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Uruapan, The Real Mexico
by jennifer j. rose
jennifer j. rose is a
writer, editor and lawyer living in Morelia, Michoacán. She is
editor-in-chief of GPSolo, a
magazine published by the American Bar Association and moderator of Mexico
Connect's Forum. She can be reached at email@example.com.
They call it “the place
where the flowers bloom,” this steamy edge of subtropical landscape, as rich
in history as it is in surprise and beauty where superlatives and contrasts
It was the early 80s, and
Uruapan was merely a waystation on the road between Morelia and Ixtapa. It
struck me as a nice enough agricultural town, with a spanking-new shopping
center, some modern neighborhoods, and a deserted but stylish restaurant
billed as “La Scala.” At that moment, it bode as much tourist potential as
A couple years later, some
friends goaded me into joining them for the Semana Santa arts festival,
promising a spectacle of not less than a million or so clay pots piled up in
the main plaza. And that’s when my eyes began to open. There really was
something more to Uruapan than avocados.
Oaxaca gets all the credit
as Mexico's craft and cultural Mecca. What many folks fail to realize is that
Uruapan is a serious competitor in that field, offering up even more. And
easily accessible, too.
At the edge of the high
tropics, Uruapan, the second largest city in Michoacán, acts, smells and
looks like it ought to be not more than a half-hour’s drive from the ocean.
It’s really at least a 6-hour drive through some isolated areas to the Playa
Azul, just up the road from Lazaro Cardenas, but a cuota due for
completion in December 2000 will change all of that.
Nestled at the southern
reaches of the Sierras, Uruapan spills onto seemingly endless lush and verdant
hills and valleys bearing oranges, bananas, and coconut palms, reminiscent of
Hawaii. A five-minute drive to the north or west leads to pine forests which
could be set in northern California. The Centro, or downtown area, which
really isn’t in the center of town, mixes up architectural styles from the
colonial to the 1950's in a style which really reminded me of Istanbul. At one
end of the plaza the Hotel Moderna might’ve been the cat’s pajamas back in
the early forties, is now a sad one-star property, but its sign says it all. I
hope they never remove that sign. At the opposite sits the swank, full-service
Hotel Plaza Uruapan. Even the street names – from Culver City Ave. and the
usual spate of historic personages to the exotically unpronounceable – bear
witness to the diversity this town harbors. Each direction points to contrasts
– in time, in landscape, and in culture. Uruapan is the real and untouted
When Fray Juan de San
Miguel founded Uruapan in 1533, he divided it up into nine barrios
(neighborhoods), which wasn’t a bad idea, given the city’s topography. It
also provided an excellent excuse for establishing more chapels and fiestas
which endure almost five hundred years later in what was heralded as a feat of
some darn good urban planning.
The logical starting place
is right downtown at the tree-lined, three-block long Plaza de Morelos y Mártires
de Uruapan. The absolute must-see, just north of the plaza, is La Huatapera,
built as one of the first hospitals on the American continent (it also served
as an inn) around 1534, which now houses the Museum of Popular Arts, a small
but excellent representation of the best of Michoacán artesania.
Alongside La Huatapera is the Inmaculada Church, built at the same time. Recently renovated, its ochre and mauve interior spells a soothing and peaceful atmosphere, delicately balanced against Moorish tones. On the other side of La Huatapera is the Casa de la Cultura, where anything from piano competitions to folk dancing may take place. Alongside is the Parroquia de San Francisco, with its breaktaking modern interior.
Directly behind La
Huatpera is a small market, quite possibly the cleanest I’ve ever seen in
all of Mexico, selling everything from straw hats to produce. Inside of this
market is the Mercado de Antojitos, offering up typical fare ranging from
carnitas to corundas and café de olla. Living in Michoacán where good
food’s available all the time, I’ve become jaded, but I’d definitely
recommend these stalls for a quick nosh.
Supposedly the narrowest
house in the world is but a meter wide and located in Amsterdam, but Uruapan
claims to have its very own “narrowest house in the world,” 1.2 meters
wide and 10.20 meters deep, located at 50 Carrillo Puerto St., north of
Centro. It’s worth a gander, if only because it’s a lot closer than
A few blocks from the
Plaza is the Fabrica San Pedro, a textile factory built in the late 19th
century in the style of most textile mills of that era. One of the largest
water-powered mills in the region, this factory produced as many as 40,000
blankets during its heyday. Americans Walter and Bundy Illsley, long-time
residents, bought the mill in the late eighties, where their company, Telares
Uruapan, still produces hand-loomed natural fibers in traditional local as
well as custom designs for export all over the world from San Miguel de
Allende to Australia. Their restoration of the Fabrica San Pedro is nothing
short of marvelous, devoting a portion of the mill to a classy convention
center, an upscale gallery and shop overlooking well-manicured gardens
fronting the Rio Cupatitzio. Open daily except Sunday. Miguel Trevino S/N.
(452) 4-0677. Fax (452) 4-3801.
Just around the corner
from the Fabrica San Pedro is the Hosteria del Angel, more than simply a
restaurant. The walls lining the angel-filled rooms are a local artist’s
renditions of religious scenes from the extraordinary ceilings of the 17th
century Tupataro church. Paella on Sundays is a specialty, and the regular
menu represents a fusion of Spanish cuisine and nouvelle Mexican. Calle
Caracol No. 30, Antiguo Barrio de San Pedro. (452) 313-62. Closed Mondays.
Ask any Mexican what
Uruapan instantly brings to mind, and it’s the Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruiz.
From the D.F.’s juniors to an ordinary albanil, the opinion remained
uniform, forcing me to find out exactly what could possibly be so great about
a park with a waterfall. I'd seen it from the Mansion de la Cupatitzio’s
restaurant, considered it nothing more than scenery. Finally, I paid the
6-peso admission to find out for myself. And I was more than amazed. This
tropical rainforest, with its neat walks and crashing falls and fountains,
demands at least half a day’s worth of exploration. “Park” just
doesn’t describe this tropical rainforest and its trails along the Rio
Cupatitizio leading up to its beginning at La Rodilla del Diablo (“the
Devil's Knee”), cleaner and more spectacular than any of Walt Disney’s
wildest dreams. In the middle of the park is a trout hatchery, where salmon
trout could be plucked from the water for 40 pesos per kilo. Within this
542-hectare park were more varieties and permutations of flora than we could
identify, including a plátano con huesos, a lumpy sort of banana with
fingernail-sized black seeds which was thought to have been brought to Mexico
by African slaves.
About seven miles distant,
the Cupatitzio reigns over yet another park, where the waterfall of La Tzaráracua
makes a hundred-foot plunge, and farther downstream again at a smaller
Uruapan serves up a
year-round menu of cultural events ranging from traditional costume
competitions, dance exhibitions, concerts, fiestas, and programs ranging from
puppetry to photography. Easter vacation, which is a two-week spring break in
Mexico, brings out the best: Tianguis Artesanal del Domingo de Ramos,
the Holy Sunday craft market. What started forty years ago as a pottery-only
show has grown into an extravaganza of more than 1,200 artisans from
throughout the state of Michoacán who really do bring more than a million
pieces of their best work to the Plaza de Morelos y Mártires de Uruapan.
Avocado is king in Uruapan, the epicenter of Mexican avocado production, where enormous facilities have sprouted up almost overnight to meet the demand for export to venues as far-flung as Japan and France, and since an eighty-year old ban was repealed three years ago, to the United States. In fact, the USDA has a dozen inspectors stationed in Uruapan just to make certain that US-exporting companies follow the rules. Leveraging the risks of handling fresh produce, food processing firms have taken the avocado to new heights from pulp processing to marketing frozen products. Mexican growers, satisfying domestic per capita consumption of 18.7 pounds annually, fare behind California-owned avocado exporters.
But there’s more than
the makings of guacamole harvested in those verdant hills. Coffee, chocolate,
oranges, bananas and macadamias are part of the area';s bounty. Macadamias in
Mexico? Only a few years ago, someone discovered that Uruapan's climate was
just right for the nut orchards, and he encouraged its production. Roadside
sites just outside of the city sell the shelled nuts for $3 a pound.
lacquerware of Uruapan never really impressed me until I watched the
transformation of a batea (shallow wooden bowl) into a work of art as
the maestra explained each step of an arduous and delicate process,
selecting the right low-resin wood, grinding pigments from the depths of the
earth, mixing it with chia oil, and adding the final and most important
ingredient: aje. The aje, she revealed, was a wax derived from
boiled an insect found only in Mexico. What distinguishes Uruapan lacquer from
the rest of the lot is a technique called embutido, a fine carving of
lacquer, hand-rubbed, incised, inlaid, and rubbed with an additional color in
successive steps taking at least a month to complete. Where did the idea for
lacquerware come from? Dr. Atl, the artist also known as Gerardo Murillo,
offered up the idea that about the year 600 A.D. the Chinese reached the west
coast of Michoacán. Designs range from Tarascan to Moorish and even
Paricutín entered my
vocabulary back around junior high school, during a science class film about
the birth of a volcano discovered by campesino Dionisio Pulido working a
cornfield who rushed back to tell the people of his village minutes (or so it
seemed) before their church was engulfed in lava. A few years ago, a friend
and I decided to drive to Paricutín in the spur of the moment, knowing
nothing more than the more popular Angahuan route surely meant the much-feared
and mandatory horseback riding. We hied to San Juan Nuevo, eight miles down
the road from Uruapan, and found ourselves a logging road. By the time we were
halfway up the mountain, it started raining, but ever-determined to reach the
peak, we made it in about an hour. Of course, the logging trucks headed
downhill looked askance at the two fools taking the wrong road up, but the
fields of lava entranced us. As we reached the famed steeple mired in lava,
some of the necessary undercarriage of our Suburban unwittingly jettisoned on
the way, we met a tour bus. Idiots that we were, we’d taken the longer, more
Still, San Juan Nuevo
bears exploration, if only to understand the transplantation of an entire
community some twenty miles away to an ex-hacienda formerly known as Los
Conejos. Paricutín began its eruption on 20 February 1943, but the community
didn’t get around to dismantling its houses and moving the church contents
until over a year later. Ever since then, the people of San Juan Nuevo make a
pilgrimage back to the old town of San Juan Parangaricutiro.
Only a year after its
birth, Paricutín was a tourist attraction. Gringo folklorista Frances Toor,
writing in her New Guide to Mexico (1st ed., 1944), gives
complete directions for renting horses, suggesting that tourists “plan to
see the volcano by daylight and at night.” By the fifties, when the volcano
spew for the last time, the tourist potential had faded.
Eco-tourism has made
Paricutín a hot attraction once more. And there’s a far easier route than
the one I took that first time: Angahuan. About twenty miles from Uruapan,
it’s an easy drive. Follow the signs leading north to Paracho, turning left
toward Los Reyes. Vistas rapidly change from avocado orchards to forested
dells, punctuated by trojes, the typical wooden Tarascan dwelling. Most
trojes now sport metal roofs, surely more fire-retardant than the traditional
Angahuan is another world
entirely, the archetypal Tarascan village, one where a goodly lot of the
populace speak Spanish and Tarasco and where everyday attire was straight out
of history. Our reverie was cut short by shills on horseback, begging to take
us to the volcano, adding, “We speak English.” Our first stop was right
downtown to check out the plaza and the church, wondering who owned the
underfed sow that just seemed to wander around. The church, dedicated to
Santiago de Apostola, bore the date of 1562, was simple, unadorned but for a
Plateresque doorway. Inside, Mudéjar touches revealed some definite
Many of the houses bore with crosses adorned with children’s clothing and, sometimes, toys. We just couldn’t figure that out until we asked. Each of those crosses had been erected in memory of a child who’d died.
Weaving our way through
the town’s dirt roads, we finally found the Centro Turistico de Angahuan, a
delightful compound of cabins, camping spots, and, of course, the view of
Paricutín. This time, the full glory of the buried church’s front end
revealed itself as well as a broad and fertile valley below. The cabins, which
rent from $150 pesos per night (without bath) to $400 pesos (with bath),
struck us as a genuine bargain. The horses even looked sufficiently tame and
well-groomed that I briefly considered renting one for $150 pesos until my
friend Hank mentioned something about Christopher Reeves.
Heading out of town, our
interest was piqued by the activity going on inside of houses, so we peeked in
a few, watching women weave shawls and blankets on backstrap looms. A single
article can take a month's worth of work.
Twenty miles down the
libre from Uruapan to Patzcuaro sits Tingambato, a small farming town known
for its archeological ruins dating back to somewhere between 500 to 1000 A.D.
Platforms surround a central plaza with multi-chambered pyramids and a ball
court distinguishes these ruins from others in western Mexico. Open daily from
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Everyone who’d ventured
there before me insisted that the Niño Jesus de Tingambato was the town’s
leading attraction, so I forayed into the church just to see him. The
otherwise elegant but modern church of no exciting architectural note was
filled with the faintest sounds of Christmas tunes like “Rudolph the
Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Sure enough,
there he sat, dressed in a proper suit, tied to a chair, surrounded by toys
and Christmas lights, and to his right was an appropriate number of
testimonials to his powers. Taking all of this in, wondering if there really
was some charm at work, I took my leave, stepping back on perfectly level
flooring and twisted the heck out of my bad ankle. I’m sure a meaning lurks
in all of this, but I’m not sure what that meaning is.
About thirty minutes’
north of Uruapan, on a well-paved road meandering through timber country is
Paracho, Mexico's guitar capital. (See “Paracho - The Guitar Capital of
Mexico” by Kenny Hill, The Mexico File, December
1997/January 1998.) Museum
of the Guitar and concerts just don’t strike your fancy, violins, cellos and
furniture are made in this picture-book town.
services domestic routes exclusively, with daily flights from Mexico City,
Morelia, Guadalajara, Lazaro Cardenas and Ixtapa. Car rentals are available.
Buses to nearly every part of the republic, including the towns mentioned in
this article, arrive and depart from Uruapan’s large and modern bus station.
By car, Uruapan is an easy
77 miles from Morelia on a toll road, 281 miles from Mexico City, and 276 from
Guadalajara. From Playa Azul, Highway 37 is somewhat more arduous for the time
being, but the cuota to Nueva Italia is now complete, and the remaining
cuota to Lazaro Cardenas is scheduled for completion in December 2000.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
My favorite is Mansion del
Cupatitzio, modestly priced and the best in town. 57 rooms surround a heated
pool in a garden setting bordering the Parque Eduardo Ruiz. Tel
011-52-4-523-2100, fax (4) 524-6772
The Plaza Uruapan, at
Melcho Ocampo 64 on the main plaza, is a 119-room, modern and efficient
property, less costly than the Mansion del Cupatitzio. Tel 011-52-4-523-3488,
In Angahuan, the Centro Turistico Angahuan, Camino al Volcan Paricutin, has 13 cabins and camping and RV facilities in a truly rustic setting. Tel 011-52-4-50383, fax 011-52-4-33934
TARASCA OR PUREPECHA?
Remembering that I’d
forgotten to eat, I stopped at Abarrotes Lupita, a small tienda in San Lorenzo
in search of junk food. A basket of pan de leña (wood-fired bread)
caught my eye instead, and instantly I knew I was in heaven. Eavesdropping upon
the storekeeper’s chatter with her customers, all clad in the traditional garb
of satin and lace blouses and pleated skirts, tying up their purchases in
rebozos, I heard no Spanish being spoken. When I asked the storekeeper if
they were speaking Purepecha, she replied “No, it's Tarasca.”
Now I was thoroughly
confused, having seen both words used interchangeably. I called upon J. Benedict
Warren, who wrote The Conquest of Michoacán and knows more about
Tarascan history than anyone, and asked him. I double-checked with Ramiro, the
man who works for me, just to be sure. Tarascan really means “of the
family,” within the first degree of consanguinity. When the Spaniards need
that civilizing influence of a few women just to get through the night, the
native folks referred to them as “in-laws” the next day. Purepecha,
meaning campesino or working man, was taken from the indigenous language
as part of the nativist movement. But that’s a misnomer, because not all
native peoples were campesinos, so it would be faux pas to call a merchant, king
or warrior Purepecha. Some 18th century writers simply got
around this by referring to la lengua de Michoacán. Warren pointed out
that there was a distinct regional preference. In the Sierras, Tarasca is
preferred, while around Lake Patzcuaro, Purepecha is accepted.
There are around 100,000 who
speak this language.
© jennifer rose, 2000
Photo credit: Hank Duckman