DREAMSCAPES FALL 2019
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MIXING IT UP IN MEXICO
 
(2019 - Fall Issue)

Writer: E. LISA MOSES



In a departure from my typical beach vacations in Mexico,

I recently ventured inland to explore the south-central state of Michoacán, dubbed “The Soul of Mexico.”

Michoacán bares its essence in festivities and food, customs and crafts—and a deep deference to a long history and vivid culture. Testaments to its unique spirit of place are Pueblos Magicos (historically significant towns that offer visitors a “magical” experience), local carnitas (pork delicacies) and artisanal offerings that range from pottery, woodcarvings and Purépecha Empire textiles to modern folk art such as catrinas (skeletal dolls). And nature adds to the mix with migrating monarch butterflies wintering in El Rosario, rare hummingbirds congregating around the ruins of Tzintzuntzan, and legendary white fish feeding the population around Lake Patzcuáro.

Our route followed in the footsteps of local hero Don Vasco de Quiroga, who in 1536 became the first bishop of the newly established diocese of Michoacán. He made it his mission to repair the extensive damage to the area inflicted by Spanish conquistador Nuño de Guzmán and rebuild the natives’ livelihoods and lifestyles. His utopian dream led to the creation of hospitals, educational facilities and systems to care for the poor. Around Lake Patzcuáro, he established collectives where highly trained Purépecha craftspeople passed their skills along to their descendants, who still believe his spirit inhabits the lake.

MORELIA

The capital of Michoacán, this city of about a million inhabitants has a distinct European aura. Its historic centre, a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site of some 200 centuries-old structures, feeds the architectural soul with a blend of Spanish Renaissance, Baroque and neoclassical elements. Among the largest historic monuments are the Morelia Cathedral, which dominates the skyline from afar, and the 18th-century aqueduct built during a drought to bring water to the city.

I was enchanted by the secluded outdoor living and working spaces. A wide-ranging network of serene open-air courtyards and porticos greeted me when I stepped through the doors of stone buildings butting up against busy city sidewalks. They revealed restaurants, shops, galleries and schools. For example, classrooms in the Michoacán University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo are behind two floors of arched doorways off a courtyard shaded by palms and other tropical flora. In another lovely yard, the boutique Hotel de la Soledad offers guests exclusive spaces for lunching and lounging. The Municipal Palace, originally home to the Offices for the Regulation and Sales of Tobacco, boasts an octagonal courtyard. And featuring sprawling stone terraces for surveying the city is the hacienda-style Villa Montaña Hotel & Spa built high into a hill.

Adding to the city’s artistic sensibility are fashion-conscious residents favouring European chic. From babies to grannies, they strut their stylish stuff along boulevards, city squares and streets. They dine for hours on fine cuisine in elegant restaurants, many of which display local works of art. Imaginative chefs prepared intriguing dishes for our little group that included chocolate-grilled steak, chicharrón (fried pork rinds) and white refried beans. Meals were often accompanied by award-winning wines from Baja California and followed by shots of mezcal to help with digestion. A classic dessert was Pastel de Elote, a sweet corn cake.

Patzcuáro

Designated one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos, Patzcuáro is about a 45-minute drive from Morelia. Famous for its Night of the Dead celebrations that are considered by UNESCO an Intangible Cultural Heritage, the town explodes every November with visitors, flowers, candles, markets and skeleton costumes to observe the festival.

The magic for me happened on an ordinary day around Plaza de Quiroga, the central square where families and friends congregate after work, kids and pets run around freely, and classical music plays quietly from discreet speakers beside each stone bench. At dusk, everyone pauses to watch the street lights go on in the park and the town. Surrounding the square, arched porticos frame ancient stone buildings that have been converted into shops, restaurants and boutique hotels. The Casa del Naranjo hotel on a historic corner evokes the gracious aristocratic lifestyle. In its restaurant, a tall orange tree reaches for the sky from the floor, while a polished wood banister takes guests up to spacious, well-appointed rooms.

As a history and architecture buff, I was fascinated by the remains of 17th- and 18th-century buildings that house art displays and host various artistic performances. A former convent, the Casa de los Once Patios (House of Eleven Courtyards) is now home to workshops where artists and craftspeople use time-honoured skills to create high-quality wares, and to shops where deals can be had. On a steep hill overlooking the town centre is the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud—Patzcuáro’s patron saint who some believe performs miracles. The cathedral is also the final resting place of Don Vasco de Quiroga.

SANTA FE DE LA LAGUNA

An easy 27 kilometres down the road is an indigenous community where, in contrast to the cities, residents take great pains to make time stand still. Descendants of the ancient Purépecha tribe proudly preserve their traditions and culture, from language and pottery-making to cuisine and clothing.

Visitors can live the culture at a number of adobe-and-tile hostels owned and operated by local women trained in the hospitality business by the Michoacán tourism secretariat. At the pristine Hostal Tzipekua, for example, guests are treated like family, so they are never alone. Award-winning cooks specializing in traditional Purépecha dishes prepare meals in small village eateries, while students from culinary arts schools come to observe and learn. Specialties include homemade cheese and sour cream, atole (a thick, sweet, corn-based drink) and tarasca soup made with pinto beans.

Within the ruins of the courtyard of the 16th-century Hospital de Indios financed by Bishop Vasco, several families gather every Friday to cook a traditional community lunch, socialize and eat together in the old way. The air is fragrant with the aroma of chicken soup boiling in a big cauldron, while rhythmic slapping sounds signify corn tortillas being made by hand. The families’ community spirit and generosity extended to us, as they offered bowls of soup, cooked vegetables, fruit and bottles of pop. All summing up the true Mexican soul.

Travel Planner

Michoacán’s capital, Morelia, is about an hour’s flight from Mexico City, the centre of the country’s flight universe. Commuter flights are offered by several airlines, including Aeroméxico (aeromexico.com) and Aeromar (aeromar.mx). On the ground, private tour operators offer a range of experiences and English-speaking guides. For those who favour “Spanish immersion,” inexpensive public buses also criss-cross the state. For more information, consult your travel agent or search michoacan.travel. 

For hotel information, visit:

Hotel Casa del Naranjo: hotelcasadelnaranjo.com

Hotel de la Soledad: hoteldelasoledad.com

Villa Montaña Hotel & Spa: villamontana.com.mx

 
 
 
 
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