The Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl are 15 monasteries near the Popocatépetl volcano in central Mexico which were built in the 16th century by members of the Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian orders.
They were a major factor in the Christianization of a very large population over a vast territory and in a short period of time.
The 15 are:
- San Mateo Apostol in Atlatlahucan
- Asuncion in Cuernavaca (current Cathedral)
- Santo Domingo de Guzman in Hueyapan
- Santiago Apostol in Ocuituco
- Santo Domingo in Oaxtepec
- La Natividad or la Anunciaciòn in Tepoztlàn
- Santo Domingo de Guzman in Tetela del Volcàn
- San Juan Bautista in Tlayacapan
- San Guillermo Abad in Totolapan
- San Juan Bautista in Yecapixtla
- Immaculada Concepciòn in Zacualpan
- San Francisco de Asís in San Andrés Capan
- San Miguel Arcángel in Huejotzingo
- Asunción de Nuestra Señora in Tochimilco
- Franciscan Ensemble of the Monastery and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption of Tlaxcala
Map of Popocatepetl monasteriesLoad map
Visit January 2014
Out of the 14 designated locations that comprise this WHS, I visited the former monasteries of Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan. The one in Cuernavaca is attached to the Cathedral, but I had some trouble finding it. The cathedral lies within an enclosed area, with two pretty chapels at the corners and its own interior shouldn’t be missed either. The early 16th century remains were hidden behind a party tent, and consist of nothing more than a simple altar and indeed an “open area” for the indigenous people to stand and listen. It’s attached to the main cathedral, which seems to be part of the WHS as well. This church is well worth a look, as it is a mixture of modern features with old wall paintings in the nave that are mentioned in the AB evaluation.
On my last day in Mexico I went on a day trip by local bus from Cuernavaca to Tepoztlan. It’s a ride of only 45 minutes, but the town is situated much more nicely in the mountains. No views of the Popocatepl though. The former monastery here is easier to find, as it is both a lot bigger and signposted. Entrance is free, and they’ve turned it into a museum annex exhibition space for local artists. Explanations are given via information panels in each room, but only in Spanish. The hallways of the monastery are completely covered with red and black murals which is very pretty. It also has characteristic crenellated walls. The open chapel nowadays seems to be used to store paint!
Tepoztlan itself is a pretty little town with a vibrant market. The no. 1 attraction however is “The Pyramid” a very late (1502?) pre-Hispanic remain in a secluded location as if it was Macchu Picchu. It’s a strenuous hike of 2 km uphill, all stairs. I finished it in 50 minutes, but the views from the top were worth it.
I visited this site around New Years 16/17 during a visit to friends in Cuernavaca. It is not an easy site to visit thoroughly since there are many monasteries and they are all slightly different but to the rushing beholder not very much. It takes an effort to appreciate the individuality of each site. In addition the monasteries are all rather bulky, they look more like fortresses then like churches and that was certainly intentional since missionary time could be dangerous and the local population might not always and everywhere be equally enthusiastic or just willing to adopt the new faith. For me it helps neither that the interior were often converted to baroque style, a fact that makes a visit to latin American churches (and sometimes in Spain and in eastern European countries) a real challenge.
Nonetheless the number of monasteries in a relatively small area and their age are very impressive. Many have impressive facades, others interesting cloisters. Some interiors are extremely plain, others have elaborate gothic constructions. All impress by their seize. The most remarkable feature are certainly the openair chapels and it is not completely clear to me if they were build to worship more in the way the locals were traditionally used to or if the monks didn't allow the locals to enter the sacred space of the church. Perhaps both. Looking back and comparing them makes appreciate almost better then and they seem more various and interesting then I remembered them. As a group they do not only deserve their place but bear witness to a fascinating though for us questionable transition period.
I will try to collect my memories to the churches I visited. At the time my camera had no localization function so I had to compare my pictures with pictures in the internet. Strangely I cannot remember visiting the cathedral in Cuernavaca or find pictures of it so I assume we didn't visit it.
We certainly visited Tepoztlan: I nice, white complex with a beautiful, simple cloister. The most memorable and special place was the room with several toilets seats and each had a poem written on the wall celebrating defecation!!! Even better, and very popular, then the monastery was the beautiful walk to a small Atzek temple on the hill with a fabulous view.
The town of Tlayacapan belongs to the "pueblos magicos". This lable does not always fulfill its promise and I am would certainly not call this small town picture perfect in any respect. Nonetheless, the visit to Tlayacapan was easily the most interesting among the monasteries I visited. The monastery is very large, has a unusual surprisingly renaissance facade and a beautiful cloister and many murals. there is of course an open air chapel and a huge court yard to accommodate a big crowd. The interior of the church is surprisingly and a bit disappointingly simple. What makes this site extremely interesting and what may be easily overlooked are the many chapels spread over the town. There were more then twenty at a time and still 18 in some use. This is not only a huge number for a small town but some of them are also surprisingly big, more the size of a church, and ornate. But most interesting fact is that they were supposedly all build above ancient temples which go back to Aztek or even Olmec roots. The ancient town was organized in for barrios or quarters and each barrio was connected with one of the cardinal directions. Each barrio also had main temple over which the missionaries tore down and replaced a chapel. Each barrio also had a temple marking the entrance to the town which is also replaced by a chapel. So the town looked a bit like a sacred mandala and each temple had a corresponding temple on the opposite site. This tactic had the obvious goal to make the conversion of local people easier by preserving their sacred places. It had or has also the effect that the inhabitants of the town still remember the ancient function of each chapel/former temple and festival rituals related with each christian chapel are supposedly often influenced of even mixed with the rituals related to the ancient temple! I tried to visit a few of the chapels but most I had to be watch contently from the outside. They may only be open on the relating holidays and many may also be closed for dilapidation. I think this is such an incredible history that it would make in my opinion a splendid WHS on its own and I am rather surprised the chapels were not included into the site.
The monastery of Yecapixtla was a surprise for me as the interior, though "baroquified" was a sumptuous Isabelline construction which was at the time colorfully decorated for some festival. From the outside it is very defensive with pointed crenellations everywhere. There is a big square with a wonderful ancient tree in front of the church (picture).
The Exconvento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxtepec sits a bit less attractive in the middle of a small town and looked a bit rundown when we visited. But the church with it beautiful late gothic ceiling is a nice surprise.
I think we visited also the Ex Convento Agustino San Mateo Apóstol in Atlatlahucan but I cannot find any pictures a made. The most interesting feature in my memory is the facade and the roof with many crenellations which gave it a kind of fantasy castle look. We also visited at least one more, very bulky monastery quite far up and close to the Popocatepetel probably the one in Tetela. If I ever visit this area of again I might pick up on the remaining monasteries. This is possible since they are located between the rather forbidding but inexhaustible Mexico city and beautiful Puebla which I have visited twice shortly but would well deserve a more thorough visit of several days.
I am afraid that this review will bring very little new information, as I visited the same two monasteries as most of the previous reviewers, la Catedral de Cuernavaca and Tepoztlán Ex Convento Dominico de la Natividad. These two sites offered an interesting perspective on the beginnings of the evangelization of indigenous peoples in Mexico, but the September 2017 earthquake in the state of Puebla affected my appreciation of the sites. Indeed, although I visited the monasteries in March 2019, almost a year and a half after the earthquake, the damage had still not been repaired and the interior of the monasteries was inaccessible.
I first visited Tepoztlán, where the monastery is clearly visible from all over the city. Its size is imposing, its walls are high and bear merlons, which makes it look more like a military fort or a castle than a place of worship. This reflects the situation when religious congregations were involved in the invasion and domination of the Auochtone communities and had to protect themselves from them. Unfortunately, the earthquake seems to have been stronger than the monastery. In 2019, the two towers (one of which had visible cracks) were supported by wooden frameworks, a tin roof covered the monastery and the access to the convent was fenced off. Only a shop and a few rooms with faded frescoes were accessible from the left side of the building.
The situation was similar in Cuernavaca. El Recinto de la Catedral, although more ornate and artistically richer (think of the two pretty chapels lining the access to the atrium), has the same aspect of defensive structure as the monastery (high walls crowned with merlons, solid appearance). However, it also seems to have encountered a stronger enemy during the earthquake. In 2019, the bell tower was supported by scaffolding and access to the interior was impossible. Tents and chairs had been set up outside to allow people to attend mass. An ironic return to the Capilla abierta...
Although Nan and Jay T's reviews were written after my visit, I wonder when their respective visits were made. Since they do not mention the damage and inconveniences I encountered, it would be interesting to know if the restoration work has been completed and if these centuries-old structures have regained their former charm.
Logistically, I reached Tepoztlán from the Terminal Sur in Mexico City and spent two nights there. It was more than enough to see all the attractions of the city and get some rest. The hike to the Pirámide de Tepozteco was well worth the effort, especially for the view of the city, which made me even more aware of the imposing size of the monastery and its central position. Cuernavaca is also a pleasant city with bus connections to Tepoztlán and Mexico City. It is easy to base yourself there to visit Xochicalco. The Cascada El Salto de San Antón is an interesting attraction off the beaten track. I also spent two nights there before going to Taxco.
Volcanoes bring tremendous change to their environments, and fittingly the 16th-century monasteries established around the active volcano Popocatépetl, southeast of Mexico city, effected tremendous cultural change on the peoples of Mesoamerica. Here missionaries settled in concert with Spanish colonists, helping to establish the Catholic church as a dominant force in Mexican life.
I'm afraid I am not much more original than other visitors to this World Heritage Site, as I chose to visit the Cuernavaca Cathedral en route to Xochicalco, and hoped to visit the Convent of the Nativity in Tepoztlán before returning to Mexico City. I arrived early in the morning and was able to walk around the grounds of the cathedral complex before many other tourists arrived. The church was simply furnished, with walls decorated with murals, some of which depict Christianity coming to East Asia. The outdoor patio was beautifully landscaped, and the chapels around the church were brightly painted and well maintained. Cuernavaca is a fascinating city on its own, and unfortunately I spent too much time there before my visit to Xochicalco, so that I had no time left in the afternoon to visit Tepoztlán before an early January sunset. However, paired with my earlier visit to the Museum of the Viceroyalty of New Spain at Tepotzotlán, part of the Camino Real north of Mexico City, I felt like I had a better understanding at how the Catholic church began its evangelization of Mexico.
Logistics: The Cuernavaca Cathedral is a short walk from the center of town, and is easily accessible by bus from Mexico City.
Similarly to Els and Ian I ended up visiting both Cuernavaca and Tepoztlán. I say ended up as my original plan was to only visit Cuernavaca. Cuernavaca has the benefit that you are passing through the town in any case when travelling from Mexico City to Xochicalco by bus. So it's really quite a simple and quick visit.
However, Cuernavaca is underwhelming as a site. Of the inscribed monasteries, Cuernavaca is the one which was redone and remodeled the most over the centuries. So much so that little original 16th century constructions remain. The oldest part is the open chapel, the Capilla abierta. And frankly I barely noticed it.
So after I had done my loop through Mexico on my last day in Mexico I traveled to Tepoztlán to fill the gap. Tepoztlán is the superior site with an actual monastery and pretty murals being preserved. I really enjoyed my visit and if you were to visit one of the two, I would go for Tepoztlán.
Both Tepoztlán and Cuernavaca are connected by direct express bus from Mexico City. Cuernavaca has multiple bus terminal while the bus stop in Tepoztlán is on the main road on the outskirts of the town.
While You Are There
From Cuernavaca you can connect to Xochicalco by bus. Cuernavaca also boasts a nice old town, specifically the market square with the home of Cortes. Tepoztlán is a fairly sleepy town. The main attraction is the pyramid towering the town on a cliff. I do recommend the hike up for the views and the experience.
As pointed out by Solivagant the reference to Popocatepetl makes very little sense.
It was interesting to get to grips with why the monasteries look like they do, and it reveals a story about the early relationship between European and indigenous populations. We only managed to visit two sites but this felt sufficient to gain an understanding.
The monasteries are arranged around courtyards, it seems this illustrates European adaptation of indigenous religious practice which for the main congregations normally took place in the open air. It also meant that more people could attend masses. Whilst travelling around I listened to this episode of A history of the World in 100 objects, and whilst it doesn't directly relate to one of the listed sites it gave me a very good introduction to the concepts that make these places of outstanding universal value.
Not for the first time on our trip we ended up unknowingly following in Els footsteps. Our first stop was the Cathedral in Cuernavaca, which I found to be rather magnificent. The huge paintings on the internal walls were wonderful, and well complemented by the modern decorations and details inside.
Cuernavaca itself was also a worthwhile place to explore, especially the town hall in Cortes' former palace, with a balcony covered in magnificent Rivera murals telling the history of Mexico.
The only other monastery we visited was in Tepoztlán, buried in the heart of this interesting town the same courtyard layout could be seen. On entering the first thing that struck me was the familiar paintings that Els' photographed. I had an enjoyable but swift walk around before heading off.
Originally I had planned to visit a few more, but our tolerance for the Mexican road system had run out, so rather than spending another day fighting against road signs and speed bumps we stayed on the autopista and whipped through to Puebla, enjoying views of the base of a gently erupting Popocatépetl.
An enjoyable WHS that helped illustrate the story of how European religious practices were introduced and adapted in the 'New World'.
[Site 6: Experience 4]
The description of this site’s 14 monasteries as being “on the slopes of Popocatapetl” demonstrates a considerable degree of poetic license! Only 4 could, by the wildest stretch of imagination, be said to be literally on that volcano’s “slopes” and many are quite a long distance away! Nevertheless the buildings have their interests as representing the very earliest stages of the “Christianisation” embarked upon by the Spaniards in the years immediately following the “Conquest” of Mexico in 1521. Only 2 years later the Franciscans established the first of these monasteries in Cuernavaca – the rest followed within the next 50 years. So most are large, fortified structures (photo 1) reflecting, in a number of ways, the times in which they were built.
The first problem for anyone wanting to visit is to establish EXACTLY which monasteries got inscribed!! The ICOMOS evaluation lists 14 (11 in Morelos and 3 in Puebla states – generally west and east of Popocatapetl respectively) but recommends that the entire nomination should be deferred and that the “states party” should be invited to “consider the omission of Hueyapan (and also Cuernavaca if assurances cannot be given that recent constructions will be removed)”. Today (March 2008) the UNESCO Web site states “These 14 monasteries……” but then only lists 13 – the original list less Hueyapan! A further complexity is that the ICOMOS evaluation clearly believes that it is including the monastery at Oaxtepec (an important site as it was the first monastery established by the Dominicans in 1528) – even though it doesn’t include it in its list! Now, in common with the previous reviewer, we went to Oaxtepec and I can confirm that it has a nice brass plate with its name on confirming that it IS inscribed! So it looks as if the 14 consist of the original ICOMOS list less Hueyapan plus Oaxtepec and that the UNESCO Web site has missed out the latter. I can find no reference in any minutes that the Inscription was made on the condition that Hueyacan was removed but it does seem to have been. It seems also that the “problem” with Cuernavaca was solved or quietly forgotten. Mexico appears to be trying to ensure that the capital cities of its various states each has a WHS, hence the rather large number of relatively mediocre “Colonial centres” which have made it to the list – Cuernavaca’s centre certainly wouldn’t qualify, but its Cathedral (upgraded from the earliest monastery) is rather fine – albeit not enough for a “single” nomination. During the 1990s, under the direction of its liberal Bishop Luis Cervantes, it was “furnished”/decorated in an uncompromisingly bare “modernist” style. I personally found it quite successful and the murals discovered during the restoration have also been preserved.
Assuming my “list” is correct, we visited 10 of the 14 sites by road in the following sequence
Day 1 – Huejotzingo (in Puebla State))
Day 2 – Yecapixtla, Ocuituco, Tetela del Volcan (all to the East of the Amecameca/Cuautla highway with the latter 2 qualifying as being “on the slopes”!). We then returned (Yecapixtla can be by-passed) to Atlatlahucan, Totolapan, Tlayacapan, Oaxtepec and Tepotzlan (all to the West of the highway). This took until around 2.00pm and we then quickly skirted Cuernavaca on the autopista to get ASAP to Xochicalco (see my review)
Day 3 – Cuernavaca.
The 4 missing were Calpan (near Huejotzingo – certainly “on the slopes” and, mainly for that reason , the one I most regret missing but we just didn’t have time. This village is on the way up the Paso de Cortez whence, with permits, you can climb Ixtaccihuatl – but NOT Popocatapetl which has been closed for some years because of danger of fumes and eruptions) and Tochimilco (also in Puebla State), Zacualpan (south of Tetela) and Yautepec (west of Oaxtepec)
It is difficult to recommend which Monasteries are the most worthwhile. It depends on what you are most interested in - the previous reviewer was clearly concerned with the quality of the frescoes. Perhaps we were more interested in general “atmosphere”. Maybe history has treated each of them differently in terms of how well their frescoes (and their exterior decoration) have survived but all of the churches we visited were “well cared for” in the sense of being “in use” by the locals as living churches. We were there during the week before Semana Santa (Holy Week) and one of the nicest things was to see the locals preparing for the “celebrations”. Some of the villages in which these churches are situated are still very “indigeno” and the crosses upon which locals would enact the crucifixion (with scourging – but I think that real nails are only used now in the Philippines?) were being lined up.
In Tetela a huge wooden pole had been erected in the churchyard for the “Voladores” to perform their pre-Hispanic pagan ritual. They had probably been doing this ever since the Spaniards built the church, possibly on the site of a pre-Christian religious structure, in a ceremony which, no doubt, propitiated the old gods as well! Unfortunately we were not staying for the Festival. We saw “touristy “Voladores” at El Tajin (they also perform near the Anthropological Museum in Mexico DF) but it would have been wonderful to see a “genuine” local performance!
Tepotzlan is the largest of the “villages”/towns (other than Cuernavaca of course) and its monastery is well set up for tourists – with even a “gift shop” and the only one we saw other tourists at. The murals in the cloisters were well preserved with wonderful depictions of shaven headed, fat friars (Photo 2) – somewhat threateningly carrying a Cross to the unbelievers!! The town generally is also well worth a visit.
Huejotzingo felt to us the most “medieval” – a huge fortified structure with an enormous “Atrium”. This open air chapel was unknown in European church architecture but was standard here in these early Mexican churches and was designed to accommodate the hundreds of indigenous worshippers outside the church itself. In each corner is a small chapel or “Posa” where rituals could be carried out. The church is unashamedly “Gothic” moving towards Renaissance – this was still potentially dangerous frontier country so no namby-pamby Baroque here yet! The church is on land raised above the surrounding town – probably the flattened remains of a pre-Hispanic pyramid. This church alone has preserved its 16th century wooden altarpiece.
These 3 would give you a reasonable feeling for the architecture and the history of Christian expansion in those early days, but I wouldn’t advise against taking in any of others you have time for.
I visisted 10 of the 14 monasteries from the 16 century in the slopes of the Popocatepetl in Morelos and here is waht I found:
a) San Mateo Apostol in Atlatlauhcan: Not so bas conservate, but it needs work
2) de la Natividad in Tepoztlán: Is one of the most well taken care off and in reconstruction
3) San Juan Bautista in Tetela del Volcán: It's conditions are the worst
4) San Juan Bautista in Tlayacapan: Very nice, but it still needs reconstruction
5) Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Hueyapan: This is in the worst state. I couldn't even enter because it was really early, for what I saw from the outside it has been painted in pastel colors!
6) San Guillermo in Totolapan: I almost cried when I saw it. The upper floor has been remodelated to serve as rooms for he priests so all the frescoes are lost.
7) Santo Domingo in Oaxtepec: Very nice
8) Santo Domingo in Yecapixtla: Taken care off, but it needs work
9) Santiago Apóstol in Ocuituco: Nice, but is not very cared
10)Inmaculada Concepción in Zacualpan de Amilpas: It needs more work, although is in very good state
- Fernando LZ :
- Ferbstone :
- Philipp Peterer Jean Lecaillon João Aender Larry F :
- Wojciech Fedoruk Lichia Craig Harder Randi Thomsen Ian Cade Vernon Prieto Martina Ruckova Stanimir :
- Els Slots Argo Mikko Solivagant Nan Caspar Dechmann Michael anak Kenyalang Svein Elias Jay T :
- Stanislaw Warwas Ivan Rucek Frédéric M Carlo Sarion :
- Janis Zoë Sheng :
To include Franciscan Ensemble of the Monastery and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption of Tlaxcala
Has been on T List since 1986 as "16th C Convents in State of Morelos"
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