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Mad about Michoacan

As we watched drunks lead a parade of pious pilgrims in Tzintzuntzan, I spoke to the only fellow traveler I’d seen in four days. “I’m lucky. Whenever I visit a village, there’s a fiesta.”

“That’s because,” she told me, laughing, “there’s always a fiesta.”

My road trip across this legendary but little-visited Mexican state felt like a moveable fiesta—village ceremonies, volcanic uplands on empty highways, three Pre-Columbian temple sites and three thriving historic cities.

Elsewhere in West Central Mexico, Federal highways are clogged arteries. White-knuckle two-lanes choked with old trucks, wheezing buses, and memorial crosses drive motorists onto the four-lane, high-toll autopista between Guadalaraja and Mexico City. But the autopista bypasses most of Michoacan, where free Federal highways deliver the traveler directly to key sites. In the pine highlands, good roads twist traffic-free through gorgeous scenery.

Crossing into Michoacan from the west, cactus and yucca lowlands climb into deep forests, vast rancheros and protected preserves ringing sudden volcanoes. Massive Pico de Tancitaru rises conical and misty on the southern horizon, unattainable by road. In tiny Angahuan, guides in central-casting sombrero and serape approach to offer horseback access to the smaller crater in the far mist, Volcan Paricutin. While just a stub compared to Tancitaru, its 1200-foot cone is impressive for an infant volcano that exploded into a farmer’s cornfield in 1948.

The city down the next avocado-shaded bend on Federal 37, Uruapan, sprung up in 1533. Subtropical, nestled in a green highland bowl, it’s as mellow and pleasant as the coffee brewed along its extra-long cathedral plaza. A stroll uphill from the plaza enters the gates of Mexico’s smallest national parque, Barranca del Cupatitzio. It’s more like a fantastic, jungly city park, masonry follies and cobblestone paths blending tamed nature with a truly wild little river. Whitewater forges the green ravine from its placid source, an upper pool “formed by the devil’s knee.”

From Uruapan, Federal Route 15’s a quick twist through evergreen hills to visit the first of three Pre-Conquest sites, Tingambato. The long, descending main drag of the modern town dead-ends at the soccer field, where dense avocado groves hem the ancient ruins. Occupied from least 450 A.D., eventually incorporated into the region’s Tarascan Empire, today the grounds feel as casual as a small-town park. Signs in English offer facts among well-preserved altars, housing remnants, an unusual northern ball court–similar to Mayan styles–and a miniature temple covered in green grass. But ancient Tingambato’s biggest asset is its untrampled atmosphere. Regard the ancient ball court as locals cheer a soccer game next door, then freak out gazing into the creepy tomb, alone until two kids pop by, making zombie noises. No idling, growling tour buses, no gift shops, no other gringos.

Back in the “modern” town, a senora making tortas in her loncheria told me why blue and white banners festooned every street—fiesta time for the town’s patron saint. The blue-white light flutter felt like cool fire cleansing everything, even a crude pagan strolling through the plaza chomping an avocado-crammed sandwich chased with Mexican beer.

The short drive east to Patzcuaro offers more forest and curvas and dreamy, distant volcanic horizons. Like Santa Fe, Patzcuaro rambles a hilltop, an cultural enclave casting influence over an historic region. New Mexico can’t compare to Old Mexico when it comes to history, though, as Patzcuaro dates from the 1300’s. Everywhere, red-trimmed white stucco under terra cotta tile survives from 1600’s mansions, arched façades uniform in style.

Twin plazas are dedicated to the town’s heroes. Plaza Grande honors Quiroga, the Spanish bishop and Utopian activist who replaced Conquistador plunder with progressive, liberal ideals. Plaza Chica belongs to Gertrudis Bocanegra, a leader in the fight for Independence. The plaza’s converted church houses a library named in her honor, where a gigantic Juan O’Gorman mural illustrates the region’s gruesome pre-Revolution history. Swatches of wild color narrate Conquistador enslavement and degradation, contrasting scenes of Quiroga’s Utopian projects, all of it surrounding Bocanegra’s firing-squad execution. An illiterate peasant or even a pagan traveler easily grasps the theme— humanistic courage over repression and imperial thievery, trauma and triumph across this Edenic geography.

Patzcuaro’s vitality balances all this history. The town’s old center, a permanent fiesta of markets, dining and imbibing, links the two busy colonial plazas, all sightlines dominated by church towers. Above all rises the Basilica of Our Lady of Health, where pilgrims trudge altar-ward on their knees to seek restorative miracles.

A few kilometers north of town, Federal Route 120 passes a hilltop overlooking Lake Patzcuaro, a mid-Mexican Galilee cradling Michoacan’s successive cultures. A harvest icon in so much regional art, the lake’s shore and islets draw droves of pilgrims to Day of the Dead celebrations.

On a thirsty plain near the lakeshore, the next ancient site awaits in stark silence. Eerie and sunscorched as Tingambato’s were inviting and green, Ihuatizio’s ruins hunker at the end of a gnarly dirt track patrolled by local bulls. Unlike Patzcuaro’s blood-vivid commemoration of conquest, colonial and independence narratives, this older story seems forgotten, erased, almost beyond grasp. Once a capital of the Tarascan League, its few highlights labeled in English, Ihuatizio feels like a harrowing blank. I roved it completely alone, absorbed and a little haunted. In the center of a wide platform of dead grasses and empty expanses, long, twinned pyramids rise sculpture-like, eroding edges sharp in harsh light, severe and beautiful, hinting of Aztec-like brutality and sacrifice.

Over a hilltop to another bend in the lake lies the Tarascan Empire’s ultimate center, Tzintzuntzan, easier to appreciate than pronounce. The first uphill turn in the modern–post 1540–town leads to five temples rising on a grass-topped “platform” beside shaded pine woodlands overlooking the town and lake. Again, on a flawless January morning, I had the entire complex to myself. These massive temples, all in different states of ruination, easily conjure the 1300’s Tarascan heyday. Rounded corners seem sensuous, a seductive point of contact between the human dignitaries with their various gods, especially the god of fertility.

The Tarascans ruled present-day Michoacan in a roughly parallel period with the Aztecs to the southeast and managed to fend off their attacks. They made the mistake of trusting the Spaniards, though, and scenes such as their high chief being burned alive by Conquistadors are among the horrific details of library mural in Patzacuaro. By the mid 1500s, the Spaniards had strangled the empire. Straddling the ingeniously engineered ramparts of the Tarascan temples and peering into the town below, there’s satisfaction in knowing most of the inhabitants carry the vanished civilization’s genes into the 21st Century. The Purepecha people, settled among the Lake Patzacuaro villages, descend directly from the Tarascans. The morning of my visit, they were raising a musical ruckus in the streets below, lobbing firecracker crescendos.

Renowned for local crafts–established by Bishop Quiroga’s social experiment– the market town today was preoccupied with a fiesta to honor the Lord Redeemer, the belief that Christ intervened to heal a Tzintzuntzan girl. Believers in native costume carried pieces of a giant ritual pinwheel led by parading band kids and two-stepping tequila drinkers.

Under a gigantic, hand-woven floral fresco, Templo de San Francisco swallowed the whole dancing parade, drinkers and devout. Inside, sumptuously strung with golden-green bunting and scores of huge fruit and lily bouquets, throngs of the dancers and even tequila drinkers dropped to their knees, shuffling to the altar to honor the miracle.

Outside, country people kept filling the churchyard. Indian elders whose white heads barely reached my waist hawked homemade treats. Native Purepecha faces lined with deep greases seemed as venerable as the gnarled olive trees, oldest in the New World.

Within an hour of these small-town revels, big city elegance awaits in Morelia, the Florence-like capital of these highlands. Its pink-stone colonial center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thrives unspoiled between massive arcades. It takes a while to adjust to the lack of garishness that despoils every other big city in North America, no plastic signs hawking, no commercial come-hither. To find the copy place or pizza joint requires a search behind a stone arch of meter-thick pink stone. Morelia’s businesses conceal and coax–even a renowned restaurant hides unannounced in a sequestered, candlelit patio.

At the end of every block, a steeple, paired or single, seems to rise over another leafy plaza—the churches compact, like the almost-Arabesque fantasia of the Plaza del Carmen convent, or as grand as the baroque-neoclassic Cathedral. The Governor’s Palace stares across the Cathedral plaza, unchanged from the 1600’s except for the 1960’s murals depicting Michoacan’s history. Along the inner courtyard, the panels depict ancient harvest along Lake Patzucuaro as well as Michoacan’s martyrs central to Mexico’s independence struggle, priests Hidalgo and his one-time student, Jose Morelos.

Morelos is so important a native son that this ultra-Spanish capital was renamed for him in 1828, emblematic of Morelia’s—and Mexico’s—success in defining itself as a unique, mixed, and mixed-up New World culture. Near the Cathedral, a cluster of small home sites commemorate Michoacan’s independence hero, killed like Bocanegra by imperial firing squad. A cool, serene little museum makes a fitting place to stop and reflect on this journey, back to all those radiating arterials leading here, to Morelos’ birthplace, the heart of Michoacan.

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