An edited version of this post appeared in THE NEWS (Mexico DF) May 24, 2013.’s-spanish-school-renaissance


James J. Horn, Ph.d., Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, May 24, 2013


Rain of Gold Tree on the grounds of Cuernavaca’s 16th century Cathedral. Photo by Benjamin Cordova.

 One of the world’s leading centers for teaching Spanish to foreigners is fighting to recover from several years of setbacks, particularly an unfair image problem from international reportage on the drug war. Enrollments in the numerous private language schools have plummeted in Cuernavaca, capital of the state of Morelos and a resort city in central Mexico an hour south of Mexico City, previously host to thousands of foreign students per year. Local educators decry the unwarranted perception of the city as dangerous, but see hopeful signs in promising political and social changes in the state. Both the city’s rise to prominence in international education and its current predicament have been a long time evolving.

Known as the “city of eternal spring” for its superb climate, Cuernavaca became the largest center in the hemisphere for Spanish-language study beginning in the 1960s. What began as a program to teach Spanish to American and Canadian missionaries soon attracted college students and staffers from international businesses, airlines, and governments.  The schools hosted ambassadors to Mexico and embassy employees from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Popular vocalist Linda Ronstadt studied in Cuernavaca in 1987 prior to recording her hugely successful album, Canciones de mi Padre (Songs of my Father).  By then  the resort city in the Sierra Madre  became second only to Salamanca, Spain as a center for Spanish-language classes in over 25 private institutions. So the infrastructure was already well-established when the launching  of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, caused enrollments to skyrocket. During the 1990s probably ten thousand students a year  took classes ranging from a few weeks to an entire semester.


Most schools have lovely gardens appropriate to the superb climate in “the city of eternal spring.” Photo courtesy of Universidad Internacional, UNINTER.

But registrations began a significant downturn several years ago. The first of three painful blows to the city came with the collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008, bringing austerity to many businesses, impacting international travel in general, and making study-abroad financially more difficult. Right on the heels of the economic downturn came the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 when enrollments in the schools fell dramatically, although Cuernavaca had a low incidence of the disease.

Chac Mool

Students socialize around the pool.
Photo courtesy of CHAC MOOL.

Experiencia outdoors

Small-group classes and conversation groups often meet outdoors. Photo courtesy of EXPERIENCIA.


Study-abroad students from the University of Minnesota pose for a group photo. Courtesy of CEMANAHUAC.

Encuentros  outdoor class

Small classes can meet outdoors thanks to Cuernavaca’s superb climate. Courtesy of ENCUENTROS.

The third and most critical blow has been the alarmist international publicity from  President Felipe Calderón’s war on the drug cartels.  Calderón’s  sexenio or six year term, 2006-2012, saw an estimated 50 thousand criminal related deaths  as the cartels responded viciously to the attack on their livelihood. 


Alarming press reports overlooked the fact that Mexico’s homicide rate is 18 per 100 thousand inhabitants, moderate compared to many other places including, Brazil at 22, Puerto Rico at 26, and Honduras at 82 (“Drug Violence in Mexico,” Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego, March 2012). Most Mexican cities have homicide rates lower than comparably-sized cities north of the border. The homicide rate in 2010 in New Orleans was over 52 per 100 thousand population, yet tourists travel there safely in large numbers. According to the U.S. State Department, “The number of U.S. citizens reported…as murdered under all circumstances in Mexico was 113 in 2011 and 32 in the first six months of 2012.” Only four of 31 Mexican states are included in the U.S. State Department’s warning to avoid non-essential travel. But perception is more important than reality and Mexico dropped off the map of favored tourist destinations.                                                                                                          


Language-school excursions feature cultural sites like the pyramids at nearby Xochicalco where this group from Saratoga High School (CA) enjoys a visit. Photo courtesy of UNINTER.

Cuauhnahuac service volunteer

Some schools offer opportunities for voluntary service with local communities. Photo courtesy of CUAUHNAHUAC.


School fiestas feature traditional music and folkloric dancers. Photo courtesy of UNINTER.









People in the local tourist industry lament what they see as the unfairness of the collapse since the violence in Morelos is almost entirely criminals killing other criminals. It is clear that students and other foreign tourists have not been the targets nor the victims of the violence.  The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory, updated November 20, 2012, does not call on Americans to defer non-essential travel to Morelos.   Its brief statement reads:

You should exercise caution in the state of Morelos due to the unpredictable nature of TCO [transnational criminal organization] violence. On August 24, two USG employees were injured after being fired upon by Federal Police officers on an isolated road north of Tres Marias, Morelos. Numerous incidents of narcotics-related violence have also occurred in the city of Cuernavaca, a popular destination for U.S. students.

Cetlalic Family Stay

Most students stay inexpensively with Mexican families. Photo courtesy of CETLALIC.


Mature adults often prefer to rent furnished apartments. Photo courtesy of VILLA GOLONDRINA.


All schools promote Mexican culture in addition to Spanish classes. Here students sing-along to traditional Mexican music. Photo courtesy of IDEAL.









Today the schools are optimistic that reduced violence and promising political changes will help boost admissions. The Economist reported (Nov. 22, 2012) that “the level of violence in Mexico seems to have stabilized for the first time in six years” with 22 percent fewer drug-related executions in 2012 compared to 2011. Other signs hold promise for an uptick in travelers. The new President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto and the new Governor of Morelos, Graco Ramírez have made reducing violence priorities in their administrations. A new Cuernavaca mayor, Jorge Morales Barud, took office January 1, 2013, bringing some fresh ideas for urban improvements. The governor and the mayor, though of different parties, have promised to work together on reviving Cuernavaca’s economy and improving  security. The governor and newly-appointed State Secretary of Tourism, Jaime Álvarez Cisneros, have made promoting the schools one of their priorities. Further good news came in March 2013 when the California State University 2007 ban on study-abroad programs in Mexico.

Uninter 4th of July

Given the preponderance of students from the U.S., schools tend to celebrate U.S. holidays like the 4th of July. Photo courtesy of UNINTER.

 So is Cuernavaca a safe place for foreign students to study Spanish?  Locals here say absolutely. Smart travelers to any large city in the world know to stay in tourist areas, avoid danger zones, and take logical precautions. Meanwhile, some schools are already experiencing a pickup in university and high school group arrivals. Some of the smaller schools are still suffering, but several others reported enrollments of 25 to 50 foreign students during the January and February and spring breaks.  About a dozen U.S. colleges have already committed to summer programs in several different language schools. More high schools would surely commit were it not for liability insurance issues due to the State Department advisory.

Cetlalic students in Market

Students enjoy practicing their Spanish around town, like these students in the public market. Photo courtesy of CETLALIC.

In addition to group  arrivals, business and diplomatic personnel are trickling back with individual reservations from Samsung, Suntory, Coca Cola, and Scotia Bank among others. Foreign service personnel continue to arrive from New Zealand and Canada. Independent students have registered from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Japan, Korea, Australia, Trinidad, and the Bahamas. Cuernavaca’s educational community hopes that improving numbers will soon translate resilience into resurgence.                 

Portrait LectureThe author is Associate Professor of History Emeritus at the State University of  New York (SUNY) College at  Brockport and former coordinator of the SUNY study-abroad program in Cuernavaca. As President of Educational Travel Service (now retired) he organized and led over one hundred tour groups to Mexico, including 80 programs in Cuernavaca for Road Scholar (Elderhostel). He is the author of Cuernavaca, A Guide For Students & Tourists, an e-book available at; information on his blog,


The cover of the author’s Guidebook available as an E-book from


  1. Students who pass on study in Cuernavaca for security reasons are missing the boat. The five month stay in Cuernavaca by my wife and me has been nothing less than pleasant and rewarding. We have traveled freely about the region on a number of scenic and historical excursions and we have never experienced any sense of unease. More importantly, we have been treated with courtesy and cheer at every turn by local shopkeepers and waitpersons at restaurants. And conversing with them in their own language has rewarded us with smiles and cheer. – Mike

  2. Nice article and let’s HOPE that the students come back to Cuernavaca, much like the swallows returning to Capistrano! Susan ****************************** Susan Ansara 4471 Superstition Drive Las Cruces, NM 88011 Phone: 575-521-1121 (H) 575-649-8786 (C) e-mail: *******************************

  3. So glad to hear that the students are returning to Cuernavaca! There is no better place to start learning Spanish, and it is the ideal location from which to visit both fantastic historical sites and Mexico City.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I was a student in Cuernavaca (through SUNY Brockport) in the fall of 1978. Am thinking of retiring there, or at least wintering there. Nice to read a well-rounded narrative about it. Your article brought this to mind:

    • Thanks for your comment Marilyn. Sorry you came in the fall rather than the spring when I was resident director. I am so glad you loved your experience as hundreds of my students did. Elsewhere on this blog is a post on retiring in Cuernavaca. If you click on the link “follow” at the top left of the page you will receive automatic notice of new posts. Hope to see you here!

      • Thank you, Jim, for the friendly response! I am delighted to read your blog and have subscribed. I will surely remain in touch.

        Kind regards, Marilyn Babcock, Unadilla, NY ________________________________________

  5. Thank you very much, Jim, for this thoughtful piece. I have forwarded it to our International Studies Office at St. Olaf College for their consideration.

  6. Professor Ross Gandy (UNAM)

    As a Texan I spent my summers in Mexico until I arrived in Cuernava in1970 to live permanently. Since then I’ve worked with university students and US tourists in Mexico. I have never seen US citizens bothered by Mexicans. Surveys show that most Mexicans have a positive attitude toward the USA and the more they have been there as Mexican tourists or as migrants, the more they like it. They admire the basic honesty of the people and the higher economic development. The violence in Mexico is not against Germans and Americans. Kidnappers are not interested in grabbing visitors from other countries and holding them for ransom: the visitors don’t have families here that can be made to pay off. (If you are living here permanently with relatives, that is another story.) Jim mentions that the US State Dept´s Travel Advice complained that US anti-narco officials were attacked near Tres Marías above Cuernavaca and the Department implied that our area is therefore unsafe. This State Department advice is a typical example of how Washington thrashes about in the world with no regard for the consequences to the local people (here, the vital tourist business). What are US anti-narco officials doing crawling all over Mexico carrying on an insane war against a drug traffic that cannot possible be eliminated anyhow? And when there is a shootout between US officials and their opponents in the Ajusco mountains the State Department implies that Americans here are unsafe. This is absurd! Jim Horn is right when he says that Cuernavaca is safer for US citizens than most cities in the USA. (Mexican businesspeople themselves suffer extortion and kidnapping, but that is another story.) The State Department’s limited understanding of the outside world never ceases to astonish me. Their directives show that they have not done much study of the areas they are supposed to be analyzing. Tourism is the biggest employer in Mexico in an economy where unemployment is the major national problem. And Washington (along with the media) is doing what it can to undermine US tourism in Mexico. (Of course this is not a conscious policy but merely incompetence.) What Mexico needs from Washington is more benign neglect.

  7. I have been taking high school students to Cuernavaca for the past 10 years. We have gone every other year, beginning in 2003. Our numbers diminished some, but we have a large group going this summer, and I sense we have turned a corner in terms of bad press and hyperbole regarding travel to places like Cuernavaca. When we went in 2009, we didn’t meet ONE PERSON who had H1N1. Every time we have gone, the nearly 5 weeks we have spent there learning and living with Mexican families have been completely safe, pleasant and transformative in the most positive of ways. Moreover, our participants, ages 14-18, are excellent Spanish students, and this program has allowed our Minnesota school a direct immersion experience that has greatly enhanced our Spanish program during the rest of the school year. What they learn, they retain. For most students, 5 weeks in the immersion setting (with 4 solid weeks of Spanish classes) results in advancing at least ONE YEAR in our college prep language curriculum. I highly recommend it to ANYONE.

    • Thanks for your comments based on authentic experience. If we could only drag some administrators to Cuernavaca and let them experience the quality of the education and the safety of the environment, we could easily double enrollments. Yours is one of scores of similar experiences and I am delighted for you.

  8. Since 1978 I have brought over 3500 students of all ages to Cuernavaca to study Spanish, and I have never had any problems of violence whatsoever. It is amazing to see the power of the media to destroy the economy here talking of problems that do not exist for the students of Spanish in Cuernavaca.

  9. I attended UNINTER in 2003 & had a wonderful experience, learning Spanish much easier than I did in my American university. I stayed with a family & ultimately married into my host family. Now we visit once a year with our children & as the years have gone by the fear of being harmed in Cuernavaca has risen with every year that passes. The stories we hear from my in-laws are frightening & our biggest fear is our family getting caught in the crossfire. We came very close to being caught in the crossfire the summer of 2012, at a Caliente! bingo establishment, listening to a valet worker meet his death against a drug cartel making a round of visits killing others throughout the city that night. Myself, along with my Mexican husband, crouched to the ground inside the bingo place as we heard the gun shots fired & crawled outside to the streets looking for safety. I’ve traveled the world & I am never more afraid than when I’m in Cuernavaca. We have many Mexican friends that have moved out of Cuernavaca & refuse to return. As a mother of three young children, it is difficult for us to return to my husband’s once safe hometown. I hope one day soon we can breathe easier visiting our family there.

    • Sorry I wasn’t notified of your comment and just found it today. That shoot out in 2012 was probably the last one, and there were few before it. Most of the crime here is petty. I am not sure why your in-laws would exaggerate so unless they go out to discos late at night where there have been some incidents. In 2013 the police claim there was not one single incident of violence against a foreigner. Though the CuernAds internet group reported to me 4 incidents of being robbed at gunpoint. Were it Miami or New Orleans they probably would have been shot. Both cities are far more dangerous to tourists than Cuernavaca. The language schools have had hundreds of students since 2012 and there has not been one act of violence against a student. Kidnappings are up but the victims are children of wealthy Mexicans who pay up fast. The kidnappers don’t want the FBI coming in. Extorsion is up if you own a business. The police have launched a campaign against both those crimes. Your talk of many people leaving Cuernavaca is pure exaggeration. There were 19 people murdered in Chicago one weekend but tourists can go there safely because, like here in Cuernavaca, tourists are not the targets nor the victims. Sorry you had one bad experience but that does not indict the city forever.

  10. Man seems like a place that beautiful would be hard to pass up! A lot of media is just words… Think I’ll have to head out to Cuernavacas one day, it is now on my bucket list. Of course, by then I’ll be proficient with Español 😉



  13. Pingback: SUNY PROGRAM IN CUERNAVACA - Spanish School´s Blog at Uninter

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