Thursday, March 27, 2008

Morelia: a colonial city glowing in the sun

Cathedral towers and dome through the portales. Morelia! The name of the city is musical, like the tones of bells in the great Cathedral towers. The pink limestone of its ancient buildings glows in the afternoon sun. As one walks the streets, past centuries seem to come alive, even as the city traffic rumbles and young Morelianos zip by on jazzy scooters with cell phones to their ears. Carole and I were entranced.

Portrait of the founder. Antonio Virrey de Mendoza, whose portrait glowers from the lobby wall of the elegant old hotel bearing his name, founded the 457-year-old city in the Spanish colonial era. Virrey de Mendoza settled a handful of Spanish among the native Purepecha people and the Spaniards promptly misnamed them Tarascans. According to Miguel, our Charter Tour guide, “tarasque” is a disparaging Purepecha word meaning roughly “one who sleeps around”. The Purepecha had observed the Spanish custom of adultery, and so, when encountering Spaniards, they called out “tarasque!” The Spaniards, not understanding the rude joke, thought the natives were identifying themselves and so began calling them Tarascans.

The Purepecha were not primitive savages, but very advanced in the context of Indian cultures in the 16th Century. They were great artisans with jewelry and feathers and were considered the best metal workers in Mexico. They also built an empire that rivaled—and was never conquered by—the Aztecs, and that lasted over 600 years. Their capital of Tzintzuntzan, located southwest of Morelia near Patzcuaro, contained temples and pyramids. When the Spanish were marching on the Aztec capital, the Aztecs appealed to their old rivals for support. Unfortunately for native inhabitants of Mexico, the Purepecha not only ignored the appeal, but also sacrificed the messengers. Less than ten years after the Aztecs fell, the Purepecha Empire fell to the Spanish. For more information about the Purepecha/Tarascan Empire, click on this link. For information about ancient ruins in the Morelia area, click on this link.

Morelia was named for a hero. Modern Morelia, the capital of Michoacan State, is a city of over a million people, which sits on a mountain plateau at over 6000 feet. For map of Michoacan showing Morelia and other interesting locations nearby, click on this link. 45,000 students attend Morelia University, the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere. Morelia was originally named Vallodolid, after the city in Spain of the same name. One of the great early leaders of the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21) was Jose Maria Morelos, a priest turned general who was born in Vallodolid. He was captured and executed by the Spanish during the early stage of the war but, following independence, his contributions were recognized by renaming the city Morelia, “the place of Morelos”. For information about the War of Independence and Morelos, click on this link.

The great Cathedral of Morelia dominates the cityscape. Morelia is filled with museums, art galleries, music conservatories and theatres, many occupying one or another of the more than 1,100 historical buildings located within 290 blocks of the old section of the city. The people of Morelia had the foresight to stop the destruction of the old city before the forces of “modernization” had advanced too far. Today there are strict ordinances requiring that historical buildings be reconstructed in the original form and materials rather than razed for parking lots and strip malls, as is so common North of the Border. There are also stiff penalties against the graffiti although it still occurs in some places. Morelianos take great pride in their beautiful city and its designation as a World Heritage Site. For a map of El Centro de Morelia and some of its historical sites, click on this link. For an excellent walking tour guide to El Centro, click on this link.

Kiosco in Plaza de los Martirs. The center of most Mexican communities is the main plaza, and the center of the plaza is always the kiosco, or bandstand, surrounded with gardens and walkways radiating outward. In Morelia, the Plaza de Armas—also known as the Plaza de los Martirs—and its kiosco are particularly lovely, filled with shady trees and flowers. The kiosco is beautifully made with wrought iron and pine from forests in the mountains surrounding Morelia. The plaza is bounded by the great Cathedral, various government buildings, the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, and the Hotel Alameda (where we stayed) and other hotels and restaurants. The three sides not bounded by the Cathedral have long lovely covered porches with stone arches called "portales" which separate the buildings from the street and create sheltered, shady areas for café tables and crafts displays.  I discovered why these portales are typical of Mexican plazas during our visit to Morelia. King Phillip II, the same man who ordered the Armada against England during the reign of Elizabeth I, ordered that this design of plaza, church, government buildings, and portales be incorporated into the design of all Mexican towns and cities. He particularly wanted the portales to be a sheltered area where local people could carry on commerce protected from the sun and rain. 400 years later, Mexicans in the smallest towns and largest cities still enjoy these products of King Phillip’s vision.

Morelia Cathedral side entrance and dome. Afternoon shadows gather on the glowing pink limestone and dome of the Cathedral, viewed from the plaza. It is difficult to photographically convey the size of the Cathedral because to do so requires a viewpoint too distant to show all the extraordinary details. One must show a section at a time to do it justice.

Massive door protects main Cathedral entrance. The door stands at least 20 feet tall, and is made from wood studded with decorative iron and brass fittings. All of the statues and forms of the face, towers and interior of the Cathedral have deep, complex and interwoven significance that goes far beyond my limited knowledge of Catholicism. Their beauty and symmetry impressed me nonetheless.

Cathedral interior. This photo gives some sense of the great height of the interior but does not capture the width, which extends a considerable distance on either side of the columns. What seemed odd, at first, was the juxtaposition of fervent worshipers moving their lips in silent prayer with large numbers of tourists, most of them Mexican, moving quietly about snapping pictures in every direction. I followed their lead and tried to get my shots without interfering with anyone’s religious experience. Fortunately, the ambient light was adequate to show the interior since flashes were not allowed.

An ancient religious treasure. The Morelia Cathedral contains many objects of great intrinsic as well as symbolic and artistic value. This Monstrance, used in the ceremony of bread and wine, was created several hundred years ago by Purepecha craftsmen from silver and gold mined in the area. Its glass case is surrounded with other objects of great craftsmanship and beauty.

Palace of Government—courtyard and portales. Across the street from the Cathedral stands the Palacio de Gobierno, the Government Palace. As with many colonial buildings, a central courtyard is surrounded by two or more floors with portales overlooking the courtyard. In government buildings, murals typically cover the walls behind the portales. The murals display events from Mexican history, or facets of Mexican rural life. World-famous artists such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, or Alfredo Zulce painted many of these murals in the 1930’s. Zulce did much of the work in Morelia.

Zulce Mural shows key moments and figures of Mexican history. In this mural, painted at the head of a grand staircase in the Palacio de Gobierno, Zulce portrays (among others) Father Hidalgo with white hair and yellow boots, Morelos on his right wearing his signature red head scarf and carrying a sword and scroll, and an Indian with a torch and a flat stone slab tied to his back. Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, was the original leader of the Insurgency in 1810. Morelos succeeded him after his capture and execution by the Spanish. The Indian was famous for crawling forward under intense Spanish fire, protected by the stone slab, to ignite the explosives which opened the way into the city and allowed its capture. I was not clear whether the Indian survived the blast, but I doubt it. Nearly all the key figures in the mural were executed, assassinated, or killed in battle at one time or another. All this is part of Mexico’s dramatic but tragic history.

Campesino family. A Mexican farm family reaches out for help from the Revolution. Prior to the Revolution, campesinos were often little more than serfs on the large haciendas, many of which were broken up by the revolutionary government. In lower left foreground stand oil derricks. The Mexican oil industry, formerly controlled by U.S. and European financial interests, was nationalized by President Lazaro Cardenas in the late 1930s. The industry remains nationalized today; although there are currently efforts by the conservative PAN government to sell it off to Exxon, among others. It remains to be seen whether the PAN will succeed.

Portales form beautiful frames for murals. Another Zulce mural showing typical scenes in the rural life of campesinas and their children. The delicate pink limestone arches nicely frame mural scenes viewed from across the courtyard of the Palacio.

The Convento de las Rosas. Dominican nuns used this as a convent until 1735 when it became the Conservatorio de las Rosas, a music school and the home of the famous Morelia Boys Choir. It is the oldest music conservatory in the Western Hemisphere, 124 years older than any conservatory in the U.S. Pictured is the dome of the chapel. For more information on the Convento de las Rosas, click on this link.

Portales line the central courtyard garden. These cool walkways protected the nuns, as today they protect tourists and music students, from harsh sun and summer rains. The nuns lived in the rooms on the inside of the walkway.

Las Rosas garden. The convent's courtyard garden would be a splendid place to while away a bright, hot afternoon.

Courtyard fountain. In the Las Rosas garden, jacaranda flowers quietly drift down to float in the courtyard fountain. The purple color fitted perfectly, as purple is the color of Easter, the time of our visit.

Doing the wash the old fashioned way. In this 16th Century stone laundry room, nuns washed clothing and other items by hand.

To protect, or imprison? Since this Dominican convent was cloistered—the nuns almost never appeared in public—the convent used this screen at the back of the chapel as a barrier between the nun’s choir and the non-cloistered people at the services. Behind the screen was a curtain that further shielded the nuns. Another purpose for the screen, according to our tour guide Miguel, was to prevent the escape or rescue of young women confined in the convent because of inappropriate affections toward the wrong man.

Dressed to play. This young student of the Las Rosas Conservatory is dressed in period costume for a performance. She doesn’t look like any convent screen would hold her back from her chosen future.

Don't forget to look up. The Hotel Virrey de Mendoza stands on one corner of the Plaza de los Martirs. Old, elegant, quiet, with a huge central lobby, the hotel has an atrium rising three floors. The first couple of times I came in I liked the feel of the place but not until my third visit did I happen to glance up and nearly fell backward in astonishment at this spectacular stained glass ceiling at the top of the atrium. Probably 100 feet long by 50 feet wide, it is breath-taking. For more pictures and information about this beautiful (but expensive) old hotel, click on this link.

Aqueduct uses 2000 year old technology. Morelia’s graceful Aqueduct was built between 1785 and 1789 and for more than a century was the chief water supply for the city. The water rises from a spring and runs through the trough along the top of the Aqueduct for miles, propelled by gravity alone, much as the Romans had done 2000 years before. The Aqueduct feeds 14 of fountains across the Old City, some for people, some for animals, some for washing or other purposes. The people of Morelia are extremely proud and protective of their Aqueduct and anyone defacing it faces a year in a Mexican prison, not a happy fate. I saw very little graffiti on it.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church built as a compromise. The Virgin of Guadalupe has been the patron saint of Mexico’s downtrodden Indians since shortly after the Conquest. The religious artifacts related to her were taken to Mexico City, and Indians from all over Mexico therefore had to make long pilgrimages to visit them. This, of course, meant they were not back on the haciendas making money for the Spanish overlords. Spanish Catholic Church officials decided to build a special church for the Indians in Michoacan so they could worship the Virgin closer to home. The Purepecha craftsmen pitched in to create a remarkable edifice. Although the exterior is not particularly notable, the interior work gives it a just claim to be called the most beautiful church in Michoacan.

Our Lady of Guadalupe altar area. The ceiling and part of the altar area including the portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe show the incredibly detailed work that went into every surface.

Religious vignette from ceiling. This circular vignette portrays a scene of religious significance. This is one of four differing scenes surrounding the great stained glass dome pictured below. This vignette could only be clearly seen with a telephoto lens from the floor of the church. It was amazing to me that so much work went into a detail like this that few people could ever fully appreciate.

Rich detail adorns church ceiling. The incredible richness of detail demonstrates not only the wonderful skill of the Purepecha craftmanship, but the deep feeling of the Indians for their patron saint at a time when they were severely oppressed by the Spanish overlords.

Our Lady of Guadalupe dome. The inside of the dome, directly over the altar area, is one of the most spectacular features, especially when seen in the dim light of the church. Notice the four religious vignettes, one of which was pictured earlier.

Street of Romance. This double fountain sits at the end of Romance Street. It is a tradition for young lovers to walk along narrow old Romance Street, barely wide enough for a single donkey cart, until they reach the fountain. Then, the young man kneels on the steps to present his beloved with a ring. The tradition began centuries ago and still carries on today. Unfortunately, the spray paint squad did not spare this charming corner of Morelia.

Mystery of the fountain of the Indian women. This fountain, near the end of the Morelia Aqueduct, depicts three kneeling, bare-breasted Indian women holding a large basket of fish aloft. When it was originally constructed, the church ladies of Morelia were scandalized, considering it pornographic. However, they couldn’t get the city fathers to respond to their protests. Accordingly, one dark night the fountain statues simply disappeared and to this day no one knows what happened to them. In the 1980s, Morelianos collected money door to door, raising enough to have the fountain rebuilt exactly as originally constructed. No further disappearances have been reported, and photos of the fountain have regularly graced Mexican and international publications about Morelia.

Monarchs cluster in masses on trees. Carole and I also came to the area to see the famous winter nesting grounds of the Monarch butterflies high in the mountains east of Morelia. These intrepid insects--"mariposas"--in Spanish, travel thousands of miles from Canada and the northern U.S. to Michoacan to nest and breed. They then die and their pupae become caterpillars and then butterflies and finally travel north to Canada again. When they nest in the remote Michoacan mountains, they gather in the millions, coating the trees and branches with as many as 4 million mariposas per acre, 250 million total. After mating, they die and their bodies cover the ground. One scientist worked for his entire 40-year career to discover their nesting location. He then helped the Purepechas understand the economic possibilities of ecotourism. For more information on the Monarch butterfly, click on this link.

Butterflies on her mind. With her father’s kind permission, this little Mexican girl posed with the Monarchs she had captured, using them to adorn her hair as well as her hand.

Racing for pesos. The Purepecha Indians quickly figured out that tired tourists, faced with a daunting climb back up the steep, dusty trail to the bus, would be grateful for a horse to ride. At 10,000+ feet of altitude, every step is an effort. The Indians pictured here are racing their horses back down to meet another group of tourists more than willing to pay the 50 peso fee (about $5.00 U.S.).

Jim, taking the easy way. I had been cocky on the way down, thinking my hikes in the mountains around Ajijic had prepared me to handle the trail. As you can see, I changed my mind.

Avenida Madero Oriente. As we prepared to leave Morelia, I took this shot from the third floor balcony of the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza down Avenida Madero Oriente toward the rough, high-desert mountains surrounding the city. Then, reluctantly, we boarded our bus and headed back to Ajijic. But we’ll be back!


  1. You are surely digging into the local cultures! I LOVE your postings; keep 'em coming. I'm going to go back and study this more.

  2. Nice, Jim! Morelia looks like a place I`d like to visit. Hey, I especially like the photos framed by the arches, trees, etc. and all the people at the overlook of Morelia. That really gives us a nice perspective without being your standard snap shot from the railing. I`ll talk with you soon. All my best.

  3. My hometown!!!!
    good job with this entry :)

  4. Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the OLED, I hope you enjoy. The address is A hug.

  5. Nice work. Great pictures and very informative!

  6. Hi, Jim,

    Noticed you took a bus to Morelia....public or bus tour? We have skirted Morelia on the way to Patzcuaro and the traffic on its periferico was kinda scary.

    Do you recommend driving to Morelia?

    Our email is

    Re: the butterflies...did you take a private tour with driver/tour company?

    Any info on taking a 2 or 3 day trip to Morelia and the Monarchs would be much appreciated.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim