Posted by: Alex MacGregor | January 17, 2014

Morelia, Michoacán

Work took me to Mexico for the second time since November, so I decided to do a little bit of sightseeing on this trip. My first destination: Morelia, a city I have been fascinated to see for several years.

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Gringos love the colonial wow factor, and Morelia has certainly got it.

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Case in point: the city’s main cathedral is among the most impressive in Mexico.

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It’s even better at night.

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I stopped at the cathedral no fewer than three times trying to go when mass wasn’t happening (thus allowing for a proper stroll), but was thwarted each time.

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Oh well, still some amazing visuals!

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Being a primarily stone-facade city filled with ancient-looking arches, I was tempted to compare Morelia with Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Although Santo Domingo may have a leg up on Morelia (along with every other city in this hemisphere) in terms of sheer age, I felt that Morelia’s historic atmosphere far exceeds that of the Dominican capital, I’m afraid.

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Morelia’s charm doesn’t stop at its colonial grandeur. It has a legit sidewalk cafe culture that thrives day…

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…and night.

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The central park is among the most atmospheric I’ve ever seen, although I know from experience to keep a wide berth from the clowns wandering around entertaining people for tips. Their favorite prey is an unsuspecting gringo, who is sure to react comically to their silly questions and get an easy laugh from the crowd.

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The Mexican surplus of street vendors is in plain display. You find vendors specializing in everything from leisure conveyances for children…

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…to all manner of glow sticks. If you fancy an impromptu rave in the central park, acquiring glow sticks clearly won’t be a problem.

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You’ve got your traditional Mexican fare (this plate is tacos al pastor, made from pork sliced off the spit for 2 pesos, or about fifteen cents, each), which is far better than its American imitation.

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Morelia, a city of about a million and the capital of Michoacán state, is also big enough to attract solid options for international food and fine dining, too.

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I was surprised to even see a microbrew made right in town!

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Cutting-edge public art is on display.

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Despite being such a large city, it’s easy to escape the bustle of the city center.

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Neighborhood streets are quiet and colorful.

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Simple, unexpected charms, like this tiny plaza with its own little historic church, abound.

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The Callejón del Romance is a cobbled alleyway ideal for exercising the boundless Mexican affinity for canoodling.

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The ambiance is further enhanced by spitting fish statues, reminiscing The Little Mermaid.

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Morelia has so many quaint, colonial plazas that it’s easy to lose track. In all honesty, I’ve rarely seen a city in the whole world that’s more pleasant simply to stroll around and explore.

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So, at this point, Morelia probably seems kind of like the ideal Mexico, right? Amazing colonial architecture and history, vibrant atmosphere that blends the best of classic Mexico with the modern and chic, and an approachability and comfort that Mexico City clearly lacks–it’s all great.

So, where are all the gringos? My hostel was empty–it was just me and one Mexican traveler. My flight into town was completely Mexican, and if there were many gringos at the sidewalk cafes lining the central park, they sure were good at blending in.

Morelia suffers due to the state that it happens to be the capital of: Michoacán. Unfortunately, in recent years, Michoacán has become synonymous with drugs, violence, and cartels. It’s one of those places you read about on CNN articles, where some unspeakable atrocity occurred.

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Michoacán definitely has a Wild West feel to it, and the reputation for drug violence is sadly well-earned. Last year the federal government had to take over the port of Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico’s largest, because it had become overrun with drug smugglers. More recently (as in, the exact days I was there), vigilante fighters have clashed with both the government and cartels. Swathes of Michoacán are definitely no-go zones at present, and it takes a somewhat intrepid traveler to go even to Morelia, the capital. (In Mexico, typically the large cities are safest from political and drug-driven violence, although they have high rates of underlying crime.) Fortunately, Morelia sits far from the coastal instability zones.

The instability and violence is truly a shame. Not only is Michoacán one of Mexico’s most entertaining states to pronounce (up there with Guanajuato and Tamaulipas), but it contains exceptional splendors within its borders (some of which I’ll divulge in an upcoming post!).  Volcanoes, colonial towns and cities, ancient ruins, amazing food, wildlife, beaches–nevermind the rest of Mexico, I’d put Michoacán alone up against any Central American country for overall touristic interest. The fact that the world–Mexicans included–cannot enjoy Michoacán for all its treasures ranks among the great squandered tourist opportunities in the world.

That’s not to mention, of course, the pain and suffering of the 4.5 million Michoacanos who must live in this troubled state.

Let’s all hope the insanity in Michoacán–and the larger drug war that has plagued Mexico year after year–finally subsides.

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To end on a more positive note, Morelia is also famous for its aqueduct, which extends over a mile to the east of town.

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The aqueduct begins as a sidewalk.

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For the first bit, it even serves as the front wall for local houses!

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This aqueduct forms the backdrop of many bridal and quinciñera photoshoots.

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I followed the aqueduct a long ways. I was partly marveling at how difficult a feat it must have been to build this thing way back when, and how the aqueduct has been integrated into the city’s existing infrastructure. I was also looking for a restaurant recommended by the guidebook.

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The aqueduct starts to go through some pretty posh neighborhoods. Which in Mexico, isn’t exactly a good thing: instead of pedestrian bustle, you have parked cars a blank walls. It feels far safer in the bustling, middle-class areas.

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As the sun was setting, I eventually gave up looking for the restaurant and decided to grab a combi back to town.

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Before long, a combi pulled up and I was headed back to centro.

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Perhaps I was being paranoid, but at this point I began to get scared. The combi was completely empty, which is pretty odd. I heard the driver get on the phone with someone and say “estas listo?” (are you ready?). And then the combi crept down the road at a painfully slow pace–the slowest car on the road. I was worried he was staging a robbery, and I was a sitting duck.

I told the driver to stop and let me out far sooner than it made sense, leaving me a long walk back to the central park.

I guess the reputation of Michoacán may have gotten to me!

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Responses

  1. Tks again, I enjoyed it.

  2. […] looking to fill up on the cheap, the market district is a great place to do it. This is yet another plate of tacos al pastor–over the course of the trip, this became my go-to. If there’s […]

  3. […] few weeks ago, I wrote about lovely but troubled Morelia, the capital of cartel-ridden Michoacán. I raved about the area’s wonders, which sadly are […]


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