This article is from the December 1997 - January 1998 The Mexico
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Paracho, The Guitar Capital of Mexico
by Kenny Hill
Kenny Hill is a guitar builder, a guitarist, and a writer from California. He makes hand-made concert classical guitars in his shop in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz, California, and is involved with guitar building for export in Paraco, Michoacan. He can be reached at 408-336-2436 or through email firstname.lastname@example.org
In Mexico, Paracho is synonymous with guitar. Three years ago when I was beginning my sojourn into the guitar life of Paracho, I was waiting in the Guadalajara bus station and another traveler struck up a conversation with me. When I mentioned Paracho he said, "Oh yes, Paracho. The best guitars in the world come from there." I had to bite my tongue not to say, "No, my friend, not the best the most. The most guitars come from Paracho." And this is the way it always has been. More guitars than you thought were in the whole world are in, or from, Paracho. But things are changing, subtly. Now there is a handful of guitarreros who are making, yes, some of the best. There has been a series of visits and classes taught by world class maestros to bring technique and perspective from outside the region. And, more and more, some of the guitar builders from Paracho are traveling outside of Mexico to the U.S. or to Spain and getting a good dose of the state of the art on the outside on the other side.
I first visited Paracho around 1980. I had been taking a performance master class from a maestro in Mexico City, and I really wanted to visit this legendary guitar place. I came away with an instrument, very good for the price, that I bought from David Caro (who is now my landlord...how the world does turn!). The amazing thing is that now, in searching my memory, the place doesnt seem that much different. Maybe a few more taxis, or maybe its the satellite dishes on the rooftops but all in all, Ive changed a lot more than Paracho has.
For all its fame, Paracho is a very small town. In fact, I dont know anyone working in the guitar trade in Paracho who wasnt born there. The lifestyle assumptions are special, unique to this place. There are more guitar builders in this town of 15,000 souls than there are in the entire U.S., Im sure of that. And people get into it because thats just what you do thats the work there is. Its the way you make a living in Paracho...or else you leave and look for a career. It is my understanding that the young people today generally dont want to get into guitar building its seen as a dead end. But as of this writing anyway, its a sellers market for someone with guitar making skills. People job-hop easily. All of the employers who I know complain that good workers are constantly being seduced away to other jobs by some slightly better offer.
Paracho and Its History
The climate is tough its at about 7,300 feet. The seasons are extreme. When it rains it pours, and when its cold its freezing. It is rarely hot. The population includes a large percentage of Púrepechas. Its remote and rustic, and very set in its ways. If you ask how this town so completely dedicated to an esoteric speciality like guitar building happened, you will get an assortment of replies. The most sophisticated sounding one, and the most often repeated, is that the skill came over with the Spanish colonists, most specifically with the priest, Vasco de Quiroga, who is attributed with distributing an assortment of useful economic skills to various communities around Michoacan. Theres no doubt that he did this with many different artesanias, teaching skills to the natives of different areas in order to provide them with marketable crafts. I suppose this was part of the evangelizing of the area. The problem with this legend and the guitar is that Don Vasco was alive in Mexico during the 16th century, but the guitar as we know it didnt even appear in Europe until the mid-19th century, let alone in Paracho where it isnt really documented until the early part of the 20th century. On this subject I find it healthier to abstain from any kind of argument. But it does leave me asking, "Well then, what?"
Tourists are subject to a special point of view. There are few bonafide gringo tourists walking the streets of Paracho. There are the occasional backpacking travelers, solo or in pairs, who are on a pilgrimage, but the huge majority of tourists are Mexican travelers, from D.F. or other cities, or the turismo buses that come loaded with travelers stopping to peruse the artesanias of Michoacan. The main street is about eight blocks long at the most, and you will see more guitars on that street than you see during the rest of your life. There are guitars hanging, guitars in piles, guitars in the streets, carried by grandmothers and children off to the varnish shops for finishing. There are guitars tucked away in cases, guitars piled up at the bus stops on their way to the cities, and guitars being made the smell of the fresh wood and the crunch of the shavings on the floor, and the incredibly natural and clever use of a few simple hand tools. If you dont know how to identify a good guitar, take care youre on your own. You should be fine. If you do recognize a good guitar...well, you will see a hundred guitars at a particular price, but in each range there will be one that is better, maybe much better. Each builder or seller will tell you that theirs are the best, that they have the secret. But if you use your own ears and hands and eyes, you might find a sweet deal. The prices will be from 50 to 500 dollars, and my advice is to find the best thing that you can for 150 to 200 dollars.
The very best are not so easy to find. There is only one of the "top five" builders on the main street (and no way will I name him I have to live with the rest of them!). Throughout the town there are a dozen or so really accomplished guitar builders. They dont have signs and most of the good builders dont have instruments ready to go out the door on any given day, and there is no catalog or map to their shops. They are very nice and helpful when you find them, but the Paracho spirit is independent, and attempts at organizing the talent there is so far have been ineffective.
There is a jewel of a cultural experience that I truly hope you fall upon. There is a place called CIDEG (Centro para la Investigacion y Desarollo de la Guitarra The Center for the Investigation and Development of the Guitar). It is just two blocks from the plaza one block up the main street toward Uruapan, then one block to the left. This is a museum, a classroom and a concert hall. The museum of the guitar is very engaging, the school for children is inspiring, and if you chance on one of the free concerts in the concert hall you will be startled at the beauty and perfection of the setting, and of your luck. The auditorium holds about 150 seats, and it is a wonderful acoustic refuge. The cycle of performers is almost all Mexican classical guitar players, and the concerts are always free, sponsored by the Monroy family and others. The attitude is very serious, and the level varies. But I can guarantee a wonderfully surprising cultural experience should you be fortunate enough to fall into one of these concerts. The museum is open 10 to 1 and 3:30 to 6 Monday through Saturday, and the concerts are usually, but not always, on Fridays at 7:00 p.m. And theyre always free.
Another cultural event to try to catch is the feria during the month of August. It is an exhausting week-long town party that includes every kind of public and private celebration imaginable...and there are nightly guitar concerts, a players competition, a builders competition and parades for every reason. The town fills up with people from all the surroundings villages. Its wild.
Getting and Staying There
The logistics of the town arent great. Its not really on the way to anywhere, except maybe Paracutín, and its not particularly traveler oriented. There is a hotel called the Hermelinda right in the middle of town, and just a half block from the concert hall. It costs about eleven dollars, and its worth every penny. But there is no guarantee that it will be open. There are others on the edge of town that are cheaper still...and they will be open. Decent restaurants are La Casona, right on the plaza, and Los Arcos, out by the highway. Otherwise, use your best judgment with the cocinas economicas.
If you are accustomed to more conveniences, the city of Uruapan is 35 km away, to the south a ten dollar taxi ride. The hotel Mansion de Cupatitzio is right on the edge of the Parque Nacional, which is on the northern edge of town. The hotel is elegant and about 50 dollars. The park is spectacular a paradise of water, jungle and people that is enchanting and only a ten-minute walk from downtown. There are several hotels on the plaza central, which is the very homey center of a very homey small city in the high foothills of Michoacan.
Personally, I fly into Guadalajara and then go to Zamora and from there to Paracho. Or I fly into Morelia, then to Uruapan and on to Parecho. Morelia is closer, about 2 ˝ hours but with less frequent arrivals and departures. Guadalajara is three or five hours, depending on your method of transport. It has more convenient flight schedules, for me anyway.
In all, if you like guitars, you will be knocked over by Paracho. If you dont think much about guitars but like Mexico, there is a folkloric feeling to the town that is fairly unspoiled. It really is worth the trip out there to experience it while its still here.