Posted by: Alex MacGregor | January 19, 2014

The Ancient Heart of Michoacán

For a taste of what Michoacán has to offer outside of Morelia, I took a day trip to the city of Pátzcuaro. Instead of going on an organized tour (not that I really saw any advertised, come to think of it–but I hear that they exist!), I opted to take local buses to get to Pátzcuaro. The journey turned out to be a bit of an ordeal, so for future visitors I’d recommend considering an organized tour if it’s a viable option.


While comping down on a plate of tacos during my annoyingly long wait at the Morelia bus station, a fellow about my age seemed particularly interested in talking to me: asking where I was from, where I was going, and so forth. He said he was heading back to the USA. When I asked where he was going, he named a border city. I felt a pang of regret as soon as I asked, “So you’ll walk across the border?”–I didn’t mean to imply that I thought he was trying to go to the US illegally necessarily, but I simply lack the Spanish skills to convey that subtlety.

To my surprise he said, “Yes. Illegally.” Apparently the guy had lived in Texas and North Carolina building houses, but got deported (either after spending six months in jail or six months ago–my Spanish just isn’t good enough for this sort of conversation). He was just starting the long journey back to the US. I asked if crossing the border was hard, and he said it’s harder than it used to be.

Whatever your view on the issue of illegal immigration, it’s a lot harder not to sympathize when you’re talking to an actual person who’s caught up in it. Pro-amnesty groups trumpet cases that tug at the heartstrings: children with no memories of their home countries facing deportation, families torn apart by the churning gears of a black-and-white immigration regime. Well, I don’t know if this guy has a family or whatever, nor do I particularly care: he’s turning his life upside down (and risking it as well, no doubt) in order to make a meager living building suburban houses in the American sunbelt. It’s fine to debate the social and fiscal consequences of illegal immigration, but let’s not forget that he, and most other illegal immigrants, are just people born into a really crappy situation trying to make the best of themselves. There’s no need for the dehumanizing rhetoric amnesty opponents sometimes employ.

I wished him the best of luck and headed to my bus.


Finally, after three hours of combi-riding, waiting at the bus station, and riding the bus, I made it Pátzcuaro, a measly 30 miles from Morelia. I was plopped on the highway in the outskirts of the small city (making such a rush to get off the bus that I left my guidebook on the seat–sigh).


Just a few blocks off the highway, the historic charm starts to kick in.


I took a breather in the plaza of this little church and tried to catch my bearings (and had a nice handmade fresa y crema popsicle). I had studied the map in the guidebook before leaving it behind, but not nearly well enough to really know my way around.

Oh well. I’m a geographer, and I say I love to explore, right? Time to put my money where my mouth is.


I saw some market stalls and recalled that the market borders one of the main squares in town, so I plunged right in and began to explore.


After an agonizingly long time wandering around in the deceptively-large market, including lots of dead-ends and backtracking, I found Plaza Chica–one of the two main squares in town.


Plaza Chica (“Girl Plaza”) is so-called for the statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, a rebel organizer in Mexico’s independence war, who was ultimately captured and killed by the Spanish. I’m torn as to whether the name Plaza Chica is belittling to the female war hero, but I guess it’s not really my place to comment.


This grand structure actually serves as the town’s library, unfortunately closed on the Sunday I visited.


Once I got to Plaza Chica, I was far better-oriented and finally able to enjoy the town.


Just about every building in the city is painted dark red and white, giving everything a mystical feeling. Everyone I talked to said I needed to come back for Day of the Dead–apparently Pátzcuaro is one of the original and most famous celebrations of the Day of the Dead in all of Mexico.



The main cathedral in town.


Plaza Grande, Pátzcuaro’s main square.


Some of the best (read: least tacky) tourist stalls I’ve seen in Mexico, along the edges of the plaza.


Art vendors around the Christmas tree (and wait…is that a Festivus Pole I see?).


Since not much appeared to be open, I headed to Plaza Chica–which doubles as the local transport hub–to catch a combi to the other area attraction: Lake Pátzcuaro.


But first, since I had forgotten to bring a towel with me, I headed back to the market to purchase one. Unfortunately a towel is a somewhat tricky thing to find. Especially because I forgot the world for towel (and it’s an easy one, too: toalla), meaning I had to describe a towel to random people, hoping to be pointed in the right direction. A towel is a moderately awkward thing to describe in broken Spanish.


After a short combi ride I was at the cow-studded lakeshore.

(Note for travelers: you can easily walk from the lakeshore to the highway to catch a bus back to Morelia, but it’s too far to walk there from central Pátzcuaro.)


The main attraction on the lake is the island of Janitzio. Boats leave frequently, and may or may not contain tiny Oakland Raiders fans wearing cowboy hats and fishing with nets.


The boat is jammed with mariachis, vendors, and Mexican tourists: I was the only gringo in sight.


The island coming into view. Kids never tired of dragging these rainbow-colored nets through the water during the half-hour ride. I’m not really sure what that was all about.


The tiny but densely-populated island, with the statue of José Morelos on top.


A Morelia-born guy who was raised in the Bay Area and in town visiting family talked to me on the boat, and he had an infatuation with Brazil. He asked me if the houses on the island looked like the favelas in Rio. I said that, come to think of it, they kind of do.


The island has an abundance of stalls selling all manner of arts, crafts, food, and booze: a winning combination. No aggressive touts, either.


Supposedly this place gets going big-time during the Day of the Dead.



Steps, steps, and more steps.


Finally, the top. José Morelos was a rebel leader, and namesake of Morelia.


Inside the statue.


Murals depict Morelos’ life.


The steps get somewhat unnerving as you approach the top.


Once you reach Morelos’ arm, there’s one final spiral staircase…


…before the tiny mirador in his wrist.


This spot gives you a great view of the old Tarascan kingdom, a pre-Colombian civilization that inhabited the lakeshore and islands. Pátzcuaro was the biggest city. Like the Aztecs, this was all ruined by colonization, but there are still ruins around the lake, especially in the beautifully-alliterative town of Tzintzuntzan. If everything had worked out better time-wise I was going to try to see some of them, but it was already getting late in the day and I didn’t feel like pushing the return journey too much.


Pátzcuaro off in the distance.


The playground at the foot of the statue. They still have the good stuff, down in Mexico. My most vivid memory of visiting Mexico as a child was spending far too long spinning around in one of those little enclosed merry-go-rounds like the one on the left, and then getting extremely ill.


The obligatory eat on the island is this cup of tiny, deep-fried fish, which costs 10 pesos. They add hot sauce, lime, and salt to it. Yummy.


Even more my style is the authentic michelada, a Mexican concoction that’s sort of like a combination of a beer, a bloody mary, and a margarita. I’m not sure what he was putting in to the drink, but every time the vendor asked whether I wanted an ingredient or not, I enthusiastically said yes. It was delicious.

The latino street vendor mantra of “serve the customer at all costs” was definitely in effect. The vendor asked what type of beer I wanted, and I flippantly picked Corona–all the light-colored Mexican beers taste the same to me, so I didn’t really care either way. Upon discovering there was no cold Corona, the vendor signaled to another person who instantly ran off to acquire the requested Corona. I didn’t even have a moment to tell him that it wasn’t necessary. Within seconds, the ice-cold Corona was delivered.


The real way to drink a michelada is from one of these awesome boots. Or, even more fitting, a boot with a skull sticking out of it!


  1. 🙂 like very much.

  2. […] stumbled upon the Monumento de la Revolución on accident. (This is the best-case scenario when you lose your guidebook–aimless wandering leading to legitimately noteworthy […]

  3. one thing.. Plaza Chica is not Plaza de las mujeres or women plaza, Plaza Chica means Little Plaza, chica also means girl, but in this case is chica, little, for the size of the square.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: