The most prevalent influences in Michoacan come from the ancient culture of the Purépecha, called “Tarascan” by the Spanish. The Purépecha capitals, Tzintzuntzan and Patzcuaro are two of the most enchanting of the magical towns of Michoacan.
The Purépecha’s origins are shrouded in mystery. They were a major competitor of the “Mexica” (Aztecs) in central Mexico. Having been attacked by the Mexica earlier the same year, the Purépecha emperor refused aid when an envoy was dispatched seeking assistance against the invading Cortez. Unbeknownst to any of them, however, the envoy brought with him smallpox as well as his bold request. With the sudden death of the Purépecha monarch, and the inexperience of his successor, things went downhill. Seeing the trouncing received by their arch-enemy, the Mexica, the leaders sought peace with the Spaniards through capitulation. This guaranteed that they would be largely ignored in history books, but it did nothing to prevent the wholesale devastation that was visited upon every group the Europeans encountered, and the new emperor was burned at the stake!
The onomatopoetic “Tzintzuntzan”, from the melodious Purépecha language (unrelated to neighboring languages, but still spoken by a quarter of a million people), means “place of the hummingbirds”. The city lies on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro, and was long the capital of the Purépecha empire.
The pre-hispanic era is represented by the ruins of a complex of five half-oval temples called “yacatas”. The Purépecha seem not to have been as interested in monumental building projects as most meso-American societies, so these ruins are of particular importance in understanding the history of Michoacan. The yacatas are comprised of large earthen mounds faced with stones placed without the use of mortar, a technique found among the Incas in Peru, but almost unknown elsewhere in Mexico. Many of the stones are adorned with glyphs and geometric designs. The entire site stands on an enormous man-made platform carved into the hillside with breath-taking views of the lake. Behind the platform is a large plaza lined by remains of the residences and burial chambers of the elite.
Recent excavations show earlier levels of construction, and more traditional pyramid shapes, below the ruins of the yacatas, so it is possible that this had been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, and by a variety of cultures. A small but informative museum on the site offers visitors a glimpse into the history of the region.
Stones pilfered from the yacatas were used in building the large Franciscan convent downtown. This most visible vestige of the colonial legacy includes two outside chapels, and two churches. The adjoining cloister houses an extensive museum of colonial artifacts and exquisite murals, the most noteworthy being those representing the seven sacraments.
At the southern end of the Lake is the better-known town of Patzcuaro, which replaced Tzintzuntzan as capital of Michoacan in the 1530’s. Patzcuaro has long been a haven for American and Canadian expats. Recent State Department warnings have dealt a serious blow to the tourist industry here, but infrastructure investment is omnipresent, and one may well imagine that the influx of funds from the Pueblo Magico project is partly responsible. We observed streets being repaved and facades being refurbished all over downtown. The city has also been named one of 100 world heritage cities by Unesco.
The Vasco de Quiroga Plaza, named for Michoacan’s first bishop, a champion of indigenous rights, is the second largest municipal plaza in Mexico. It is protected by massive trees, and surrounded by picturesque two-story buildings with walls uniformly half-painted in the same red as the roofing tiles. It is a look found throughout this area. The facades present an array of competing architectural details - neo-classic arches, balconies with Moorish trim, or framed by spirals of Baroque iron work. One building is topped by a large beaux-arts style clock from the Porfiriato era.
On one corner of the plaza we sampled culinary delights of Patzcuaro, which included crema milpa verde (a rich green corn soup) and local fish in atapakua sauce. Never having encountered this sauce, I promptly looked it up online only to discover that preparing it is a far more complex endeavor than I was willing to attempt!
Above the plaza is the most important church in Patzcuaro, the Basilica of Our Lady of Health. Built by Bishop Quiroga, whose remains are interred here, the basilica served as the diocesan cathedral until the see was transferred to Morelia. Although the roof is flat, the interior ceiling is vaulted and the space is lavishly decorated with gilded neo-classical detail.
A few blocks away is the Casa de las Once Patios. It has now been downsized, as only five of the eleven are left! It houses a sort of mini-mall of craftsmen. In one shop a man applied layers of intricate gilding to guitars and violins, another featured jewelry in both traditional and avant-garde designs, while others had lacquer ware, hand spun fabrics and clothing, fine cloisonné, etc.
Nearby, at the Museum of Popular Arts, an extensive collection of lacquerware and fine ceramics included pots glazed with the distinctive dark green glaze that is a hallmark of Michoacan.
Patzcuaro is replete with historic architectural treasures and monuments. The ex-convent of St. Agustin today houses the Gertrudis Bocanegra Library, named for a hero of the War of Independence. At one end of the library, on the wall that once framed the altar of the church, is a mural by Juan O’Gorman. It is one of the best executed and most thoughtfully designed murals I have seen in Mexico, and systematically represents all the major epochs of Mexican history and the principal personalities that impacted each.
There is far more to see and do here than one could possibly complete in a single day, and this is a city worth a much more extended visit.