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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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 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
The birthplace of José Clemente Orozco, CIUDAD GUZMÁN is a busy little town thoroughly steeped in local culture, with attractive colonnaded streets in the centre. The centre of the main plaza is a bandstand with a replica of Orozco’s Man of Fire mural from Guadalajara. As ever, almost everything of interest is on or around the plaza, where you’ll find banks, phones and places to stay.
The pleasant and well laid-out little town museum, the Museo de las Culturas de Occidente (the occidente in question being the west of Mexico) is really just one room, but there are some lovely clay figures and animals in the collection of local archeology.
The second city of the Mexican Republic and capital of the state of Jalisco, GUADALAJARA is considered the most “Mexican” of the country’s big cities. Being less frenetic than the capital, however, doesn’t make it peaceful, and Guadalajara is huge and sprawling. Its conversion to a sleek metropolis has resulted in a hike in prices and some sacrifice of Mexican mellowness in favour of a US-style business ethic, but it’s still an enjoyable place to visit, with the edge on Mexico’s other big cities for trees, flowers, cleanliness and friendliness. Parks, little squares and open spaces are numerous, while downtown, around the cathedral, is a series of plazas unchanged since the days of the Spanish colonization. This small colonial heart of Guadalajara can still, especially at weekends, recall an old-world atmosphere and provincial elegance. The centre is further brightened by the Plaza Tapatía, which opens out the city’s historical core to pedestrians, mariachi bands and street theatre.
Guadalajara’s rapid expansion has swallowed up numerous communities: once-distinct villages are now barely distinguishable from the city all around. Heading west, the university area blends into chic suburbs and some of the city’s most expensive real estate. East, Tlaquepaque and Tonalá are the source of some of the area’s finest handicrafts. And finally to the north, Zapopan has a huge, much revered church and a museum of indigenous traditions, while the Barranca de Oblatos offers stunning canyon views and weekend picnic spots.
Guadalajara was founded in 1532, one of the fruits of the vicious campaign of Nuño de Guzmán at the time of the Conquest – his cruelty and corruption were such that he appalled even the Spanish authorities, who threw him into prison in Madrid, where he died. The city, named after Guzmán’s birthplace, thrived, was officially recognized by Charles V in 1542 and rapidly became one of the colony’s most Spanish cities – in part because so much of the indigenous population had been killed or had fled during the Conquest. Isolated from the great mining industry of the Bajío, Guadalajara evolved into a regional centre for trade and agriculture. The tight reins of colonial rule restrained the city’s development, and it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century, as the colonial monopolies began to crumble, that things really took off. Between 1760 and 1803 the city’s population tripled, reaching some 35,000; a new university was established; and the city became famous for the export of wheat, hides, cotton and wool.
When Spain’s colonial empire finally fell apart, Guadalajara supported Hidalgo’s independence movement and briefly served as the capital of the nation. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was already the second largest city in the Republic, and in the 1920s the completion of the rail link with California provided a further spur for development. More recently, the exodus from Mexico City and attempts at industrial decentralization have continued to swell the urban area’s population, which now tops four and a half million.
While in Guadalajara, you shouldn’t miss out on some of Jalisco’s culinary specialities. The most celebrated is birria, stewed beef or mutton in a spicy, but not particularly hot, sauce, and served with tortillas or in tacos from street stalls, bars and in markets. Roast goat is another favourite, often seen in the markets along with a goat’s skull (just in case you don’t know what chivo means). Pozole, a stew of pork and hominy (ground maize) is also popular, and typically found as a restaurant special on Thursdays. Rarely seen much beyond the city limits, there’s also torta ahogada (literally “drowned sandwich”), a bread roll stuffed with a filling of your choice (traditionally pork) then drenched with a thin, spicy salsa that soaks right through the bread. It’s a bit messy, but extremely delicious. And then, of course, there’s tequila.
Several entertaining fiestas take place throughout the year including the highly animated Día de San Pedro in Tlaquepaque (June 29), with mariachi, dancing and processions; and the Día de la Virgen de Zapopan (Oct 12), an all-night fiesta capped with a massive early morning procession that starts before dawn at the cathedral and finishes in Zapopan. Crowds and assorted food vendors start arriving the evening before, with all sorts of music and the portales choked with people bedding down for the 4am start. In the autumn, everything cranks up to fever pitch for the Fiestas de Octubre, a month-long celebration when downtown Guadalajara comes alive with all manner of outdoor performances and bands, often free. Daily events include charreadas (rodeos), processions and fireworks, as well as all kinds of free entertainment – modern Mexican music performances are put on from noon till 10pm in the fairgrounds of the Benito Juárez auditorium.
José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949) was a member, along with Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, of the triumvirate of brilliant artists who emerged from the Revolution and transformed Mexican painting into an enormously powerful and populist political statement, especially through the medium of the giant mural. Their chief patron was the state – hence the predominance of their work in official buildings and educational establishments – and their aim was to create a national art that drew on native traditions. Almost all their work is consciously educational, rewriting – or, perhaps better, rediscovering – Mexican history in the light of the Revolution, casting the imperialists as villains and drawing heavily on pre-Hispanic themes. Orozco, a native of Jalisco (he was born in Zapotlan, now Ciudad Guzmán), was perhaps the least overtly political of the three; certainly, his later work, the greatest of which is here in Guadalajara, concentrates on his nuanced style.
As a child he moved to Guadalajara and then to Mexico City, where he was influenced by renowned engraver José Guadalupe Posada and where he painted murals from 1922 to 1927. His best works from this period are the series including The Destruction of the Old Order which he painted at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City. Then followed seven years in the US, where works included his mammoth The Epic of American Civilization at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where it’s now displayed. It was in the years following his return, however, in the late 1930s and 1940s, that his powers as an artist reached their peak, above all in his works at Guadalajara’s Hospicio Cabañas and the University of Guadalajara.
Each winter more than 150 million monarch butterflies migrate from the northeastern US and Canada to the Oyamel fir forests in the lush mountains of Michoacán in order to reproduce. It’s an amazing sight at any time, but especially in January and February when numbers peak: whole trees are smothered in monarchs, branches sagging under the weight. In the cool of the morning, they dry their wings, turning the entire landscape a rich, velvety orange, while later in the day they take to the air, millions of fluttering butterflies making more noise than you’d ever think possible. As the afternoon humidity forces them to the ground, they form a thick carpet of blazing colour.
The place to see the monarchs is in the Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca about 120km east of Morelia, with entrances at El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, near the village of Angangueo. While the Sierra Chincua entrance is, on the face of it, less convenient, with public transport dropping you 2km short, the hike inside the sanctuary is actually less strenuous from here. There are also sections of the sanctuary across the state line in the State of Mexico, which are most easily visited from Valle de Bravo, but can also be accessed from Zitácuaro.
The sheer size of the congregation of monarch butterflies in the hills of Michoacán is astonishing, but not as impressive as their 4500km migration. In the autumn, when the weather starts to turn cold in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada, the butterflies head south, taking just four to five weeks to make it to Michoacán. Here, in an area of less than 150 square kilometres, they find the unique microclimate a perfect place to spend the winter. The cool temperatures allow them to conserve energy, the trees provide shelter from wind and precipitation and the fog-laden air prevents them from drying out. Monarchs typically have a life cycle of around two to five weeks, but when they fly south they go into a phase known as “reproductive diapause”, and end up living for seven months in all. The same butterflies remain in Michoacán all winter, then breed in spring in time for their caterpillars to dine on the newly emergent milkweed plants – their only food source – before returning to the US and Canada.
Around ten percent of all migrating monarchs get eaten by black-headed grosbeaks and black-backed orioles, but that poses no danger to species survival. The real threat is loss of this crucial mountain habitat. This was recognized as far back as 1986, when several key overwintering sites were protected from logging, but the local peasant families need the wood and they were never fully compensated for the loss of this resource. The Mexican government more than tripled the size of the reserves in 2000, but logging continued to a large enough extent that in early 2007 new president Felipe Calderón declared a “zero tolerance” policy against it, and increased policing. To learn more, check out the Monarch Watch website at monarchwatch.org.
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.
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.
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. Ten years later, they were visited by the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, who was so taken by the site that he ordered a town to be built, naming it after his birthplace – Valladolid in Castile – 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.
Try to get here for the Festival Internacional de Guitarra (held in March or April), a fantastic gathering of musicians from around the world; Expo Feria (dates vary in April/May), the Michoacán Expo Fair celebrating the arts and industry of the region; Morelos’ birthday (Sept 30), celebrated with civic events, fairs, dances and fireworks; or the Festival Internacional de Música (second and third week in Nov), an international festival with concerts, recitals, operas and conferences.
The approach to TEQUILA, some 50km northwest of Guadalajara, is through great fields of spiky, cactus-like blue agave. It’s from these rugged plants that the quintessentially Mexican liquor has been produced since the sixteenth century, with the indígenas fermenting its precursor for at least 1500 years before that, a legacy which earned Tequila and its surroundings UNESCO World Heritage status in 2006. The town itself is a pretty enough little place, with its fine church and smattering of bourgeois mansions, but most tourists come to visit the distilleries.
Visiting Tequila is particularly fun during one of its fiestas: the town celebrates the Día de la Santa Cruz (May 3) with mariachi and plenty of imbibing; and La Señora de la Salud (Dec 8), with rodeos, cockfights, fireworks and more drinking. World Tequila Day (May 27) is celebrated with parades and drinking, but in Amatitán rather than Tequila itself (arguably, Amatitán was the original centre of “mescal wine” production before the arrival of the railway made Tequila its distribution centre and gave the liquor its modern name).
One of the best ways to experience the Tequila region is to travel there from Guadalajara by train. This is one of only three train rides left in Mexico (the others being the longer Copper Canyon run and a suburban line in Mexico City). You have to travel as part of a tour package and it’s obviously touristy, but it gives you a chance to learn something of the process and see how the agave is harvested, and includes a meal and samples.
There are two tours: the Tequila Express doesn’t actually take you to the town of Tequila but travels at a stately pace through blue agave fields and stops at Amatitán, home of Herradura’s Hacienda San José del Refugio, a tour of which is included. It runs at weekends and holidays. Alternatively, José Cuervo run their own José Cuervo Express during the day at weekends, or on Friday nights. This takes you to Tequila itself, with a tour of the Cuervo distillery.
Of all the distillery tours, the slickest is run by José Cuervo in their La Rojeña factory, parts of which date back to 1758. The basic tour makes a quick turn through the factory, where you can taste the raw distillate, then continues to the barrel storage area, where you can try a little of the finished product. Extended tours take in all this, give you a chance to sit down and learn how to appreciate the qualities of the various tequilas and include a margarita and a visit to the old storage cellars – it’s worth the few extra pesos. At the weekend there are even more extended “VIP” tours.
Visitors to Tequila are often surprised to hear that the town’s eponymous spirit is more complex than its reputation lets on. As with alcoholic beverages considered more sophisticated, like champagne, tequila is subject to strictly enforced appellation rules: true tequila must be made from at least 51 percent Weber blue agave grown in the Zona Protegida por la Denominación de Origen – essentially all of Jalisco plus parts of Nayarit, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. The balance can be made up with alcohol from sugar or corn, but a good tequila will be one hundred percent agave, which gives more intense and flamboyant flavours, and will be stated on the label.
The agave takes seven to ten years to reach an economically harvestable size. The plant is then killed and the spiky leaves cut off, leaving the heart, known as the piña for its resemblance to an oversized pineapple. On distillery tours you can see the hearts as they’re unloaded from trucks and shoved into ovens, where they’re baked for a day or so. On emerging from the ovens, the warm and slightly caramelized piñas are crushed and the sweet juice fermented, then distilled.
Tequila isn’t a drink that takes well to extended ageing, but some time in a barrel definitely benefits the flavour and smoothness. The simplest style of tequila, known as blanco or plata (white or silver), is clear, and sits just fifteen days in stainless steel tanks. The reposado (rested) spends at least two months in toasted, new white-oak barrels. The degree to which the barrels are toasted greatly affects the resulting flavours; a light toast gives spicy notes; a medium toast brings out vanilla and honey flavours; and a deep charring gives chocolate, smoke and roast almond overtones. If left for over a year the tequila becomes añejo (old), and typically takes on a darker colour. A fourth style, joven (young), is a mix of blanco with either reposado or añejo. While the nuances of tequila are slowly being explored by a select few, the benefits of oak ageing aren’t appreciated by all – many still prefer the supple vegetative freshness of a good blanco.