Separated from the country’s colonial heartland by the craggy peaks of the Sierra Madre, the stretch of land from Guadalajara to Mexico City through the semitropical states of Jalisco and Michoacán has an unhurried ease that marks it out from the rest of the country. Containing a complex landscape of lofty plains and rugged sierras, the area is blessed with supremely fertile farms, fresh pine woods, cool pastures and lush tropical forest.
Something of a backwater until well into the eighteenth century, the high valleys of Michoacán and Jalisco were left to develop their own strong regional traditions and solid farming economy. Wherever you go, you’ll find a wealth of local commercial goods, both agricultural and traditionally manufactured items, from avocados to tequila, glassware to guitars. Relative isolation has also made the region a bastion of conservatism – in the years following the Revolution, the Catholic Cristero counter-revolutionary guerrilla movement enjoyed its strongest support here.
Easygoing Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city is packed with elegant buildings and surrounded by scenic countryside. Outside the city, the land is spectacularly green and mountainous, studded with volcanoes and lakes, most famously Laguna de Chapala. There are also some superb colonial relics, especially in the forms of Morelia and Pátzcuaro, although it’s the latter’s majestic setting and still powerful Indian traditions that first call your attention.
The region has not been unaffected by the country’s drug wars, however, as was gruesomely illustrated during Independence Day celebrations in 2008, when gangsters threw grenades into the crowd in Morelia’s main square, killing eight people. The drug lords aren’t interested in law-abiding tourists, so there’s no cause for undue alarm, but you’ll notice an increased presence of heavily armed soldiers and federal police, especially in smaller towns. What you won’t see is the number of Michoacán’s villages which are now under the control of armed gangs, whether drug producers or local vigilantes, but at any rate no force belonging to the state. Again, unless you’re venturing well off the beaten track, you don’t need to worry about this, but you may want to confine your wanderings to the well-worn routes, and when travelling along the state’s byways, to do so during the hours of daylight.