The state capital, MORELIA, is in many ways unrepresentative of Michoacán. It looks Spanish and, despite a large indigenous population, it feels Spanish – with its broad streets lined with seventeenth-century mansions and outdoor cafés sheltered by arcaded plazas, you might easily be in Salamanca or Valladolid. Indeed, the city’s name was Valladolid until 1828, when it was changed to honour local-born Independence hero José María Morelos.
Morelia has always been a city of Spaniards. It was one of the first they founded after the Conquest – two Franciscan friars, Juan de San Miguel and Antonio de Lisboa, settled here among the native inhabitants in 1530 and first laid claim to the city. Ten years later, they were visited by the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendóza, who was so taken by the site that he ordered a town to be built, naming it after his birthplace and sending fifty Spanish families to settle it. From the beginning, there was fierce rivalry between the colonists and the older culture’s town of Pátzcuaro. During the lifetime of Vasco de Quiroga, Pátzcuaro had the upper hand, but later the bishopric was moved here, a university founded, and by the end of the sixteenth century there was no doubt that Valladolid was predominant.
Though there are specific things to look for and to visit in present-day Morelia, the city as a whole outweighs them: it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991 and city ordinances decree that all new construction must perfectly match the old, such that it preserves a remarkable unity of style. Nearly everything is built of the same faintly pinkish-grey stone (trachyte), which, being soft, is not only easily carved and embellished but weathers quickly, giving even relatively recent constructions a battered, ancient look. Best of all are the plazas dotted with little cafés where you can while away an hour or two.
Everything you’re likely to want to see is within easy walking distance of the Plaza de Armas, the heart of the colonial centre. Avenida Francisco Madero, which runs along the north side of Plaza de Armas and the cathedral, is very much the main street, with most of the important public buildings and major shops strung out along it.