MY HUSBAND, RICHARD, AND I were sipping margaritas on the hillside patio at the Villa Montaña hotel. The sun was setting behind the mountains on our left and a midsummer thunderstorm, complete with rainbow, brewed over the mountains on our right. Spread out below us, in all its centuries-old charm, was the city of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán. In a pleasant tequila fog, I pondered why, as long as the salted peanuts kept coming, we should ever leave this perch in the altitude-cooled mountains between Mexico City and Guadalajara.
But I was there on a mission: to meet the master artisans in the hamlets scattered in these hills, the disciples of the one-village, one-craft concept promoted by Vasco de Quiroga, a kind and farsighted Spanish bishop dispatched to the region in 1537. The still-revered Quiroga believed that specialization would increase trade and self-sufficiency among the indigenous Purépecha people (whom the Spaniards called Tarascans).
The next morning we met Miguel Rubio Martínez, an English-speaking guide recommended by the hotel, in the lobby at ten o’clock sharp. When I showed him my list of must-see towns and artisans, he actually jumped. “It would take days and days to visit all these places,” he said. We had eight hours. So I deferred to Miguel; after all, he had been leading tours here for eleven years. But by three o’clock that afternoon, with nary a maestro met, I was beginning to think this one-village, one-craft thing was a tourist bureau fairytale and that Miguel, a fount of historical knowledge, had a hidden agenda to keep me from shopping. Would I ever get to Pátzcuaro and the other crafts meccas? It had all looked so simple on the map, which gave no hint of the hailstorm, miles of roller-coaster speed bumps, and aged buses and trucks chugging up steep inclines on narrow roads we had encountered in these lush hills.
Still, serendipity had dished up some memorable, non-materialistic experiences. In tiny Santa Fe de la Laguna we stumbled upon the annual religious vigil honoring Santa Ana. In the modest home where she appeared generations ago, dozens of identically dressed young women, each with a wreath of flowers in her lap, sat in silence in a candlelit room. On the flower-packed altar sat a small glass case filled with what looked like a doll’s evening gown. When we looked closely, we saw a tiny gray head, no bigger than my thumbnail, sitting atop the dress and sporting a teeny gold crown. I’m still not sure what we saw—a figurine, a miracle, a wad of gum?—but we’ll never forget it.
We had seen some crafts, but quality had been scarce. At the Mercado de Artesanías in Capula, a cooperative of forty artists, we perused some nice traditional pointillist pottery and a more contemporary forte known as Catrinas—delicate clay skeletons bizarrely dressed in brightly glazed Victorian-era finery. In Tzintzuntzan the market, rife with straw products like place mats and strings of Christmas ornaments, was completely eclipsed by the Convento de Santa Ana, dating from 1526, whose original cartoonlike frescoes are still visible and whose grounds sport gnarled 476-year-old olive trees. Even the supine statue of Jesus in one of the convent’s two churches is still growing; extensions are regularly added to his glass case to accommodate the unexplained expansion. (We admired the convent less, however, when we learned that the stones used in building it had been stolen from the ancient Purépechan temples across the road.)
After a leisurely lunch at a hillside restaurant chosen by Miguel, I think, for its teasing view of Pátzcuaro and its specialty, avestruz, or ostrich (no way could I eat it after meeting several of the homely chicks in a nearby pen), we finally arrived in Santa Clara del Cobre, a wonderland of hammered copper. At the rear of Casa Felícitas, one of dozens of combination workshop-stores here, we watched Rafael Zarco Soto and his apprentices at the forge as they pounded thick disks of lumpy, red-hot copper into thin sheets that they would later coax into impossibly intricate pieces. After one of his extended sprees of pistonlike pounding, I asked the gasping Rafael, who has been a coppersmith for more than thirty years, if he ever tired of the work. “It’s in my blood,” he said, pounding his chest for a change. “Hard work, but there is beauty.” With that, we trotted into the store, whipped out our Visa card, and loaded up on beauty in the form of many small lidded canisters and tiny vases, as well as a graceful pitcher with a curved handle that had been fashioned from a single piece of copper, all impossibly cheap ($3 to $70). And I didn’t even think we liked hammered copper.
Before leaving town, Miguel insisted that we meet Ignacio Punzo Angel, a third-generation coppersmith who has won scads of awards and is featured in the tome Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular Mexicano (Fomento Cultural Banamex). In a tidy forge at the rear of his property, set behind a courtyard filled with dahlias and roses, we found Ignacio and two of his sons busy perfecting three magnificent pieces they planned to enter in the town’s prestigious copper competition the next month. One was a vase, around three feet tall, whose intersecting ribs and planes were so symmetrical and complex they appeared computer generated. And when I say the men were perfecting them, I mean perfecting. “When you are working on the piece, she asks you where to hit her,” Ignacio said, as he tapped away at the infinitesimal flaws.
We spent the last hour of our tour in Pátzcuaro, perhaps the best-known crafts center in the region, near the shores of the popular but polluted Lake Pátzcuaro (locals know better than to eat its once-famous white fish). Although we would have liked to linger on a bench under the ash and pine trees of the lovely Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, time was a-wasting. We dashed through the town’s red-trimmed-white-adobe quaintness like scavenger hunters. In the courtyard of La Casa de los Once Patios (the House of Eleven Courtyards), a sixteenth-century hospital that is now a handicrafts mall, we stopped to watch the Dance of the Little Old Men, a romping-stomping performance by masked youngsters. Then we went upstairs, where we observed a weaver in action and bought an off-white cotton tablecloth ($14) at the adjacent, well-stocked store. Back downstairs, we admired the delicate, almost Persian lacquerwork of Alonso Meza, a genial artist who decorates small wooden plates and boxes (a coaster-size dish was $6), and visited briefly with Mario Agustín Gaspar Rodríguez, one of only five artists in Michoacán who still work in the traditional maque incrustado technique. This tedious process involves etching designs on wooden platters or hollowed-out gourds, rubbing them with a natural oil-based pigment, and then carving some more and adding more color; the finished products range from the likes of a simple two-color platter ($300) to more elaborate pieces ($850 and up). The recipes for these pigments are staggeringly weird; one purple color, for instance, is made from cow’s urine and ground cochineal, an insect that lives mainly on prickly pear cactus, and a deep blue is made from—you won’t believe this—a fermented mixture of azul añil flowers, cheese, and spit. Finally, we zipped down the cobbled streets (spike heels not recommended) to Chocolate Casero Joaquinita to buy a couple of packets of hot-chocolate tablets, the tiny company’s sole product since 1898, before hitting the highway.
We’d missed so much—like the Purépecha market in the Plazuela de la Basílica and the Museo de Artes Populares and who knows what else—that we vowed to return to Pátzcuaro someday. But on this trip we decided we needed to spend a couple of days exploring Morelia itself. The next morning we waved good-bye to the tranquil Villa Montaña, with its terraced cottages and courtyards, where gardeners fuss over the lush landscaping and tend the stone frogs, fish, and saints that populate the grounds, and headed for the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, a stately villa built in 1565, in the heart of the buzzing historic district. We had reserved an interior suite, but they were all taken. Would we like the exterior presidential suite for the same price? Despite the racket (the rule on the street, for vendors and vehicles alike, seems to be “Whoever makes the most noise wins”), how could we pass up the enormous private balcony—with a view of the inviting Plaza de Armas and the 258-year-old cathedral, with its two baroque towers and its blue-and-white-tiled domes—not to mention the suite’s regally appointed bedroom and two baths? (Thank goodness we’d remembered to pack our secret urban weapon—earplugs.)
As we plotted our attack on the town over coffee at a sidewalk cafe across the street from the plaza, half the city’s action seemed to pass right by: roving troubadours—students at the city’s Conservatorio de las Rosas, one of the oldest in the Americas—decked out in elaborate black-velvet outfits, complete with tights; troops of street sweepers armed with enormous brooms; balloon salesmen galore; and a parade of honking vehicles carrying costumed characters to promote a traveling circus (Mickey and Minnie waved from the sunroof of a worn white limousine).
As determined as we were to set a leisurely pace, we realized that we would eventually have to roust ourselves if we wanted to see the spectacular sights, all within walking distance, that had earned the city its designation as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. At the Casa de las Artesanías, a combination museum and shop housed in the sixteenth-century Convento de San Francisco, we found the sweeping overview of regional crafts we had sought the day before. Although the store’s selection of carved wooden masks from Tocuaro was mundane and the maque of lesser quality than Mario’s, the grand, deep-green-glazed pineapple-shaped jars from San José de Gracia ($8 to $120), their faceted surfaces reflecting light like jewels, made me want to ring up Miguel and head for the hills again. The higher prices here (my $14 tablecloth from Pátzcuaro was $43) are offset somewhat by the one-stop convenience. A few blocks away at the Museo del Estado de Michoacán, housed in an eighteenth-century mansion, the artifacts from ancient times—exquisite obsidian masks, elaborate amethyst jewelry, detailed clay sculptures of beasts—are indisputable evidence that a rich culture and skilled craftsmen existed here even thousands of years before Spain’s conquest.
Two blocks west of the plaza, at the overwhelming Mercado de Dulces, a teeming market of narrow booths piled to the rafters with candies, we consumed the region’s most ephemeral crafts: marzipan in Day-Glo colors, peanut and sesame brittle, a concentrated fruit paste called ate, logs of leche quemada (caramelized milk with ground almonds, cinnamon, and sherry), and candied limes stuffed with coconut so sweet it hurt my throat.
When it comes to more nutritious fare, Morelia, while not known for its haute regional cuisine, does celebrate its abundance of fruit. The spicy pineapple-lime-mango gazpacho is ubiquitous, and breakfast buffets are laden with fruit. At the Sunday brunch at the shabby-chic-meets-Frida Kahlo Casa del Portal, I ate so many figs, strawberries, and chunks of melon I didn’t have room for a made-to-order crêpe. Our dinners at both Bizancio (tuna steak, rich mushroom ravioli) and Lugano (calamari, tomato-and-mozzarella salad) were fine, but it was their ambience that floored us. Cosmopolitan, candlelit Bizancio spilled out of the rooms of a seventeenth-century mansion into a courtyard ringed by stone archways and open to the skies; the soundtrack swung from Tosca to techno-pop. From our third-floor balcony at Lugano, the most vertical restaurant I’ve ever been in, we watched the lively waitstaff ambush one another in the dense vegetation of the courtyard below.
Of all the activities we squeezed into our ridiculously short trip (three full days—what idiots), our favorite was simply wandering the historic area of Morelia, with its old buildings of pale-rose stone, its shady plazas and glimpses of inviting courtyards through open doorways, its fountains, cobbled streets, and arches, arches everywhere. By nightfall we had walked ourselves silly, arriving finally at the dramatically illuminated eighteenth-century aqueduct, whose 253-arch run begins ten blocks east of the plaza, and the equally old Calzada de Fray Antonio de San Miguel, a pedestrian road near the aqueduct where young twosomes locked lips beneath the trees. The scene was so romantic, even an old married gringo couple couldn’t help commemorating their whirlwind visit to Michoacán with a kiss.
Getting there: To get to Morelia, you must fly to Mexico City (nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth on Aeromexico, American, and Delta; from Houston on Aeromexico, Continental, and Delta; and from San Antonio on Mexicana and United). From Mexico City you can fly to Morelia via Aeromexico or Mexicana (a 45-minute flight). The 45-minute taxi ride into the city costs about $20.
Where to stay: Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, Av. Madero Pte. 310, Morelia; 011-52-443-312-4940, fax 443-312-6719; hotelmex.com/hotelvirrey, [email protected]; from $100 for a standard room to $260 for a luxury suite. Villa Montaña, Patzimba 201, in the Colonia Vista Bella, Morelia; 011-52-443-314-0231, fax 443-315-1423; villamontana.com.mx, [email protected]; from $180 for a standard room to $470 for the palatial presidential suite; most rooms have a fireplace and many have a private patio.
Where to eat: Bizancio, Corregidora 432, Morelia; entrées $10-$20. La Casa del Portal, Guillermo Prieto 30, Morelia; entrées $5-$15. Lugano, Av. Rey Tanganxoan 565, in the Colonia Vista Bella, Morelia; entrées $7-$17; closed Monday.
What to do: Miguel Rubio Martínez, guide; Great Tour’s, 011-52-443-322-8000, ext. 648; [email protected]; one-day Pátzcuaro tour $100. Casa de las Artesanías, Fray Juan San Miguel 129, Morelia. Casa Felícitas, Pino Suárez 88, Santa Clara del Cobre. Chocolate Casero Joaquinita, Enseñanza 38, Pátzcuaro; no credit cards. La Casa de los Once Patios, Madrigal de las Torres, Pátzcuaro; no credit cards. Museo del Estado de Michoacán, Guillermo Prieto 176, Morelia; free.
Street smarts: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding food sold by street or market vendors, unpasteurized milk products, uncooked vegetables and shellfish, salads, and fruit that you haven’t peeled yourself (we confess that we don’t always follow this last bit of advice when breakfasting at our hotel).