An old guidebook lists Patzcuaro as a town frequently visited by tourists. Today's publications might not be as generous, and that is a shame since the small colonial city in Michoacan is a jewel and has been named one of Mexico's Magic Towns. A recent business trip took me to Morelia, the capital of the state, and with some time to explore, I drove the 33 miles into the hills.
Writer Edna Fergusson aptly describes the place in her book Fiesta in Mexico: "a colonial town which retreats into soft hills away from the Indian lake." Before the Spanish conquest Patzcuaro was one of three principal centers for the Purepecha Indians. Settled about 1324 by Rey Cuarteme, the indigenous population called it "the city of stones" and believed it to have been the doorway to heaven where the gods ascended and descended.
True to form, the early Spanish occupation was brutal. Nuno Guzman de Baltran visited many atrocities on the Purepecha including burning alive the local chief when he wouldn't disclose where the Indian gold was hidden. Guzman's crimes were so egregious that the Spanish authorities were forced to arrest him. In his place they sent Vasco de Quiroga, who became somewhat of a local saint, establishing schools, hospitals, and introducing the craft cooperatives in nearby villages. Although those cooperatives did not survive as such, many villages surrounding Patzuaro still specialize, making the area one of the most culturally rich in Mexico.
The town itself is in the high sierra at an altitude of 7,130 feet. Most of the buildings are single story adobe or plaster over brick with red tile roofs. The central plaza, Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, is locally known simply as Plaza Grande. A statue of the region's benefactor stands in the center, and small shops ring the square.
A short distance from the plaza the Casa de los Once Patios (House of Eleven Patios) is being transformed from its previous existence as a Dominican nunnery into studios for artisans. Many local stores specialize in embroidery and lacquerwork.
Patzcuaro is known for its Dance of the Viejitos (Old Men). Brandishing canes, spryly cavorting, and flirting with the young girls, the dancers wear colorful masks designed to mimic wrinkled ancients. The troop performs at the Posada de Don Vasco on Wednesday and Saturday nights and on many weekends at the Plaza Grande. If you are lucky and a good bargain hunter, you might be able to buy one of the hand-carved masks at one of the local emporiums.
East of downtown the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Salud (Basilica of Our Lady of Health) was built by Bishop Quiroga between 1546 and 1554 as a cathedral, but only one nave was completed. It contains a statue of Our Lady made of wild orchids and thick corn paste, a technique typical of Indian sacral art. Quiroga also build the Cathedral of Michoacan in 1546. Today it is the Jesuit church. South of the basilica the Colegio de San Nicolas, founded in 1540 by Quiroga, now houses the Museum of Popular Arts and Archaeology with exhibits of carvings, pottery, weaving and artifacts.
No description of Patzucuaro would be complete without a mention of beautiful Lake Patzcuaro and its islands: Janitzio, Jaracuaro, Uranden, Pacanda, Yunuen, and Tecuena. The large shallow lake is home to the Indian fishermen with their much-photographed butterfly nets. To reach any of the islands, go to the muelles (docks) to catch a boat. The wood launches depart on a semi-regular schedule, and you can purchase tickets at a dockside office.
Janitizio island is almost 100 percent Purepecha and is the site of one of Mexico's most famous Day of the Dead festivals. If you decide to visit the island, be prepared for a long, steep hike to the summit where the huge, primitive statue of revolutionary leader Jose Maria Morelos crowns the rocky hill. On our visit, we did not land on Janitizio due to time constraints, but did take the ride to photograph the fishermen, who were netting tips, not fish.
In addition to the attractions in the town and on the lake, Patzcuaro is surrounded by small villages specializing in crafts. My favorite is Santa Clara del Cobre, 13 miles from city center. Although the local copper mines are no longer active, artisans still make everything from napkin rings to cooking vessels using recycled copper. At the Museo del Cobre you can watch while the ore is heated, pounded into ingots, and finally hammered into desired shapes with one of three finishes: high shine, fire bloom, or unpolished. The owners speak English and can take you through the whole process or advise you on purchases from their large selection. I came away with a pot for fudge or whipping egg whites and a large repousse platter. If you don't find what you want at the Museo, there are 50 other shops from which to choose.
Tzintzuntzan is worth the 11 mile drive to visit the remains of the 16th century Franciscan monastery with its ancient olive trees and for its main street market selling Indian made ceramics and basketry crafts. Don't miss the Las Yacatas archaeological site on a rise overlooking the town and the lake. The peaceful site was the last stronghold of the prehistoric Purepecha people, and for a small fee you can stroll the grassy knoll with its reconstructed stone step pyramids and outline of the emperor's house.
Patzcuaro and vicinity has some culinary specialties: sopa tarasca, a local variation of tortilla soup; coronas, pyramid shaped tamales; fish, especially charales, the tiny lake fish eaten whole; and in nearby Quiroga, carnitas, a lard confit of all parts of the pig stewed in a copper pot and served on a bun. Not for the faint of heart.
Where I stayed and dined:
Hotel Posada de Dan Vasco (El Tarasco Restaurant), Av. Lazaro Lardenas, 450, Col. Centro, Patzcuaro, Michoacan. (01-52) 434-342-02-27. Lovely but not easy walking distance to town, approximately 2 miles.
Mansion de Suenos (Priscills'a Restaurant), Ibarra No. 15 Centro, Patzcuaro, Michoacan 61600. 01-434-342-57-08. www.prismas.com.mx
El Rey de las Carnitas, Portal Hidalgo No. 6, Quiroga, Michoacan. (01 454) 354 03 50.