Magnificent Michoacan

Away from the beach, find true culture, heritage

By: Patricia Alisau

MORELIA, Mexico There’s nothing wrong with the beach resorts and big cities of Mexico. But if you have clients who are tired of the same old south of the border hot spots, and who enjoy exploring to find their own gems, and who love colonial cities and magnificent historic buildings, Michoacan may just be the ticket.

Add to these offerings trendy restaurants and villages where handicraft traditions date back to the Conquest, and you will be sending your clients to a place that has all the amenities of a world-class resort, yet the culture and heritage of true Mexico.

Morelia: World Heritage Site

The city of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan, in fact, has so many outstanding monuments dating from the 16th century that UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Artistic Site. Many of the buildings are being illuminated at night as part of a multi-million-dollar refurbishing program to make the historic downtown more appealing.

The city is easily covered on foot, a boon to those who love to explore any new place from the ground up. Most tours begin at the Plaza de Armas, where several heroes of the Mexican War of Independence were executed in the 19th century.

Flanking the plaza is the cathedral, remarkable for its striking pink quarry stone facade, huge Baroque tower and 4,600-pipe organ manufactured in Germany. The cathedral is host for the annual international pipe organ festival.

Farther on, the Conservatory of Music, a former cloister for Dominican nuns named after St. Rose of Lima, is famous for its Children’s Choir, which performs all over the world.

The Baroque-style Palacio Clavijero, or Clavijero Palace, built in the 18th century used to be where priests with subversive ideas were jailed. The Palacio de Gobierno, a former seminary and today the governor’s office, is where a priest hero of the Independence, Padre Jose Maria Morelos, was ordained.

Morelia was subsequently named after its famous native son.

But colonial buildings are only part of Morelia’s allure. Its cuisine is rated among the best in Mexico. Unlike the fiery dishes in other parts of the country, Michoacan’s offerings are mild and mellow, and depend a lot on that pre-Hispanic staple corn. The corundas, or cone-shaped, steamed tamales, Tarascan soup swimming in tortilla strips and filete Tzitziqui, beef tenderloin served with squash blossoms and fresh corn sauce, are well-known dishes from this region.

Come morning, most visitors do as the natives do and head for the Casa de los Portales for breakfast. Although it’s on the main square, the food and view are not necessarily the only attractions. Like a giant bazaar, everything in the place is for sale, including your plates and dining table. Antiques, handicrafts and whimsical collectibles are everywhere, and you can browse while you’re waiting for your order.

Another unique place for dinner is San Miguelito, where you can dine and petition St. Anthony for a spouse at the same time. A self-styled shrine inside the restaurant has a statue of the saint standing on its head, where the faithful come to pray a modern-day matchmaking service with a saintly twist.

One of the most sought after places to see and be seen is the trendy Los Mirasoles, a 17th-century residence-turned-restaurant with original exposed stone walls. The menu boasts over four dozen different martinis.

Morelia is also the candy capital of Mexico and has one entire market devoted to sweets. And the Museo de Dulce, or Candy Museum, offers tours and tastings of the famous ates, or fruit pastes.

Finally, Morelia is looking to become a golf capital. A $20 million golf course with 27 holes is under construction by Jack Nicklaus and his company. It will be the largest golf resort in a non-resort area of Mexico. Slated for inauguration in October of this year, the project will also include hotels as well.

Within an Hour’s Drive

The state of Michoacan has many other towns worth visiting, and Morelia is the perfect base from which to explore them because most are within an hour’s drive.

Set near Lake Patzcuaro, the town of Patzcuaro is famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations in November. The main plaza dates from 1541 when Bishop Vasco de Quiroga founded the town. It’s encircled by two-story, whitewashed buildings with block-long porticos and wrought-iron balconies, giving it a surreal look in early dawn when it appears like a pale fortress from out of the past.

A series of shops and studios are located at the House of Eleven Patios, a former nunnery and the best place in town to buy handicrafts. The well-regarded Michoacan lacquer, which was used to decorate adornments for the nobles and priests in pre-Hispanic times, is still made here, as well as corn paste, which believe it or not is fashioned into statues and altars.

The main church, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Salud (the Basilica of Our Lady of Health) gave life to the town in the times of Vasco de Quiroga. His remains have been laid to rest inside and his mausoleum is put on view once a year. Many of his devotees claim to have been healed by him and hand-written letters of gratitude are placed on a wall outside his chapel.

For folk art buffs, especially for masks, a visit to the village of Tucuaro is not to be missed. The master mask makers are the Orta family and their work is exhibited in museums all over the world. Some of the masks are replicas of those used 150 years ago in indigenous dances.

The market town of Tzintzuntzan displays thousands of handicrafts made of straw, and at Santa Clara del Cobre, a center for Mexican copper, you can watch coppersmiths deftly hammering copper into pots and vases.

The Michoacan forests are the wintering grounds for tens of millions of Monarch butterflies who journey from Canada to mate here. El Rosario, the main sanctuary, is a couple hours from Morelia and the farthest of the day trips. The mountain is steep in places and the climb reaches a height of 10,000 feet. But it’s a trip-of-a-lifetime to be in the middle of thousands of golden wings fluttering through the pines.

Just another magical moment for clients in this off-the-beaten-path region of Mexico.

Sidebar: The Mansion of Dreams

It took Priscilla Ann Madsen 34 years and many long commutes from her native San Diego to open the Mansion de los Suenos. The Mansion of Dreams as it’s called in English, is really the story of her dream house and how she made it come true.

The dynamic redhead first journeyed to Patzcuaro in 1970, describing her experience as “transcendental.” “I had such a surge of energy and feeling of well being that I said I wanted to return some day to run a hotel or restaurant,” she explained.

A business owner already, she went back to San Diego to her chain of beauty salons and her “fast-track lifestyle,” as she called it, but never forgot her promise. Six years ago, she divested herself of the salons, found the perfect site for her hotel and went to work on the renovations.

A 17th-century mansion located a half-block from the historic main square, the hotel exudes the nostalgia of Mexico’s colonial era, with its thick adobe walls, high beamed ceilings, exquisite gold-leafed trim, period antiques and attractive hand-crafted furniture. It’s listed on the government’s registry of national monuments and is the only boutique hotel in Patzcuaro.

Eleven lavishly decorated suites have cozy fireplaces, four-poster beds and ceilings that can reach 22 feet high all of which blend in nicely with modern amenities such as cable TVs and mini-bars.

No two rooms have the same decor one suite has tiny blue stars on the ceiling beams, which were painted there by a mysterious houseguest centuries ago, while a stylish black tile bathroom defines the utterly romantic honeymoon suite. The rest of the hotel has Madsen’s own special touches, like the colorful mural in the dining patio painted with bucolic scenes from her private collection of antique Coca Cola trays.

Although leisure guests are the majority of visitors here, the hotel provides Internet access and a fax machine to make it easier on business travelers.

“One guest did $60 million worth of business while he was here,” Madsen said.

Suites run $150 to $340 for the master suite. The rate includes free airport transfers from Morelia, a full breakfast and walking tour of Patzcuaro. Agents get 15 to 20 percent commission.

The property is a member of the Petite Hotels of Mexico, Boutique Hotels of Mexico and Tesoros de Michoacan.




The state of Michoacan recently launched its first-ever North American promotion campaign, undersecretary of tourism for the state, Ramon Serrano, announced.

Using the slogan, “Michoacan, the Soul of Mexico,” the million-dollar program is aimed primarily at Mexican Americans “a number close to 20 million,” Serrano said. “We will appeal to their Mexican roots.”

Addressing this segment, key cities in Texas, California and Illinois will be targeted.

Officials in Michoacan are also planning several fams for travel agents.

Also on the agenda are city/beach combos, combining colonial cities like Patzcuaro and Morelia with the tropical resort of Ixtapa/ Zihuatanejo, 3½ hours away via a new highway. Travelers will have the option of choosing packages for various lengths of stays.

Solsierra Destinations of Bellvue, Wash., is already kicking off seven-night combos.

“It’s two experiences in one,” said Patti Kilpatrick, owner and president of the company. “The market for the colonial route has always been for retired people who have the time to travel, but I think this will change the demographics.”

Kilpatrick likened Morelia with its colonial plazas and ambience to Seville, Spain. “Most Americans don’t realize that you don’t have to go to Spain,” she said. “You can go to Morelia, which is much closer.”

Mexicana flies nonstop to Morelia from hubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Continental also has daily service from Houston.

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