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(2022 - Winter Issue)


My husband and I can’t stop staring at the papier mâché faces of squinting devils, birds with mischievous grins and other surreal creatures covering the walls of Giripani Café. We are in Pátzcuaro, a colonial town in central Mexico, and eager to explore this region with a deep connection to traditional craft-making.

As the barista serves us perfect macchiatos, I inquire who might be the mask-maker. His answer is a phrase we will often overhear. “I made them.”

Timeless Craftsmanship

High in the Michoacán mountains, Pátzcuaro is one of many villages encircling Lake Pátzcuaro.

For thousands of years here, the native Purépecha people have been handmaking wares that masterfully blend function with beauty. When Spanish Bishop Don Vasco de Quiroga arrived in the 1530s, he was amazed by the Indigenous skills and creativity. Despite his role in colonialism, Quiroga advocated for the Purépecha people’s self-sufficiency by supporting their artisanship and encouraging communities to specialize in a specific product.

Today, the Purépecha people and their descendants continue to make and sell textiles, ceramics, masks, metalwork and a dozen other crafts from villages each known for a primary handicraft. Pátzcuaro is one of the vibrant hubs for this traditions-based economy.

Museum to Market

Pátzcuaro instantly charms us. Colonial buildings are painted white with an ochre trim. Restaurants featuring Michoacán cuisine revive old mansions.

We start our visit at the Museum of Popular Arts and Industries, one of Mexico’s national folk-art museums. Built in the 16th century as a priest’s college, the museum displays crafts from the region, including lacquered jícaras (hollowed-out gourds).

English-speaking docents explain how the clash of Indigenous and European civilizations resulted in hybrid forms and techniques still in use. We study life-sized crucifixes assembled with corn-stalk paste, which is a pre-Hispanic technique; and a wooden platter with painted designs fusing Spanish and Purépecha styles.

Impressed by the museum’s collection, we’re ready to find present-day handicrafts. And in less than five minutes, we are weaving through crowds at two markets: one in the courtyard of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud (Basilica of Our Lady of Health), the other along the arcade of Don Vasco de Quiroga Plaza.

A Countryside Rich in Colours

A wonderful revelation about Pátzcuaro is its proximity to the artisan villages. One day we visit Tocuaro, a town known for wooden masks. This pastoral drive can rival the beauty of Pátzcuaro’s own handicrafts. Fields of cempasúchils, those orange and yellow marigolds that adorn gravesites and altars during the Day of the Dead celebrations, are topped by views of Lake Pátzcuaro. The water’s azure hue glistens like a blue ceramic platter.

After driving past blooming poinsettia bushes nearly as tall as a house, we spot a sign with the face of a diablo (devil). We’re here!

Inside a Mask-maker’s Studio

Master mask-maker Joel Horta welcomes us to his open-air woodworking studio brimming in fanciful creations of ghoulish monsters and men with toothless smiles.

He recounts that many of his pieces are in art galleries and collected by travellers like us. Those masks of men’s faces—he points out—will eventually resemble laughing elderly men from Danza de Los Viejitos (Dance of the Old Men). This traditional folk dance from the Michoacán area involves four cane-wielding “seniors” moving from a slow march into a humorous, fast dance.

As we leave with our new masks, one of the devil and the other of the old man, Horta invites us inside his home. In a room tucked beside the kitchen, we discover larger abstract masks that he recalls with deep pride were created in 2010 for the FIFA World Cup national soccer team who competed in South Africa.

A Magical View

We mark our final day in Pátzcuaro by sailing across Lake Pátzcuaro to Isla Janitzio for an experience that meshes art, architecture and history. Looming over the island like a colossal sentinel stands a 40-metre-tall monument dedicated to the national hero, José María Morelos, who led Mexico’s independence movement from Spain (1810-1815).

We climb inside the monument’s steep staircase past murals chronicling Morelos’s life. The workout is worth it, though. At the top, inside an empty tiny room, a spectacular view of Lake Pátzcuaro awaits us.

The many charms of this Mexican hillside village are splayed out for all to see.

Travel Planner

For more travel information about Pátzcuaro visit the Tourist Ministry of Michoacán michoacan.travel/en/project/patzcuaro-2 and Visit Mexico  visitmexico.com/eng/michoacan-2

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