26 Sep Michoacán Faves
We’ve seen a lot of Mexico. After 9 years exploring, you’d expect no less. But Mexico is an enormously diverse country, topographically and culturally. That’s why, after all this time, I keep stumbling across gems.
As I’m sure you already know, Mexico is comprised of 32 big, beautiful states. Many of which are as large as European countries. So, it’s no surprise that each state of Mexico has its own culture, its own traditions and cuisine, as well as its own landscape. From high mountain forests to deserts to beaches, Mexico, lindo y querido, has it all.
Sean and I visited Michoacán on our first camping trip together. We hopped in La Poderosa with our tent, sleeping bags, firewood and a camera. We tooled around trying to document this incredibly large treasure we had just encountered. We were blown away by the natural riches of this spectacular region – thick, pine-filled forests, geothermal hot springs, and natural waterways.
It was our first adventure travel article for a magazine, our first Land Rover related article, written for Rovers Magazine, and as such we didn’t release any of the material on our blog. Years later, we’ve decided it’s time to share some of the wonder we derived from visiting these enchanting forests.
Michoacán, a Mexican state located in the extreme southwest of the central highlands, has the Pacific Ocean as its western border. From the center of the country, Michoacán hosts natural wonders like the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range, and the Inter-mountain Valleys Region, as well as Lake Pátzcuaro and Zirahuén.
Michoacán comes from an Aztec language, Nahuatl, meaning “place of the fishermen”, referring to the abundance of fish gathered from Lake Pátzcuaro and the surrounding creeks. The Purépecha once ruled these lands, gathered around the bountiful lake for sustenance. But this was no small tribe; the Purépecha actually rivaled the Aztecs in pre-Hispanic times. After colonization, Michoacán’s people became leaders in the fight for Independence against the Spanish.
Today, Michoacán is known for its natural beauty, archeological ruins, colonial cities, national parks and unbelievable Monarch butterfly reserve. Below are a few of our favorites.
An inactive volcano powers the thermal waters for which this region is famous. Green sulfur lakes, bubbling geysers and springs became symbols of healing powers in traditional folklore. As we drove along the winding mountain roads, smelling the pine in the air, we found Eréndira – a campground with optional cabins, geothermal pools, a lake stocked with trout and a tiny (and delicious) restaurant where we really enjoyed the fresh, local trout.
We decided to stay at Eréndira, camping in our tent. We loved that we had access to the hot springs all night and that we were virtually alone there. During dinner, a smiling man approached and asked if we’d like him to start our campfire while we ate. We’d arrived late and the gesture was really kind. It’s a great choice for a quiet weekend getaway, a nature retreat, a time to disconnect from social and reconnect with oneself.
Los Azufres has everything a lover of the great outdoors could want – camping, swimming, cycling, rowing and hiking. But, deforestation and litter are still very real problems facing this gorgeous little slice of paradise.
The once center of the Purépecha Empire and first capital of Michoacán, Pátzcuaro is iconic to travel in the state. The sleepy, white and red themed city is full of beautiful and imposing colonial relics, narrow cobblestone streets, surrounded by forested mountains and nestled by a lake. We got an inexpensive hotel room while there and stayed a short walk from the town square, where we spent afternoons eating and making friends.
Pátzcuaro is famous for its Day of the Dead festivities (P.S. that is coming up!! Dia de los Muertos is one of my hands-down favorite times of year). If you enjoy digging into rich cultural experiences – this in one of Mexico’s most celebrated holiday. As beautiful as it is interesting, colorful altars, rice, bean and flower mosaics, marigold and coxcomb offerings, and traditional sweets. But alas, we’ve never spent DOTD in Michoacán. One of these days …
But Pátzcuaro is alluring, calling you down its red and white alleyways ending in stately buildings. It’s a perfect place for downtime, long relaxing walks, catching up on writing, and learning about the history of the region.
This tiny dot on the map, located near Pátzcuaro, was once the Purépecha capital – the place of hummingbirds. The indigenous people maintain many traditional customs and speak the language. Currently, Tzintzuntzán is most known for a famous archeological site and the former monastery complex of San Francisco. This makes for a perfect day trip from Pátzcuaro, along with several other interesting villages that line Lake Pátzcuaro.
We particularly loved the ruins here; we found the five yácata pyramids fascinating and soaked in the view, looking out over Lake Pátzcuaro, imagining the fatal moment that the leader relinquished his rule and allowed the Spanish victory. Since then the city was nearly destroyed, leaving very little to excavate when they got around to it in the 30s.
There’s still something about walking through the ruins and imagining stories of the past.
The former monastery complex of San Francisco is another antiquity, though less so. It boasts of a growing wooden Jesus, currently roped off with caution tape. There is a regular ritual of measuring the aforementioned statue every morning to see how much it had grown overnight.
The current capital, you can feel the heartbeat of this city in its pulsing traffic and vibrant downtown. Imposing buildings characterize its historic center. To me, it feels like a little Mexico City, less traffic but a similar epic sensation amidst its boulevards and archways. It’s no surprise this city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Morelia was named for Morelos, a hero in the Mexican revolution, but it’s also been called the City of Pink (Cantera) Stone, the Rose of the Winds, the City of Open Doors, the Garden of New Spain.
We had the best coffee of our trip here, just sitting in one of dozens of cafes around the town square.
Previously, Morelia was seen as a potentially dangerous place to visit, with drug-related violence plaguing the city. Our experience in Michoacán, and Morelia in specific, was delightful however. We didn’t encounter any situations of concern. In general, the violence is limited to those involved in the mafia or those actively trying to fight their presence. By steering clear of illicit activity, we felt safe.
Michoacán hails the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Tucked away in remote mountains, the small canyon is home to a quiet town, Angangueo. The entrance to the reserve is lined with wooden shacks – vendors set up and sell spiced café de olla and tacos to passersby on cold days. We take horses up through the forest trails (I will pretty much take any excuse to get on a horse #truestory) until we reach the actual entrance.
People are asked to remain silent, walk softly and observe the millions of Monarchs that journey from Canada to Michoacán and back every year. This amazing cycle of life and death hangs clustered in the tree tops, sleeping through the chilly February winds. They are delicate creatures, having endured such an intense journey, and deserve respect. We can’t use a flash or disturb them in any way.
The North American monarch is famous for its unbelievable voyage from Canada to Mexico in the late-summer months. This migration encompasses thousands of miles and ends with a multi-generational return north after arriving in Michoacán.