Visit to Patzcuaro
Posted by Lee Harrison on Abril 10, 2000
I’d like to share a few thoughts having just returned from a brief visit to Pátzcuaro, made for the purpose of sizing it up as a possible retirement venue. Let me start by saying that Pátzcuaro is unquestionably one of the greatest places to visit that exist in Mexico. As a travel destination, it’s difficult to beat, with great hotels and restaurants, a lively upbeat zócalo, the lake, and more crafts than you could take in during a six month stay. As a retirement destination however, while being perfect for some, it won’t be for everyone, especially if you’re new to the expatriate game. Pátzcuaro is located adjacent to the lake of the same name, in the State of Michoacán at about 7200 feet above sea level. It’s about 35 miles to Morelia, 220 miles to Guadalajara, and 202 miles to México.
The drive to Guadalajara will take you between four and five hours, on pretty nice roads. Pátzcuaro is a colonial gem (sorry, I know this phrase is used for anything in Mexico built prior to Ernesto Zedillo’s presidency, but I really believe it’s justified in this case). The buildings are mostly adobe painted white with dark red, and a red tile roof. Things are generally well preserved, clean, and original. Most buildings are one or two stories, and you won’t find modern edifices sprinkled in with them. The people are friendly, helpful and welcoming, and very patient with slow Spanish speakers. You get the definite impression that they’re very proud of their town, and appreciate the chance to tell one about it. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned, but surprisingly the traffic isn’t bad.
I got around quite well at any time of the day, without a single traffic light in the town. Lake Pátzcuaro, with its large inhabited islands and inexpensive boat transportation, is a “must see” when touring, but probably won’t be a frequent destination for a resident. The quay is enjoyable, as is the ride out to the islands, but you won’t be tempted to jump into the murky brown waters, and you’ll find the lake difficult to approach on foot, as it’s surrounded by wetlands. The butterfly-net fisherman are still out there, but one notices that they’re not fishing anymore, but more-or-less posing for the passers-by on the water taxis. They still make a nice picture, though. The highlight of the city for me was the main zócalo, which is the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. As far as zócalos go, I’ll have to say that it’s my favorite in Mexico, being neat, clean, vibrant, and busy every day. The square is of the “portal” style, like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or the zócalo in Chalula, with beautiful archways fronting the square, which in turn front lots of fine shops and restaurants. If you like to stay connected, there are two Internet cafes right on the square, with others to be found within a block. There’s a long-distance phone service, several first-rate colonial hotels, and several great restaurants. The cobblestone street runs between the actual square and the portals, providing a constant revolving spectacle of onlookers. If you’re an early riser as I am, you’d better put on a pot of coffee before you leave the house in the morning, and don’t get your heart set on that late dinner overlooking the square.
Businesses on the zócalo (as is the case with the rest of the town) start to open at 8:00 AM, and are pretty much wrapping up by 8:00 PM. That doesn’t mean the square isn’t busy, as you’ll find people jogging and exercising there at 6:00 AM, and a pretty good crowd until quite late. You can get a shoeshine on the square for $1, and an excellent car wash for $1.50. Although the plaza is busy every night, especially on weekends, the highlight of the week on the square is Sunday night. During my visit, there was a band playing in one corner, with a crowd of onlookers, several of whom were dancing to the music. On the opposite corner was a show featuring young people in costume dancing on stage, who were quite talented and obviously had worked very hard in preparation. The festive procession of humanity continued until well into the night.
There are three other beautiful plazas within two blocks of the main plaza, which are smaller and without the same level of social activity, but excellent places to relax, buy a paper, and watch the folks go by. The Hotel Iturbe is definitely worth a visit, even if you’re not staying there. They have an excellent restaurant, a nightclub with live music, and the most friendly and helpful staff I’ve encountered anywhere. Try their special cena, which includes appetizers, soup, dinner, desert, and two glasses of wine for only $9.00! The Sopa Tarasca (which I sampled at many places) was the best I found in the region. There’s a lively market two blocks from the main square, which has a huge selection of fruits and vegetables, meats, and other odds and ends running from dried fish to cassette tapes. It’s open to some extent every day. Looking to some practical matters, Pátzcuaro has a local daily paper (usually less than a dozen pages) and several other newspapers from surrounding cities, the most useful of which I found to be La Voz, from Morelia. There are several bank branches and a few ATMs in el centro, making money access an easy matter. I saw most types of American cars on the street, telling me that parts and the expertise to work on them are available somewhere in the area. Most familiar cars are of the “international” version (which is one manufacturer’s way of saying, “no air bag, no catalytic converter, and so-so safety glass) but the mechanical stuff should be familiar to Michoacán mechanics. I saw Nissans, but no Toyotas, lots of VWs, but no Audis, and only two Mercedes-Benzes during my stay. If you got your crosswalk training in a place like Connecticut or Toronto where the world comes to a halt when your foot touches that hatched line, you’d better check that habit at the border.
Here, as in most places in Mexico, the crosswalks are intended to provide symmetry to the cityscape, and pedestrians are expected to show the proper respect for two tons of rolling steel. Housing prices run the gamut from a $10,000 “fixer upper” to a $700,000 20-room courtyard type home half a block from the main zócalo. One interesting buy was a huge 3-story home with balconies fronting right on the Plazuela de la Basílica, which seemed suitable for use as a hotel or B&B, for an asking price of $300,000. Another home I looked at contained four apartments upstairs and parking for about 10 cars downstairs, and a courtyard for $100,000, about 5 blocks from the main square. I’m told most of these prices will improve with a cash deal. I won’t bore you with that old “location, location” phrase, but the fact is that housing prices drop steadily as you get away from the main plaza. Keep in mind also, that these homes are really colonial houses, and not a modern home with a cute colonial front. Every amenity that you expect wasn’t around in the 1700’s either has to have been added or doesn’t exist in a given home. I did see one development of lots for sale with nice new homes on the road out of town. It’s a short bus ride to the square or market, and for some would be a worthy alternative.
You’ll have no trouble finding all the necessary staples in town from food, medicine and clothing to furniture. There are many things however, that are pretty hard to come by. Let’s say you drop your monitor, need a claw-hammer, have a hankering to shop for a 19” TV set, or want an ironing board, you’d better hop in your pickup and head to Morelia, as you’ll have trouble finding them in Pátzcuaro. As a Vermont resident (proudly, the only State Capital in the U.S. without a McDonalds) I’m used to being somewhat remote, with my nearest Wal-Mart being next door in New Hampshire, but even in the U.S. this isn’t for everyone. We encountered absolutely perfect March weather, with lows in the high 50’s and highs in the high 70’s. We’re near the end of the dry season now, with frequent rains expected during June and July. The region seems to be in the midst of a drought presently, as things appear to be more dry than normal, to the point where large deciduous trees are dying in some areas. I was disappointed in two aspects of this region. The first concerns the trash on the roads of the surrounding area. Nowhere else in Mexico have I seen trash dumping to this extent.
The local government tends to mark the best of the dumping areas with a “No Tire Basura” sign, which draws the plastic bottles and non-biodegradable garbage like flies to the proverbial manure pile. The town, however, was quite different. Most residents pitch in and clean up the sidewalk and street around their homes daily, and even the zócalos after a busy night are promptly cleaned up in the morning. The other disappointing item was air quality. While I was expecting something like New Hampshire, what I saw was more reminiscent of Phoenix in the wintertime. I tried to inoffensively get the story on the normal situation, and received a wide range of explanations. One explanation was the fact that the extended and unusually dry season has resulted in the both field fires and lots of dust, both of which are adding to the smog. One waiter said that it’s clear in the rainy season. The best one fellow could muster was that it’s better than Morelia. The bottom line is that I don’t know story on air quality. I’d like to solicit a comment from someone that lives in the area, and knows the year-round situation. I must say, however, that the sight of people jogging in dust masks, and a painting in a restaurant showing the lake enshrouded in haze tell me that this phenomenon was not exactly a unique occurrence.
Conclusion? I think Pátzcuaro is a great place to live. Before you take the plunge however, make sure that you acknowledge the reality of the lack of 20th century goods and services that one takes for granted in Guadalajara or Morelia. Since a visit is never like a residency, be sure to follow the golden expat rule: Rent six months before you buy!
Posted by Jeff Pearson on Abril 11, 2000
I've made three trips to Patzcuaro in the past three years and it has always been on my short list of retirement locations. It remains there. Thanks for sharing your observations.
Posted by Oso on Abril 11, 2000
Great info! I wonder if either of you have been to Paracho lately? Just down the road, it used to be about the best place in the world to buy a guitar. It seemed like everyone in that town made guitars and the best guitar shop in the D.F. was "La Michoacana" owned by a master craftsman from Paracho. You could get the Stradivarius of guitars, worthy of Andres Segovia for a few hundred bucks or a good enough one for twenty. I hitched back to Chapel Hill with one of the latter in the 60's and traded it for a Ford stationwagon to drive back.
Posted by Lee Harrison on Abril 16, 2000
As a matter of fact, Paracho still tops anything I've seen for guitar craftsmen, including the famous strip in Granada. Many places seem to shift focus with the tourist demands, and no longer appear to be into what made them famous. This is NOT the case with Paracho. If you are in the market for a fine guitar, plan on spending a whole day there; You still won't see anywhere near the whole selection.
Posted by jennifer rose on Abril 16, 2000
Paracho is to guitars what Silicon Vally is to, well, you know.... Even if you've no interest whatsoever in guitars, this town's character demands a visit. The road from Uruapan is fully paved, about 35 km. wending through forested glens and dales of natural splendor, a distinct shift from Uruapan's brink of the high tropics.
Posted by Jeff Pearson on Abril 12, 2000
Unfortunately I don't know Paracho, but it's on my list for a future trip. That's the problem with Mexico. There's too much to see for a three-week vacation.