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Mexico Travel - Morelia, Patzcuaro, and Uruapan
( Originally Published 1939 - Presented For Historical Purpose )
FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF PEOPLE AND SCENERY, the STATE OF MICHOACAN is probably one of the two most distinctive districts in Mexico (Tehuantepec is the other). Michoacan was populous long before the Conquest and is now still largely an Indian state. The native Tarascan Indians have preserved their old language and many of their ancient customs. They still perform the native folk dances, and the women, particularly on Sundays and feast days, usually wear the national costumes. Scenically, there are few spots in the world that are lovelier than Michoacan. Its mountains and lakes are somehow almost Oriental in appearance-an effect which is heightened by the costumes of the Indians.
At the time of writing, the best way to visit Michoacan is by rail, but the automobile highway, now paved as far as Toluca, is being rapidly extended and will eventually run through Morelia, with a turnoff to Patzcuaro and Uruapan, from there continuing past Lake Chapala to Guadalajara. When this road is completed, it will be one of the finest drives anywhere, for it will permit you to combine the Michoacan and Guadalajara-Chapala excursions.
The trip by rail necessitates a retracing of steps and several changes, but at the present time it is your best bet. There is a night train with good service operating over the broad gauge, but unless time is at a premium, I would advise you to take the new day service over the narrow gauge. There is a train with dining car service leaving Mexico City in the morning, which arrives in Morelia at about seven, and in Patzcuaro at about nine. This train does not go to Uruapan, which is on the broad-gauge line, but by staying overnight in Morelia (which is a town you will want to see anyway), you can change cars and continue on to Uruapan the next day.
In Michoacan, your first stop will probably be at the capital of the state, the city of MORELIA. This city, which was founded in 1541, was originally named Valladolid, and then was renamed after Morelos, the Lincoln of Mexico. It is a lovely city, planned around two garden plazas, with the Cathedral in between. One of the plazas is known as JARDIN DE LOS MARTIRES, and the other is the PLAZA DE LA PAZ. The plazas are almost entirely enclosed by arches, and the greater sights are grouped around them. The CATHEDRAL faces the Jardin de los Martires and is undoubtedly one of the outstand ing churches in the country. It was begun in 164o, and although it was not completed for a hundred years, it is entirely harmonious in design. Particularly impressive are the pink stone facade, the paintings, the magnificent old colonial ironwork in the gates and in the iron fence around the atrium, and the towers. Even at the risk of overtiring yourself, you should make an effort to climb to the top of the Towers for the magnificent VIEW of the city.
Facing the Cathedral is the PALACIO DE GOBIERNO. It is a splendid old colonial building which at one time was a seminary but now houses the state library. The books in the library are of great historic interest, but not likely to attract the casual tourist.
Your next stop should be the MUSEUM, the home of the CHRIST OF THE TREE. The outline of the Christ was found on a tree trunk, and some of the carving work on it has been reconstructed. Also in the museum is a unique collection of Tarascan sculpture and pottery.
The SCHOOL OF ARTS and the SCHOOL OF ARTS AND CRAFTS are housed in an ancient Jesuit monastery and are one of the chief points of interest in Morelia.
Your next "must" is the historic aqueduct, completed in about 1789, It begins at a spring about four miles away, in terra cotta pipes, which lead it around the hills, finally bringing the water to the aqueduct itself, which crosses the valley into the town. The aqueduct has 254 arches, each 27 feet high and 18 feet wide, exquisitely symmetrical in design.
Morelia also has many ancient churches and monasteries, but you probably won't have time for a visit.
If you wander around town for a while, you can find all sorts of delightful spots. There is, for instance, the little J.ARDIN DE LOS AZTECAS, where you will see some Indian monoliths and a few remaining bits of ancient stone idols. You will also enjoy a walk through the park, the BOSQUE DE SAN PEDRO. Some of the most attractive bungalows in town are grouped around the edge of this park. Also recommended if you are feeling extremely vigorous is a walk out into the country along the line of the aqueduct.
The rail trip from Morelia to Patzcuaro is a rare pleasure. The line goes through the picturesque Coincho Canyon, and eventually, after passing through the rugged gorge of Chapultepec, you will get a fine view of beautiful Lake Patzcuaro on your right. After skirting the lake for several miles, you come to the town of Patzcuaro itself.
PATZCUARO is one of the most exquisite little places in Mexico; having remained practically unchanged for the past two hundred years. Most of the houses date from colonial days, and are for the most part one-story buildings with carved beams supporting their projecting roofs, providing a sort of overhanging shelter for pedestrians. The narrow streets leading up and down the hillside are made of cobblestone, and it is impossible to enjoy walking here without heavy and comfortable shoes. There are fine PORTALES, and under them, of course, are the usual groups of people around the usual stands of vendors.
There are two interesting plazas, the PLAZA PRINCIPAL, or, as it is often called, the PLAZA GRANDE, and nearby, the PLAZA CHICA.
There are no churches in Patzcuaro which can be considered great sights architecturally, but you should visit the COLEGIATA, partly on account of its beautiful setting on the hill and partly on account of the MIRACULOUS IMAGE OF OUR HOLY MOTHER OF HEALTH. According to the legend, this image is supposed to have been discovered floating in a canoe on Lake Patzcuaro by a native Indian. A more credible version is that the image was made at the order of the first bishop, Vasco de Q,uiroga. It is fashioned out of a maize paste, from which the Tarascan Indians mold figures of extremely light weight and of a very beautiful color. The church of the Colegiata was originally intended to be the cathedral of Michoacan, but after the nave had been completed (which is the only part of the church yet erected), the see was moved to Morelia. The church has never since been completed.
In the San Franciscan church and monastery, there are more of these statues made of maize paste. The EL HUMILLADERO is worth visiting to see the figure of Christ and the Indian style of decoration.
For the best view of the lake and the surrounding country, you must climb to El Calvario, passing, on the way up, the Stations of the Cross. This is about a fifteenminute walk from the Plaza Chica.
One of the great sights is the permanent MARKET, which has its gala day on Friday, when a temporary market as well is set up around the big plaza. Here you will see the Indian women in their distinctive costumes and the little EATING BOOTHS, where native delicacies are sold. The greatest delicacies of Michoacan are the fruit pastes made of guava, quince, and other things.A ride on LAKE PATZCUARO is an essential part of your trip. If you have time, I would suggest that you spend a couple of days in the neighborhood of the lake, visiting the island villages, where the Indians still carry on the ancient handicrafts. Although the lake is only thirteen miles long and a total of thirty miles around, there are many villages grouped around it.
One of the most picturesque island villages is JANITZIO. This is the fishing village, and here you will see the beautiful fishnets so frequently photographed by visitors to Lake Patzcuaro. In this little village of Janitzio, the Christian CHURCH OF SAN GERONIb20 stands on the hilltop, with caves underneath, filled with idols of the old religion which the Indians still worship.
One of the less desirable features of the town is the prevalence of beggar children. Strangely enough, the begging is not irritating, and I have found that a bag of cheap candy in the long run costs less than little coins and is infinitely more satisfactory to the children.
A complete description of the villages around this rather small lake would swell this little book into the size of an encyclopedia. The only two I shall single out for attention here are 1cunTZlo, which can be reached in about twenty minutes by launch, arid JARACUARO. This village is noted for its palm leaf hats and also for the fact that here the Dance of the Old Men is given whenever they need rain. They say that if it rains after the dance, the old men are honored, but if no rain falls, the old men receive a public beating. But since I have never witnessed any beatings, I cannot guarantee the truth of this.
URUAPAN is another one of those places that is delightful to visit but difficult to describe. The name is a corruption of an old Tarascan word meaning "Where Flowers Are Blooming," and no description could be more apt. Of sights itself, the town has almost none. There are no churches you ought to look at and no great public buildings. There is hardly a colonial relic in town, and not a single thing that you feel you simply must go and see. But despite the lack of sights, you will not be bored for a moment here. The Mexicans swear it is an earthly paradise, and they are not far from wrong.
It certainly resembles a paradise in one way, for in the neighborhood of Uruapan there are no snakes. The climate is perfect, and the narrow cobbled streets with their little rivulets running down the middle or at the side invite you to stroll from plaza to plaza or sit underneath the trees to savor the full beauty of the place.
The PATios are a marvelous sight, and since many of the people are kind enough to leave their main doors open, it is possible to get fascinating glimpses of them as you walk past.
There is only one great excursion in the vicinity, to ZARARACUA WATERFALLS. The road leading to it passes through banana plantations and coffee trees until it finally reaches the great falls of the CUPATITZIO RIVER. The Indian name is very lovely in translation, meaning "The Waters Which Sing Like Birds." There is a main fall of great volume which emerges from what is almost a cavern to a boiling pool go feet below. Besides this main fall there are hundreds of miniature falls which come through tiny fissures in the rocks on either side. The scenery at the falls is pure fairyland. The river flows beside the town of Uruapan, spanned by several handsome bridges.
Michoacan is the home of an old native dance, the CANACUAS, which you should certainly see if you have the chance.
EL MIRADOR is the best hotel in Uruapan. Its chief virtues are the rooms with private baths and the Englishspeaking personnel. The PROCRESO is also very good, but more on the Mexican side. There is little to do at Uruapan, except to take HIKES in the exquisite surrounding country or trips on HORSEBACK or by MOTOR.
What to Buy in Michoacan
Patzcuaro, Uruapan, and Morelia offer about the same types of products. The great pride of Michoacan is its LACQUER WARE, which they have developed to a point of perfection rarely found elsewhere. The good lacquer is not cheap, for it takes a long time to make, and it has to be polished almost forever before it becomes really imperishable. You can buy lacquer gourds, bowls, trays, chests, boxes, and sometimes, beautiful but rather expensive chairs. The best lacquer is made in Uruapan.
I would suggest that you visit the STREET OF THE LACQUER WORKERS, the BARRIO DE SAN PEDRO. Lacquer work is a home handicraft, but in this street you will find many homes which are at the same time shops and factories, and here you can enter and inspect lacquer to your heart's content.
A great deal of the lacquer work is done on gourds and calabashes. In some cases, they begin their preparation for the lacquer articles before the gourd has even left the tree, binding it while it is growing in such a way that the gourd itself will form the shape eventually desired. You can also buy good POTTERY, simple but beautiful SARAPES, and JEWELRY.