Mexico Special Issue : Destination: Patzcuaro : Colonial style and Tarascan culture make this a city of soul, not sights

If you believe in legends, Patzcuaro owes its origins to nothing more dramatic than a stroll. Taking a walk one day, a Tarasca noble saw four large rocks, which he recognized instantly: They were the mythic boulders marking the entrance to paradise. Sending for his followers, he ordered them to build a city on the spot, which he named "Patzcuaro"--a word meaning Place of Happiness in the language of the native Tarascans.

Located about 200 miles west of Mexico City, Patzcuaro, some Mexicans will tell you, is the country's nicest town. Built along low hills not far from the lake that shares its name, it looks much as it did three centuries ago: street after street of two-story, white-walled houses with studded doors and red-tiled roofs. Seen from above, they look like rows of poinsettias sprouting luxuriantly from large white pots.

Though Patzcuaro lacks conventional tourist attractions, travelers return here frequently, drawn to its incomparable atmosphere. In many ways, Patzcuaro is quintessentially Mexican: Its population of about 70,000 retains much of its Tarascan ancestry; its architecture is mostly colonial.

The stylistic unity of the architecture is remarkable. More than 90% of it consists of those potted-poinsettia houses. If they differ from one another, they do so in the smallest details. One home may have a wrought-iron balcony, another grills on the windows, a third a pediment above the door. Only in the two main plazas are the buildings more elaborate--and even there they're hardly grandiose. The mansion on the Plaza Quiroga is a handsome stone structure of just two stories with an escutcheon on the wall and high windows of beautifully etched glass.

In Patzcuaro, the traditional and the modern merge, producing some delightful incongruities. A youngster plays a traditional flute while seated on a skateboard; a woman in an expensive track suit makes corn tortillas; the plant above the pharmacy door is to ward off evil spirits. There are satellite dishes in Patzcuaro and video arcades. But the former sit in geranium-filled courtyards and the latter are concealed within 300-year-old walls.

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Seven thousand feet above the sea, Patzcuaro is small and intimate and unpretentious. The mood here is best described as languid. To enjoy it, a visitor should be languid too.

"There's no pressure to do things here for the reason that there's precious little to do," said a Boston man on this fourth trip. "Which is fine with me. I come here because it's lovely."

If Patzcuaro has a "sight" it's in the public library. Housed in what was once a church on Plaza Bocanegra, the library itself, with its bare white walls, barrel ceiling and empty organ loft, is a dismal place. There was just one person there when I arrived--an absorbed young man ripping pages from a copybook.

At most, the library contains a few hundred volumes. But the books hardly matter. It's the mural one comes to see. Fifty feet high and 30 feet wide, this powerful work fills what was once the wall behind the altar. Completed by Juan O'Gorman in 1942, it depicts in bright reds and vivid greens the history of the Tarascans--native people of this part of Mexico. Curiously though, the mural's central figure is not Tarascan, but a Spanish cleric. Named bishop of this region in 1536, Vasco de Quiroga saved the Tarascans from the worst excesses of the conquest, taking the attitude--unusual for his time--that they were human and deserving of respect.

By the bishop's side is Sir Thomas More, the author of "Utopia." More's description of an ideal state founded entirely on reason so stirred Quiroga that he tried to create a Tarascan utopia on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. He failed, of course, but the inhabitants remembered him with gratitude. Even today, they refer to him as Tata --a term of affection meaning father.

The basilica is built in the neo-classical style and reminds one of parish churches in rural Ireland: big, self-important and just a little ugly. It was Quiroga's intention that the basilica have five naves--one each for the five major cultures in the area, now known as the Mexican state of Michoacan--radiating like fingers from a central altar. But construction, which began in 1554, was plagued by problems. Delayed first by opponents who said the church was too expensive, and then by a series of earthquakes, only one of the naves was ever built.

Those earthquakes, as it happened, were to seal Patzcuaro's fate. Deciding that the town was much too dangerous, Quiroga's successor moved his bishopric to Morelia, about 20 miles northeast. Soon after, the civil authority moved as well and, bit by bit, Patzcuaro became the gentle backwater it is today.

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The basilica sits on a hill above the Plaza Bocanegra, and getting there means slogging up the Street of Peace. Actually, getting anywhere in Patzcuaro involves some slogging, and occasionally you find yourself regretting the city's geography. But never for long because there's only one thing lovelier than walking to the top of a hill here and gazing down, and that's walking to the bottom of a hill and gazing up.

On my second day here, I took a ferry from the embarcadero to Isla Janitzio, an island in the lake. Lining the embarcadero are ramshackle, one-roomed restaurants open to the street. All the menus are the same: pescado blanco (white fish) and charales (smelt fried until they're crisp). Since both have come from the now badly polluted lake, I was glad I'd eaten a good-sized breakfast.

The 100-square-mile Lake Patzcuaro is dotted with tiny islands that protrude above the surface like elbows. Though still looking lovely, the lake today is being killed by city sewage and an invasion of water lilies. The lilies were so thick in places they consumed the lake's oxygen and killed off the fish. Scientists introduced otters to the lake. But instead of eating the lilies, the otters ate the fish. Or did, until the locals ate the otters.

The villages bordering Lake Patzcuaro mark the annual Day of the Dead celebration in spectacular fashion. At midnight on Nov. 1, Tarascans bearing fruit and flowers and lighted candles row across the lake to Isla de Janitzio there to spend the night communing with their ancestors. Before converting to Christianity, the Tarascans believed Paradise to exist beneath the lake. Spirits of the dead were conducted there by the God of the Waters or, if he happened to be busy, by his canine assistant.

The Janitzio ferry was a semi-enclosed launch full of milk cans. It leaves at the discretion of the boatman who usually won't go anywhere until he has at least 20 passengers. As you head across the lake, the island rears out of the water in front of you like a bundt cake. It's tiny--no more than a few hundred people live here--and mules are the only transportation. The island's main attraction is a statue of Jose Maria Morelos, the father of Mexican independence, executed by the Spanish in 1815. Made of massive stone slabs and 130 feet tall, Morelos is dressed in cape and cowl, his right hand raised high and his mouth drawn back in what looks like a snarl.

Inside, though, the statue is extraordinary. Lining a stairs that climbs to a mirador (observation deck) within the statue's raised right hand is a series of giant murals: Morelos as a student, Morelos in prison, Morelos on trial, Morelos before a firing squad. Painted by Ramon Alva de la Canal between 1932 and 1935, the murals get more and more dramatic as they ascend. They end in what looks like a sunburst--a huge torch glowing red and gold that fills the entire ceiling.

The women on Janitzio dress like the Aymara in Bolivia: a pleated skirt, a blouse, a cardigan, an apron, flat-heeled shoes and a rebozo used variously as a shawl for warmth, a papoose, or simply a hold-all. "Did you embroider that apron yourself?" I asked a woman on the ferry. She shook her head. "I bought it in Patzcuaro," she said. I asked several others the same question. Their aprons were store-bought, too.

Before the Spanish arrived, the Tarascans were known for their refinement and valor, and their territories covered all of what is now Michoacan. Today, their culture is in decline. "There's no future in being an Indian," a student told me. Though his parents spoke Tarascan, he didn't. "What's the point?" he wanted to know. "Like everyone else, I'll end up in the States."

I decided that my third--and last--day in Patzcuaro would be sedentary, so I sat beneath the ash trees in the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. Patzcuaro has two main plazas, this and Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, and though they're just a block apart, they're utterly different. Plaza Quiroga, with its greensward and rose bushes and its statue of Tata, is a quiet, almost bucolic place where the elderly gather to read their papers. Several sedate hotels are here and City Hall, a small, unobtrusive building built around a tiny courtyard usually full of anxious petitioners. Little happens in Plaza Quiroga. Just before lunch that last day, a truck with massive wheels made a brief appearance and caused such a stir, it might have been a flying saucer.

Plaza Bocanegra is Quiroga's polar opposite. Loud and rowdy, it's named for Gertrudis Bocanegra, a heroine of the fight for independence. A statue here depicts her as large and fierce and clutching her bare right breast. For some reason, I was reminded of Ethel Merman.

Plaza Bocanegra, with its portals and overhanging eaves, is Patzcuaro's commercial center. It's always jampacked. At makeshift stands, people sell shrimp cocktails in fluted parfait glasses, and snow cones--the colored flavorings stored in bulbous pharmacy jars. At the outdoor cafes, shoppers on wobbly chairs drink iced coffee and fresh lemonade. Vendors peddle cakes and sugar cane, peanut brittle and toasted macaroons. Tarascan women fill the bridal boutique, arranging their long black hair in plaits before trying on wedding dresses made of white satin and ivory-colored lace. In the ice-cream parlor, children clamor for treats of dubious shades of green and yellow. And then there's the market--a sprawling bazaar part-covered, part open-air--selling everything from handmade sweaters and honey to funeral wreaths and tangerines.

Just before leaving Patzcuaro, I went to the market where a man tried to sell me a crudely carved Tarascan mask.

"It's the devil," he said. "See? It's ferocious." Actually, it looked quite genial--as he seemed to realize. "Ah, Patzcuaro," he said, grinning. "This place makes everybody happy. Even Satan."

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GUIDEBOOK: Patzcuaro Particulars

Getting there: Mexicana has one nonstop flight daily to Morelia from LAX. United, Aeromexico and Mexicana have connecting flights from LAX to Morelia through Mexico City. Round-trip restricted coach fares begin at $347, including tax. Patzcuaro is one hour by bus from Morelia (Michoacan's capital). There are 20 departures daily (Flecha Amarilla lines) from Morelia's bus station; about $2 each way. Getting to Isla Janitzio: Ferries can be boarded at the embarcadero. Forty-five minutes one-way; $3 round trip.

Where to stay: The Posada de Don Vasco (Avenida de las Americas 4550; tel. 011-52-434-22490 or 23971), halfway between the town and the lake, has a swimming pool and a tennis court. Double rooms start at about $50. In Patzcuaro itself, there is the Hotel Los Escudos (Portal Hidalgo 73; tel. 011-52-434-20138 or 21290), doubles about $25, many with fireplaces. Posada de la Basilica (Arciga 6; tel. 011-52-434-20659 or 21108), named for the basilica just across the street. Doubles cost about $25. The restaurant offers a terrific view.

Where to eat: There are lots of restaurants on the town's two main plazas, all offering pescado blanco and charales , the local specialties. Not all this fish comes from polluted Lake Patzcuaro, but be careful. Safer is the comida corrida, a prix fixe lunch that changes daily and consists usually of soup, an entree, a dessert and coffee.

For more information: In nearby Morelia, the tourist office is at Calle Nigromante 79, tel. 011-52-431-23710 or 32654 or 27289.

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