Michoacán – The Ultimate Union of Beauty and Tradition

by Lisa Coleman

Have you ever heard of Michoacán and it’s magical cities? Morelia? Patzcuaro? Tzintzuntzan? Santa Clara del Cobre? Uruapan? If you’re one of the lucky ones, an enormous smile unconsciously found its way to your face and visions of picturesque landscapes, magnificent architecture, and the unforgettable smiles of the local people began racing through your mind. Unfortunately, most people read the word “Michoacán” over and over again and it simply doesn’t register. To them, it is just another place in Mexico, but to me (and those like me) who have looked into the eyes of the people here and felt the power of their tradition, it is one of the most intriguing and unique places in the entire country.

To simply things, look left and up just a bit from Mexico City on a map and you’ll find the Mexican state of Michoacán. It is a land of intense natural beauty with mountains, rolling hills, crystal blue lakes, deep green valleys, winding rivers, wild flowers and pine trees. It’s unlike any Mexico you have ever imagined in the past. The state has few large cities, but rather an eclectic collection of small villages and towns that have remained locked in time since the 1800s. The Spanish colonial influence is powerful and the indigenous heritage rich and prominent.

Morelia, the capital city, stands as the centerpiece of the state. Founded in 1541, after centuries of Spanish rule, it is known as the “Aristocrat of the Colonial Cities.” It is the quintessence of 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial style and proudly displays its regal cathedrals and its masterfully restored downtown area. The feeling is distinctly European. Morelia’s wide boulevards and cozy squares are lined with chic cafes filled with students, artists and a community of retired Americans who have come to enjoy the cities educational and cultural centers. Accommodations are plentiful but not prolific. Your best bet will be to stay at local inns or small luxury resorts. (The Villa Monta a is one of the most gorgeous and impressive hotel properties I have found anywhere.) Rent a car or hire a guide from the hotel to help you explore the surrounding towns and villages.

An hour or so outside of Morelia is the amazing town of Patzcuaro. Resting 7,250 feet in elevation in the foothills of the Sierra Madre on the tranquil shores of Lake Patzcuaro (one of the highest lakes in the world), this was the 16th century capital of Michoacán and is still home to the Purepécha Indians. Frozen in time, the local Indians still fish, farm and present their crafts in vibrant markets just as they have for centuries. Jumbled, narrow cobblestone streets frame colorful town squares and single story white washed houses with red tile roofs. It has a magic all its own.

Venturing about ten miles northeast of Patzcuaro, you’ll encounter the subtle charisma of Tzintzuntzan (tseen-TSOON-tzahn). Located on a terrace overlooking the eastern shore of the lake, this is the ancient capital of the Purepécha kingdom. It’s worth a visit to this simple yet interesting archeological site to see how carefully fitted stone blocks support the ruins of five “yachts” or temples. Tzintzuntzan is also well known for its straw and ceramic handicrafts made by the Purepécha.

Not much further up the road, you’ll be serenaded by the somehow melodic sound of hammers pounding copper in the crisp mountain air. Santa Maria del Cobre has been a center for the copper arts since before the conquest. The town square is incredible by itself and holds its own as a “must see” even you don’t want to buy copper. Though the mines of that existed during the pre-Conquest times are long gone, the local artisans continue to create each magnificent piece of art by hand.

Almost forty miles beyond Patzcuaro is the verdant town of Uruapan (oo-roo-AH-pan). Its Spanish founder believed it to be “the most beautiful spot in all of New Spain,” and once you see it, you’ll find it a difficult point to argue. “Urupan” is the Purepécha word meaning “where the flowers bloom,” and the vivid colors of the vegetation are the perfect compliment to the colonial mansions and scenic squares. Visit the craft market; it’s one of the best in Mexico. And try the avocados, Uruapan is famous for them.

And finally, don’t forget that over 100 million monarch butterflies migrate from the US and Canada to spend the winter in the easternmost part of Michoacán. Between November and March, El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is a total sensory experience. The trees come to life in black and orange as the millions of wings pulsate in harmony.

Michoacán is a real treasure. It may not be for everyone, but if you have a bit of adventure in your heart and a yearning for tradition in your soul, it will impact you forever. Both America West Airlines and AeroMexico fly daily to Mexico City. AeroMexico connects from there to Morelia. Town and Country Tours can assist with your packaging. Contact your travel agent for details.