Sunday, November 8, 2015

Zamora Part 4: Tangancicuaro, a tranquil little jewel

Plaza de Tangancicuaro, with the Templo Virgen de la Asunción in the background. Several fountains ring the perimeter of the Plaza. They surround the quiosco (bandstand), which is partially visible in the upper right of the photo. The area is nicely shaded by palms and carefully-groomed ficus trees. Tangancicuaro de Arista is a small city of about 30,000 people, located 14 km (8.7 mi) southeast of Zamora. In Part 2 of this series, I showed Lago de Camécuaro, the national park located nearby. Carole and I first visited that beautiful lake and, afterward, decided to check out Tangancicuaro. It turned out to be one of those charming little jewels that are so often overlooked or bypassed by foreigners. In pre-hispanic times, the town was called Acuitze, which means "snake." After the Spanish arrived, the local Purépecha renamed it Tangancicuaro, which can be interpreted as "Place Where Three Waters Rise" or, alternatively, as "Place Where the Stakes Are Nailed." There are good arguments for both, so take your pick. In 1881, the name of Mexican general and 19th century President Mariano Arista was added, and the town became Tangancicuaro de Arista.

The Plaza

The quiosco is also surrounded by lush gardens. Another of the fountains is silhouetted against the bandstand. A couple of Mexican women chat while sitting on the natural bench formed by the garden wall. As you can see, it was a lovely morning. Quioscos like this can be found in the vast majority of Mexican plazas. Sometimes they are elaborate, with multiple levels, and occasionally even contain a restaurant or tourist office. However, most are simple and follow the general design seen above. It was not until the 19th century that quioscos began to pop up in many of Mexico's plazas, although a few may have appeared before then. They became popular, along with many other French styles, during the reign of Emperor Maximilian (1862-67). After the dictator Porfirio Diaz took power in 1876, he encouraged the adoption of European customs, including quioscos, as a way to promote modernity.

An elderly Purépecha couple while away the morning. The woman wears a traditional embroidered skirt, a white huipil (blouse) and a rebozo (shawl). The man is dressed in a modern style. This is quite typical of indigenous couples I have encountered all over Mexico. The women seem to be the custodians of traditional ways, at least in terns of clothing. In Chiapas, I saw some Maya men in traditional garb, but they were few and very much the exception.

Three young students enjoy a stroll through the Plaza. From their uniforms, they probably attend one of the local Catholic colegios (prep schools). Many schools in Mexico operate on double shifts, morning and afternoon. It was about mid-day when I took this shot, and given their relaxed appearance, these kids had probably just finished their classes for the day.

Presidencia and Portales 

The national flag waves over the Presidencia (city hall). The peak of an extinct volcano rises in the background. The line of wooden columns along the front of the Presidencia is typical of Michoacan. The state is covered with dense pine forests. Consequently, where such columns in other places might be of stone or plaster-covered brick, here they are often of wood, sometimes intricately carved. The typical plaza in Mexico is surrounded by a government building on one side, a church on another, with the remaining two sides filled by small commercial businesses such as copy centers, internet cafes, and restaurants. Nearly always, there will be an ice cream shop.

Two sides of the plaza are bordered by pedestrian-only walkways. Given the traffic that can clog the narrow streets of even the smallest towns, I always welcome areas where you don't have to dodge hurtling taxis or kids wildly scooting by on motorbikes. The vertical sign by the door of one of the shops reads "Boneteria." That is the word for is a shop that sells clothes and clothing related items like needles and thread. Here, too, the walkway is lined with tall wooden columns. Someone has left a bicycle casually leaning against one column. In a small town like this, with many eyes watching, theft is probably not much of a problem.

Another view of the same walkway. A woman in a fringed rebozo walks away with her purchase as a man prepares to serve a customer from his small blue ice cream cart. Notice the coin-operated children's rides along the wall. From the looks of it, this building may well have once served as the mansion of a wealthy 18th or 19th century local hacienda owner.

Food stalls line the pedestrian walkway along the fourth side of the Plaza. Three satisfied customs walk away from a booth selling carnitas. This tasty dish consists of small pieces of braised or barbecued pork. It is usually served with tortillas along with various relishes such as chopped onions. The purchaser rolls these ingredients into steaming tacos. Mexican "fast food" at its best!

The Tianguis

A tianguis filled several streets adjoining the Plaza. A tianguis is an open market selling every kind of consumer product imaginable. They are usually held on specific days of the week and many booth operators come in from surrounding villages to participate. I always find them fascinating and great for people-watching. The history of the tianguis goes back thousands of years into pre-hispanic times. The word itself comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. When Hernán Cortéz and his Conquistadores arrived at Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City) they visited a vast tianguis. Its size and the range of its products boggled their minds.

Chicharrones, a tasty treat that contains an unimaginable quantity of cholesterol. Chicharon is pork skin deep-fried in the melted fat of the pig. Usually it is prepared by a butcher in a large vat shaped something like an oriental wok. While cooking chicharon, the butcher stirs the vat periodically with a large wooden implement resembling a canoe paddle. The wonderful smell soon draws a line of customers, most of them no doubt destined to die young from clogged arteries.

A smiling chicken vendor displays his wares. The chicken doesn't come much fresher than this. Most of these guys were probably still strutting and clucking the morning I took this shot. Notice the old-fashioned balance scale on the table. If it ain't broke, and it worked just fine for grandpa, why replace it with digital?

Dolls dressed in the finest quinceañera style were also for sale. As I explained in Part 1, a quinceañera is a special celebration for a girl who reaches her 15th birthday. It is a coming-out party, announcing to the world that she is now a woman. The dolls are Mexico's answer to Barbie, and are probably treasured by dreamy pre-teens.

The Church

The parish church faces onto the north side of the Plaza. The original evangelization of the area was accomplished by the Augustinian Order in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the latter century, the parish was dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption. The main body of the church was built in the 18th Century with a red volcanic stone known as tzontle. The two steeples were constructed with a different kind of stone and appear to have been added at a later time.

Vividly colorful artificial flowers were for sale on the church steps. I wasn't clear whether or not the flowers were related to some activity going on in the church. Perhaps this was just a convenient spot to set up shop. Things are done that way in Mexico.

The entrance is through a beautifully carved wooden screen.  Notice the ceiling. In churches elsewhere, a ceiling will usually be covered with plaster, often painted with designs or pictures. In this case, rows of wood rafters were used, again the product of Michoacan's prolific forests.

The interior of the dome is also constructed of wood. This is one of the most unusual domes I have ever encountered in a Mexican church.

Street scenes

A bicyclist pedals up a narrow street leading away from the Plaza. We had parked on a side street a couple of blocks up and were walking back to our car when I snapped this shot. From the look of the door and window frames, a lot of the structures on this street are quite old. Notice the two-toned color scheme on many of the houses. This is typical of many towns one finds in the back country. So are the single story buildings and the narrow sidewalks and streets.

Two farmers wearing cowboy hats stride past a colorful house. I was planning to photograph the house with its wildly contrasting orange walls and blue window shutters when I spotted this pair. I waited until I could frame them between the windows. For some reason, brilliant blue doors and shutters are popular all over this part of Michoacan. Only in Mexico would a color scheme like this work.

This completes Part 4 of my Zamora series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. We always enjoy reading of your trips throughout Mexico along with all your great pictures. My wife and I are retired and are considering coming down to the Lake Chapala area to live long term. If we come down without a car can we catch a bus to Zamora or Tangancicuaro without a problem? These both seem like such interesting places to visit. In truth, all the places you visit and describe we would love to visit. Thanks for posting so much of Mexico for us to read and view.
    Any info you can provide would be very helpful.
    Michael and Patty Kane

  2. Have you ever visited Zapoititan ?
    I am interested in the area.

  3. The reason for the flower arrangements being sold is because of graduations its customary that when you graduate weather its from kindergarten 6th grade middle school or high school you choose a god parent to accompany you and they take a flower arrangement either natural or artificial

  4. Mayra, thank you for your clarification. There is always something to learn in Mexico. Jim


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