This article is from the August-September
2003 The Mexico
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The Mexican's Mexico: Michoacán
by Jane Onstott
Jane Onstott is a translator, writer, and editor who contributes regularly to The Mexico File. She has lived in Spain, Ecuador, and Mexico – and is currently plotting a return to Mexico.
Michoacán, a large state with a rugged, little-visited Pacific coast, lies west of Mexico City, sandwiched between Guerrero, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Colima, and the state of Mexico. In addition to light industry (they export paper products, avocados, and guacamole), tourism contributes greatly to Michoacán's economy. However, of its two to three million annual visitors, 90 percent are Mexican.
Why is it that for every nine Mexicans who visit, only one foreigner hears the call? Because Mexicans are more sophisticated? Because most are defeños, anxious to trade Mexico City’s congestion and smog for something familiar and comforting, close by, and safe? Because they love guacamole?
I recently visited Michoacán state and its capital, Morelia, not because I wanted to answer these or other rhetorical questions, but because I’m one of the 10 percent of foreign visitors who finds the place irresistible.
And it’s not just the guacamole. Have you tried “Michoacán-style meat?” It’s sold in restaurants and at taco stands around the country, but nowhere does it compare with what is made in its home state. The first time I tried a plate of a mixed grill cooked hot and fast with chunks of onion, fresh mushrooms, green pepper, and melty cheese, I thought I’d truly landed in Mexican fast-food heaven. Of course it’s served with a mountain of steaming hot tortillas and bowls of perfect red and green salsa. The Pioneros restaurant chain which (along with others) serves this fabulous food has several outlets around Morelia. It’s a no-nonsense kind of eating place, and beer is served only with a meal. There’s no reason to linger: you’re there for the food.
And why linger? There’s a few days’ worth of wandering, photographing, and learning to be done in this capital city of 1.2 million. The downtown area is lined with two-story buildings of unpolished limestone. Their dignified plateresque facades are without the distraction of stucco or paint. Inside, some have been endowed with multi-million dollar renovations.
One such massive restoration has been recently completed at El Conservatorio de las Rosas. The church and part of the adjoining former convent have been painstakingly restored over the last three years. The Santa Rosa de Lima convent was established in the 16th century. It became a school for orphan girls in the 1800s. During the Revolution, soldiers were bivouacked in the large patio courtyard. Since the 1930s the building has housed The Conservatory of the Roses – one of the most important music schools in Latin America.
I recently toured the church with Mr. Phillipe de Reiset, one of the restoration project’s principal champions, cheerleaders, fund-raisers, and patrons. The painted ceiling, quite unusual in gray-green and tan, looked like art nouveau to me but is apparently baroque. The gray and blue motif is mirrored in the tiled floor of stylized flowers. Covering the entire front of the single-nave church is a lovely altarpiece with saints leaning out from their carved wooden niches. Along one side, the screen behind which the interned girls stood to hear Mass has been beautifully restored in shiny gold.
After my tour of the Church of the Roses, Mr. de Reiset showed me around the meandering grounds of Hotel Villa Montaña, which he and his wife Eva bought in 1973. Born to wealth in France, de Reiset’s family home was an ancient abbey that he longed to restore. Regulations in France being too complicated and restrictive, the art and architecture lover moved instead to Mexico, where he has transformed the Villa Montaña into a delightful enclave of dark red villas shaded by tall trees and dotted with sculptures both old and new. Each room is individually decorated in an amalgam of styles, and the staff is exceptionally professional, bright, and helpful.
I was surprised to hear that the place began in the 18th century as a collection of summer homes for wealthy people from the city below. Today it’s just about 15 minutes by car from the busy city center, but I suppose in those days it was a horse or buggy ride of some hours. These homes were small and unassuming compared to their center-city mansions, but they enjoyed a terrific view and cooling summer breezes.
When movie director Henry King owned the hotel during the Hollywood glamour days, occupation was 99 percent American. Today Villa Montaña’s guests, which de Reiset describes as “the newlywed and the nearly dead,” are mainly upper-class Mexicans in designer dresses and tailored suits. I spent two nights at the hotel, but the nicest dress I had seemed shabby by comparison, and the jean jacket I selected to go with it made me feel like a brigand among butterflies. I opted for room service. After several weeks on the road and lots of socializing and interviews, a couple of nights alone with yummy gourmet food and a warming shot of tequila was absolutely welcome and rejuvenating.
Although I’ve visited Morelia several times in the past, this time I hired guide David Saucedo to show me around both the city and the surrounding countryside. David laid on an overwhelming flow of facts and historical data. But he’s also a local, from the town of Santa Clara del Cobre, and knows the countryside well. He can tell you where to find the best tacos in Morelia, and is well connected there with hoteliers, restaurateurs, and artisans.
We skipped the city’s museums, which I’d seen before, and had a pleasant meal instead at Los Mirasoles, a restaurant in the restored home of one of Morelia’s leading families. Slip into the beautiful bar with unpolished marble floors and its own fireplace for one of a laundry list of martinis (50 in all) or many good wines by the glass. The separate dining rooms throughout the mansion are elegantly decorated with a mix of modern murals and old-fashioned tin chandeliers and free-standing carved wood cabinets. My watercress salad was overdressed, but most of the dishes on the international menu are worthwhile.
After eating we headed for the lovely cathedral, which took one hundred years to build. Its baroque façade is fascinating combination of pillars and carved sandstone panels; the interior is mainly neoclassic. The first chapel on the right inexplicably houses the mummies of two who died in the Crusades, a gift no doubt of Spain. If you go, note the chandeliers, which were gifts of Mexico’s short-lived Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg, and the German pipe organ, second-largest in Latin America (after the one in Mexico City) with 4,700 pipes.
Next to the cathedral, shoeshine men and boys position themselves in the geometric shade of Indian laurel trees with foliage trimmed like botanical hatboxes. Laced-out jacarandas surround the beautiful wrought iron bandstand where evening concerts are held. Music is big in Morelia. November heralds the International Music Festival, featuring the cathedral’s massive organ. The Guitar Festival is held each March.
One of the most pleasant pastimes any time you travel is, to my mind, simply lingering in an outdoor café and watching the world go by. Several cafes with a European feel crowd together along Avenida Madero across the street from the main plaza. If you sit at the more tranquil café across from the Conservatory of the Roses, you can listen to the strains of young orchestras at play.
Music aside, however, there’s not a lot of playing going on in Morelia. Maybe that’s why foreigners don’t visit often, or if they do, don’t tend to linger. The people are warm and hospitable, but this city has a purposeful air that almost makes one loath to loaf.
Yet the first inhabitants of Morelia (then called Valladolid) were consummate loafers. Unlike most other colonial cities in Mexico, Morelia wasn’t founded at an existing indigenous town, city, or even settlement. Soon after the Conquest, two Spaniards on horseback met at the undeveloped site to discuss administrative affairs. One of them, the Spanish viceroy, was so impressed with the beauty and climate of the place that he encouraged elite criollo families to relocate there, and a city was founded in 1540. Because Spanish nobility had no need (or desire) to work for a living, the city evolved slowly and practically without industry.
More to experience in the countryside
Although Morelia is an excellent place to begin exploration of the state, the small towns around Lake Patzcuaro exert a powerful draw. About an hour west of Morelia, picturesque Patzcuaro perches on the edge of its namesake lake. The entire town is whitewashed, with the bottom quarter of each shop or home painted a deep wine red. Perhaps by city ordinance, or simply by consensus, business names are printed on the sides of buildings in an old-fashioned script, with the first letter in red and the rest of the word in black. The humble, uniform, one- and two-story buildings form a wonderful backdrop for quiet, meditative walks and a lovely background for photos.
You’ll get more excellent photos and experiences by taking a boat across large Lago de Patzcuaro to the touristy but still appealing island of Janitzio. Climb a series of cement stairs past tiny restaurants and souvenir stalls to the giant statue of war hero Joséé Maríía Morelos that crowns the island. Or visit smaller Isla Yunuen or one of several other tiny islands populated by fishing families.
Although Patzcuaro is a smallish town, there’s plenty to see and do, and I recommend spending several days. At more than 7,000 feet above sea level, the weather is often hot during the day but cold at night, when sweet-scented smoke curls above timbered roofs uniformly capped with ancient red tiles. You’ll note that the local indigenous women use shawls of black with narrow red or blue or yellow stripes to carry their babies or other belongings or folded in different ways on their heads. These shawls, as well as sweaters and capes knit with traditional geometric designs of animals and birds, mitigate the morning and evening chill and make beautiful souvenirs as well.
A fireplace is welcome in this part of the world, and many of the town’s humble yet charming hotels have them. My favorite place to stay, which I found when on a strict budget and still prefer, is Hotel Posada La Basilica. Inexpensive and homey, its pretty, simple rooms surround a central courtyard. (Make sure to ask for one with a fireplace.) The upstairs restaurant has a wonderful view of the city’s adobe roof tiles.
Slightly more upscale but still earthy is the Hostería de San Felipe, an inn where David and I took a quick break for lunch. The restaurant’s rustic, high-ceilinged interior has red tile floors, several large fireplaces, and few decorations. On the waiter’s advice, I tried the dried chile appetizer (served with fresh cheese, Mexican sour cream, chopped cilantro and onion, and tortillas). I’ve never had anything like it. The Tarascan soup, similar to tortilla soup, was quite good, and I could manage only a few bites of Patzcuaro's rich and famous ice cream.
Michoacán has such a wealth of folk art that even non-shoppers like me can’t resist. And Patzcuaro’s shops, all housed in the same whitewashed, dark-timbered buildings within a five or six-block radius of the town center, are ancient, small, and inviting. One of the best places to get an overview of area crafts is the Casa de Once Patios (“House of 11 Patios,” although I counted only half a dozen).
On the first patio, look for the shop of Sarita Angel Calderón, who practices the fine art of maqué. Using clay colored with such natural pigments as squashed insects and chia-plant oil, the aged but still spry artisan creates exquisite bowls, platters, and trays. She laments that her craft is a dying art, as few of the younger generation are interested in such painstaking work. In other shops you’ll find tablecloths and other textiles (made to order if you’ve a few days to wait), items of carved wood or plaited straw, guitars and other musical instruments, shawls and sweaters, and copperware from nearby Santa Clara.
A Wee Bit of History
The one-time capital of the native Purépecha people (one of the very few groups in Mesoamerica never conquered by the Aztecs), Patzcuaro radiates from two squares a block apart. The small Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra is named for one of the martyred leaders of the Independence movement. Check out the small library on the corner of the square, which houses a fabulous mural by architect Juan O’Gorman.
Far larger, Plaza Vasco de Quiroga honors the bishop revered by the people of his time as “Tata Vasco,” or “Grandpa Vasco.” Originally a Purépecha playing field, it was converted under de Quiroga to one of Mexico’s largest tianguis, or outdoor markets. An experienced ecclesiastic lawyer and judge, de Quiroga was ordained a priest and made bishop the same day. Coupled with his legal training, Bishop de Quiroga’s important position gave him a powerful platform from which he aided the indigenous people until his death decades later.
It was no small feat for the wise and charitable de Quiroga to earn the trust of the indigenous population, who had fled to the hills during the tyrannical administration of Nuño de Guzmán to avoid being beaten, enslaved, tortured, and murdered. De Guzmán, whose reign of terror was unacceptably brutal even by the standards of the day, was finally hauled back to Spain in chains. But the indians were by then extremely wary of strangers. De Quiroga was able to regain their trust initially by hosting festive parties with dancing, music, and larger-than-life mojigangas, giant dolls that were paraded through town.
As evidenced by the ornate baroque temples seen today throughout middle Mesoamerica, one of the conquerors’ most important goals was construction of temple after luxurious temple using Indian labor and occasionally even indigenous architects. Vasco de Quiroga built his share of churches, most of them with huge atriums, or outdoor “patios” opening off the nave or main chapel. He found that the Purépecha preferred worshipping outside and, in any case, when the audience swelled, there was no room for the converts in an average church.
But de Quiroga had a more practical agenda, constructing as many schools and small hospitals as houses or worship.
Further evidence of the bishop’s dedication to the practical over the esoteric, he taught each of the communities surrounding Patzcuaro (then the capital of the Spanish authority) a different trade. His foresight gave the people, who by Spanish edict were not allowed to work in gold or silver, valuable trades still practiced in the lake region today.
The Road (Even Less) Traveled
Former regional tourism delegate Gerardo de Larrea Miller once chastised me at length: “You foreigners! You come to Patzcuaro and you think you've seen the lake district!” He admonished me repeatedly to visit the lakeshore towns for their music and dance, festivals, and unique cuisine as well as their handicrafts. I’ve been meaning to take his advice ever since, and only recently embarked on a whirlwind tour – not nearly long enough to savor local culture, but at least I got a taste.
Ten miles from Patzcuaro, Santa Clara del Cobre is a charming and successful copper-smithing town. Like many others in the region, it’s a neat whitewashed town edged in maroon. Nearly one-third of the town’s 1200 inhabitants is in some way involved in pounding out and polishing the fine copperware that fills the town’s 300 shops.
I visited a garage-like workshop where the owner, Brisio Pureco Farfán, pumped a giant bellows. His five burly sons pounded and shaped dingy-looking pieces of copper sheet using primitive tools that had probably changed little in the past 500 years. Brisio is a fourth-generation coppersmith, and his kids, both sons and daughters, are following in his footsteps.
The kettles and pots on which the young men were pounding were so raw and burnt-up looking, it was shocking to see the finished product in the adjoining showroom. While supervising kids and undoubtedly performing dozens of other tasks, Brisio’s three daughters had polished and finished vases, plates, urns, pitchers, and platters with surprising finesse. Some pieces were inlaid with intricate silver designs or tiny oil paintings. The most expensive piece, which took two months to make, cost 8,000 pesos, or about USD$800. Most, however, were priced well within reach of the average gringo.
Heading northwest of Santa Clara, David drove along a road paved with cobblestones and painted cement blocks toward Lago de Zirahuén. We passed snatches of pine-oak forest interspersed with fields of mahogany-colored earth turned and ready for planting. Small hills stood in the middle ground, while dusky blue mountains formed a perpetual backdrop.
Zirahuén sells no handcrafts: its “product” is the lake itself. Passengers pay about USD$3 per person for a 45-minute spin around the lake in small, covered boats. Tiny restaurants on stilts cluster at the shore, frying up freshly caught fish, chiles rellenos, and frittatas of potato, mushroom, and diced nopal cactus pads. Reasonably priced wooden cabins lining the shore near the dock have kitchenettes, fireplaces, and front porches and are popular with city people getting away for weekends and holidays.
Guitars, violins, and other stringed instruments are produced in San Pedro Paracho, which I didn’t have time to visit. Instead, David plunged the car between two plowed but unplanted fields, taking a shortcut to the town of Erongicuaro, where we visited the huge, noisy, yet orderly woodworking shop of American Steve Rosenthal. Along with his wife, Maureen, he and 110 employees produce a carnival of tables, chairs, carved mirrors, and other minor wooden miracles. You’ve probably seen some of their pieces, often brightly painted and whimsical, in upscale shops and boutique hotels around Mexico and in the southwestern United States.
The Rosenthals have been working in the area for many years. Workers can own stock in the company, which is a sort of co-op. The work is low-tech and highly skilled-labor intensive, and there are some 400 different models of tables, chairs, bureaus, and other pieces to chose from; special orders are accepted.
Other towns to visit around the lake include Tzintzuntzan, almost as much fun to say as it is to visit. Here you can walk down to the lakeshore and visit the huge old Franciscan monastery where two churches are being restored and a third stands in ruins. Also see the artisan’s market, where Tzintzuntzan’s famous straw products are for sale, and the ancient Purépecha ceremonial site.
A short side trip off the road from Tzintzuntzan to Patzcuaro takes you to the marvelous village church at Tupataro, whose interior in the 17th century was decorated in amazing, vibrant, and naïf figures. Instead of stone or wood, most of the figures were made of a Michoacán concoction of cactus gel, orchid essence, and ground corn stalks. The church is astonishingly beautiful and well worth the detour. A few miles beyond Tupataro, the town of Cuanajo dedicates itself to painted and natural wood furniture, much of it sold elsewhere.
Michoacán is one of the most beautiful states in Mexico, and one of the least visited by foreigners. So let’s get those numbers up! To make it oh-so easy, Continental Airlines now offers daily nonstops between Houston and Morelia, with connections from more than 100 U.S. and Canadian cities. And if you’re interested but the kids or your spouse really wants to spend time at the beach, a brand new superhighway now connects Morelia and Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. The straight new highway cuts driving time from Morelia to the coast to just over three hours. Open jaw flights are worth investigating: fly into Morelia and out of Ixtapa-Zihua, a laid back resort destination we’ve covered in recent editions of The Mexico File.
Oh, and speaking of open jaws – would someone please pass the guacamole?
If You Go...
Places to Stay & Eat
Hotel Villa Montaña
USD $150 standard room; $200 junior suite
Patzimba 201, Col. Vista Bella
Tel. (443) 314-0231; from U.S. 800/233-6510 or Canada 800/448-8355
Mirasoles Restaurant & Wine Bar
Av. Madero Poniente 549 at Guzmán, downtown
Hotel Posada de la Basilica
Arciga 6, downtown
Hostería de San Felipe
Av. Lázaro Cárdenas 321