This article is from the February 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Yuririapúndaro, El Lago de Sangre

by Herb and Carla Felsted 

Herb and Carla Felsted have been frequent visitors to Mexico since 1985. They usually travel by car since it’s easier to see Mexico that way. For a number of years they published a travel newsletter, Mexican Meanderings.  

Adventure of the fun kind took us to Yuriria the first time. Traveling south from Guanajuato to Morelia, one passes through the city of Valle de Santiago (in the valley of the same name.) The valley has been known since pre-Hispanic times as El País de Las Siete Luminarias (Land of the Seven Lights), for the number of volcanic cones found there (now dormant, but previous activity immortalized by both the name and rock etchings in nearby Cueva del Cubo.) Further south, a causeway crosses the not inconsiderable Lago Cuitzeo, a remnant of many lakes which, in past millennia, were found in the area. This lake was undoubtedly a stopping place on the Aztec peregrination from Aztlán to Tenochtitlán. 

About halfway between the Valle and the Lago there is today a relatively insignificant road intersection which promises the presence of Yuriria some few kilometers to the east. No indication of why one would want to go, but on a whim (and a desire for a cup of coffee), we did. 

Yuriria (Yur-EAR-eee-yuh), known first as Orirapúndaro, then as Yuririapúndaro (Yur-ear-eee-yuh-POON-da-roh), is surrounded by miles of now peaceful agricultural land dotted with small, pleasantly smoothed volcanic cones. On the north side of town is the Laguna de Yuriria and on the south lies the small crater lake La Joya or La Alberca, known in the 1500s as El Lago del Sangre (Blood Lake). The place appears to be a typical and relatively unpretentious town in the middle of rural Mexico. Few travelers are prepared for the visual assault of the massive, towering fortress monastery which anchors the town – the church and ex-convento San Pablo Apóstol, constructed when New Spain was in its infancy. 

There were many centuries of human occupation in this area prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Historians consider that the first actual urban settlement here took place around 1100 A.D., although some argue that 950 A.D. saw the initial indigenous gatherings. The identity and history of these first settlers, often referred to as the ubiquitous “chichimecas,” is thoroughly shrouded in the mists which now sometimes waft in from the lagoon. These chichimecas were conquered by the Purépechas (Tarascan), whose empire had its center far to the west around Pátzcuaro and Tzintzuntzan in the state of Michoacán. They seem to have prospered and ultimately caught the wandering eye of the Aztec Moctezuma I, who, in the mid-1400s sent an expeditionary force to occupy and exploit the area. This enraged the Purépechan rulers, who marched east and completely re-conquered and re-settled the area, this time enslaving the native population and establishing a potent military outpost. Now the name Yuririapúndaro became established, and the older indigenous name passed from human memory. 

Little did the Purépechas realize that at about the time of their re-conquest, a strange race of light skinned people were establishing themselves on an island in the sea far to the east across the massive mountains. And who knew that within the space of a few decades these strangers would confront and replace both the Aztec and Purépechan civilizations.

But so it came to pass. These fair-skinned strangers climbed the mountain and vanquished the Aztecs. Not satisfied, they looked toward the far side of the mountains. And so, during the 1520's, they pressed forward through what is now Toluca and Ixtlahuaca and Acámbaro. Further on they found a thriving village of some 6000 souls (a worthy objective for the Church) situated on the northern edge of a small (crater) lake not unlike those to the north in the Valle de Santiago. A Franciscan, Fray Juan de San Miguel, spent some six months here in 1528 before heading north to found San Miguel El Grande (San Miguel de Allende). In 1533, the first representatives of the Augustinian order arrived in the new world (at San Juán de Ulúa, Veracruz) and only four years later (1537), one of their number (Fray Alonso de Alvarado) arrived at this settlement on the shore of the crater lake. He found a fertile field for his plow, and it is reported that within three years he had Christianized the Purépechan settlement. Sources are not explicit about his methods. 

The chief of these Purépecha, Toruiri, was baptized Don Alonso de Sosa, and led an illustrious life on the frontier in the service of the Spaniards. Unfortunately for most of his previous subjects, they were released from one yoke only to be presented with another.            

By 1540, the foundation of the town of Yuririapúndaro was official, taking its name from the small crater lake which had been known to the early inhabitants as Lago de Sangre, or Blood Lake (i-ururi meaning blood, and apunda, lake). According to an early 18th century source, this apparently derived from the sporadic reddish color seen in the waters. Sensationalists of the time subscribed to the legend that this coloration was caused by the blood from the bodies of sacrificial victims flung there during pre-Hispanic times. This legend is supported by, or perhaps spawned by, the recovery of a rather large, round stone, not unlike a millstone, which was immediately labeled Piedra de los Sacrificios (Sacrificial Stone). Sources are not in accord as to where this stone was recovered – perhaps from the lake itself, or perhaps from the ruins of a small “pyramid” which can no longer be found, thanks to generations of treasure hunters. The stone itself, however, is on display on the street (south) side of the parish church. You may draw your own conclusions. 

The crater lake is still reported to do its unique thing from time to time. It will lose its normal blue-green color and become choppy and turbid. Over a period of a few days a red stain will cover the surface, bubbling up from the depths. Ultimately it forms an odious and vile smelling foam which reaches from shore to shore. These manifestations tend to support the origin of the name Lago de Sangre, and are said to occasionally coincide with an earthquake to the west or east. 

In 1548, there arrived on the scene another Augustinian dynamo, Fray Diego de Chávez y Alvarado, said to have had the “heart of a giant.” Immediately upon arrival Fray Diego observed the pestilential nature of the large area of swampy land lying north of the village, and opined that these marshes might be contributory to illnesses which had plagued the inhabitants for years. A man of action, he “enlisted” the Indians as diggers. Two years later a 12 mile long canal was completed, and waters from the Rio Lerma flowed into these low-lying lands forming a shallow but extensive lake, approximately 4 miles wide by 10 miles long with a maximum depth of 23 feet. There is no record of an Environmental Impact document having been prepared, although the health of the pueblo is said to have improved greatly. This, the Laguna de Yuriria, is billed as the first man-engineered hydraulic work in New Spain.   

Naturally, an area so remote, yet of such potential importance, needed a church to match its stature. Once again Fray Diego de Chávez stepped forward to meet the challenge. A site was selected near a strong spring on land donated by the former indigenous Chief, Don Alonso de Sosa. The Chief’s wife, however, disapproved of this donation and issued a complete veto. Fray Diego was disappointed, but cast about for an alternative site. A selection was made, and foundation work was initiated. However, during this time period the Chief’s wife died (presumably of natural causes). Fray Diego immediately decided to abandon the work in progress and in 1550 began construction back on the originally chosen spot.

For nine years some 21 Hispanic and 17 indigenous masons labored mightily and long to reshape a mountain of stone into a mighty fortress. More than 300 Indian laborers (and uncounted oxen, mules and burros) were required to move this mountain, called then Cerro de la Cantera, a piece at a time some 10 miles westward to Yuriria. As you view this structure today, it doesn’t take much to imagine, through closed eyes and ears, the sight of long lines of animals straining in their harness to move their heavily loaded carretas and sledges carrying huge blocks of rough stone; of groups of stone carvers, scattered about the perimeter, seeing visions in the rock; and of masons maneuvering the heavy dressed blocks into place. One might even envision entranced spectators standing about, although it is likely that any such spectator would most likely have been drafted into a work gang. And then the sounds – of grunting animals, of creaking wheels on primitive axles, of cries of encouragement (and probably also of frustration) in a cacophony of languages, of hammers on chisels, and of chisels on rock. 

The temple and convent were designed as a fortress, for Yuririapúndaro was still an outpost on the edge of Chichimeca country and subject to repeated raids and depredations from the less-than-friendly northern tribes. However, here is an example of the combination of art and practicality. The facade of the church is in a style called plateresque, with exquisitely carved columns, and statues of saints, and details of stylized plants and leaves and cherubs. It is flanked on the south by the bell tower, stark in its lack of decoration. On the north begins the convento, or monastery, today a museum, whose plainness is broken only by graceful arches. 

The quiet and sense of peace one experiences in the interior of both the church and the monastery is impressive. The years of pain and deprivation suffered by the Indians as this structure took form cannot be entirely forgotten. But neither can the vision and dedication of the Augustinian order, and of Fray Chávez in particular, who caused the creation of this magnificent work of western religious art. 

The convento cum museum (the gentleman who takes tickets at the museum is a veritable fountain of information if you but ask) completes the fortress-like appearance and nature of the complex. Built on two levels around a central patio, it had common rooms below and living quarters above. Entering and passing through the Portería, or porter’s room, one emerges into the courtyard, with a water well in the center and flowers and plants placed on the low walls of the surrounding cloisters. The first gallery on the left contains cases displaying pre-Hispanic and contemporary artifacts found in the area. Next are two rooms which comprised the kitchen, with built-in wood-burning stoves and ceilings darkened with centuries of smoke. Next is a long dining hall, where one imagines a lengthy trestle table with cowled and silent monks seated on benches. On the side adjacent to the church, small confessionals communicated through a diminutive window with the church and the confessor. 

The dark stairwell to the second level is decorated with fading geometric designs. On the wall is a realistically painted bannister for which one unconsciously reaches. Along the three outside walls of the second level are small cells which once were the sleeping cells of the monks, each with a window above a stone window seat. On the church side are tiny penetential cubicles where miscreants could contemplate their more serious sins. In the northwest corner was the community bathroom, or sanitario, with a window overlooking the lagoon. There are seven holes on the wood plank extending the width of this room. Here the occupants could be seated while meditating. One wonders just how strict a schedule was adhered to by the members of this monastic order. 

During the quest for independence from Spain, occasional military actions took place in the area. One such, in1814, resulted in the church and convent (as well as much of the city) suffering a devastating fire. Much of the religious artwork which had been assembled over the years was destroyed. The church suffered major structural damage, as well as loss of the organ and seating. It is difficult to comprehend how a Spartan, rock-walled structure such as this could supply enough combustible material to support a major conflagration, although floors of the second level of the convent were, of course, wood, and wall hangings and paintings were certainly flammable. Fortunately, not everything was destroyed – even some of the original decoration is still visible over doorways and in obscure nooks.

Yuriria became an administrative center and stopping point on the “silver highway” that connected Mexico City with Guanajuato and later, Zacatecas. For years, mine owners came here to register their holdings with the Crown. But as more distant mines were discovered, closer administrative centers came into being, and slowly Yuriria lost its prominence, if not its regal church and convent. And as the area economy came more to embrace ranching and agriculture, new towns prospered and gained stature. However, Yuriria retained its place in Mexican history. Names familiar to adult Mexicans are anchored in the town, such as Beato Bartolomé Gutiérrez, missionary burned alive in Japan in 1632; Blessed Elias del Socorro Nieves, martyred near Yuriria in 1928 during governmental persecution of the Church; and José “El Niño Fidencio” Constantino, who became a famous curandero and miracle worker in northern Mexico in the late 20s. 

Life in the Yuriria of today is not as basic as in the time of the monks. The main Plaza, just west of the convento and church, is alive with the sound and color of sidewalk merchants selling roasted peanuts or leather belts or small kitchen utensils, while the park and outdoor stage on the east may have a dance group or band practicing. And everywhere on the grass are children and families romping or relaxing. The church is still actively meeting the needs of its parishioners with baptismals, weddings and funerals.  

A trip to Yuriria sounds rather adventurous, but that is more in the appearance than the actuality. Two fiestas take place during the year – January 3, Day of the Precious Blood of Christ,  and Carnival Sunday, that pre-Lenten week of madness. Both are celebrated with dances, parades, food, and the mandatory fireworks. Everybody has fun. 

Over-nighting in Yuriria, as in other smaller towns in Mexico, gives one the opportunity to see the town at rest. The Hotel Tiberiades, in the Barrio de Santa María (near the ancient Iglesia Santa Maria), offers Spartan but clean accommodations, as does the Posada El Rinconcito. Of course, up-scale accommodations are available in Morelia, some 40 miles away. 

A hearty and delicious meal can be had at the Restaurant Las Juanitas, southeast of the convento, where an outstanding guisada (stew) is featured. And in the past the Jimi Hendrix cafe (the proprietor was a great fan of this 60s rock icon) was popular. But eating around is part of the adventure – if the place looks clean, try it. AND ENJOY!