Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Uruapan Part 1 - Ancient culture, modern city

A cascade of colors. Local Purepecha indian girls march in Uruapan to celebrate the birthday of Benito Juarez (1806-1872). Juarez was the only full-blooded indian to serve as president of the Republic of Mexico and was a hero of the war to expel French invaders. Carole and I visited Uruapan in the middle of March. We came to see the two national parks in the area: Barranca del Cupatitzio in the city itself, and Volcan Paracutin in the mountains northwest of the city. We were delighted  to find that Uruapan had many other interesting things to do and see, in addition to the parks. I took enough photos to justify a four part series on Uruapan, of which this is the first. 

We took Cuota #15 (the modern, high-speed toll road) east from Ocotlan, a town just north of Lake Chapala. At Highway 37, a "libre" (free) road, we turned south and drove on an excellent two-lane blacktop road through the rugged, pine-forested mountains of Michoacan State. The drive took about 4.5 hours. Actually, our Uruapan adventure started before we ever got to the city. On the way, we stopped in the small town of Paracho, the self-styled "Guitar Capital of the World". For a map showing the location of Uruapan in relation to Lake Chapala and our route, click here.

Paracho's plaza on a quiet Friday afternoon. Things were quiet and slow in Paracho when we got there. Even so, this hopeful vendor set up in the middle of the plaza. She sold sliced mango, papaya, and watermelon to passersby looking for a cool, wet treat. Paracho's population is about 15,000 and it looks like 14,900 of them are in the guitar business. The other 100 direct tourist traffic to guitar stores. At 7,300 feet, the weather is cool in the summer and chilly in the winter.

Bishop Quiroga got the guitar-making business started. The statue pictured above commemorates the 16th Century work of Bishop Quiroga, who persuaded the small indian villages around Michoacan State to specialize in particular crafts. Paracho got guitars. There is some dispute about the veracity of this story with regard to Paracho. However, 16th Century Franciscan friars Antonio Huitzimengari and Diego Basalenque reported that when they visited, indian craftsmen were making a variety of stringed musical instruments.

Master guitar-maker at work. I encountered David Hernandez Vaca in the Casa del Artesano (House of the Artisan), located on one corner of the plaza. The Casa contained a number of small booths where various crafts were displayed, including a number devoted to guitars. A guitar maker is a guitarrero in Spanish, and a luthier (from lute) in English. David was busily polishing this guitar at his workbench when I asked for a photograph. He was happy to oblige and explained in Spanish that this particular guitar was crafted for guitar students with special markings to help them learn to play. David has a website (click on his name above) where he can be contacted about his work.

The finished product. At another booth, beautiful guitars of various levels of quality were displayed. The standards are popular, estudio, and concerto, the last being the highest.

Tasty treat for a hot day. Mangos carved in the shape of flowers stand on sticks in a fruit peddler's booth in the mercado. Mexicans often put a quirky little twist on a common item. A gentle sense of humor seems to be a trait of the national character. 

Mexican woman sells cooked fish in a simple stand. I have found Mexicans in general to be industrious and enterprising. Every town seems to have a mercado (street market), and Paracho was no exception. This woman set up a simple display case of upended wooden crates to offer her grilled wares to mercado customers. Her baby played behind her as she conducted  business. 

Purepecha woman demonstrates one use for a traditional rebozo (shawl). In  the small towns around Uruapan, and to some degree in the city itself, we saw few baby carriages. Babies have been toted this way since before the Spanish arrived. Rebozos are also used for carrying packages, as head coverings, and for warmth.  The indian woman pictured had just purchased the bundle of flowers in front of her. I have noticed that Mexicans of all walks of life love flowers. The humblest of adobe huts are often adorned with multiple coffee cans sporting a wild array of blooms.

Uruapan's Templo San Francisco got an early start. Built by the Franciscans (hence the name) in 1533, the San Francisco church was founded only twelve years after the Conquest began. Using a style called plateresque, the Franciscans decorated the areas around the doors and windows lavishly with carved stone, while the main structure of the building remained relatively unadorned. This was the earliest building style of the Spanish Renaissance, melding aspects of the Italian Renaissance with Moorish and Gothic styles. Templo San Francisco is located on the northwest corner of the zocalo, another name for the main plaza.

Uruapan was built on the banks of the Cupatitzio River, on a plateau in  the foothills of the Michoacan mountains. The area around the city abounds with aguacate (avocado) orchards, and Uruapan is arguably the avocado capital of Mexico. The zocalo is surrounded with a mixture of Spanish colonial and modern buildings.  The population of the municipality of Uruapan is about 280,000, making it second only to Morelia in Michoacan.

Grille work on the gate of Templo San Francisco. Uruapan was a small, peaceful kingdom of Purepecha indians when the Spanish arrived in 1522. Archaeological evidence indicates that the indians had already lived in this paradise of flowers for a long period.  All that is known of the early period of the Conquest in the area is that it was probably extremely brutal. In 1531, at the end of this period, Fray Juan de San Miguel arrived. He is considered to be the founder of the modern city of Uruapan, one of the oldest of Mexico's Spanish colonial cities.

Casa de Cultura hosts countless artistic and cultural activities. Originally a Franciscan monastery, the structure was built by Fray Juan de San Miguel in 1536. As with many church properties, the building was taken over by the government for public purposes during one of the anti-clerical periods in Mexican history. 

Courtyard of the Casa de Cultura. When I visited on a Saturday evening, the courtyard was gently bathed in the rosy glow of sunset. Some sort of awards ceremony was proceeding with many certificates handed out. Behind the stage, a group of costumed folklorico dancers awaited their moment on the stage. I have noticed that such verbal presentations can stretch out to interminable lengths before the main event. Losing my light, I decided  to move on before seeing the dancers. For all I know, the master of ceremonies is still holding forth.

La Huatapera, once a Franciscan hospital, now a center for popular arts. Built in 1533, once again by the architecturally prolific Juan de San Miguel, La Huatapera originally served as a hospital for the indians. It was one of the first hospitals in the Western Hemisphere. Later it became an inn, and finally a center for popular arts, housing some of Michoacan's best artesiana. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, La Huatapera was closed for renovations. Carole was very disappointed, but I pointed  out that this simply gave us another excuse for a return visit.

Whiling away a sunny afternoon. This elderly gentleman took advantage of one of the zocalo's many iron benches to kill some time and soak up the pleasures of the plaza. Mexican plazas are one of the best features of the country. Everywhere we go, they are a playground for kids, a stage for various official and impromptu performers, an opportunity for small vendors, a spot for romantic trysts. A plaza offers the kind of physical center so lacking in many north-of-the- border towns and cities with their commercially gaudy suburban malls and tacky shopping strips all oriented to the automobile. A Mexican plaza is a walker's environment, a place to stroll and enjoy a leisurely pace of life.

Water, water everywhere... Another regular feature of a Mexican plaza, and Uruapan's was no different. Fountains cool the air, are refreshing to the eyes and ears, and often commemorate some locally important historical event. Kids find them fun for splashing games.
Balloons anyone? The zocalo was preparing for a concert according to the poster on the stage. In anticipation of the crowd, a local balloon vendor (another standard feature of a plaza) set up his wares. Most of the public entertainment I have encountered is free, and the rare fees I have encountered are very modest. 

Entertainment of the impromptu variety. Strolling musicians sing for the patrons of a sidewalk restaurant bordering the zocalo. One is always free to donate or not, but I usually give a little even if I can't stop to listen. Everybody's got to make a living, and I can think of a lot of better paid but less socially redeeming jobs. 

Clavelina blossom. This unusual blossom was one of many sprouting on the trees around the zocalo. I had no idea what kind of tree this might be until I consulted with Joel Gomez, my Spanish teacher who also happens to have a university degree in horticulture. The blossom has an uncanny resemblance to a badminton shuttlecock. According to Joel, the formal name is Bombax Elipticum.

Mexican junk food. One of the many food vendors pulled up her mobile cart and set up shop just across from where we were sitting on a bench in the cool shade of a tree. Some plastic bags contained potato chips and others held the large round kind used for tostadas. Behind her is the Hotel Concordia, $37.00 (US) per night. All the usual amenities provided, but a tad spartan for my taste.

More musicians, but this time leading a parade. When we came out to enjoy the zocalo the morning after we arrived, the first thing we encountered was a parade led by these musicians and comprised of school children in traditional Purepecha clothing. We later discovered the parade was part of the national Benito Juarez celebration.

Like a flock of gorgeously feathered little birds. The little girls stole the show. Some no doubt normally wear blue jeans and t-shirts, or school uniforms during the day. Others may be from surrounding villages where women of all ages dress like this for everyday purposes. I saw a woman in one village wearing just such an outfit as she weeded her garden with a hoe. Notice how the girls in this photo are using their rebozos for headcoverings. The blue, pin-striped rebozo is very popular among Purepecha women.

Little boys being, well...little boys. Chuckling and furtively roughhousing as they marched along, the boys seemed less demure and serious than the girls. While their outfits were less lavish than the girls, the boys' shirts and pants were decorated with intricate hand embroidery. In the villages, the men and boys don't dress like this normally, but wear the working garb of cowboys.

A chain of satiny flowers. A shiny, satiny cloth was used to make this girl's hand-crafted chain of flowers. A similar satin material was used for her skirt. We saw this sort of material everywhere on women dressed traditonally. The colors were always vivid and brilliantly contrasting. 

(Below) A Mona Lisa smile. The girls stood demurely as the parade paused, giving me a chance for a closeup photo. When I asked if I could take their picture, they silently nodded, but three of the four shyly gazed down. One, however, rewarded me with a quiet Mona Lisa smile.

This concludes Part 1 of my Uruapan series. The next posting will look at the spectacular Barranca del Cupatitzio National Park.  Hasta luego, Jim 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Jim and Carole...

    We've been reading your blog and using it for our own little trips from Ajijic (we bought a house here last November). The advice and images on your blog are invaluable.

    We are ready to follow your lead to Uruapan. Two Questions:
    How do you pronounce Uruapan?!?
    and..Can you give driving directions to Mi Solar? We will be coming down through Parecho.

    My email is



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