Patzcuaro is a small, charming colonial town established in the 1300s perched on a hill over looking a lake with the same name. It rests at 7,200 feet elevation and after spending almost two months on hot beaches, Sam and I had our first cold nights here. It was a nice change for us, but we definitely had to dig out our fleece and down coats.
I read about the history of this area and was taken by the story of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga who came to the area in 1536 after years of brutal, violent treatment of the Tarasco people by the Spanish and Aztecs. Quiroga established village cooperatives that focused on education, agricultural self sufficiency and helped each village establish its own craft specialty. He based his approach on Thomas More’s Utopia. Talk about a man who made a difference.
Sam and I spent a day driving around Lake Patzcuaro visiting all the local indigenous villages, each one still specializing in a different handicraft such as pottery or mask making. This area is known to have some of the best artisans in Mexico, Quiroga would be proud! Our favorite village was Erongaricuaro, which used to be a vacation spot of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. We got into a traffic jam here that was so bad I got out of the car to see what was going on to discover a parade of about 40 men on horseback riding to a rodeo. We were both impressed that that even though these villages were small, they did not feel poor. People looked happy, healthy and there was a rich cultural life.
In my opinion, what made Patzcuaro the city above the lake also fun to visit was how alive it felt. This area of Michoacan has many different indigenous tribes and the town was just bustling everyday, especially around the smaller Plaza Chica where the large daily market overflowed into maze like alleys selling everything from exotic tropical fruit to the small fish caught around the lake.
Patzcuaro is a hilly town and easy to explore. In the colonial center all the roofs were a brick red color and the narrow cobblestone streets seemed to always lead you to one of the three plazas, all centered around churches, which seems to be the same for all the towns built by the Spanish in Mexico.
In Plaza Grande we saw dancers dancing the Danza de Los Viejitos or The Dance of the Little Old Men. This dance is traced to the pre-hispanic era of the indigenous communities of Michoacan.
While it was a beautiful city to explore, my favorite part of Patzcuaro was the people. I felt like we saw so many faces that told the story of Mexico. From the Purepecha people where the women had colorfully embroidered skirts, to Mexican farmers with their weathered faces wearing cowboy hats and selling their produce, to my favorite, the musicians, who provide an on going soundtrack throughout our travels in Mexico.
On our third day here we took a boat to Isla Janitzio, a mostly Purepecha island that is famous for its Day of the Dead celebration in November. People come from all over Mexico to watch the community honor its dead in their small cemetery.