Before the Spanish conquest, Pátzcuaro was one of three principal
centers of the local Purepecha Indians. Its early inhabitants
believed Pátzcuaro to be the doorway to heaven where the gods
ascended and descended. The Purepecha people first settled in
Pátzcuaro in about 1324, led by Rey Curateme. The Spanish moved
their local government to Pátzcuaro from Tzintzuntzan in 1540. The
city was developed as a government and religious center until the
government was moved to Valladolid (now named Morelia) in 1580. It
has always been of interest to Mexican history buffs because it was
central to the careers of two diametrically opposed characters in
Mexico's colonial past. The first was Nuño Guzmán de Beltrán, the
vicious conquistador who plundered the area for gold. He burned
alive the local Purepecha Indian chief when that man couldn't or
wouldn't tell him where Indian gold was hidden. Eventually his
crimes against the Indians became so extreme that the Spanish were
forced to arrest him. In his place they sent Vasco de Quiroga, a
former judge from Mexico City who had become a priest. Vasco de
Quiroga helped the Purepecha Indians in the Pátzcuaro area by
introducing new crops, establishing schools and hospitals, and
introducing craft cooperatives in various nearby villages. While the
cooperatives (an idea Quiroga adopted from Sir Thomas More's Utopia)
have not survived, village specialization in crafts still marks the
region as one of the most culturally rich in Mexico.
Typical Pátzcuaro StreetPátzcuaro is hidden high in the mountains of
Michoacán at 7130 feet of elevation. It is veiled from the outside
world by a curtain of high pine trees. To the north is Lake
Pátzcuaro, one of Mexico's highest lakes. The butterfly fishermen,
who dip their nets into the lake in search of whitefish, have become
a trademark of Pátzcuaro.
La Compania, a Jesuit church.The town retains its ancient
atmosphere. It consists of largely one-story adobe or
plaster-over-brick buildings with red tile roofs. The streets are
dusty cobblestones traveled by horse and car. Plaza Vasco de Quiroga,
known by locals as simply the Plaza Grande (Big Plaza), is
Pátzcuaro's central square. Grass covers much of the plaza, and a
statue of Vasco de Quiroga stands in its center.
One of the most striking features of the area is the island of
Janitzio in Lake Patzcuaro, a very steep, rocky island that is
completely covered with people and buildings. At the top stands an
impressive statue of the revolutionary leader José María Morelos.
Getting to the island requires you to take a local ferry on an
approximate half-hour cruise. And from the time you land on the
island until the time you reach the crowning statue you must run a
gauntlet of local vendors selling everything imaginable. But the
island and the views from its summit are breathtaking, and its
On the east side of
downtown is the beautiful Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud
(Basilica of Our Lady of Health), the city's patron, built between
1546 and 1554. The Colegio de San Nicolas (College of Saint
Nicolas), south from the basilica, was founded by Don Vasco in 1540
and now houses the Museum of Popular Arts and Archaeology, which has
exhibits of carvings, pottery, weaving, and archaeological
artifacts. The Cathedral of Michoacán was built by Don Vasco and was
opened in 1546. Today it is the temple of the Jesuits. The Casa de
los Once Patios (House of Eleven Patios) is the former monastery of
Santa Catalina (Saint Catherine), founded by Dominican nuns in 1747.
It is now a center for local artisans, and you can watch them work.
The Dance of the Viejitos (Old Men), one of the best and most widely
known native dances of Mexico, is presented at the Best Western
Posada de Don Vasco on Wednesday and Saturday nights at 9:00 p.m.
The dancers wear wooden masks that depict smiling old men to show
that, at least in Mexico, old age is not a time of listless despair,
but rather a season to enjoy the fruits of life. Los Viejitos also
perform for free in the Plaza Grande on many weekends.
Patzcuaro's eateries tout the traditional whitefish in a variety of
preparations, though not all of it comes from the nearby lake.
Another unique, delicious dish is sopa tarasca, a local variation of
Mexico's ubiquitous tortilla soup with large pieces of roasted dried
chiles and crumbly fresh cheese.
The nieve (ice cream), sold near the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, is a
delightful treat. There are many different flavors, made with water
or with cream. Combinations of flavors add variety and taste. One of
the most popular flavors is called pasta (paste).
Many shops line the main plaza, selling all kinds of textiles,
tablecloths, clothing, and more. Shops around town carry henequen
rugs, lacquered trays, serapes, Indian masks, and wooden boxes.
Pátzcuaro's lacquered trays are quite famous; the lacquer is
supposedly made from the crushed bodies of purple insects, which
provide the deep, rich finish and durability.