Monday, April 28, 2008

Patzcuaro: doorway to heaven

Patzcuaro is a medieval gem. Having whetted our appetites for Spanish colonial cities on our recent exploration of Morelia, we recently journeyed to Patzcuaro. Our Canadian friends, Gerry and Helen Green, joined us on the trip. They are the couple with whom we previously explored the ruins at Mezcala Island (see January 08 posting). Patzcuaro means “city of stones” in the native Purepecha language and it was believed by Purepechan inhabitants to be the doorway to heaven from which the gods ascended and descended.

On the road again! (L. to R.- Carole, Helen, Jim, Gerry). Gerry and Helen were about to return to Canada for several months, but wanted to show us Patzcuaro and the many small villages around the lake just to the north of the city. Gerry volunteered to drive his roomy, high-clearance 4-wheel-drive and we split the gas and tolls (about ½ tank of gas and $10 tolls each way). You really don’t need an off-road-capable vehicle to visit the Patzcuaro area, but his car is roomier than my Toyota Corolla for a long drive and is less susceptible to topes, Mexico's notorious speed bumps.

A high-speed cuota, or toll road, stretches almost all the way from Lake Chapala to Patzcuaro. The toll roads in Mexico are excellent, smooth, and well designed. Feeling adventurous, we decided to take a short-cut on the free roads part way to Patzcuaro to cut some time off our trip and see some of the back country to the north of Lake Patzcuaro. I felt OK about this because Gerry is such an experienced hand at driving in Mexico.

Patzcuaro origins. Although Patzcuaro and Morelia are both Spanish colonial cities, they are very different. Morelia is about ten times larger, and the architecture feels more stately and formal. Patzcuaro is considerably older, originating from settlements by the Purepechan Indios when they arrived in the area around 1324 AD. By contrast, the area around Morelia was very lightly inhabited when the Spanish decided to plant a city there in 1540 AD.

Patzcuaro sits on a hillside south of the lake. Architecture in Patzcuaro is very consistent. Most of the buildings are one or two stories. The bottom half of the exterior walls will be rust red, with the top half in white. Roofs are of red tiles.The streets are narrow, winding, and hilly. Since Patzcuaro is at 7130 ft. (2200 meters) there were plenty of forests for wood to cut gorgeous doors, windows, balconies, pillars, corbels, and rafters.

San Rafael Hotel through columns. We checked into the Posada San Rafael, a hotel fronting on the main Plaza Quiroga. We chose the San Rafael because of its central location and its price, only about $40.00US/night for a double room with bath and cable TV. The hotel is beautifully remodeled from the original colonial mansion. The rooms are large and the beds huge, although the mattresses are typically a little too firm for my taste. We could get English-language news on TV from BBC and some movie channels in English. We have also grown fond of the Spanish language channels, especially when the big muscular guys wearing full leather head masks show up, gesticulating wildly and sometimes inexplicably pummeling each other. It’s so much fun speculating, we don’t really want to ask anyone what it all means.

Early morning at Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. The plaza is large, full of trees, grass and fountains. Hotels, stores, and restaurants set out tables under the covered portales surrounding it. People watching is superb.

Catching up on the news with a cuppa joe. In the early morning, workers are out sweeping the sidewalks and setting up tables. As joggers pass by on the Plaza walkways, some folks just enjoy their coffee with the local newspaper.

Herb seller outside Our Lady of Health Basilica. By mid-day, commerce is in full swing with street vendors and shoppers. This woman is selling various herbs used for healing. She readily agreed to be photographed but reserved her smile until I had taken the shot. In the evenings, the young people show up for the live music in many establishments, or just to cruise and eye each other as they do world-wide. With all this activity on the street in front of the hotel, it was fortunate we got rooms in the back section.

Too late for Easter, too early for the cooking pot. Chicks dyed in bright colors explore their box as the seller dickers with passersby. The one on the right has a tiny baseball cap glued to its head.

Los Viejos. A pair of elderly shoppers chat in a busy market.

A study in lavender. Patzcuaro has a medieval feel, since the narrow, winding streets are not set in the more modern grid pattern. The worn stones in the streets and walls, covered with moss and stained with age, still carry the rough markings of the original stonecutters. One turns a corner and encounters Purepechans in their Indio clothing—not for the tourists, but just their daily wear.

An ancient activity. Around another corner, an encounter with two young boys carrying large hand-woven baskets of fresh-baked bread on their heads as their forebears did for centuries past.

Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra & Library. There are several plazas in Patzcuaro, in addition to Plaza Quiroga. At the corner of Plaza Gertrudis is a library, converted from a convent.

History in paint. The Library contains an extraordinary mural by artist Juan O’Gorman. The mural covers one whole wall, floor to second-story ceiling, and tells the story of Patzcuaro from early pre-Hispanic times through the War for Independence. The scenes blend into one another with a series of vignettes showing early Purepechans in brilliant costumes, dramatic battle scenes, gory tortures, religious fervor, and much that I had difficulty deciphering.

The Purepechan Empire. While the Spanish, under Conquistador Nuno Guzman de Beltran, were particularly brutal and destructive, the Purepechas were no pacifists. The mural shows the conquest and enslavement of other populations by the Purepechas as they built their empire (see Morelia posting, March 08) and extended it as far north as the shores of Lake Chapala and south to the borders of the Aztec Empire in the Valley of Mexico. They also practiced human sacrifice, as did their chief ancestral foes, the Aztecs. The Purepechans came from the north of Mexico, according to their origin stories, and settled the area around Lake Patzcuaro in 1324 under a great leader named Rey Curateme. The area conquered by Rey Curteme was divided among his sons and relatives. Tzintzuntzan, just northeast of Patzcuaro on the lake, was the central political/ceremonial center. Today it is a small village of craftspeople overlooked by huge silent ruins brooding on a plateau with stunning views just outside of town.

Conquest of the Purepechan Empire. Guzman de Beltran (the bald man in armor on the left above), fearing he would be removed as Mexico’s Spanish Viceroy because of misrule, launched a conquest against the Purepechans who had previously refrained from interfering with the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs—the Purepechans’ arch rivals. Guzman de Beltran figured that if he could keep gold and silver flowing to the Spanish crown, other sins might be forgiven.

Spanish persuasion. The treatment of the Purepechans was so horrific that the Indios fled into the mountains. Eventually, the atrocities caused Guzman de Beltran’s removal and imprisonment in Spain.

A monumental change. A priest, Vasco de Quiroga, replaced the conquistador. The change was comparable to replacing Heinreich Himmler with Mahatma Gandhi. Vasco de Quiroga persuaded the Indios to come back from the mountains and set about creating a utopia, based upon the writings of Sir Thomas More, a contemporary. Quiroga set up schools and hospitals for the Indios, and taught them new methods of agriculture and animal husbandry. He also recognized that Purepechans were skilled artisans, already famous for their work in metals and wood. Quiroga persuaded the Indios to expand these activities and to add many new arts to their repertoire, with each village around Lake Patzcuaro specializing in particular crafts. This specialization persists to this day, nearly 500 years later, and we found wonderful craftsmanship in several of the villages we visited in the area.

Savior of the Indios. Vasco de Quiroga, whose statue graces the main plaza, was venerated by the Indios.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Salud. Quiroga was also a great builder, and several of the most beautiful old buildings, including the Basilica of Our Lady of Health and the College of Saint Nicholas were built at his direction. Many of these beautiful old religious structures now serve other purposes. For example, the College of Saint Nicholas is now the Museum of Popular Arts and Archaeology.

Casa de los Onces Patios. The former Dominican monastery of Saint Catherine, built in 1757, is now known as the Casa de los Once Patios (House of the Eleven Patios). The Casa houses local artisans who allow you to watch them at work. Although I was intrigued by what I had heard of the Casa de los Once Patios, I did not actually locate it until the night before we left Patzcuaro. Out for a late evening walk, I turned a corner and suddenly recognized the Casa from an Internet photograph. I cursed my bad luck in finding it too late since it was too dark to take my own photographs. Then it occurred to me that the rising sun might catch the Casa just right for some wonderful early morning photographs before we had to leave the area. That is, it would if I could pry myself out of bed early enough. I decided to make the effort and since sunrise would be about 7:00 AM, it wouldn’t be that big a sacrifice for a morning slug like me.

Early morning sun bathes the Casa walls and domes. Fortified by strong coffee from an early-opening cafe on the Plaza, I stalked the Casa like a hunter stalks an animal in the woods, approaching from various angles and distances, gauging the direction of the early sun’s rays, and looking for interesting effects. I have never had any formal training in photography, but an early photographer friend once told me that the secret of taking a good picture is “take lots of pictures”. So I blazed away, as you can these days with a digital camera that uses no film and allows you to easily discard failed attempts at artistry.

Some of the villages we visited while still in the area included Santa Clara del Cobre, Isla Janitzio, and Tzintzuntzan. There are many others ringing the lake but we had time only for these. A return trip is definitely in the cards.

Copper pans for any purpose. Copper was mined in the area of Santa Clara del Cobre long before the Spanish came, but they expanded the mines and Purepechan craftspeople are still creating beautiful—and practical—goods for sale.

Helen hits copper jackpot. Helen had this visit on her list of priorities, and the drive up into the mountains south of Patzcuaro was lovely. We began to see crafts shops scattered through the outskirts of town, and when we parked and walked to the town plaza, we discovered that one whole side of the portales around the plaza was devoted to fine copper work.

Copper town plaza. In addition, the plaza lamp posts, the kiosco roof and railings, and hanging plant baskets along the portales all showed beautiful examples of worked copper.

We next visited Isla Janitzio, in the middle of Lake Patzcuaro. We had heard mixed reports from tourists about Janitzio. We decided to check it out anyway, as a way to see the lake from a different angle. Janitzio turned out to be a high point, literally as well as figuratively, of the whole trip. The Patzcuaro malecon, or waterfront, is several kilometers from the center of town. The malecon has restaurants and craft shops and, of course, the boats for the trip to the island. The boatmen belong to a cooperative which sets consistent prices (about $3.50US per person round trip) so you don’t have to bargain, and the boats seem to be in good condition and are equipped with lifejackets. The 20-minute trip (each way) was smooth and uneventful.

Aquatic commuters. Purepechans coming home to Janitzio after a day at the mainland markets filled most of our boat, which could hold about 80 people. On the way back, we and the handful of returning tourists had the boat mostly to ourselves.

Isla Janitzio at a distance. Janitzio is an almost perfect cone, undoubtedly volcanic, rising steeply from the water. An immense statue of Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon (see my March 2008 posting on Morelia) tops the island. It is visible from the mountains 20 miles away.

Janitzio, approaching the dock. The houses, stores, restaurants, hotels and other structures begin at the waterline and rise to the base of the Morelos statue. The narrow, twisting stone streets corkscrew up the island between multilevel buildings, with steep stairs connecting one level to the next.

Not a square inch wasted. As you climb higher and higher, great views emerge on all sides.

No cars needed here. Janitzio has the feel of a medieval Italian hill town, and is the most densely populated area in Michoacan State. There are no cars, and I saw no bicycles. Everyone simply walks around the small island. Fortunately, the narrowness of the streets provides plenty of shade from the intensity of the sun at 7100 feet in elevation.

Craft shops line the steep streets. As we climbed higher toward the Morelos statue, small shops about the size of a one-car garage offered a variety of products. Janitzio is not known for a particular craft, but seems to be the point at which all are sold. Carole was attracted by the lacy rebozos (shawls) and picked out one in a beautiful shade of lavender. We had seen rebozos of similar quality in the Ajijic shops for about $25.00US. The Purepecha shopkeeper, who was also the weaver of the garment Carole liked, wanted about $8.00US. We could have bargained for less, especially since it was a slow day on the island, but Carole felt it was a good enough deal and she liked that it was the woman’s own work. Everybody went away happy.

A view from the top. You can climb up the inside of the Morelos statue all the way to the upraised fist, and Gerry did, but I was content to roam around the base and photograph the stunning views in all directions. One restaurant owner, seeing me struggling to take a photo through a wire fence at the edge of the plateau, kindly waved me inside her restaurant so I could take the picture from her broad, open windows overhanging the ledge. She wanted nothing from me, only that I should get a good picture for my trouble. Her gesture was not unusual. We found people on our trip to be generous and helpful.

On our final morning, we decided to visit Tzintzuntzan, both for its crafts and to see the great ruins at the heart of the Purepechan Empire and the first seat of Spanish government in Michoacan. Tzintzuntzan is the wonderful Purepechan word meaning “place of the hummingbird”. The word actually sounds like a hummingbird zipping from flower to flower. The town itself lies in a narrow valley leading to the lake. Tzintzuntzan is known for basketry and straw crafts, carved wooden goods, green glazed pottery, and stone sculptures. The main street through the town has many shops, and the central plaza contained many stalls with beautiful crafts of various kinds.

Christmas decorations in April? Only in Mexico...

Sculptures in straw spin gently with the wind.

Ceramic figures resemble people seen on the streets every day.

Purple-blossomed jacarandas cast welcome shade over ancient plateau walls. Just outside the town is the turnoff to the ruins. From below, they look like the grey stone foundation of a major building under construction. As we wound up the hill, the real size of the ruins complex became clearer. The main structures sit on a man-made plateau 400 yards long and 180 yards deep, three sides of which are a high stone wall set in several steps taller than a six foot man. The long front wall of the plateau, overlooking the town and the lake and mountains in the distance, is at least 20 feet high.

Purepechan skill at stonework goes back many centuries. On top of this massive, level structure the actual temples and living quarters were built. The temple complex is a long rectangle, perhaps 250 yards long set back about 75 yards from the edge of the plateau wall.

Rounded temple bastion overlooking lake. The front of the rectangle has 5 huge semi-circular bastions set in regular intervals along its face. On top of the bastions were the temples and other structures for worship and administration. The bastions and the walls connecting them are 20-30 feet high. It’s hard to say exactly, because of all the rubble piled on top.

Ancient Purepechan "view property" on the edge of the plateau. Behind the temple complex are the foundations of palaces and storerooms and a round flat area set in patterned stone that looks like a large patio, possibly a ceremonial area. While we were wandering the area we were nearly alone. The solemn quiet of the place, broken only by the chirping of birds in the open grove of trees at one end of the rectangle, left a deep impression on all of us. From here, the elite classes of a powerful people exercised control over their empire and performed their religious ceremonies. Over 40,000 people lived in or around Tzintzuntzan when the Spanish arrived. Today, the population of the town is only about 1,000.

Modern Purepechan agricultural techniques reflect ancient ways. Just before we left, we noticed a fire on the hills at the back edge of the plateau. Apparently the Purepechans were utilizing slash and burn practices to clear land for agriculture. As the flames spread and leaped 20 feet in the air, we reflected that their ancestors, who arrived 650 years ago, probably used the same methods. This created a dramatic end to our visit to a lost civilization. But though their Empire may have vanished, the Purepechans are still here, creating beautiful crafts and quietly living their lives in Patzcuaro and the villages around the sparkling lake.