Judy WaytiukBy Judy Waytiuk
You don’t come here for beaches. You come here for Mexican traditions, remarkable craftwork, history from colonial to ancient pre-Hispanic, exquisite architecture, and, if you are a photographer, a slice of pure heaven on earth.
Michoacan does have Pacific coast beaches – undeveloped, with just a few small fishing villages. They’re perfect for a glimpse of what other Mexican Pacific destinations would have looked like before tourism.
But pure Mexico flourishes in abundance in Michoacan’s interior, where two major tourism destinations – the exquisitely-preserved colonial capital city of Morelia and the equally-exquisite, all-natural, Monarch butterfly sanctuaries at the northeastern edge of the state – often outflank the less-trodden treasures of the state’s interior.
Monarch butterflies flutter south every fall at a rough speed of 20 kilometres an hour for about 4,000 kilometres, from southern Canada and the northern U.S. By mid-November, they reach la Sierra Chincua and the Ejido El Rosario, the two sanctuaries where upwards of 50 million (recent counts have been lower) attach themselves to trees and go semi-dormant. By February and March, the best time to see them, they wake up and look for food and mates, and then fly north. It takes four or five generations to make the trip here and back, and scientists still don’t know how the fresh generations manage to keep to the historic migration route.
History and local culture vie for tourist attention in the state capital. It’s a great city for walking, with all the interesting sights concentrated in the downtown historic centre, including a busy indoor marketplace that seems to specialize in candy and trinkets for youngsters. These Mexican sweets make utterly unique bring-back treats for family and friends, if they can be kept from crumbling in suitcases.
On a more cultural note, the regional Michoacan Museum houses plenty of archeological artifacts, weaponry from the revolutionary period, and a historic library. The city is also home to the State Museum, the Museum House of Jose Maria Morelos, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Colonial Art, Natural History Museum, Temple of La Merced, Church and Convent of San Francisco, Palace of Justice, Municipal Palace, Cathedral, and the Communal Park and Main Square – all of them perfectly-preserved Spanish Colonial architecture, all of them fascinating wanders into history.
The Crafts Villages
Even more fascinating are the less-known crafts villages and their history – peculiarly tied to the Utopian vision of British philosopher Sir Thomas More, through colonial Spanish church administrator Vasco de Quiroga. A believer in More’s philosophy, Quiroga attempted to make it real in the mid-1500s in Michoacan. He organized the training of local Purhepecha (later called Tarascan) Indians in different villages into different areas of expertise – working copper in Santa Clara del Cobre, weaving woollen goods in Nurio, making guitars in Paracho, and creating pottery in Santa Fe de la Laguna. All these crafts are now also sold in the town of Quiroga, named for the man who went so far as to bring European artisans over to teach the locals. Villagers still follow the craftwork their ancestors learned, and they’re said to be among the most highly skilled in Mexico. Sculptor Juan Torres, outside the town of Capula, is almost single-handedly responsible for the proliferation of those bony Day of the Dead dolls scattered in shops everywhere in the area.
A driving tour through these towns makes a real road trip into colonial historyand traditional Mexico – life here goes on much as it has for centuries, from food vendors to marketplaces to craft workers creating beauty with the same kinds of tools they’ve used for centuries. With standard “tourist facilities” like hotels ranging from little to none, these villages remain unspoiled havens of tradition.
Utopia? Who knows? But definitely worth finding a guide – local hotels or tourism offices in Morelia or Patzcuaro will help – and spending a few days in the area.
Patzcuaro & The Butterfly-Net Fishermen Of Janitzio
UNESCO World Heritage Site and “Pueblo Magico” colonial Patzcuaro does not have a single neon sign – no bars, no discos, no swarms of tourists – but there are plenty of spots to eat and small shops to browse local craftwork. This is one of the best areas in Mexico to take in the annual Day of the Dead celebrations on November first; they’re dead serious about having fun then.
Its cobbled streets are studded with occasional historic buildings to explore and it’s well-located, with a few charming hotels, as a base for area explorations – the first of which should be Janitzio, the biggest and busiest island on Lake Patzcuaro. Large open boats with wooden roofs constantly shuttle back and forth on the shallow lake to the village on the island – where the native Purhepecha community remains staunchly traditional (and so are the tourist tchotchkes for sale). At its centre, a 40-metre high monument to Don Jose Pavon celebrates the Mexican Roman Catholic priest and rebel Mexican War of Independence leader.
This is also the place where fishermen ply their trade for the small fish that populate the lake, using beautiful and unique butterfly-shaped nets on poles. For a bit of money, they’ll happily provide eager photographers with aquatic shows using their hollowed out boats and nets. And on the Night of the Dead, they sail out with their nets and candles lighting up their boats.
A bit of a drive from Patzcuaro, the pre-Columbian archeological site of Tzintzuntzan marks the centre of power for the Tarascan empire starting in the mid-15th century. Before then, the capital was Patzcuaro, but there’s no documented explanation for the move; there is little historic information about these people. Their origins are even more mysterious than those of Mexico’s Mayas. Five unique rounded pyramids, called “yacatas”, rest on a massive Grand Platform carved into the hillside overlooking the village by the same name, where a large cathedral sits with an open-air straw market in front of it.
The sunny spot nicely sums up Michoacan’s prime drawing points: colonial and pre-colonial history, traditional crafts, and strong native traditions.