when choosing accommodation, as Cuernavaca makes for a great base for day trips. (See more below.)
Cuernavaca, home to roughly 350,000 people, is a mid-sized city. As long as you’re staying somewhere relatively central, most of the locations in the Cuernavaca guide above should be walkable.
Also as mentioned above, the city is home to a plethora of different bus stations, and you’ll often be using a different one during each of your day trips, not to mention arrival and departure.
I stayed just off of Avenida Morelos, where a few of the stations happen to be located. The hotel was called Hotel Colonial and it suited my needs perfectly. In addition to the convenient location, I had a comfortable room with a private bathroom. The hotel is also home to a very friendly (but very vocal!) cat.