Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico
Fridays are Indian market days in the fountain-centered Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, one of three main squares in Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico. Walkways around the fountain are lined with stalls of goods from various villages. On a return visit there last fall shortly before Day of the Dead celebrations the annual heightened activity spilled into the city's two other plazas as well. Ponderous colonial style stone buildings from the 1560s arch heavily over wide sidewalks. The main plaza, heavily criss-crossed with paved paths, is centered with an even larger fountain. Stone benches are peopled with sharp featured Tarascan Indian descendants, pausing in the sun to people-watch.
Oh, there are more restored cobblestone streets now -- Pátzcuaro was named by the United Nations as one of 100 Historic World Treasure Cities and as such has funds for restoration. Soon it will be attracting international attention. Mexicana now offers direct flights from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago to Morelia, 35 miles east.
Pátzcuaro is roughly 225 miles west of Mexico City at 6,000 feet elevation with a 45,000 population, 70 per cent Indian. It's the market hub of a dozen smaller villages surrounding the sizeable Lake Pátzcuaro. Each has its own craft: copperware, black pottery, mandolins and guitars, basketry, wooden chests, silver work, stone carvings and so on.
Though methods used come from Tarascan roots, what's exciting today is that the designs are adapted to this age. For example, a pottery platter filled with a stylized small fish pattern -- adapted from the small whitefish caught in the lake -- is in subtle greens and earth tones rather than the garish designs and hues often found on border town pieces. This may be a result of a direct U. S. connection. Generations of men from the state of Michocán hold green cards and spend harvest seasons in California and other agricultural states, absorbing U. S. culture before flying home to their beloved state of Michocan for the winter.
Now, into this historic shoppers' delight, there is a new entity that makes it more accessible to knowledgeable tourists.
René Ocaña, a former University of Mexico archaeology instructor, and his Santa Rosa, California, wife, Shelley, purchased an 18 acre parcel of wooded meadows on the edge of a national forest a few miles from Pátzcuaro for a bed and breakfast inn. Now in its sixth year, the resort and spa has earned a coveted five-plus star rating from the newly reactivated Mexico Ministry of Tourism, the highest possible rating. The ten-room hacienda boasts clean, comfortable beds, private baths, some separate cottages, country walks, horses to ride on the old dirt Camino Real still used by Indians and their mules, a workout spa, and much more at rates unbelievably modest. Shelley and Rene have taught their young staff to cook, adapting age-old local products to fat-free gringo cook books. Their open kitchen is a replica of an 1800's one featured in the city's museum, but with modern appliances hidden away in cupboards.
There are ecological tours to villages and to three ruins -- one of the classic period similar to sites in the Yucatan and Mexico City. The latter includes an immaculately-kept Indian ball park, market place and 36-step pyramid.
At Hacienda Mariposas (means butterflies), and at two other venues in Pátzcuaro, immersion Spanish is offered. The Ocaña sessions are in comfort and incorporate professionals in the learner's field for technical terminology.
A very important bonus is Ocaña's knowledge of ancient history and experiences excavating for the rightfully famed Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City -- he has two PhD. degrees, one from the Sorbonne. The governor of Michocán has discovered Hacienda Mariposa and commandeers it regularly for restful stays during official and private visits.
Pátzcuaro is more than history and magnificent inexpensive shopping.
Back at the Friday Indian market, a hanging plate with fish takes my attention and a deal is made. The older woman selling the pottery near the fountain then wordlessly nods and gestures for me to put my wallet safely away first. (Indians know little Spanish and even less English.) We understand each other. A few feet further, the zipper pull of my fanny pack catches on the heavy woolen sweater of a grey-haired merchant in the crowded aisle. He couldn't get loose, nor could I until help came.
As we were being untangled I recalled an old Tarascan tradition whereby young people meet and get acquainted around the town plaza; when a man finds a woman he likes, he "steals" her, normally with the knowledge of all concerned. Would this kind-faced, comfortable looking gentleman get the same thought waves? He somberly inspected the small pull in his sweater, then turned away for a second. When he turned back he was smiling and proffering one of the baskets from his sidewalk display of wares. A more practical and adult twenty-first century solution to the situation was reached.
The plate is now on my kitchen wall, a reminder of this gentleman and the good people of Pátzcuaro.
IF YOU GO
Nonstop Mexicana airflights leave from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago daily. Flights earn points with United Airlines frequent flyer program. Rates vary by season. www.mexicana.com.mx/mx2/english/home.asp
Hacienda Mariposas, P. O. Box 14100, Santa Rosa, CA. 95402-6100; 800-573-2386; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
a non-smoking resort and spa; 10 rooms and suites, $100, 150 and 210 including breakfast, afternoon refreshments and transportation to and from the airport; dinners, tours, immersion and horseback riding additional.
Best Western Posada de Don Vasco Pátzcuaro, Avenida de las Americas #450, Patzcuero, Michocan, Mexico 61600, phone 011-52-434-23971 or 1-800-528-1234; E-Mail: colleen @bestday.com.
102 rooms in colonial structure and newer poolside, $50-56; restaurant, tv, phones, tennis, bowling, doctor, floor show.
Hotel Mansion Iturbe, Portal Morelos No. 59 Plaza Don Vasco, 61600 Pátzcuaro, Michocan, Mexico; FAX: 52 (43)13-45-93; E-mail: Patzcuaro@mail.giga.com.
14 rooms in town center 17th century mansion, $55-$70 includes breakfast, tv, bicycles; restaurant; French or Spanish immersion additional.
Spanish immersion also available at the Center for Languages and Ecotours of Pátzcuaro (CELEP), contact Fiesta Tours International, 4809 De La Canoa, Amado, AZ. 85645, phone or FAX 520-398-9705. www.giga.com/~celep/marco.htm
Toby Smith is the author of Romantic Inns of Mexico: A Select Guide, a one-of-a-kind guide to nearly 50 charming accommodations in all corners of Mexico.