March 24, 2018
Tourism is obviously a major component of the Mexican economy, and government is always seeking ways to enhance this important industry by drawing attention to lesser known gems that are so prevalent in Mexico. In 2001 the government introduced a program designating towns as “pueblos magicos” (magical towns), as a means of increasing tourism and building the sort of local confidence that helps preserve and develop of local resources wisely. We had already experienced the magic of Izamal near Mérida in Yucatán, known as the “yellow city”, so we were thrilled to see that our tour of Michoacan would allow us to experience the cultural magic of six “Magical Towns” of Michaocan.
Michoacan, it seems, has a surplus of “pueblos magicos.” Out of a total of 110 across Mexico, eight are located in Michoacan! To be designated a “magic town”, a city has to demonstrate that it possesses unique architecture, history, gastronomy, artisanal crafts, and festivals. Once selected, cities are allocated federal funds to promote and enhance their offerings, and the program has made a significant difference in many of these towns, most of which are little known outside of their own geographical sphere. Each of the pueblos magicos we visited on this trip can be accessed as a day trip from Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state.
The first of these we were in the mountainous bio-sphere of the Monarch butterfly, an area that straddles the border of Mexico and Michoacan states. The eco-tourism and crafts industries have replaced mining here as the primary engines of the local economy.
El Oro de Hidalgo is an old mining town in the far east of Mexico State. The abundance of gold and silver ore, and the promise of wealth, drew immigrants and cultural influences from many parts of Europe to El Oro. The mining museum and old train station testify to those glory years. The city hall, from the Porfiriato epoch, sports sharply spired corners and clean but ornate French beaux-arts decorative detail. The similarly antique Mercado Alvaro Obregon sweeps down the hillside with breathtaking views of the mountains in the distance. Nearby the architecturally eclectic Teatro Juarez, built originally to celebrate the centennial of the War of Independence, and refurbished in 1938, still hosts significant cultural activities today.
The city was exceptionally neat and clean. Orange and yellow houses with red tiled or tin roofs line the streets, and the parks were replete with topiary in fanciful forms. The most intriguing culinary offering here is a green drink called “chiva”, concocted from anise and herbs.
Across the border in Michoacan State is the pueblo magico of Tlalpujahua. Like El Oro, it is remarkable for its mountain setting, and for the quality of architecture in the town center. Both have museums dedicated to their mining history. The “Dos Estrellas” mine here was the world’s top gold producer between 1908 and 1913, and allowed residents of Tlalpujahua to have luxuries such as telephones and electricity long before most of their Mexican compatriots.
We arrived in Tlalpujahua on a Sunday, and immediately tried the local cuisine at a small restaurant on the neatly manicured park next to the Sanctuary of Guadalupe. The gastronomy here features the candied fruits that are typical throughout Michoacan, but also pulque bread, corundas (a small triangular tamal that usually lacks a filling, but is served with cream and a red sauce), and huchepos, a sweet corn tamal that is often served with sweetened condensed milk as a dessert. The food was ridiculously inexpensive and thoroughly delicious.
The streets of Tlalpujahua were somewhat steeper than in El Oro, with greater use of cobblestones. The Sunday crafts market was in full swing, shops spilling out into the parks and plazas. Every imaginable commodity was available, and some you may not have imagined. The city is renown for its feather art, and for “popotillos”, mosaics constructed from vegetable fibers. But the crowning achievement of Tlalpujahua is the fabrication of Christmas ornaments. They dazzle in every size and shape.
The churches here are more elaborately and uniquely decorated than in El Oro, and stonework is more prevalent on the facades of public buildings. Crowning the hill above downtown is the exceptional Church of Our Lady of Carmen with three dimensional embellishments sculpted throughout the nave and crossing. The sculpture encrusted facade is an example of Churrigueresque, the exuberantly ornamental eighteenth century style that combines classical elements with twisted columns, leaves, geometric patterns and obelisks, and endeavors to leave not a single undecorated inch! From the plaza in front of the church there are stunning views of the surrounding forests. Tlalpujahua is one of the most picturesque cities we have visited in Mexico - and that is a pretty high bar!