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Morelia Mexixo

UTOPIAN DREAM: THE DON VASCO ROUTE - A 150 km odyssey through the State of Michoacán, on the western coast of Mexico, unveils the section of history, tradition and culture of dozens of cities and villages influenced by the native Purépecha, as well as lush vegetation in an amazingly varied landscape. 

One of the 62 ethnic groups still living in Mexico, the Purépecha occupied a huge part of the state well before the Spanish came and today still constitute the soul and the guardians of rich traditions.

We will see what is left of the dream of Don Vasco, the Utopian who natives affectionately called “Tata Vasco”. This Spanish judge arrived in Mexico in 1531, discovered the ingenious Purépechas people and decided to become the “protector of their souls and bodies”.

Until the age of 90, he crossed villages and hamlets to promote equality and the right for all to education, healthcare and to the fruit of his labour. He also worked hard to develop communities around the notion of work and community, integrating ancestral knowledge and know-how with more “modern” concepts of commerce. He left his mark on social and economic life as well as on architecture. Traces of his heritage abound all around the towns and villages that constitute the Ruta don Vasco

Point of departure: Morelia 

We have to admit Morelia is a really lovely surprise, with its thousand treasures of humanity, its population of one million and the stunning superficies of an old colonial city, sprawling over 4 square kilometers. 

Full of historical houses, stores, hotels, public and religious buildings with their pink walls, windows and doors embellished with wrought iron fittings, and where even the lampposts are regulated, this capital, built in the 1500s, exudes truly spellbinding charm.

In the day, the pink stone walls (made of toba riolita) diffuse exceptional light under the sun, while at night its lampposts, coupled with careful illumination, create an atmosphere that is all together warm and subtle.

Its wide avenues and narrow streets shelter so many architectural treasures that even the most ardent architecture lover won’t be able to explore them all in a few days.

To give honour where honour is due

Let’s start in the heart of Morelia: its cathedral. Built in the 18th century, it is remarkable with its pink cantera stone baroque façade, the pilasters and reliefs in its interior, its pure silver monstrance shining on its altar, as well as its 4,000-pipe organ. Its two bell towers, which can be seen from everywhere in town, constitute the landmark of this city, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. 

The impressive temple is surrounded by the Plaza de las Armas, a huge public park that unrolls along a large boulevard and crosses the city from end to end: avenue Madero. 

This avenue was taken over by thousands of people to celebrate the 246th birthday anniversary of José Maria Morelos y Pavón, born in Morelia, considered as a national hero of independence by Mexicans. Fanfares and military squads followed groups of young school kids parading in front of buildings, decorated to the colors of the Mexican flag. A multicolored, jubilant crowd agglutinated under blue, red or yellow umbrellas, corresponding to the colours of candidates up for election (we were there in the middle of an electoral campaign), sporting balloons and t-shirts in the same colors.

In front of the cathedral, the old Seminario de San Pedro, now the state government building, is worth a stop with its main courtyard walls covered with magnificent murals portraying the abolition of slavery and other pages from Mexican history. They are quite remarkable works of art!

Another landmark of Morelia is its aqueduct. This stunning construction dates back to the 17th century and was used until the beginning of the nineties. With its 200 arches, it borders a part of the city from Plaza de los Mártires to Plaza Villalongin, where a beautiful fountain, Las Tarascas, a homage to indigenous women, flows. 

Since its construction, Morelia has always housed numerous monasteries and convents, churches and colleges. Today, the city remains an important city of knowledge, one of its principal sources of economy coming from this important education network. Apart from these religious and education institutions, Morelia also sports many museums: history, masks and religious art, contemporary art and even a candy museum. 

Lovely stops

Candy museum? Yes, and it makes for a lovely stop. You can taste “ate,” a traditional candy – sort of a jelly made out of fruit pulp – whose recipe and technique (you will be given a demonstration) comes from the Native Mexicans and which the Dominican nuns popularized. Established in one of the city’s neoclassical buildings, the museum, whose walls are covered with old photos of Morelia, gives us the opportunity to learn that one of the oldest houses in the city now houses a Burger King. Living proof that even the best patrimonial politics have limits!

Many squares are scattered through the city and constitute interesting breaks for your feet, which will feel mistreated by the cobblestones, or just to find some refreshing cool air and greenery, or a fresh fruit juice… and why not a cold local beer!

A very modern city with blooming commercial centers, hip bars and restaurants - where you will even be offered “Mexican sushi” - and its modern residential neighbourhoods, growing at a fast pace, literally surround the old colonial city. You will even find a VIP cinema, where you can enjoy a complete meal while watching your favourite actors. 

Destination: Pátzcuaro 

After 40 km on an autopista bordered with fields of shining mirasoles - small sunflowers - we decide to take a detour to Tupátero.

Tupátero

This tiny village can be found at the very end of a small road bordered by corn fields and encircled by green, red or gold mountains, colors of the earth used for construction. A magnificent scene continues the central focus of the village, overflowing with greenery and flowers and opening on a lovely 18th century church, the Templo de Santiago.

The church’s stunning painted coffered ceiling and its original rich gold retables contrast with its simple worn floorboards. It is the end of the afternoon and women and children meet there for a short prayer: especially short for the kids who quickly transform the land around the church into a playground.

Enchanted Town

Pátzcuaro awaits us, some 10 km further. After Morelia, it is one of the most interesting cities on our itinerary. As a matter of fact, it is on the list of Pueblos Mágicos (enchanted towns): some 40 cities designed by the Mexican Tourism Office, as emblematic places known for their living culture, cuisine, architecture, handicrafts, music and other traditions. Santa Clara del Cobre, where we will visit later on, is also part of that select list. 

Meant for business

Pátzcuaro main square, the Plaza Quiroga, where an immense statue of Don Vasco sits, is different from other Mexican town squares, which all have a church as a focal point. Pátzcuaro was planned for commerce and the twenty or so baroque style houses, typical of the architecture of this city, with entry gates, patios, wrought iron balconies, pilasters, arches, columns, cornices and flowered garlands sculpted in stone surrounding the square were meant for business. 

The town hall is housed here, as well as some lovely small hotels. Restaurants, boutiques and artist studios often occupy the ground floor of those remarkable houses. The square is very animated, with art exhibitions and handicraft kiosks where you can find everything from rebozos (traditional shawls), to wooden toys and furniture, laquerware, pottery, embroidery and lacy drawn work, jewellery, chuspata (a fibre found in Lake Pátzcuaro) figurines, tablecloths, etc. Not to mention a hot corn on the cob or an exotic flavour of cold ice cream. If you are lucky, you can even be treated to a demonstration of the famous local traditional dance: “Danza de los Vieijitos” (The Dance of the Ancients).

Wandering through the narrow streets of this charming town and visiting the old convent of Santa Catarina, now known as the “Casa de los once patios” –even if there are only 5 of them - seeing the artists at work in their studios and workshops, which used to serve as cells for the Dominican Nuns in the 18th century, is a must.

The first hospital and school (1540), the Colegio San Nicolas, now the Museo de Industrias y Arts Populares with its collection of religious images, the Holy Mary Hospital (El Sagrario), the Church of the Company of Jesus, as well as the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, are all worthwhile visits. 

Adios termites!

The statue of Pátzcuaro’s patron, la Virgin de la Salud (the Virgin of Health), is quite remarkable. This statue, along with many others displayed in local churches, is the result of a very particular technique that ensures its preservation as well as facilitating its transportation, thanks to its light weight. This technique, called “ tatzingueni,” enables sculptures to be made with a mixture of maize cane pulp, orchid syrup and plaster. Lightness and durability are the main qualities of the works that are done with this technique, and, contrary to wood, termites don’t attack them, which explains their exceptional state of conservation.

At nightfall, we treated ourselves to a pizza Margarita at the charming pizzeria open on Plaza Quiroga, where some flâneurs are attracted by the romantic atmosphere of the place – mostly lit by the full moon – and by the sound of the accordion that our friend, the artist Arturo, decided to swap his paintbrush for an evening. With a rendition of “La Vie en Rose” he took us to another continent for a while, but thanks to some Mexican ballads, quickly brought us back to the magical Pátzcuaro! 

Further stops around Lake Pátzcuaro

Some sixty Purépecha communities live in villages around the lake and on its islands and testify to the lifestyle of the indigenous people.

Santa Fe de la Laguna

Santa Fe housed the first Huatápera (hospital) built in Michoacán. It is still there, on the main square, as well as the Saint Nicolás de Bari church, built around the same time. A local market was in full action when we arrived and boutiques and artisans, occupying the small workshops under the arches, were also quite busy! 

The village takes great pride in being home to one of the oldest Purépecha communities. The women proudly display it by wearing traditional colourful pleated skirts and woven striped shawls, called “rebosos”, which allow them to carry a baby as well as to carry their purchases: white fish, bread, pozole or charales.

Coming from a local tradition in which families took turns taking care of the hospital while doing the cooking, a women’s cooperative was born. This produces traditional handicrafts used in restaurants, hotels and kitchens, while offering local specialties, such as the famous “atole,” a traditional hot drink made of corn.

Here, many villagers are accomplished potters. The Grande Maestro del Arte Popular Mexicano, Nicolas Fabian Fermin, welcomed us to his house and workshop and gave us the opportunity to experiment with his art to our great pleasure. For a small contribution of 100 pesos for an hour, you could do the same …and take your piece of art home with you! 

Santa Clara Del Cobre 

Purépechas have extracted copper to make tools and ornaments from surrounding mountains since pre-historic times. It has given birth to an industry, still flourishing as of today, even though the mines are no longer active. 

The noise of hammers has survived and is ever present! Each and every house shelters a workshop where copper is crafted and turned into bathtubs, basins, urns, pots and saucepans and other useful or decorative objects.

The National Museum of Copper displays exceptional pieces of art while also offering the possibility to watch the talented artisans crafting magnificent pieces out of a unique copper sheet, fresh out of the oven.

A few other significant galleries, such as the Casa Felicitas, also offer demonstrations.
You may even be invited to try a few hammer strokes, only to understand that one can’t really improvise being a coppersmith!

It is quite something to see the coppersmiths standing around the sheet of red-hot metal with their tools, taking turns hammering in a perfect sequence to turn it into a malleable sheet to which they will give the desired form. It is an extraordinary demonstration of rhythm and strength!

Have you been long-dreaming of cooking in one of those copper pots? You have found the place to make this dream come true. Don’t hesitate… they are sold at very reasonable prices. A few nice specimens shining in our kitchen are testament to this. 

Uruapan 

World capital of the avocado, Uruapan is, after Morelia, the most populated city of Michoacán. We are told that avocado is the main product exported by Mexico, with a million of tons per year. And did you know that there are 5 different sizes of avocados? 

Considering that an avocado tree produces on average three tons of fruit during its two harvests, in June and December, one can easily imagine the scenery around the city with all the avocado tree farms.

As a matter of fact, the surrounding scenery of green forest, farms and mountains contrasts with the modern city, where concrete predominates and grows rapidly around a small historical center, where we can still find a few interesting monuments.

Uruapan is also known for its large Eduardo Ruiz National Park, which stretches over more than 450 acres and constitutes an important ecological reserve where the Cupatitzio River runs, providing potable water and electricity to the region.

We spent the night at the gates of this park at the Mansion Del Cupatitzio, a lovely hotel with comfortable rooms, luxurious flower gardens and walls filled with works of art. 

The Paricutín and its miracle 

Another element - certainly not the least - that contributes to the scenery around Uruapan is the Paricutin volcano. The Paricutin can be climbed and it is known to be a great and exciting challenge. However we are not here to climb. 

We instead decided to ride to the site where, on May 10, 1944, lava spat by the erupting volcano swallowed two surrounding villages, San Juan Parangaricutiro and Angahuan, leaving a hundred families without a roof over their heads. We are heading to the ruins where the bell-tower of a lava-covered church still emerges with its almost untouched altar. A miracle!

The site is one of pilgrimage for locals, who regularly bring offerings to the altar. However, as per José, an old man who lived in one of the villages at the time, the real miracle was the fact that nobody died in the tragedy!

Angahuan, a small traditional village with its astonishing 16th century church of Santiago Apostol, which opens on the main plaza, will be our gateway to the site. Local caballeros were all too happy to offer us their horse for the one and a half km ride, which turned out to be a very impressive trek through high walls of lava, immense gray and black blocks contrasting with the lush greenery of the countryside tightly fitted around it. The feeling of desolation created by this volcanic landscape was even greater since we were the only ones around; not a single tourist in sight. 

Paracho 

Olé! A few kilometers away, the guitar capital welcomes us. No way we would miss it, thanks to the giant string instrument welcoming us at the entrance of the city! 

It is the tradition on the Don Vasco Route to display, at the entrance of the town, the local specialty: woodwork, ironwork, earthenware, etc. Here, a huge wooden chair tells us that wooden furniture can be found; there, a big copper pot asserts the specialty of Santa Clara del Cobra; elsewhere, there is a huge piece of earthenware…

We were privileged to watch a maestro guitar maker in his element. In the exiguity of his workshop, set up under a stairway in this house, he bustled about setting up the tiny inlaid decorations that will adorn the instrument he created. No doubt it will be a real work of art, judging from the instruments already completed that are now scattered around.

It was on this note that our odyssey ended, on the Ruta Don Vasco. 

More villages 

Of course, there are many more villages to discover on this itinerary. All you have to do is follow the road and make it to the main plaza of each village that serves as a gathering place for the people, always laid out as a square with trees and flowers. Sculptures and statues that generally look over this community place, opening on an old church, are always worth the visit. 

- Tzintzuntzan: the last capital of the Purépecha kingdom

To see: Las Yacátas, the archeological site with its 12th century pyramids, the huge handicraft market, the magnificent Santa Ana Monastery and the baroque church of La Soledad.

- Erongarícuaro: founded in the pre-Hispanic era

To see: the superb view it offers of Lake Patzcuaro, the old 16th century Franciscan monastery whose courtyard is ornate by a cross given by the famous French artist André Breton; its main plaza bordered by small boutiques offering daily supplies and local food specialties: tamales, churipos, corundas, atole and, of course, tacos and burritos. It is quite impossible to resist those enticing smells scenting the air! 

Local delicias 

We haven’t said much about the food we tasted on this trip. The fact is that we made so many discoveries, apart from the tamales, burritos, tapas and tacos that we all know, that we have decided it was worth a separate piece. This will be followed up in an upcoming edition. 

Where to sleep? 

In Morelia: Hotel Virrey de Mendoza.  www.hotelvirrey.com
Located in the center of the old city, on Avenue Madero, close to the cathedral. It is a lovely historical building. Rooms, with their colonial cachet, are comfortable. Ask for a room with a balcony… the view is worthwhile. 

Hotel Casa Grande: a 12-room boutique hotel located in a beautifully restored 18th century building with a terrace offering a breathtaking view, especially at night, of the cathedral and the city.
www.casagrandemorelia.com.mx

At Ucazanaztacua: Hacienda Ucazanaztucua
See our other article under Travel by interest: hotels.

At Uruapan: Mansion del Cupatitzio. www.mansiondelcupatitzio.com 

How to get there? 

Morelia’s international airport is easily accessible with frequent flights from Canada and the U.S. 

Once there, it is easy to rent a car. Roads are safe, although we would not recommend driving at night (night lightning is almost non existent in the area). If you could settle for less flexibility, you could use the well-developed minibus system. 

Is it dangerous? 

Michoacán state is far enough from the borders where most drug cartels responsible for the violence in Mexico are active. We never felt threatened or in danger, even at night in Morelia or Patzcuaro, where we were able to walk peacefully in the streets and enjoy the sweet evenings.

What about the sea? 

The Don Vasco Route is, of course, a discovery trip that can easily be coupled with a stay at the beach. 

Why not enjoy one week in cultural immersion and one week on the Michoacán coast, bordered by magnificent secluded beaches, or on the more popular beaches of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, which are, after all, only 3 to 4 hours away.

“Spicing up” your stay at the beach is what Michoacán offers you, in all senses of the word. Take my word for it! 


Christiane Théberge

This trip to the state of Michoacán was made possible thanks to the Mexican Tourism Office.

To read: Hacienda Ucazanaztacua and the Feast of the Souls
 


Old seminary - Morelia

Plaza de las Armas -  Morelia

Parade on Madero Avenue - Morelia

 Las Tarascas fountain - Morelia

At the Candy Museum - Morelia

Singing la Pirecuas, indigenous song recognized as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity  

Rich gold retables, Templo de Santiago, Tupátero

Quiroga Square, Pátzcuaro

Artists getting ready for the Danza de los Viejitos

Church of the Company of Jesus

 Patzcuaro's typical house

Women wearing rebozos (shawls)

Coppersmiths: Santa Clara del Cobre

Women dressed for a celebration in Uruapan

Mansion del Cupatitzio, Uruapan

 The Paricutin

San Juan church in lava field of the Paricutin

Caballeros in Angahuan

Maestro guitar maker in Paracho

"Dressed" Christ - typical of the region

Tzintzuntzan archeological zone

 

 

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