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Mexico's Morelia: More than meets the eye

jennifer j. rose

Lauded as the most Spanish of Mexican colonial cities, thanks to a century-old historical preservation code requiring all downtown buildings to maintain original facades, Morelia is the most comfortable Mexican city I know. English is widely understood (Michoacan's leading export is its citizens), European style abounds, but the flavor of colonial Mexico has adapted to modern lifestyles. Small enough that siesta is still honored, the million-plus inhabitants of Morelia also support two sushi bars.

In the forties, the late travel writer Sybil Bedford spoke of Morelia as a gray, comfortably dull city that had the same quiet appeal as a well-tended cemetery. For her, and for many of her era, it was the little more than a waystation between Mexico City and Guadalajara. In that era, one would be hard put to drive between those points in a single day on two-lane blacktop. Still, it took me a long time to understand Bedford's cemetery reference....until I realized that Morelia is the visage of colonial Mexico memorialized in cantera and flowers.

Completed during the past year, a modern cuota connects Mexico City with Guadalajara, and the trip easily can be made in the space of five hours. Morelia is easily accessible by plane, train and automobile. And the bus. More about that later.

I'd read about the Villa Montaña and decided it was about time for a respite from the Camino Reals and their ilk that I'd visit in every Mexican resort. I was tired of the glitz and intentional tourism I'd found. I was looking for a spot that had all amenities but which had a purpose other than catering to tourists. I wanted a oasis of calm, good food and shopping. I wanted the soothing comfort of chicken soup. I found it in Morelia.

The Villa Montaña long basked in its reputation as the favorite inn for foreigners and the Mexican uppercrust retreating from Mexico City. A myth that the dining room was once Tyrone Power's house added to its mystique. (He actually owned a lot across the street for a very short time.) Reserving the same suite year after year, regulars looked forward to annual reunions where "no children" and "dress for dinner" policies were rigorously enforced. While the comfort level of the rooms brought back memories of simple cabins with precarious utilities, the staff remembered each guest's whims and wants. The bartender remembered what you drank, the gardener washed your car each day, and the laundry service was so caring that more than one guest took dirty laundry on vacation just for its special touches. Fresh flowers and plenty of freshly cut firewood for each room's fireplace were the only amenities....no phones, no televisions, and often no hot water. Breakfast, included in the price of a room (the most expensive presidential suite went for the priestly sum of $100), was a gathering of guests and Morelia's elite that could last for hours.

Owned by Philippe de Reiset, a French count and his Hungarian wife Ava, the Villa was Mexico's version of the Homestead or the Greenbriar. Today, all that has changed. The old staff, some of which had worked there for twenty-five years, has left, the management style has changed, and the Villa's charm has faded. They made a big mistake when they modernized. Go there for a drink and the city view, but think twice before making it your destination.

Morelia has a sizeable expatriate colony, but unlike San Miguel or Cuernavaca, they keep a low profile. Someone once asked why the Morelia Americans didn't organize charity affairs like their counterparts in Chapala. The expats there don't want to be organized, categorized or patronized for being non-Mexican. Blending into a Mexican lifestyle, some actually get a little nervous when they're earmarked as "foreign." Their reasons for settling into Morelia fall into no predictable pattern. Some have family ties to Michoacan, some were lured by the old-shoe comfort of a familiar vacation spot. Surely there are cheaper venues in Mexico, locales with better weather, havens of greater social life. Conservative by Mexican standards, anchoring the Bajio, Morelia is probably the most "midwestern" of Mexican cities.

The only specter of organized expatriate activity takes place each Wednesday afternoon at 5 p.m. at the Hotel Calinda, where foreigners, tourists and anyone else wanting to brush up on English, trade paperbacks or analyze why they're in Mexico meet for complimentary cocktails. If you're in town, even for a week, you're welcome to drop by.

GETTING THERE

Mexicana and Taesa fly directly to Morelia from Chicago, Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Aeromar has commuter flights of about 50 minutes' duration from Mexico City and Guadalajara several times each day. 25 kilometers from Morelia, the airport (MLM) has ample set-rate taxi service.

Bus service to Morelia is frequent: from Mexico City and Guadalajara, first class busses run about every hour and the luxury bus ETN about every three. From Mexico City, the most frequent bus service departs from Observatorio (Poniente) Station, and the trip on ETN will take about 4½ hours. The fare is about $15 one-way. Guadalajara has similar bus service, and its terminal is only a few kilometers from the airport. If you're taking a first class (or worse) bus, buy two seats so that you can spread out undisturbed. On ETN and the "luxury" lines, single-seating rows are available, along with movies and beverage service.

Train service (the Purepecha) to Morelia from Mexico City (Buena Vista Station) departs Mexico City around 9:30 p.m. and reaches Morelia around 8:30 a.m. A similar schedule operates in the reverse direction. However, pullman car (especial) service is being eliminated, and unless you're a real train nut, you're better off taking the quicker and cheaper bus.

If you're driving, by all means take the new Guadalajara - Mexico City cuota. Driving time either direction is about two and a half hours. These cuotas are as safe as most US interstate highways for night driving. The libre (free road) is about five hours in either direction and decidedly unsafe for nighttime driving.

Morelia and its environs are well-suited to car trips. You'll enjoy having wheels if you intend to spend time in Patzcuaro (no trip to Michoacan is complete without a trip to Patzcuaro).

Car rental, while not as cheap as stateside (it's the insurance that keeps the price high), is available. Automatic transmissions command premium rates.

SIDEBAR - CAR RENTAL IN MORELIA

Quick - 15-4466 - (lobby of Gran Hotel)
Dollar - 15-30-48 and 15-30-50
Budget - 14-70-07

Taxis, busses and collectivos (VW vans), plentiful and cheap, are recommended for downtown venues, where traffic can be congested and parking limited.

WHEN TO GO.

.. Anytime. The year-round climate in Morelia could best be described as autumn, although there's a distinct change of seasons. The warmest and driest months are from May to early July. The rainy season begins in July and ends in November...but this amounts to an hour's worth of downpour late each afternoon, nothing to become excited about or ruin plans, just enough to freshen the air. December and January can be surprisingly brisk. Year-round, Morelia nights are chilly. I may sound like your mother, but bring a sweater.

Most Americans have a lousy sense of geography. When I explain that Morelia is between Mexico City and Guadalajara, nearly 6000 feet above sea level, the usual reply is "Oh, it's on the beach." About 3" away, depending upon your map. Many can't imagine Mexico without the beach....they must think the entire country is a narrow peninsula, with little but cactus connecting its shores. You can't convince them otherwise.

While people can, and do, wear anything and everything, Morelia is a conservative city when it comes to attire. LL Bean or Orvis casual is probably the standard dress code.

WHERE TO STAY

The latest addition to Morelia hostelry is also the only bed-and-breakfast in town: Casa Camelinas. Owned and operated by Irish-born Johanna Quinn-Sheridan and Mexican Virginia Rodriguez, this modern property shows off the best in local artwork in the best residential area just a mile from downtown. The hosts are veritable gold mines of information and can arrange just about anything you desire, including private Spanish lessons. Alternative lifestyles seem to be preferred to guests with children. This is an easy choice if you're looking for the comforts of home.

Privada de Jacarandas #172, Fracc. Camelinas, Morelia 58075. Fax (43) 14-38-64; tel (43) 14-09-63;
Rates run from $45 for a single, shared-bath, to $65 double, private bath, includes full breakfast and evening repast. Longer stays lower the daily rates. Credit cards accepted.

The Hotel Virrey de Mendoza (Av. Madero 310, Centro. Fax (43) 12-67-19; tel (43) 16-06-33; in Mexico toll-free 800-45020), once a private mansion, is the grand dame of downtown Morelia. Recently restored to its former glory, the Virrey dominates the downtown scene. Each time I wander into its lobby, I imagine what it would've been like to have roamed this place a century ago. This is Morelia's version of The Plaza. The Rooms start at $40, a junior suite is $57, and the best suite in the house is $129.

A budget choice is the Hotel Casino. Portal Hidalgo 229, Centro. Fax (43) 12-12-52; tel (43) 13-10-03; in Mexico toll-free 800-45012. Overlooking the Cathedral, this basic hotel reminds me of the 30's and Humphrey Bogart. Clean and adequate, but not plush, less than $30 will get you a double room.

The Posada de la Soledad (Zaragoza 90) located a block from the Cathedral is most tourists' destination. Although it's a favorite of most guidebooks, I'm compelled to warn you. Once a monastery and in a prior incarnation, a stable, the last time I stayed there I seriously considered suicide as a means of ending the night. The patio, filled with restored carriages, belies the pitiful condition of the poorly ventilated rooms. Fax (43) 12-21-11; tel (43) 12-18-88. About $40 per night.

On the southeast outskirts of town is the Calinda (Av. Camelinas 3466). The rack rate is $70 per night. Only ten years old, the rooms are large and more plush than the usual Quality Inn standard ---- the property was originally intended to be leased to Westin. Fax (43) 14-54-76; tel (43) 14-57-06. Toll-free in the U.S. 800-228-5151. Its sister property, the Comfort Inn, is just a block away, clean and modern but lacking a pool and dining room, runs about $60 per night.

The Villa Montaña, nested in the Vista Bella residential area south of the city, is Morelia's only resort property. Comfortable for an extended stay (service seems to improve after the staff gets a good look at you), but not recommended for just a night or two. Inclusion in Hideaways and Best Little Hotels in Mexico changed its attitude. Prices range from $90 to $180 per night, exclusive of a 10% service charge. Apdo. Postal 233, Col. Vista Bella, 58090. Fax (43) 15-14-23; tel (43) 14-02-31.

NIGHTLIFE

Compared to resort venues, Morelia nightlife is sedate. That's not to say there isn't culture. Hardly a week goes by without some event: In October, the Guanajuato Cervantes Festival celebrates a Morelia extension featuring anything from Peruvian ballet to Thai opera. May brings an internationally famous organ festival. Anything from jazz concerts to opera or a poetry readings may be going on. One of the oldest music schools in North America and home of the renowned boys' choir, the Conservatory of Music always has a recital of one kind or another. Nearly all events sponsored by the Conservatory or the University are nominally priced.

Coffee houses are the latest trend in casual nightlife, but these open and close at the drop of a hat. An arts center con cafe, bar y eatery, Pena y Centro Cultural Bola Suriana has shown the most shelf life, where you'll find traditional, contemporary and Latin folk music. Open nightly (except Sunday) at 7 p.m. at Bartoleme de las Casas #564, reservations are recommended. Tel (43) 12-53-97. The gallery there's open, except during siesta.

The Palacio del Arte, located in the southeast section of town by the Plaza Morelia Shopping Center, is the first indoor bullring I've ever seen. Operated by the Organization Ramirez, Mexico's premier commercial developer, the Palacio plays host to a wide range of events ranging from Portuguese bullfighting, circuses, or rock concerts.

SHOPPING

Michoacan is second only to Oaxaca as a craft mecca. Even if you're not in a buying mood, your first stop should be Casa de Artesanias at the ex-convent San Francisco. Just a few blocks from the Cathedral, this state-run craft store stocks the best of Michoacan crafts. Don't think that the inventory comes from some giant factory; artisans are complimented by Casa de Artesanias' purchase of their wares. Stop there even if you plan to buy your crafts at the source. This is the best of one-stop shopping, and credit cards are accepted. (If you haven't read your Michoacan lore, Vasco de Quiroga encouraged each village surrounding Lake Patzcuaro to develop distinctive crafts for trade with one another.) Upstairs is a small but finely-tuned exhibit of Michoacan craft work. Various Michoacan towns operate small stores upstairs ... the selection upstairs is sometimes spotty.

Outside of the San Francisco Church is the perpetual market of ambulantes (itinerant vendors) -- the bane of each city administration. Instead, the market, originally permitted only during holidays, has become permanent - or new holidays have been invented.

The southwest corner of San Francisco is the easiest stop to catch a local bus.

Along the north side of Madero, facing the Cathedral, are the Portales: a block of sidewalk cafes, most renowned for lousy food and mediocre service. When Burger King opened up under an 18th-century facade on the same block, the cafes improved immensely. Street vendors sell anything and everything under the Portales from American cigarettes and fake Rolexes to New Age crystals and used books. No visit to Morelia is complete without a few hours under the Portales, sipping coffee or beer and watching life and time pass by.

Two blocks west of the Portales, along Madero, is the famous block-long arcaded Mercado de Dulces (Candy Market). Morelia is famous for its ates, a fruit leather made from tamarind, mango and guayaba (sometimes flavored with chile), and obletas, cajeta sandwiched between communion wafers. Watch out for bees here! If your sweet tooth is sated, another section of the market sells traditional trinkets, ranging from leather belts and sweaters to lace tablecloths.

On Sunday mornings, local artists sell paintings in a park at the corner of Santiago Tapia and Guillermo Prieta. Mercado Independencia and Mercado San Juan are Morelia's largest, traditional markets, where you can find anything from a cookware and huaraches to freshly butchered beef and spices.

For the genuine tianguis (native market) experience, go to Santa Maria de Guido (looking south from downtown, it's at the top of the hill), accessible easily by bus or taxi. This suburb, which predated Morelia, is still very much a typical Mexican small town, although it's rapidly becoming gentrified. The largest market is held on Sunday morning, the most expensive (read imported fruit) on Tuesday, and the cheapest on Thursday. You'll be able to find anything there from fresh chicken (killed while you wait), just-made chicharrones, to produce and gewgaws. Along the plaza and near the cemetery are stands selling pozole, enchiladas, tacos and gorditas. (Living just a block away, Sunday brunch para llevar is a tradition.)

Facing the gazeboed plaza in Santa Maria is Señal, now owned by George Shoemaker. His late father, Don, came to Morelia nearly fifty years ago to encourage native artisans to create wonders from tropical woods, becoming Mexico's leading authority on endangered woods in the process. Whether you're looking for a simple wooden tray or something larger (Señal ships worldwide), you'll find it here. Even if you're not in market for wood, take a look at the amazing furniture and parquet. Or the locally made pottery. Credit cards accepted.

EATING

Home-style cooking abounds in Morelia, where freshness and local produce are accentuated. Enchiladas topped with boiled potatoes and carrots. Avocados grown an hour away. Corundas, simple unfilled triangular tamales, are topped with mild salsa and creme fraiche. Uchepos, another unfilled ("blind) tamale made with fresh corn, are sold either dulce or con sal. What's known as tortilla soup in the rest of Mexico becomes Sopa Tarasca here with the addition of beans. Street vendors sell churros, freshly made potato chips, and juiced sugar cane.

Rabbit is usually available at the sidewalk cafe in front of the Hotel Casino. Chamorro en adobo (barbecued pork) is a specialty of Yugo on Camelinas. Pay de piña (pineapple pie) is a favorite dessert at Woolworth's, which used to be a private chapel.

The Saturday buffet at the Posada de la Soledad is one of the best bargains in town for traditional Mexican food; however, reservations are essential.

Upscale, which in today's economy means $10 per person, the best in town is Las Mercedes. The original, a few blocks from the main plaza downtown, features traditional dishes in a courtyard setting. The caged birds, however, may drive you crazy....especially if they aren't in competition with the American-born flautist. Las Mercedes' second and newer place on Acueducto (a $1 cab ride away), amid stark modernity, Zalce sculptures and orchids, is a better bet. Start with watercress salad, then go on to this hemisphere's best chicken Kiev (or the pollo Azteca, stuffed with huitlacoche), then finish with mango strudel.

The Virrey de Mendoza's dining room, somewhat more expensive, is a classic with white-gloved waiters....even at lunch.

The nuns of the Parroquia de Inmaculata serve up traditional Mexican dishes beginning at 6:30 p.m. nightly at a gaily decorated church center in Colonia Vasco de Quiroga (from Acueducto, turn north at the Ford agency). Originally a Christmas fund-raiser, this has become a year-round carnival with a brass band. If you get there early, there's a great whole wheat panaderia across the street.

Nearly all of the usual historical sights are within a one-kilometer radius of the Cathedral. Spend several days in easy-paced wandering. If you're reading this, no doubt you've already scoured Frommer's, Birnbaum and Fodor's for detailed information about museums. For some reason, most persist in identifying the Casa de la Cultura as a museum...which it really isn't. It took me a long time to figure out why its doors were often closed, until I learned it is primarily a performing arts and adult education center. Sculptures of Don Quixote in the patio, made of junk metal, justify a visit...even if the mask collection is unremarkable.

At the southwest intersection of Calz. Ventura Puente and Camelinas (the southern periferico) sit the Convention Center, Planetarium, Teatro Morelos, and the Orquidario --- twin geodesic domes house an outstanding orchid collection.

Just as the Midwest is vanguard of standard American speech, Morelia is one of the best places to learn Spanish. While its primary focus is the semester-abroad college student, Centro Mexicano Internacional (CMI) is the main Spanish language school for adult travelers and can tailor a program to your needs and skill level. Four hours of intensive classwork and a shared room (including meals) with a Mexican family begin at $320 per week. Fax (43)13-98-98; tel (43) 12-45-96; toll-free in the U.S. 800-835-8863.

Use Morelia as your base of operations to explore Michoacan. Take day trips to Patzcuaro, Janitzio, Santa Clara de Cobre (officially, Villa Escalante on the map), Capula. Try out the mud baths and mineral waters at Balneario Cointzio about ten miles away. Still in the neighborhood? Uruapan, at the brink of the high tropics, is about ninety minutes off. Just don't drive at night.

Copyright 1996-98-97 by jennifer j. rose
Published or Updated on: November 1, 2007 by jennifer j. rose © 2007
Contact jennifer j. rose

Jennifer J. Rose is a writer, editor and lawyer living in Morelia, Michoacán. She is editor-in-chief of GPSolo, a magazine published by the American Bar Association.

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