Saturday, September 12, 2015

XXXV. Nuestro Viaje a Patzcuaro

Our Trip to Patzcuaro

Our recent trip to Patzcuaro, a large Colonial-era town in the adjoining state of Michoacan, was just over 300 km—about 200 miles one way. Most of the drive was on a restricted access toll road, like an Interstate highway in the States. About a tenth of the journey, though, was on pot-holed, undivided asphalt roads that traveled through small pueblos and across unfenced rangeland. 

Miles of these walls added a feeling of permanence to
human activities on the land. This is a rare example of
unrepaired damage, perhaps related to harvesting the nopal.
It is high country. Our home in Ajijic is the same altitude as mile-high Denver, and we traveled up to about 7500 feet. It is not mountainous, however. There are broad, broad valleys—and vistas—and plateaus sloping up the shoulders of ancient, widely spaced and much-eroded volcanic peaks. The countryside was green from the rainy season, but in no way tropical. Think of pine vying with cactus.

This is the geographical center of Mexico in a large area known as the Colonial Highlands. Inhabited for millennia by indigenous cultures, this area was seized by the Spanish conquistadores nearly five hundred years ago and its people subjected by the state as well as the Roman Catholic Church. In both poor pueblos and well-off cities you see many centuries-old churches that are still in use, and in most cases elaborately decorated.

At end of day, a flower vendor loads his wares at Plaza Chica's
market for the trip back home.
Aside from the churches, the other image that abides throughout all that country are the rock walls you see everywhere, up and down, and stretched across the landscape, delineating pastures and plantings. About four feet high, they are constructed of one or more layers of hefty, lichen-encrusted volcanic boulders. These walls give, to me at least, a sense of permanence to the lives that are lived among them.

My many rehearsals of this trip on Google Maps and Street View, which pictured even the most out-of-the-way roads, served me well. I never got lost on the way to Patzcuaro, or back. Nothing prepared me, though, for what a large bustling place it is, nor the way its boulevard entry of pines reminded me of a Montana mountain town.

The lobby of our hotel--notice the statue of the Virgin above
the fireplace. Our room was just out of the picture, top right.
The mental map I had imprinted allowed me to make the right turns as we headed for our hotel, but we were taken aback by the unending stream of small white vans called collectivos that crowded the Centro area, taking passengers to and from the many small villages that surround this market town. 

The center of all this activity was at one corner of the smaller of the two main plazas in the town. Our Catholic-themed hotel (large picture of the Virgen as you entered, Christ on a cross facing the front desk) was at the opposite corner in a stucco two story, portaled, three hundred year-old building. Each room was named for a religious figure, in our case, Archangel Jehudiel. It was an attractive room, with a small balcony out over the street, but the bathroom was ridiculously small and had a large step up that was particularly challenging at night. 

Plaza Grande at dusk
Patzcuaro’s main market was the reason for all the bustle around this small, or chica, plaza. Every day of our stay, countless vendors set up their stalls selling all manner of goods on the streets surrounding the claustrophobic warren of shops in this mercado. At the end of another street leading into Plaza Chica was a second large cluster of plastic tarp-covered stands and more permanent—but only slightly—wooden structures with even more vendors. 

Between about 10AM and 10PM the place was abuzz. And people in Patzcuaro don’t so much stroll, as they do in our little village of Ajijic, but stride. We were unused to this pace that we hadn’t seen since our last trip half a year ago (another lifetime!) into downtown Seattle. There was another thing that—at times—reminded us of our old home in the States—the cool and often cloudy weather.

Very peaceful just to sit on a pew as a few people moved
quietly about.
Regardless, it wasn’t long before we had found an amiable place on Plaza Grande, a block away from our hotel, that served excellent coffee and decent breakfasts, and we made that each day’s first destination. This plaza truly was large, and all around it, in addition to restaurants, cafes and hotels, as well as on the streets leading into the plaza, were numerous small and fairly upscale stores. Especially zapaterias! We’ve never seen so many shoe stores in such a relatively small area in our lives.

After breakfasts, we would take in the sights, either in Patzcuaro, or on several days, in the villages and countryside nearby. Our favorite two places in town were the Basilica of Nuestra SeƱora de la Salud and the Casa de los Once Patios. Both were beautiful, the former with man-made elegance and the latter because of it’s simple design and variety of eye-candy plantings. As much as the beauty, though, we appreciated the peace and quiet of each.

The House of Eleven Patios is down to five now. Regardless,
it is a great place to relax, as well as shop directly from some
talented artisans.
One striking thing about Patzcuaro is its strict conformity in the style of the buildings and the way they are painted. It seems that no construction, except for churches, is more than two stories high, nor painted any colors except whitewash with brick-red bottom trim. Even the style and size of lettering for store names is unvarying. Except for churches, again, everything is stucco with tile roofs and extended beams. What a contrast this is to Ajijic where every stucco housefront seems to be a different color scheme, with gratuitous textures and designs, borders, sculptures, murals and flourishes everywhere. We prefer the latter.

 One thing that did enliven the atmosphere were the national emblems and seals, and red, white and green banners and bunting strung up around the plazas, especially, as well as all over our hotel. At night, at Plaza Grande, the decorations were illuminated. This was the ramp up to Fiestas Patrias—the week beginning in just a few days when Mexico’s independence is celebrated. Viva Mexico! Libertad! Oh, days of glory to soon come!

An ice cream vendor counts his take at Santa Clara de Cobre's
plaza. Notice the huge copper pot hanging in the gazebo.
Our two trips out of town were to the villages of Santa Clara de Cobre and Tzintzuntzan. Each specialized in a different craft. Santa Clara featured all manner of handmade copper work, at unbeatable prices. We bought a small, classically simple urn. The strange name of the other village comes from a Tarascan word describing the flight of a hummingbird. This place makes more types of straw items than you can imagine. A large grass footrest shaped like a pig? No problem. We settled for a straw hat and a small wastebasket.

One of the other things we loved about TeeZee was the nearby archeological site with its partly rebuilt, semi-circular pyramids on a vast platform overlooking the village. The perfect temperature, dark blue sky with flocks of fluffy clouds, vistas over the northern part of Lake Patzcuaro to distant mountains, and the silence all made this a relaxing and inspiring place to spend my birthday.  

Tzintzuntzan pyramids with Lake Patzcuaro in background.
We also found peace, as well as some of our favorite music, in the mostly quiet park whose cantera stone portal was hidden behind the village marketplace. Four hundred year-old olive trees are planted inside the walls. We followed some well-dressed familias, with young’uns, down a path leading to several more ridiculously old and picturesque religious buildings. We’d stumbled across some christenings, it seems, as well as the cause of the mariachi music—a quinceanera, marking a young lady’s coming of age, at fifteen.

Those last memories of Tzintzuntzan are a good place to end this account. We’re back in Ajijic now. This trip marked the term break between Spanish classes. We’ve just begun our new seven-week session, which means our next vay-cay will be during the two weeks around Dias de los Muertos when our sweet daughters will be visiting. I’m not sure how things will fall after that, but sometime around the beginning of the year we will be off to Zihuatanejo, on la playa, on the ocean. And then? Who knows, but loving this life.

A mariachi belts out "Mexico, Querido y Lindo" at quinceaƱera
in Tzintzuntzan.

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