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Guanajuato – Mexico’s Most Magical City?

If a trip is best measured in memories, well our Central Mexico Tour produced many. In his 18th installment from one of our tours, Dale of The Maritime Explorer shares why he loves this region just so much.


This is my eighteenth post from last year’s inaugural Central Mexico with Victor Romagnali offered by Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad. It was one of the best overall trips Alison and I have ever been on and traveling with Victor always guarantees a great cultural, historical and gustatory experience. Our last stop was in the very popular (for good reason) small city of San Miguel de Allende where we had the chance to meet up with old friends and share drinks and a great meal at the Casa de Sierra Nevada, one of the best hotels we stayed at on the entire trip. Today we are travelling the very short distance from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato, a city I had never heard of before this trip. Now having spent the better part of two days there, I can say without hesitation that it is a true gem in every way and perhaps my favourite city in Mexico. Let me tell you why.

History of Guanajuato

Wide Angle Photo of Guanajuato
Wide Angle of Guanajuato

Guanajuato was first and foremost one of the great silver mining cities of the world. I use the word ‘was’ because the silver and gold that was extracted from the hills and valleys of the area has long been mined out, the last mine closing in 1928. The presence of precious minerals was known to pre-Columbian people of the area and the Aztecs were actively seeking gold and silver for their elites when the Spanish arrived. By 1540 they learned of the earthly riches of the Guanajuato, initially mostly gold and one of the first gold rushes in the world was on. Then they started finding the richest silver deposits on earth.

By the 18th century Guanajuato was the silver mining capital of the world with one mine alone, the Valenciana producing up to two thirds of world production. Anyone who has studied European history will know that in the 17th and 18th centuries Spain was the richest country in the world, entirely because of places like Guanajuato which they exploited ruthlessly. However, much of the riches from the mines remained in local hands and the city was considered the wealthiest in Mexico right up until the late 19th century. The result is an abundance of baroque architecture that ranks as among the best in the New World and, along with the remnants of the mines, a primary reason the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. This is how UNESCO describes the uniqueness of Guanajuato.

    Founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century, Guanajuato became the world’s leading silver-extraction centre in the 18th century. This past can be seen in its ‘subterranean streets’ and the ‘Boca del Inferno’, a mineshaft that plunges a breathtaking 600 m. The town’s fine Baroque and neoclassical buildings, resulting from the prosperity of the mines, have influenced buildings throughout central Mexico. The churches of La Compañía and La Valenciana are considered to be among the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in Central and South America. Guanajuato was also witness to events which changed the history of the country.

That last sentence is a reference to the Mexican War of Independence. The first major battle of the war took place in Guanajuato at a site we’ll visit later in this post. So the city has great architecture, some very important history and as it turns out is the home to perhaps Mexico’s most famous artist – Diego Rivera. We’ll visit his birthplace. Finally, if this is not enough, we had some of the best meals of the trip here. So let’s get going.

La Valenciana

La Valenciana, Guanajuarto
San Cayetano Church

The city centre of Guanajuarto lies in a valley surrounded by steep hills, many of which are topped with ancient villages that date back to the first mines in the 16th century. One such is La Valenciana, where that famously rich mine was located. It is our first stop in the area and involves the driver snaking the bus up a road that gets narrower and narrower until its barely wider than the bus itself, until we reach the town centre and there’s just enough room to get out. Across the street is a magnificent view of the city of Guanajuato and in front of us the Mexican Churrigueresque facade of San Cayetano church. And before you ask “What the hell does Churrigueresque mean?”,  just think of it as a fancy version of Baroque. It was built by the owner of the mine who was giving thanks to God for personally delivering to him this mountain of riches. The least he could do was build a church and cover the interior with some of the gold from that mine. In the case of the altar of San Cayetano, all that glitters really is gold.

San Cayetano Gold Altar

The ceiling of the dome was more appealing to me than the excess of the altar. There is just something about the symmetry of a well constructed cupola seen directly from below that almost mimics a spider’s web and this one captured that look very aptly. I thought about the miners whose toils brought about the wealth that could lead to a construction like this and realized that they were really the flies in the web that were necessary for the spider to survive.

San Cayetano Ceiling

Somehow the driver had gotten the bus turned around and we made our way back down the hillside with some great views of the colourful houses that line the hillsides of Guanajuato, many only accessible by way of long staircases.

Guanajuato Houses
Guanajuato Hillside

Like San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato’s central streets are far too narrow for buses and in many cases, even cars. There is a large parking lot on the outskirts of the city where Victor got us transferred into taxis for the ride to the hotel. Even then we still had to get out and walk the final 100 yards or so. No big deal.

Near the bus parking lot there is this very fine statue dedicated to the many thousands of miners who made the ultimate sacrifice while unearthing the riches of the area.

Miner’s Monument

The Hotel San Diego

Hotel San Diego, Guanajuato
Hotel San Diego

Our accommodations in Guanajuato were at the venerable Hotel San Diego which could not have been more centrally located, literally right beside the church of the same name and 100 yards from one of the most famous buildings in the city, the Teatro Juarez.

Hotel San Diego Lobby

In keeping with some of major historical events that occurred in Guanajuato the hotel lobby has a series of very good murals depicting some of these events, including this one which I believe shows the Jesuit priest and revolutionary Miguel Hidalgo confronting Spanish troops in the city in 1810. Much more about Hidalgo later in this post.

Hotel San Diego Mural

The rooms at the Hotel San Diego are more than adequate, but certainly not in the luxury category of the previous night’s stay in San Miguel de Allende.

Room 201, Hotel San Diego

One thing we really enjoyed about this hotel was the second story Italian restaurant with tables on balconies that looked out over the plaza below which was alive with festivities. We had a very nice meal here at a great price.

Dining Over the Plaza

After dinner we went for a stroll and soon discovered that in addition to everything else Guanajuato has going for it, it is also a university town with all the vibrancy and youthfulness associated with places of higher learning. We came across this statue of a troubadour just outside the Church of San Diego and started noticing numbers of students being led by fellows dressed exactly like this statue.

Troubador Statue, Guanajuato
Callejoneadas Statue

Turns out they are part of a tradition that started in Guanajuato in the early 1960’s called callejoneadas, literally ‘alley walks’, whereby students dressed in costume playing instruments, singing, dancing and drinking lead groups through the narrow alleyways of the city. The best way to understand it is to watch this short video.

Along with many folk traditions, even newer ones like the callejoneadas, you can now join groups specifically aimed at tourists who want to participate in the evening fun. They mostly start near the steps of the Teatro Juarez where you can do as we did, just sit there and listen to the mariachi bands or sing along with them.

The one thing you don’t see in these two videos is automobiles which is another reason Guanajuato is so popular. It has one of the largest pedestrian only areas in the country and as Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.” With that it’s time to hit the sack because tomorrow is a full day. We do so under the aegis of El Pipila who looks out over the city. We’ll visit him tomorrow as well.

Pipila at Night

A Walking Tour of Guanajuato

There is a lot to see in Guanajuato and today we’ll be led on a walking tour with local guide Gabriel who was one of the best we had on the entire tour. The starting point is the tiny funicular that climbs its way up to the statue of El Pipila and a great look out point over the city. Each car holds only five passengers so it takes a few trips to get everybody up.

Guanajuato Funicular

So who is El Pipila which translates into ‘the turkey’? He was a real character, Juan Martinez who was born with deformities that gave him a strange walking gait that people derisively likened to that of a turkey and thus his pejorative nickname. During the first real encounter between rebellious Mexican forces and the Spanish troops, the Spanish and their supporters locked themselves inside the city’s huge granary. It turned out to be a great defensive position from which they could pick off anyone who tried to break in the wooden door that was the only entrance to the building. Along comes El Pipila who has attained great strength while working underground in the mines. He straps a large flat rock to his back which blocks the bullets and arrows from above and makes his way to the door with a bucket of tar with which he coats the door and lights it on fire. The Spaniards are screwed, but more about that when we visit the granary.

El Pipila

It’s an impressive statue done in the Socialist Realist style favoured by left wing revolutionaries. The inscription translates as “There are still other buildings to burn.” and metaphorically nothing could have been more true as between 1810 and 1821 almost half a million Mexicans would die before Spain ceded its independence. Compare that to the 6,800 Americans who died fighting for their independence.

This is the view from El Pipila. Pretty nice, eh?

Guanajuato From Above
Guanajuato from Pipila

Our next stop was the Church of San Diego which has one of the most ghastly versions of Christ I have yet to come across.

San Diego Dome with El Pipila

Usually I wouldn’t include a picture as poor as this one, (shooting through glass inside a dark building is always problematic), but the subject was too important to leave out. This is a replica of the fallen Christ made entirely from real human body parts. You can see the humerus sticking out of the skin. I kid you not.

San Diego Jesus Made of Real Body Parts

Right beside the church is the very impressive Teatro Juarez where we sat on the steps last night and enjoyed the strolling callejoneadas and the mariachi bands.

Teatro Juarez

From here we made our way to the lovely Plaza de la Paz and headed into the university district on our way to the Diego Rivera house.

Plaza de la Paz , Guanajuato
Plaza de la Paz
University of Guanajuato

This is a typical Guanajuato street in the area near where the famed muralist was born.

Typical Guanajuato Street

I can tell we’re getting close because Diego is there in person, hiding in the shade, but I caught up to him.

With Diego Rivera

And that’s the house where Diego Rivera was born. Not exactly a dump for a painter who championed the freedom of the masses.

Diego Rivera House

I am a big fan of Rivera’s artwork so I was a bit disappointed at how little of his mainstream work was on display here. However, I did really enjoy this mosaic of Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Rivera-Kahlo Mosaic

The house is three stories high with a central atrium. That’s our guide Gabriel in blue explaining some of the more notable features of the house including the actual bed on which Rivera came into the world.

Guide Gabriel in Rivera House

By now it was lunch time and I settled on one of Guanajuato’s local specialties, enchiladas mineras, which was prepared for miner’s by their wives as a hearty meal at the end of the day. What makes these enchiladas different is the inclusion of potatoes and carrots to the cheese filled tortillas, but always on top of and not inside the enchilada. Frankly, it wasn’t my favourite local Mexican dish on this trip. I like potatoes and carrots, but not as part of an enchilada. Maybe if I’d spent the day toiling underground with a pick axe I might have a different opinion.

Enchiliadas Mineras

After lunch the group reconvened and we headed for the Mercado Hidalgo which is huge.

Mercado Hidalgo

If you need chiles

Chilis for Sale

or a piñata, this is the place to go.

Pinatas for Sale

Just on the other side of the market we arrived at one of the most famous buildings in Mexico, the Alhóndiga de Granaditas which I mentioned briefly earlier when talking about the murals in the Hotel San Diego. Its a huge, almost perfectly square building completed in 1809 to act as the regions granary. That sounds pretty dull. Then in 1810 the War for Mexican Independence broke out in the nearby town of Dolores when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla uttered his famous ‘Grito de Dolores’ or Cry of Dolores, which was the Mexican equivalent of ‘The shot heard round the world.’ Soon this entire area of Mexico was up in arms with Hidalgo leading an army into Guanajuato from San Miguel. The Spanish soldiers, city elite and Spanish sympathizers locked themselves inside the granary hoping to hold our until reinforcements arrived. However, as we know, El Pipina had different ideas when he successfully lit the entrance door on fire which allowed the insurgents to storm the granary, in a manner reminiscent of the beginning of the French Revolution with the fall of the Bastille. Here’s where things started to go off the rails. The rebels, despite being led by a priest slaughtered everyone inside and then pillaged the entire city.

Alhondigas de Granaditas, Guanajuato
Alhondigas de Granaditas

Unfortunately for Hidalgo and one of his associates in these early stages of the war, Ignacio Allende who we learned of in San Miguel, the revolution petered out when the rebels balked at attacking Mexico City. Hidalgo and Allende fled into exile, but were caught, shot and beheaded. These heads, along with those of Juan Aldama and José Jimenéz, were each placed at the four corners of the granary and stayed there for the entire duration of the war. With that in mind, lets visit this place with such grisly history starting with the corner where Hidalgo’s head was displayed.

Hidalgo’s Head Space

Inside, even though it’s well past the Day of the Dead, there is still a giant Katrina dominating the inner courtyard. Somehow seems appropriate.

Katrina in the Granary

The main reason to see the interior of the granary is to see the murals by José Chávez Morado depicting the events that took place here. Here are the mestizos breaking through the door armed and crazed for blood.

Granary Mural

And here’s how it ended up.

Hidalgo’s Head Mural

By now we had done a lot of walking and it was a fair distance back to the hotel, but Gabriel knew a shortcut. Instead of going up and down the winding streets, we would go in almost a straight line go underneath them. I have saved the most unique thing about Guanajuato to almost the last. The earth beneath the city is literally honeycombed with old mine shafts and connecting passageways that are now used as highways and walkways to get around faster and keep traffic off the streets of the old city centre.

Guanajuarto Tunnel

In some places the tunnels are completely underground like the photo above and in others partially open aired like the photo below.

In the Tunnels

In yet others there are houses literally hanging over the sides of the old mine workings. Boy, that looks really stable doesn’t it?

Houses over the Tunnels

In far less time than it would have taken to get there walking above ground we arrived back at the hotel via the tunnels.

We had had a great day exploring Guanajuato, but Victor had one final pleasant surprise in store for us.

Mestizo

Mestizo Sign

Mestizo is a very small restaurant located in one of the older houses on one of the narrow streets of Guanajuato.

It’s interior is bright and welcoming with interesting ceramics and artwork. I’m not sure, but I think Victor had reserved the place just for us, because I didn’t see anybody else there when we arrived or come in while we were there. I do know that he brought the chef/owner around to greet each table and discuss that evening’s menu.

Mestizo Interior

In a word, it was one of the very best meals of a trip that had too many to keep track of. This mushroom soup was simply incredible with a flavour unlike any I’ve ever tasted.

Mushroom Soup, Mestizo

I absolutely am addicted to good ceviche and make it home a lot. This was the chef’s own creation and it too was a knock your socks off taste experience.

Ceviche

For a main, Alison had this very simple chicken breast in a reduction which was as juicy and properly cooked as a chicken breast can be, something that’s a lot harder for some places to accomplish than you would think.

Chicken Breast a la Mestizo

I usually don’t order steak in anything but a steak house, but the chef was effusive about this beef tenderloin and he had a right to be. Simply amazing taste and flavour in another cut of meat that is so lean it can easily be ruined.

Beef Tenderloin a la Mestizo

We all walked back to the hotel tired, but pleasantly full and thankful that Victor has included this incredible Mexican city on his itinerary.

Next up, yet another UNESCO World Heritage city – Morelia. Hope you help us explore it.


Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share his words and photos.

Cathedral-Fountain

Michoacan – Morelia, Tzintzuntzan & Patzcuaro

We’re always so happy to present an authentic take on our tours. Today we feature Dale of the Maritime Explorer and his wise words and wonderful photos from our Mexican Day of the Dead tour. 


We are coming to the end of the second week of what has so far been an amazing historical, cultural and gastronomical tour through central Mexico with Adventures Abroad’s veteran guide Victor Romagnoli. Today we left the city of Guanajuato which I described in my last post as the most unexpected and pleasant surprise of the trip. We are headed due south to the state of Michoacan which has a number of must see attractions including the capital city Morelia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins of the pre-Columbian city of Tzintzuntzan and the small city of Patzcuaro where, if we are lucky, we might see a performance by a troupe of viejitos. I hope you’ll join us.

Michoacan

Mexico has thirty-two states in all and it seems like we have been in most of them on this trip, but Michoacan is actually only about the eighth by my count. As far as Mexican states go it is just about in the middle at 16th in size with a population of just over four million. The name comes from the Nahuatl and means ‘place of the fishermen’ which you would think on glancing at a map of Mexico would be a reference to the Pacific coast on which Michoacan abuts. That would be wrong. It refers instead to the once thriving freshwater fishery on Lake Pátzcuaro and other lakes in the area which are quite unique. They are endorheic, which means they are not drained by rivers that eventually lead to the ocean. Rather they are in a large basin surrounded by volcanoes and are quite shallow. On our way south from Guanajuato we drove across a causeway that cuts across the second largest lake in Mexico, Lago de Cuitzeo. This is a photo I found on the web which shows this most un-Mexican like landscape. By that I mean that it’s not what most tourists would bring to mind when thinking about Mexican environments. One of the great things about travel is that it helps dispel stereotypes and replaces them with the realities of situation on the ground, almost always I have found, for the better.

Lago de Cuitzeo

The lakes of Michoacan were surrounded by marshes that were absolutely loaded with waterfowl and shorebirds of at least a couple dozen species I recognized as we whizzed by in our bus. The hills surrounding the lakes were covered with pine-oak forests while the lower regions were given over to maize and cotton fields as well as pastureland. Quite simply, Michoacan is a beautiful state and presents a side of Mexico I didn’t know existed.

Not surprisingly, the fecundity of the region has long made it a region favoured by various groups that have been migrating to the area over the last 10,000 years. In the immediate centuries before the arrival of the Spanish the area was under the control of the Purépecha peoples who presided over what is generally referred to as the Tarascan Empire with its capitol at the city of Tzintzuntzan which we will visit during our time in Michoacan. This empire was second in size and power only to the Aztecs, who had tried and failed to conquer them in the years preceding Cortés arrival in 1519. Because of the bad blood between the two groups, the Purépecha refused to assist the Aztecs when attacked by the Spanish and  after learning what had happened to the mighty Aztec empire, King Tangaxuan II pledged allegiance to the invaders without a fight. Unfortunately as so often seems to have been the case with the Spanish conquistadors, that didn’t settle matters.

In 1530, a former body guard of Charles V of Spain, Nuño de Guzmán literally went on a rampage in parts of Mexico including Michoacan. Despite being welcomed by King Tangaxuen II, Guzmán had him tortured and burnt alive along with almost every other Tarascan native he could lay hands on. It was hard to believe anyone could be worse than Cortés, but Guzmán holds the title as the most barbaric conquistador in Mexico. He was so bad that eventually even his fellow Spaniards were sickened by his excesses and had him charged with treason and shipped back to Spain in shackles. But as with many other conquistadors who had acted disgracefully he wheedled his way back into favour and returned to his body guard duties until his death in 1561.

So the history of post-Columbian Michoacan is a bloody one, like most of central Mexico, but the violence didn’t end there. Mexican revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla whom we first encountered in Guanajuato, was educated at the university in Morelia and later taught his progressive ideas there until he was sacked in 1792. Much of the War of Independence was fought in Michoacan state with Valladolid, now Morelia, being one of the first cities to fall to Hidalgo’s army. It was from here that Hidalgo began his failed march on Mexico City and the greatest number of his troops were from Michoacan. After his death, Michoacan native José María Morelos became the de facto leader of the independence movement and despite being a priest, was an extremely effective military leader, winning battle after battle until he too was captured and executed in 1815. The city he was born in, Valladolid, was renamed Morelia after independence.

However, all is not bloodlust and savagery in the state of Michoacan. It is also home to the world famous Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve whereby almost the entire population of eastern monarch butterflies migrates to the pine forests of Michoacan where they mass together by the millions to wait out the winter. We are just a bit early to see them, but that gives a good reason to return to this beautiful landscape.

Morelia, Michoacan

In Morelia, Michoacan
In Morelia

Morelia is yet another of Mexico’s fabled colonial cities that has attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status for this reason:

Built in the 16th century, Morelia is an outstanding example of urban planning which combines the ideas of the Spanish Renaissance with the Mesoamerican experience. Well-adapted to the slopes of the hill site, its streets still follow the original layout. More than 200 historic buildings, all in the region’s characteristic pink stone, reflect the town’s architectural history, revealing a masterly and eclectic blend of the medieval spirit with Renaissance, Baroque and neoclassical elements. Morelia was the birthplace of several important personalities of independent Mexico and has played a major role in the country’s history.

As we enter the city, it is readily apparent that it is unlike any of the other colonial cities we have visited on this tour such as Oaxaca, Puebla, San Miguel de Allende or Guanajuato. The pink stone referenced in the UNESCO designation gives the city a unique look, particularly in the larger buildings like the cathedral and many churches. What is notably absent is the presence of any modern looking buildings in the compact core of the city which would detract from the city’s obvious charm.

Our hotel, the Mision Catedral is almost directly across the street from the Plaza De Armas and not far from the cathedral. It and many of the other buildings along the main street have colonnades where customers at the cafes and bars that occupy them are sheltered from the searing sun.

Hotel Mision Catedral, Morelia
Hotel Mision Catedral

After a pleasant lunch at one of these cafes we meet our local guide for a quick tour of central Morelia starting with the cathedral which is the seat of an archbishopric. It was started way back in 1660, but not completed until 1744. Many people think it is the finest cathedral in Mexico and I’d be hard pressed to disagree. It’s certainly far better looking than the pile that is the Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City.

Morelia Cathedral, Michoacan
Morelia Cathedral
Cathedral Bell Towers

The side entrance best illustrates the pinkness of the local stone used to construct this and over 200 other buildings in Morelia.

Cathedral Side Entrance

After the obligatory tour of the overly ornate interior with the usual over the top altar, this one in silver, not gold, we move on to something that holds more interest for me, the Casa Natal de Morelos where Morelos was born and lived much of his life. It’s obvious from the outside that Morelos did not spring from poverty and is a reminder that many of the Mexican revolutionaries were educated upper middle class folk inspired by the ideals of the American and French revolutions.

Casa Natal de Morelos

Inside there is this painting of the famed meeting between Hidalgo and Morelos wherein Hidalgo asked Morelos to found an army which he did, ultimately with a lot more success than Hidalgo. By now I’m getting used to the iconography of Mexican revolutionaries. Hidalgo is always portrayed as bald on top with long flowing grey hair on the sides while Morelos inevitably wears a bandana.

Hidalgo & Morelos Meet

Next we walked a few blocks to the Michoacana University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo which has origins going all the way back to 1540, some ninety-four years before Harvard. Once again our friend Hidalgo was on site to greet us. It is apparent that Mexicans have great reverence for this man who is often considered the father of his country as George Washington is to Americans. I can only shake my head at how some Canadians have gone so far off the rails that they want to treat our similar figure, Sir John A. MacDonald as a war criminal.

Hidalgo at University of San Nicolas

Also part of the museum is the library, which has a gorgeous almost all wooden interior which reminded me of a scaled down version of the one at Trinity University in Dublin. I found this small mural of particular interest as it shows examples of the five original written languages, of which the only one that originated in the New World was Mayan.

The Five Written Languages

After the walking tour we had some free time and spend some it just enjoying the greenery and fountains in the Plaza de Armas.

That night during our group meal in a restaurant next to the hotel we heard what sounded like gunshots, but people weren’t running away so we followed Victor out to the street where a great display of fireworks was just beginning. The occasion was the lighting up of the cathedral to mark the beginning of the Christmas holiday season. Starting from the bottom, the lights came on in intervals going higher and higher with each one while the crowds cheered louder and louder the higher the lights went until with a rousing barrage of fireworks the top of the bell towers were reached. It was a pretty neat example of stumbling across a local custom without any advance knowledge or planning.

Tzintzuntzan

Tzintzuntzan was the major city of the Tarascan Empire and of all the pre-Columbian sites we visited on this tour, by far the youngest, being founded only in about 1450. The name means ‘place of the hummingbirds’ and is actually a form of onomatopoeia whereby the words sounds like the thing it is describing e.g. sizzle or gurgle. If you say Tzintzuntzan quickly it does sound like the whirring of a hummingbird’s wings. It has a nice location on a hill overlooking Lake Patzcuaro and apparently did stretch all the way down to the lake by the time the Spanish arrived in the 1522. At that time it was estimated that there were around 25,000 inhabitants.

Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan
Tzintzuntzan

Today Tzintzuntzan is a largely forgotten place that gets a fraction of the visitors more prominent pre-Columbian sites like Teotihuacan get. There’s a pretty good reason for that – Tzintzuntzan is just not that interesting. At one time it was noted for its circular pyramids or yácatas, but the Spanish did such a number on them that today it is hard to discern what they must have looked like when they were fully intact.

Ruined Yacata, Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan
Ruined Yacata

This photo does show the curvature of the yacata walls which were visible from all the communities around Lake Patzcuaro and atop which beacon fires were lit and could be used to transmit messages to the people below, much like western tribes used smoke signals.

Circular Walls

One of the reasons Tzintzuntzan has not been restored to any great extent is evident from this photo. It shows one of the few places where the original stone cladding of the yacata is still in place. If you want to see what’s left of Tzintzuntzan you need to go to Patzcuaro and other nearby colonial towns which basically stripped the walls of this place to build the churches and other monuments of those towns.

Stripped Walls

We left Tzintzuntzan to the vigilant ground squirrels that are all over the place and gave us their version of the raspberry as we made our way back to the bus.

Vigilant Ground Squirrel

At the exit the Day of the Dead altar was still in place, although the flowers were beginning to fade. That seemed an appropriate Tzintzuntzan metaphor.

Tzintzuntzan Day of the Dead Altar

Patzcuaro

In Patzcuaro, Michoacan
In Patzcuaro

If Tzintzuntzan was a bit of a downer, the town of Patzcuaro was the perfect antidote, in fact one of my favourite places on the entire trip. Founded by the Purépecha people in the 1320’s, the original city, which had been supplanted by Tzintzuntzan as the principal Tarascan settlement, was depopulated by Nuño de Guzmán in 1526. Patzcuaro was largely rebuilt from scratch starting in 1540 and has a distinct white and red coloured adobe architecture that has made it one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágico or Magic Towns. There are 111 of these in Mexico and Patzcuaro is the third we have visited on this tour, Cholula and Teotihuacan being the other two. That leaves 108 reasons to return, because these places really are magical in every sense of the word.

Patzcuaro Red & White Architecture

Our first stop, as it usually is, is at the town’s principal church, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud which translates to the Basilica of the Virgin of Health. Unusual for Spanish colonial towns, the basilica is not on the town’s zocalo or public square, but rather on top of a small hill on the edge of town. The same as they did at Cholula, the Spaniards built the church on top of what was a Tarascan pyramid effectively and symbolically crushing the old religion with the new.

Church on the Pyramid, Patzcuaro, Michoacan
Church on the Pyramid

There was a mass going on inside, but I did duck in long enough to ascertain that this was one of the more restrained of the Mexican baroque churches and I was actually quite impressed.

Church Interior

Patzcuaro is renowned for its craftspeople and that was apparent as we made our way from the church to the centre of town. There were dozens of stalls set up just outside the church and a good many stores in town selling all manner of things, particularly clothing. It was apparent that the target market was not tourists, but locals, although any one of these dresses would make a great present to take back to a granddaughter or niece.

Patzcuaro Clothing for Sale

Patzcuaro has a lovely Plaza Grande which is very large for such a small town and I couldn’t help but notice this municipal worker clearing the leaves away with this broom made from a palm frond. I think the person who invented the leaf blower deserves a special place in Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell. Doesn’t this make a lot more sense from both an acoustic and environmental point of view?

Natural Street Sweeper

Gertrudis Bocanegra was a heroine of the Mexican War of Independence who was shot in Patzcuaro in 1817 at this very spot while tied to this very tree. She was so revered that the town has erected a canvas to protect the long dead tree from further decaying although it looks like a losing battle.

Gertrudis Bocanegra Tree

It was now time for a late lunch at one of the many restaurants around the Plaza Grande and Alison and I and my sister Anne chose the one that seemed to have the most local patrons. As Patzcuaro is not really a tourist town, except perhaps to other Mexicans, the menu was entirely in Spanish and didn’t seem to have any of the usual Mexican dishes found in the bigger cities. The waiter spoke no English and Victor was otherwise occupied or we would have asked for his advice. So we just said ‘To hell with it” and pointed to a couple of places on the menu and nodded. This is what we got.

This is smoked pepper with fried minnows which you eat whole and try to ignore those little eyes staring accusingly at you. Actualy, really, really good.

Smoked Pepper and Minnows, Patzcuaro, Michoacan
Smoked Pepper and Minnows

This is a more conventional smoked pepper stuffed with corn bread. Smoked peppers are a Patzcuaro specialty and always having been a fan of stuffed peppers, I thought we did pretty good on the blind faith ordering system. Having a couple of cold Victoria’s to wash them down with didn’t hurt either. In fact, I can’t imagine not drinking beer with this kind of food.

Smoked Pepper Stuffed with Cornbread, Patzcuaro, Michoacan
Smoked Pepper Stuffed with Cornbread

Quite full and content, we caught the sound of music coming from the plaza and went over to investigate, where we found one of the most interesting things we saw in all of Mexico. It was a street performance by a group of viejitos. A viejito is an old man and in a tradition started by Tarascan Indigenous people, young men and children dress up as old men and sing and dance for the amusement of their neighbours. Of course, any donations made are always welcome. This tiny viejito was not more than three years old and the star of the show.

Tiny Viejitos Dancer,Patzcuaro, Michoacan
Tiny Viejitos Dancer

This is a video of part of the performance.

Watching the viejitos in the Plaza Grande in Patzcuaro was a really fitting way to end or brief visit to the state of Michoacan. Next we are off to our final city of this great adventure, Guadalajara. See you there.


Many thanks again to Dale of the Maritime Explorer for his excellent insight and photos.

Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan in Mexico

Teotihuacan – Mexico’s Great Pre-Columbian City

We love a country that has cultural depth, and Mexico is a fine example of such a country. Many thanks to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for capturing a sense of some of the greatness of Mexico with this wonderful post about Teotihuacan. Many thanks to Dale for also allowing us to share his words and photos with you.

Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan in Mexico

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