If you’re looking for a beautifully carved wooden hummingbird, you should visit the Pueblo Mágico de Malinalco, a small village in the mountains 70 miles southwest of Mexico City.
Daughter Mariana, grandson Ray, his friend Connor and I visited the ancient Aztec village on our recent trip to Cuernavaca, whose purpose was to give Ray and Connor lots of Spanish practice in preparation for their upcoming advanced high school Spanish classes in Pennsylvania.
Our friend Jaime Palmer, former Tarrant County Spanish instructor who has retired in Cuernavaca, planned our excursions and hosted the two boys, while Mariana and I stayed with Dalel Cortés, director of the Instituto Mexicano de Español y Cultura, where I took Coastal Bend College students for summer immersion programs for many years. Dalel and Jaime have also organized numerous enjoyable trips for tourists to interesting sites in Mexico. (They are planning a Día de Muertos trip to Puebla, Oct. 29-Nov. 3, for which details will be announced soon.)
Our first excursion for the recent adventure was to Malinalco. We learned that, according to Aztec legend, it was the home of their goddess Malinalxóchitl, whose Nahuatl name means “flower of the malinalli grass,” and the village’s name translates as the place where she is worshipped.
However, it is Huitzilopochtli, the goddess’ brother and the Aztecs’ most important god of the sun and of war, whose name means “hummingbird of the south.” According to legend, he guided the Aztecs from their original home in Aztlán, thought to have been located in northwestern Mexico or the southwestern United States (which was part of Mexico), to Tenochtitlán, where they saw an eagle sitting on a cactus, devouring a serpent. There they built their beautiful city, now Mexico’s capital, in 1325. That important tradition is commemorated on the Mexican flag.
After establishing Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs continued conquering other groups in central Mexico. In 1470, they took over Malinalco and constructed a sanctuary for training their military elite, the Eagle and Jaguar warriors. The Cuauhcalli — “House of Eagles” — was hewn out of the rock on the Cerro de los Ídolos (“Hill of the Idols”), high above the village. Warriors entered that temple through a door shaped like a serpent’s mouth, with a large sculpture of an eagle just inside and a jaguar on the back wall.
When I saw the steep stone steps — with no railings — leading up to the archaeological site, I opted to stay below and visit the model of the temple in the Museo Universitario Dr. Luis Mario Schneider. Schneider was a professor who lived in Malinalco, wrote extensively about its history and left property in his will for a museum.
I was even happier with my decision not to climb the mountain when I learned that there were 425 steps to the top! I spent some time shopping for carved hummingbirds from vendors who had crafted them in the downtown area.
The climbers learned from the tour guide at the temple that, on the day of the winter solstice, the sun illuminates the eagle sculpture through the entrance, symbolizing Huitzilopochtli’s coming down to earth. They also learned that, after the Spanish conquest in 1522, the Aztecs abandoned the temple so that the Spaniards would not find it. The many trees on the mountainside soon covered it completely, and the remote location was not rediscovered until 1933.
When the climbers returned, probably as hungry as the jaguars, our van driver and I had selected a scenic local restaurant where we enjoyed Malinalco’s delicious specialty — trout — in the shadow of the mountain cliffs surrounding the village.
Ray happily summarized for me, in Spanish, their guide’s narrative about the temple on the mountain. Then we all visited the museum, where the climbers compared the temple model to the original one.
Our Cuernavaca stay included visits to several other area attractions:
Las Estacas, a beautiful spring-fed water park south of Cuernavaca, gave the boys the opportunity to take snorkeling lessons in the frigid water. Mariana and Jaime enjoyed diving in and quickly climbing out.
In Tepoztlán, a nearby indigenous village, the two boys climbed a much higher and more challenging mountain to the 13th century temple dedicated to Ometochtli-Tepoztécatl, who supposedly invented pulque, a popular Mexican alcoholic drink made from the maguey plant. We adults enjoyed a leisurely shopping experience in the plaza.
When Ray and Connor descended from the mountain, we had a delicious meal at El Ciruelo, a restaurant with a beautiful view of the Tepozteco.
We spent one afternoon shopping in the large artisan market in downtown Cuernavaca and enjoying the beautiful gardens of Las Mañanitas, one of the city’s most famous restaurants.
We concluded our trip with a visit to Taxco, the famous silver city.
In addition to gift shopping, we enjoyed lots of delicious Mexican food, cool temperatures in the “City of Eternal Springtime,” excellent Spanish conversational practice — and wonderful visiting with our long-time Cuernavaca friends.
Now, when I see a hummingbird in my garden, I will think of its Aztec connections — and the picturesque village of Malinalco where the carved versions are created.