Exploring Michoacan, Mexico's 'Land of Lakes'

Frees is a free-lance writer living in Colorado Springs, Colo

After two decades of yearly trips to Mexico--either to Mexico City or the seashore--we were burned out on the country. The noise, the air pollution, the crowds and a certain commercial cynicism had gotten us down. I put Mexico on hold.

That was more than a year ago. More recently, Mexico was granted a reprieve when word of the state of Michoacan came northward.

The source for this was Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who said he likes to escape to Michoacan because it upholds Mexico's old standards.

Indeed, Michoacan is not beach-party Mexico but a calm and dignified place of green mountains, blue lakes and cool air. It's inhabited by a proud people descended from Indian cultures. It's not a place for unbridled Bacchanalia.

Michoacan's appeal is more for the European type of traveler, one interested in the history, culture, natural wonders and style of life in a foreign land.

A practical strategy for visiting here is the same as for visiting Europe--the rental car and exploration. A car gives the visitor the freedom of moving when it's most convenient.

The state's capital city of Morelia, 200 miles west of Mexico City, is the base of operation. You can take a 12-hour train ride from Mexico City, or rent a car, which makes touring Morelia much easier.

We went straight from the airport to our hotel, the Villa Montana, which is fashioned from an old estate on a hill overlooking Morelia, with swimming pool and tennis court. The grounds overflow with flowering jacaranda and bougainvillea. It's a quiet Mexican Eden.

No two rooms are the same. Each has a fireplace and all are appointed with colonial furnishings. The presidential suite has two levels, a conference table and a billiards table. It is the most expensive room, at $125 U.S. a night. Other rooms rent for about $57 and up.

The hotel was so comfortable and pretty that I was in no rush to leave for the back roads, terra incognita and unknown accommodations.

But after two days of colonial splendor, we went out into the country.

'Gate to Heaven'

It was to Patzcuaro. We motored through rolling green mountains and Indian villages. We weren't in a hurry. It took about an hour to get there.

Patzcuaro, called the "Gate to Heaven," is most famous for its views and its Indian market. Both are worthy.

Views range from the lake to the immense town square to the side streets filled with the dynamics of everyday life--dogs, chickens and brawling kids.

The market is full of native products and the excitement of selling and buying. It isn't as touristy as other Mexican markets. Thursday is the best market day.

A slow walk through the market took us to the lunch hour. We drove to the edge of town to the Hosteria San Felipe, a roadhouse inn. We sampled two local specialties: Lake Patzcuaro whitefish and Tarascan soup. The soup takes its name from the Tarascan Indians who once controlled the region.

It is a brown broth with toasted corn chips, an egg and a dried pepper floating atop. It was so delicious that it became the barometer for judging all the food we ate later.

The whitefish appeared as four fillets grilled with garlic seasoning. It melted in my mouth. One local dish had some problem with its charales, fried minnows. Forget it.

Shopping for Crafts

For the rest of the day we wandered about town, checking out the colonial sights--the square, the museum in the old College of San Nicolas, the 11 Patios (an artisan compound), the library with the Juan O'Gorman mural depicting the history of Michoacan, and many streets and alleys.

For crafts, selected from production centers around the lake, Galaria Dos across from the Basilica appears to be the place for serious buyers. It's much more expensive than the market, but quality is higher.

The town has about a dozen lodging establishments. We chose the Posada Basilica across from the cathedral. It and the Posada Don Vasco, on the edge of town, looked to be the best.

The Posada Basilica won out because of the view from the dining room across the town and over the lake. We had grown quite fond of the Michoacan views.

From there you can see the island of Juanitzio. People living there maintain old traditions and are known for their candle ceremonies on the Day of the Dead in November. People come from around the world to witness these rites, and we were told it is the most difficult time to find lodging in the region.

We never made it to Juanitzio, though I admired it often from afar. Instead, we made the short drive over to Santa Clara del Cobre.

Sounds of Coppersmiths

The thing that struck me immediately in Santa Clara was a tink, tink, tink sound in the air. This is a copper town, and everywhere smiths are hammering--copper plates, pots and pitchers shaped like swans and other animals of the region.

First stop was a little museum that showed the development of the copper industry. We visited a workshop on the main street where thick copper sheets are transformed into works of art and utility.

My wife visited almost every shop selling the copper products. I wandered and viewed a wedding in a little church. Mexican weddings are wonderful, and this one was even better than usual.

The wedding was free, my wife's bill was $339. Unfortunately, they take credit cards here.

The name Michoacan means "land of lakes" in the Tarascan dialect. And one of the prettiest in the area is Lake Zirahuen.

The government is taking care not to mar its superb shoreline and mountain views, but we heard that resort hotels are pretty much inevitable in coming years.

At a small marina on the north edge one can take boat rides and eat lunch. Nothing great, but the views, again, stand on their own.

To visit these places will take three or four days. Time is dependent on the pace. We liked a leisurely pace no matter where we went.

Back to Morelia

I was interested in passing more time in Morelia and Villa Montana before heading home.

Morelia is a pink-hued colonial city that provided the setting for the old Tyrone Power movie, "Captain from Castile."

It has a plaza surrounded by arcades with European-style cafes. The main cathedral looks very much like buildings in Salamanca, Spain.

By cab it took only five minutes from the hotel to downtown Morelia.

We found one of the finer regional restaurants we've seen in Mexico. It's called Los Comencales, 148 Ignacio Zaragoza. Small and friendly, it deftly produces Michoacan foods. Though Villa Montana has a very good restaurant, we took every opportunity to eat at Los Comencales.

There, among many other delights, you can find huitlacoche, the increasingly rare corn fungus that might be called the white truffle of Michoacan cuisine.

For anyone who likes mushrooms, it is a must, and few restaurants prepare huitlacoche better than Los Comencales.

We heard that the clientele of Villa Montana were very loyal, an extended family of sorts. Some have returned every year for 20 years (it opened in 1959), staying in the same room.

February is the month when most of the faithful return, making that a difficult time to get a room. These people are allowed to rearrange or decorate the rooms any way they like. The idea is comfort.

Fuentes is right. Michoacan upholds the old standards.

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Other hotels worth considering include Posada de la Soledad near the plaza, which was once a coach station for Augustinian monks; Hotel Cathedral near the cathedral, and Hotel Virrey de Mendoza on the main square, the latter set in an 18th-Century mansion.

Nothing can touch Los Comencales restaurant. You can eat all you can manage for $8. However, the restaurant at the Posada de la Soledad has a different and interesting setting, in an old chapel. Meals are about $10.

The restaurant at Villa Montana is also very good and more international in style than the other two. Dinners run about $10.

For more information on travel to Mexico, contact the Mexican Government Tourist Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191.

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