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.
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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.
Easy-going 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 well-preserved indigenous tradition 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. Unless you go looking for trouble in the cities, you should be fine. If travelling along the state’s byways, do so during the hours of daylight.
Jalisco and Michoacán fiestas
Both Jalisco and Michoacán preserve strong native traditions and are particularly rich in fiestas: the list given here is by no means exhaustive, and local tourist offices will have further details.
- New Year’s Day (Jan 1). Celebrated in Pátzcuaro and Uruapan with the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men).
- Día de los Santos Reyes (Jan 6). Twelfth Night is celebrated with many small ceremonies and dances such as Los Sonajeros (rattles), Las Pastoras (the shepherdesses) and El Baile de la Conquista (conquest). Particularly good at Los Reyes (west of Uruapan) and Cajititlán (25km south of Guadalajara).
- Día de San Sebastian (Jan 20). Traditional dances in Tuxpan (30km southeast of Ciudad Guzmán).
- Día de Nuestro Señor del Rescate (Feb 1). In Tzintzuntzán, the start of a week-long fiesta founded in the sixteenth century by Vasco de Quiroga.
- Carnaval (the week before Lent, variable Feb–March). Celebrated everywhere.
- Festival Internacional de Guitarra (late March or early April) International Guitar Festival in Morelia.
- Palm Sunday (the Sun before Easter Sun). Palm ornament market in Uruapan.
- Semana Santa (Holy Week). Observed everywhere, but especially in Tzintzuntzán.
- Expo Feria (variable April–May). Arts and industry show in Morelia.
- Día de la Santa Cruz (May 3). Native dances in Angangueo; mariachis and tequila in Tequila.
- Día del Señor de la Misericordia (last Sun in May). Fiesta and dances in Tuxpan (southeast of Ciudad Guzmán).
- Corpus Christi (Thurs after Trinity, variable late May to early June). Traditional dances in Paracho (50km south of Zamora).
- Día de San Pedro (June 29). Mariachi and dance festival in Tlaquepaque, Guadalajara.
- Día de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (first Sun in July). Torch-lit religious processions in Quiroga (25km northeast of Pátzcuaro).
- Día de María Magdalena (July 22). Fiesta in Uruapan featuring a procession of animals.
- Día de Santiago Apóstol (July 25). Lively celebrations and fireworks in Tuxpan (southeast of Ciudad Guzmán) and Uruapan.
- Fiesta tradicional (Aug 8). Ancient pre-Columbian fiesta in Paracho (50km south of Zamora).
- Feria Nacional del Cobre (second week in Aug). National Copper Fair in Santa Clara del Cobre, near Pátzcuaro.
- Morelos’ birthday (Sept 30). Celebrated in Morelia.
- Fiestas de Octubre (all month). Massive cultural festival in Guadalajara.
- Día de San Francisco (Oct 4). Saint’s day celebrations in Uruapan.
- Día de la Raza (Oct 12). Uruapan celebrates Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas.
- Día de la Virgen de Zapopan (Oct 12). Massive pilgrimage in Guadalajara.
- Festival de Coros y Danzas (Oct 24–26). Singing and dancing competitions in Uruapan.
- Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Celebrated everywhere, but especially around Pátzcuaro. Also picturesque in Zitácuaro.
- Arrival of the monarch butterfly (second week of Nov). Las monarcas start arriving in Michoacán in big numbers around now. Festival Internacional de Música (third week of Nov). International Music Festival in Morelia.
- Feria de Aguacate (variable Nov–Dec). Three-week avocado fair in Uruapan.
- Día de la Inmaculada Concepción (Dec 8). Celebrated in Sayula (32km north of Ciudad Guzmán on the Tapalpa road).
- La Señora de la Salud (Dec 8). Pilgrimage and dances in Pátzcuaro and Tequila.
- Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Dec 12). Large celebrations in Tapalpa.
- Pastoral plays (Dec 24). Performed in Tuxpan (southeast of Ciudad Gúzman).
Laguna de Chapala
At around 35km wide and 120km long, Laguna de Chapala, just over 50km south of Guadalajara, is the largest lake in Mexico. Its northern shore has long been a favourite retreat for Tapatíos, especially since the early years of the twentieth century when dictator Porfirio Díaz regularly spent his holidays here. Expats from north of the border, particularly Canadians, have also been appreciative of the lake scenery and even year-round temperatures. It is said that there are now around thirty thousand such people living in and around Guadalajara, a sizeable proportion of whom have settled on the lakeside – particularly in Chapala and in the smaller village of Ajijic. Peak season is November to April, which coincides with the arrival of seasonal snowbirds.
Southwest of Laguna de Chapala
Some of the most delightful subalpine scenery in Mexico lies southwest of Laguna de Chapala, on the road to Colima. You’ll miss much of it if you stick to the speedy toll road (Hwy-54), though even that has its exciting moments as it passes the Zona de Montaña. The slower, if bumpier, old road plied by second-class buses to Tapalpa and Ciudad Guzmán is far more attractive.
The town of TAPALPA, 130km southwest of Guadalajara, makes an ideal base for a few days of relaxation amid upland pastures and pine forests. It is reached via a steep, winding road off the old highway, which climbs continuously until it crests a 2300m ridge at El Balcón. If you’re driving, stop here to check out the view back down the valley (on a bus, it’s on the left if coming up to Tapalpa) and to feel the near-constant steady breeze, a phenomenon that drew World Cup paragliding events in 2002 and 2004.
Pretty little Tapalpa, 10km further on, lies amid magnificent surroundings – ranch country and tree-clad hills that are often covered in a gentle mist. With a population of only around sixteen thousand, there’s a village feel to it, especially around the plaza. Here you’ll find eighteenth-century wooden-balconied houses, encircling portales and two impressive churches – the larger with an unusually plain brick interior. On the outskirts, clusters of cabañas dot the woods luring upwardly mobile Tapatíos, and a fair bit of desirable real estate has sprung up in recent years.
Tapalpa is on the Guadalajara weekender circuit, so try to visit midweek when its old-world charm is little affected (although hotels remain pricey). The town centres around a stunningly picturesque main square, where several old buildings have been refurbished as restaurants and hotels. The place gets very cold in winter, and even summer nights can become chilly, but people brew their own mescal, which may help warm you up.
Walks around Tapalpa
There’s good walking in almost any direction from Tapalpa, with plenty of wildlife, especially birds, to spot; black vultures (urubu birds) are often seen soaring on the thermals. You can also hire horses (look for the signs) for the popular ride to the local waterfall. One especially pleasant hike is to Las Piedrotas (5km; around 1hr each way), which follows a decent but little used road towards Chiquilistlán (marked as you enter Tapalpa). It passes the romantic ruins of an old water-driven paper mill, and climbs towards a gorgeous valley of pasturelands, studded with wild flowers and huge boulders. If you don’t fancy walking both ways, get a taxi to drop you off (around M$80 from opposite the bus office on Ignacio López), and walk back.
From Guadalajara, the most direct route to Mexico City heads through the major junction of La Piedad and continues east towards Irapuato. If you can afford to dawdle a while, though, it’s infinitely more rewarding to follow the slower, southern road through Zamora and Morelia, spending a couple of days in Uruapan and Pátzcuaro. From Uruapan, Hwy-37 slices south through the mountains to the Pacific coast at Lázaro Cárdenas.
PÁTZCUARO is almost exactly halfway between Uruapan and Morelia, some 60km from both, yet strikingly different from either, boasting both fine architecture and a rich indigenous culture. Sitting on Lago de Pátzcuaro, Mexico’s most beautiful lake, it hosts spectacular Day of the Dead celebrations. Although the outskirts of Pátzcuaro straggle about 3km or so down to the lakeshore, the centre of town is very small, focusing on the two main squares, Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (or Plaza Grande) and Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra (Plaza Chica).
More than anywhere else in the state, Pátzcuaro owes its position to Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, whose affection for the area’s indigenous peoples led him to settle in the Purépechan heartland on the shores of Lago de Pátzcuaro. It was he who decided, in the face of considerable opposition from the Spaniards in Morelia (then known as Valladolid), to build the cathedral here, where it would be centrally located. Although subsequent bishops moved the seat of power back to Morelia, the foundation had been laid for the community’s continued success. Pátzcuaro enjoyed a building boom in the sixteenth century and has been of secondary industrial and political importance ever since. Throughout the centre are old mansions with balconies and coats of arms, barely touched since those early years. Today, quaint Pátzcuaro has developed into an upmarket and artistically inclined town with numerous boutiques. You can spend hours wandering around the beautiful – and expensive – arts, crafts and antique shops, aimed mainly at visitors from Mexico City and abroad.
Lago de Pátzcuaro
Apart from the beautiful town itself, Pátzcuaro’s other great attraction is Lago de Pátzcuaro. The lake was once a major thoroughfare, but that role has declined since the completion of roads linking the lakeside villages a few years back. Most locals now take the bus rather than paddle around the water in canoes, but there is still a fair amount of traffic and regular trips out to the closest island, Janitzio.
The lake’s other draw is the chance to see and photograph the famous butterfly nets wielded by indigenous fishermen in tiny dugout canoes. It is a long time since this was considered a viable means of gaining food, but a handful of nets are maintained to catch tourists. Occasionally a group of locals lurking in readiness on the far side of Janitzio will paddle into camera range when a sufficiently large collection of money has been taken. Finally, no visit to Pátzcuaro is complete without an excursion to the small lakeside villages, which, thanks to Vasco de Quiroga, each specialize in different artesanía.
Vasco de Quiroga – the noble conquistador
When the Spaniards arrived in Michoacán in 1519, they found the region dominated by the Purépechan people – whom they named Tarascans – whose chief town, Tzintzuntzán, lay on the shores of Lago de Pátzcuaro. The Tarascan civilization, a serious rival to the Aztecs before the Conquest, had a widespread reputation for excellence in the arts, especially metalworking and feathered ornaments. Though the Tarascans submitted peaceably to the Spaniards in 1522 and their leader converted to Christianity, they did not avoid the massacres and mass torture that Nuño de Guzmán meted out in his attempts to fully pacify the region. Guzmán’s methods were overly brutal, even by colonial standards, and an elderly Spanish nobleman-turned-priest, Vasco de Quiroga, was appointed bishop to the area in an attempt to restore harmony. He succeeded beyond all expectations, securing his reputation as a champion of the native peoples – a reputation that persists today. He coaxed the native population down from the mountains to which they had fled, established self-sufficient agricultural settlements and set up missions to teach practical skills as well as religion. The effects of his actions have survived in a very visible way for, despite some blurring in objects produced for the tourist trade, each village still has its own craft speciality: lacquerware in Uruapan, guitars in Paracho, copper goods in Santa Clara del Cobre, to name but a few.
Vasco de Quiroga also left behind him a deeply religious state. Michoacán was a stronghold of the reactionary Cristero movement, which fought a bitter war in defence of the Church after the Revolution. Perhaps, too, the ideals of Zapata and Villa had less appeal here as Quiroga’s early championing of native peoples’ rights against their new overlords meant that the hacienda system never entirely took over Michoacán. Unlike most of the country, the state boasted a substantial peasantry with land it could call its own and therefore it didn’t relate to calls for land and labour reform.
Aside from the Day of the Dead, Pátzcuaro’s main fiestas are New Year (Jan 1), when the Danza de los Viejitos (Dance of the Little Old Men) is performed, and La Señora de la Salud (Dec 8), a saint’s day event attended by many Tarascan pilgrims. On La Señora de la Salud, you’ll see worshippers in an intense, almost hypnotic fervour; the scrubby park outside the basilica becomes a fairground and there are all manner of Tarascan dances.
José María Morelos y Pavón
A student of Hidalgo, José María Morelos took over the leadership of the Independence movement after its instigators had been executed in 1811. While the cry of Independence had initially been taken up by the Mexican (Creole) bourgeoisie, smarting under the trading restrictions imposed on them by Spain, it quickly became a mass movement. Unlike the original leaders, Morelos (a mestizo priest born into relative poverty) was a populist and genuine reformer. Even more unlike them, he was also a political and military tactician of considerable skill, invoking the spirit of the French Revolution and calling for universal suffrage, racial equality and the break-up of the hacienda system, under which workers were tied to agricultural servitude. He was defeated and executed by Royalist armies under Agustín de Iturbide in 1815 after waging years of guerrilla warfare, a period during which Morelos had come close to taking the capital and controlling the entire country. When Independence was finally gained – by Iturbide, who had changed sides and later briefly served as emperor – it was no longer a force for change, rather a reaction to the fact that by 1820 liberal reforms were sweeping Spain itself. The causes espoused by Morelos were, however, taken up to some extent by Benito Juárez and later, with a vengeance, in the Revolution – almost a hundred years after his death.
Around Michoacán you’ll see Morelos’ image everywhere – notably the massive statue atop Isla de Janitzio – invariably depicted with a kind of bandana over his head. He’s also pictured on the fifty-peso note, which features the butterfly-net fishers of Pátzcuaro, monarch butterflies and masks for the Danza de los Viejitos.
The Day of the Dead around Lago de Pátzcuaro
The Day of the Dead (Nov 1, and through the night into the next day) is celebrated in spectacular fashion throughout Mexico, but nowhere more so than on Lago de Pátzcuaro, particularly the island of Janitzio. On this night, the locals conduct what is an essentially private meditation, carrying offerings of fruit and flowers to the cemetery and maintaining a vigil over the graves of their ancestors until dawn, chanting by candlelight. Death is considered a continuation of life, and this is the time when the souls of muertitos (deceased loved ones) return to the land of the living. It’s a spectacular and moving sight, especially early in the evening as indigenous people from the surrounding area converge on the island in their canoes, with a single candle burning in each bow.
Impressive and solemn though the occasion is, over the years it has become somewhat marred by its sheer press of spectators, both Mexican and foreign. Thousands head over to tiny Janitzio, and from around 10pm on November 1 until around 3am the following morning you can hardly move, especially in the cemetery where the vigil takes place amid a riot of marigolds and candles. If you can manage it, stay up all night and return to the cemetery around 5am when it is quiet and the first hint of dawn lightens the eastern sky. Alternatively, head to one of the other lakeside communities marking the Day of the Dead – Tzurumutaro, Ihuatzio, Cucuchucho or Tzintzuntzán. There’s no guarantee of a quiet and respectful vigil, but crowds will be smaller and the cemeteries no less amazing.
URUAPAN, they say, means “the place where flowers bloom” in the Tarascan language, though Appleton’s Guide for 1884 tells a different story: “The word Uruapan comes from Urani, which means in the Tarasc language ‘a chocolate cup’, because the Indians in this region devote themselves to manufacture and painting of these objects.” Demand for chocolate cups, presumably, has fallen since then, but whatever the truth, the modern version is certainly appropriate: Uruapan, lower (at around 1600m) and warmer than most of its neighbours, enjoys a steamy subtropical climate and is surrounded by thick forests and lush parks.
Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruíz
Located a mere 1km from the Uruapan's central Plaza Morelos on the northwestern edge of downtown and comprising just fifty acres, the Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruíz (or Parque Nacional Barranca Cupatitzio) is far more compact than national parks you may be used to elsewhere. As much (luxuriant and tropical) city park as national, it remains one of Uruapan’s proudest assets. The Río Cupatitzio flows through in a little gorge, via a series of man-made cascades and fountains. The river springs from a rock known as La Rodilla del Diablo (“the Devil’s knee”); according to legend, water gushed forth after the Devil knelt here in submission before the unswerving Christian faith of the drought-ridden population. Alternatively, it is said that the Devil met the Virgin Mary while out strolling in the park, and dropped to his knees in respect. Cupatitzio means “where the waters meet”, though it’s invariably translated as “the river that sings” – another appropriate, if not entirely accurate, tag.
Locals come here to stroll the cobbled footpaths betweens stands of banana plants, gaze at the cascades (particularly good during or just after rain), catch trout and eat at assorted restaurants and taco stands. There are two entrances, one at the end of Independencia (take a bus along here if you don’t feel like walking), and one up by the Mansión del Cupatitzio hotel, with a string of crafts stalls along Calzada de San Miguel between them.
Some 12km to the south of central Uruapan, the river crashes over the waterfall of La Tzaráracua, an impressive 25m plunge amid beautiful forest scenery. This is also a popular outing with locals, especially at weekends, so if you don’t fancy taking the bus, you could share a taxi. If it seems too crowded here, make for the smaller falls, Tzararacuita, about 1km further downstream.
The Dance of the little old men
The Danza de los Viejitos, or the Dance of the Little Old Men, is the most famous of Michoacán’s traditional dances. It is also one of its most picturesque, with the performers (usually children), dressed in baggy white cotton and masked as old men, alternating between parodying the tottering steps of the viejitos they represent and breaking into complex routines. Naturally enough, there’s a lot of music, too. You’ll see the dance performed at festive occasions all over Michoacán, but the finest expression is at the guitar-making town of Paracho, 50km south of Zamora.
The most exciting and interesting local fiestas are: Año Nuevo (Jan 1), when the Danza de los Viejitos is performed; Palm Sunday (the week before Easter), the culmination of a week’s celebration when the indígenas collect palms from the hills and make ornaments from the leaves; Día de María Magdalena (July 22), when there’s a processions of animals through the streets; Día de San Francisco (Oct 4), one of the year’s biggest saint’s day celebrations; and the Feria de Aguacate (Nov/Dec), a three-week avocado fair with agricultural exhibits and artesanía displays.
An ideal day-trip from Uruapan, the “new” volcano of Paricutín, about 40km northwest of town, gives you an unusual taste of the surrounding countryside. On February 20, 1943, a Purépecha peasant working in his fields noticed the earth rumble and then smoke. The ground soon cracked and lava began to flow to the surface. Over a period of several years, it engulfed the village of Paricutín and several other hamlets, forcing the evacuation of some seven thousand inhabitants. The volcano was active for eight years, producing a cone some 400m high and devastating an area of around twenty square kilometres. Now there are vast fields of lava (mostly cooled, though there are still a few hot spots), black and powdery, cracked into harsh jags, along with the dead cone and crater. Most bizarrely, a church tower – all that remains of the buried hamlet of San Juan Parangaricutiro – pokes its head through the surface. The volcano wasn’t all bad news, though: during its active life the volcano spread a fine layer of dust – effectively a fertilizer – on the fields that escaped the full lava flow, and drew tourists from around the world. It is still popular, especially on Sundays, when the upwardly mobile from Uruapan come out to play.
To see much of Paricutín you really need to set aside a day. You’ll want to leave Uruapan early (say 7am or 8am) so you get as much of the hiking as possible done in the cool of the day and catch the ruined church in the morning light. It’s also a good idea to take food and drink as there is very little available in Angahuan, the small and very traditional village from which the volcano is visited.
Alternatively, you can visit Paricutín on horseback. Getting off the bus in Angahuan, and in the village, and on the way to the Centro Turístico, you’ll meet people offering to guide you or take you by horse; it’s not a bad idea to hire a guide, as the paths through the lava are numerous and can be difficult to follow. Prices fluctuate with demand, but you can probably expect to pay around M$400 for a guide for the day, plus another M$350 for each horse (one for the guide plus one for each tourist). A return trip to the cone of the volcano will take about eight hours, either on foot or on horseback. If you just want to see the ruined church, a couple of hours will suffice (and rates for guides and horses will be rather cheaper). The horse trail is easier than the walking trail, though it finishes at the base of the main cone, leaving you to tackle the final steep climb on your own.
Top image: Colonial church in Tapalpa Jalisco © Israel Ceron/Shutterstock