Handcrafts From a Lake in Mexico

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

Connoisseurs of Mexican handcrafts consider 10 villages around scenic Lake Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan, to be top sources for their collections.

Midway between Mexico City and Guadalajara, Lake Patzcuaro is remote enough to have retained its traditions, but is easily accessible by car, train or bus. The area is popular with Mexican tourists, but the fact that it is relatively unknown among foreigners means prices are very reasonable.

The historic Lake Patzcuaro area was the center of the Tarascan Indian culture. Many craft traditions have been handed down for generations.

Touring the area's villages, which are 12 to 50 miles apart, provides a delightful and rewarding shopping adventure. Each village has its specialties, including superb lacquerware from Patzcuaro, copperware from Santa Clara del Cobre, masks from Tocuaro, guitars from Parucho, toys from Quiroga, wooden furniture from Cuanajo, weavings from Erongaricuaro, straw work from Tzintsuntzan and ceramic tableware and figurines from Capula and Ocumicho.

You can visit artisans in their fabrica (workshops) or go to crafts shops that distribute works by several craftsmen, including those living in other towns or the countryside. Shop prices are slightly higher than those in workshops, but selections are bigger and, sometimes, of better quality.

In general, village prices are at least a third less than those in Mexico City and Guadalajara shops.

One way to tour the Lake Patzcuaro area is to focus on handcrafts that most interest you and design your itinerary around villages where they are produced. Mexico Travel Advisors, which specializes in tours of Mexico, can assist with individualized itineraries. Call (213) 462-5345.

The starting point for most shopping tours is Morelia, capital of Michoacan province about 30 miles from Lake Patzcuaro. Before leaving Morelia, visit Casa de las Artesanias (Fray Juan de San Miguel 129) for an overview of crafts found around Lake Patzcuaro.

This museum-like crafts center and shop provides information about villages and artists working in them. Dozens of shops in Morelia sell Michoacan-made crafts, ranging from exquisite pieces to tourist trash, but the villages have more.

The largest crafts town is Patzcuaro, formerly capital of the Tarascan kingdom and colonial-era capital of the province of Michoacan. This slow-paced town has cobblestone streets, lovely white adobe buildings and a vital lakeside port.

Friday is market day. Vendors, including local artisans and those from other towns, offer a full range of crafts in stalls around Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra.

Patzcuaro's artisans are famous for exquisite lacquerware trays, plates and chests, with beautiful and intricate patterns painted in gold on a black background, and for hand-loomed cotton tablecloths and napkins, serapes and rebozos, plus hand-carved red pine chests, tables, children's furniture, toys and masks.

The town's crafts center, Los Once Patios (Calle Dr. Coss)--a colonial convent converted into a school and work, is 11 crafts-filled patios. Featured are lacquerwares (priced from about $65 U.S. up) by award-winning Alfonso Guido Santillan and Rogelio Alonso Mesa, plus henequen rugs (from $40) and cotton tablecloths (from $20) loomed on the premises, plus various types of Michoacan pottery and furniture.

Excellent shops are sited around Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga, Patzcuaro's commercial center. Best bets: Lacas Patzcuaro for fine lacquer trays (from $30) and chests (from about $35 to $400). Next door, several workshops sell monumental furniture made of inlaid wood, as well as hand-carved wooden chests and furniture from the town of Cuanajo.

Prendas Tipica de Lana Y Algodon sells beautiful serapes (from $18). Muebles Y Artesanias Coloniales has masks (from $8), wooden chests (from $15) and lacquerware tables (from $75).

El Jorongo (Ave. L. Cardenas 521) and El Tarasco 2 (Calle Jaime Torres Bodet 3) feature woven rugs (from $40), serapes (from $28) and hand-knit sweaters (from $25).

Twelve miles south of Patzcuaro, Santa Clara del Cobre's artisans make hand-hammered and polished copperware dishes, vases, platters, pitchers, candlestick holders and decorative items. The town has 50 forges that employ more than 300 artisans.

The Museo del Cobre (Morelos, near the main square) shows collectible pieces by top artisans, including Joaquin Pureco Ramirez, Jose Perez Ornelos, Jose Velazquez Correa, Etelberto Ramirez Tinoco and Abdon Punzo Angel.

At Abdon Punzo Angel's workshop, El Arte del Cobre (Morelos 449), you can observe copperware (priced from about $40 for a platter to $900 for a huge vase) being painstakingly hammered into shape and hand-burnished. Work on a single piece can take two weeks.

Casa Saucedo (on the Square) displays trays (from $65) incised with intricate patterns. Artesania Ruiz (on Pino Suarez near the Museo del Cobre) features pieces with dark patterns (from $55) made by using acid, tar and wax, and painted copper vases and platters (from about $40). Galeria Tiamuri (on Alvaro Obregon, near the square) has plates and jewelry combining copper and silver.

Cuanajo, off the Patzcuaro-Santa Clara road, produces wooden chests and furniture with hand-carved elaborate motifs of flowers and animals. Chests are priced from about $80. Check to make sure that wood has been properly cured before you buy.

In the other direction from Patzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan--about 10 miles down the Old Morelia Road--makes inventive, amusing and inexpensive straw objects and toys. There are helicopters, fish, donkeys with riders, horses, boats and cars, angels, crucifixes and the Virgin Mary, plus baskets and unusual mats, priced from about $4.

Tzintzuntzan's artisans also make ceramic tableware (from $2 each) with illustrations of Mexican country life drawn in dark brown on a beige background.

A few miles toward Morelia, Quiroga's craft shops (along the street) feature wooden toys and miniature furniture for doll houses. These delightful playthings cost only pennies.

Nearby, Capula is known for dark brown ceramic dishes (from $2), serving bowls (from $3) and casseroles (from $4) made in molds and hand-decorated with colorful paintings of fish, birds and animals or floral motifs.

In Tocuaro, about 10 miles west of Patzcuaro, artisans make wooden dance masks for nearby villages' holidays and rituals. Ask anyone for directions to a mask maker's house. Juan Ortega and his son (Calle San Andres) make lively masks (from $18) that are either carefully painted in great detail or polished to enhance the wood's grain.

In Erongaricuaro, one mile from Tocuaro, women make wonderful clothes and tablecloths from hand-woven cotton. Lacy patterns are created by pulling individual threads in the cloth. Celia Aviles (Portal Morelos 19) sells especially lovely wares, but there are dozens of other easily found weavers around town.

Additionally, the town's Centro de Artes Applicadas Erongaricuaro is where designer Steve Rosenthal has set up shop hand-painting sideboards, headboards, screens and other furniture made in Cuanajo, with a profusion of birds, animals, flowers and plants. Unfortunately, the shop sells only to the trade on special order, though samples are sometimes sold at Casa de Atesanias in Morelia.

Paracho, about 40 miles west of Lake Patzcuaro, is famous for guitars ranging from tinny toys made of avocado wood for $12 to masterpiece instruments of Brazilian rosewood or German fine-grained spruce with ebony, costing $2,500 or more. There are dozens of shops and workshops in town.

The Amezcua family shop (20 de Noviembre No. 305) and David Carro at Los Michoacanos (Independencia 67) have top-quality instruments costing about $2,000. Ramon Guanados (Independencia 164) specializes in high-quality, American-style steel string guitars from about $150. Hermanos Hernandez (20 de Noviembre No. 9) has a wide variety of less expensive guitars from about $50.

Ocumicho, about 20 miles northwest of Paracho (as the crow flies) produces very colorful clay figurines (from $9) of devils, monsters, serpents and men in a playful, surrealistic style. Figures are shown in mortal combat, at the Last Supper or in nativity scenes, or driving Coca-Cola trucks.

Ocumicho is way off the tourist trail, but shoppers are often so intrigued by figurines they see in Morelia or Patzcuaro that they want to visit the town. Ask directions to the fabricas of Catalina Martinez and Maria and Emilio Basilio for fine figurines.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing .

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