Settling-in to Patzcuaro and getting your bearings is easy. This small mountain town is laid out in a grid pattern, in tandem with most colonial settlements across Mexico. The town’s main square, or Plaza Grande, features a statue of Don Vasco de Quiroga, the locally-revered Spaniard who arrived and settled here in the 16th Century and encouraged the indigenous peoples of the region to become self-sufficient. A block away is the Plaza Chica, also known simply as “Boca”, named after Gertrudis Bocanegra, a woman who was executed here for conspiring in the revolutionary movement. These two plazas are the central focal points of the town. A daily market sets up around the Plaza Chica and during times of fairs and festivals the entire square is overtaken by market stalls, fairground rides and other attractions.
Most places within six-to-eight blocks of the center are within an easy walk of each other. The central areas immediately off the main square are relatively flat; however walk just two of three blocks south, east or west and the topography changes as Patzcuaro begins to ascend the mountains it is settled between. West of the center, a walk up El Estribo (the stirrup), which includes a section with four hundred steps built-in to the hillside, offers beautiful panoramic views across the valley, Lake Patzcuaro and the islands including Janitizio. A similar but less steep walk on the east side, will lead you up into a wooded mountain and, with well-trodden trails throughout, offers excellent morning or evening walks: it gets hot in the day so early or late treks are advisable.
Patzcuaro’s public transport system includes a network of mini-buses which carry passengers from the center of town to the various areas and neighborhoods around town, as well as further out to the many villages dotted around the lakeside. There are at least a couple of radio-cab companies to choose from. Monarca is the one best-spoken of by locals. Taxis are plentiful; you may hail them off the street, from a taxi-rank, or phone to have one come and meet you. They are not metered, so agree your price beforehand. It’s useful to have a car in Pátzcuaro if you plan to travel around the area quite frequently. However, if your travels out of town will be intermittent, it will help your personal economy, the local ecology and be more convenient to take a local bus or hire a cab when you need one. If you need a car in town, for example, to take your groceries home, cabs are plentiful and very inexpensive; a cab ride anywhere within Patzcuaro charges $20 pesos (US$1.50).
The colonial city of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán, is about a forty minute road trip from Patzcuaro by car. Buses traverse the route frequently and the journey time is about an hour. Alternatively, you can hire a cab which will cost you about $200 pesos (US$15). Most day-to-day items may be procured in Patzcuaro; however, Morelia offers access to most of Mexico’s ‘top brand’ shops including a shopping mall with department stores and American outlets like Costco, Wal-Mart and Starbucks Coffee.
The region’s principal airport is about a thirty-minute drive north-east of Morelia. Flying to Mexico City is relatively expensive from there: round-trip fares can cost up to US$400; compare that to a round-trip, very comfortable, executive bus ride costing US$49. However, the airport does offer international connections to various cities in the USA, and rates on international routes are more competitive. Alternative cities nearby with international airports are Guadalajara and Mexico City – both of these places are virtually equidistant from Morelia, and take around a four-hour road trip to reach. Local resident expats who have experimented with different ‘routes’ from Patzcuaro to the USA and back, all report that the premium charged for flying from Morelia out-weighs the lower flight fares from Guadalajara or Mexico City, once the additional road journey costs and travel times are taken into account.
Pátzcuaro’s main church, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, is about a block east from the Plaza Chica. This month, the town celebrated one of its most important festivals, Dia de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, the town’s Patron Saint. At five in the morning on December 8th, many of the townsfolk gathered at the basilica to hold mass, which begins with a Mariachi band playing Las Mañanitas, Mexico’s traditional birthday song. Following mass, firework displays are set-off throughout most of the day and, in the evening, a town-wide party ensues, with the Plaza Grande, the Plaza Chica and the area immediately surrounding the Basilica filled with market stalls, fairground rides and other attractions. Locals from all of the surrounding lakeside villages arrive to pay homage to Patzucaro’s Patron Saint in hope of being granted good health and tidings in the year ahead.
The other festivals celebrated at-large in Patzcuaro during December are Christmas, which is hailed by the famous Posadas Navideñas, beginning December 12th: local neighborhood Christmas parties which re-enact the story of Mary and Joseph searching for an inn; and New Year’s Eve.
The setting here is semi-rural but it’s not a place that feels remote and disconnected. There is plenty of activity going on around the town during the weekdays, and weekends are even livelier as visitors arrive for a break in Patzcuaro: foreigners who are touring the region or using Patzcuaro as a base to explore the area, as well as Mexicans – especially chilangos from Mexico City, easily spotted by their accents and ‘foreign’ car number plates – here for respite from the congestion, noise and complexity of the capital.
It’s no wonder that artists, writers and artisans love Patzcuaro. It has an authentic bohemian feel to it. Its old-world charm and modern-day amenities blend well together. It’s a town which continues to exude civility; demonstrated, for example, as car drivers pause on their journey to allow pedestrians a right of way, and neighbors who knock on your writer’s the door to say that there’s a small street party happening tonight, please excuse the noise, and please feel free to attend.
Continued: A Month in Patzcuaro – Commerce
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