Morelia, Michoacán, the Land of Lakes & Butterflies

 

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National Geographic

After spending a quiet Christmas in Puebla, my husband and I headed north to visit some friends in Morelia, the UNESCO World Heritage City and capital of the central Mexican state of Michoacán, destination of the beautiful monarch butterfly.

d292e7fff99282032e789fab7bf047b6.jpgThe colonial city center’s narrow streets are lined with well-preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings built from the region’s characteristic pink stone. One such building is the imposing, baroque-style Morelia Cathedral (pictured below). Its elegant, soaring twin towers preside over the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas.

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We arrived in Morelia in the early evening and quickly settled into the Hotel Alameda, which is right on the corner of Zocolo. Being the holidays, the streets were brimming with people, but we were able to find an outdoor table at the cafe Panolino, where we shared a magnificent jamon serano sandwich and drank some delicious coffee. I watched with amusement as a boy at the next table attempted to eat a huge hambergesa that resembled a UFO. He examined it carefully, as if searching for a way in, yet somehow managed to eat the whole thing. Later, as the family was leaving, they passed beside our table and much to my amazement, the father paused to welcome us to Morelia and to enjoy our stay. It was such a friendly gesture that I instantly felt at ease.

virgin-of-guadalupeThe next day we visited the exquisite Sanctuario de Guadalupe, where our friend’s mother, who was named after the Virgin of Guadalupe, got married. We were informed that the wedding waiting list is now a year and a half long.

The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in a vision to an indigenous man named Juan Diego on Dec. 9, 1531. Since then, she has become a powerful image of Mexican identity. Her complexion is that of a mestizo, a combination of Mexican and Spanish, indicating that she is for all people. Her gaze is one of compassion and motherly tenderness.

We also went on a bit of a gastronomical tour. Our friends brought us to a first rate restaurant that specializes in arracherra, a thin, marinated steak, and I must admit it was the best I ever ate. But in terms of decor, the San Miguelito restaurant was simply a knock out. Fittingly the food is also highly original.

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Pictured in the centre of the photo is St. Anthony, hanging upside down. According to legend, this position will bring true love, so it has become the ideal spot to propose to a prospective partner. The open book below St. Anthony’s head lists the couples who became engaged here. If you are curious about the pictures on the wall and other decorations hanging from the ceiling, these are all for sale.

There are also two lovely day trips one can make from Morelia. The first is the beautiful 700-02694226town of Patzcuaro, which has preserved an indigenous-colonial appearance and sits on a lake. It has a square known as Plaza Vasco de Quiroga or the Plaza Grande as well as numerous churches and shops offering local arts and crafts. There is also the quiet town of Cuitzeo, which features the magnificent 16th century Convento de Santa María Magdalena de Cuitzeo, which is well worth visiting.

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Buen viaje

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chaluma, and Palenque

The last time I went to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas was about ten years ago. I went there for the Christmas holidays.

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The first time I visited San Cristóbal was also at Christmas, and my husband and I also went to see the nearby town of San Juan Chamula with a guide. This is an extremely poor indigenous community that still speaks it’s own language. It is not recommended to go there alone, as “gringos” are not really welcome.

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However, the description from visitmexico.com sounds rather friendly. Perhaps things have changed.

Get ready to connect with the mysticism of San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil community that grew independent from the Catholic Church and performs its own rituals in a unique religious syncretism.


The atrium will welcome you to the novohispanic style temple. Begin your immersion in the community as you carry offerings, wishes, pleas and gratitude to the temple.


Feel the pine twigs that blanket the floor under your feet. You will see that there are no benches to sit on. The inhabitants pray on their knees and perform rituals that mix the sixteenth-century evangelical customs with pre-Columbian religious beliefs.

Discover that the church is decorated with candles of many different colors, sizes and significance. You will notice that the saints’ images have mirrors hanging from them. According to local beliefs, they reflect the souls of the faithful.

My husband and I were able to visit the inside of the church, a truly unique experience but somewhat unsettling. I felt like an intruder, so did not take my own pictures once inside. This one is from abakab.com. If you’re wondering about the soft drink bottles, it’s an indication of how much these two corporations have succeeded in colonizing indigenous cultures.

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We also visited the Casa Na Bolom or House of the Jaguar. This is a museum, hotel and restaurant located outside San Cristóbal’s historic center. According to Wikipedia,

The structure was built as part of a seminary in 1891, but it became the home of Frans Blom and Gertrude Duby Blom in the 20th century. Franz was an explorer and archeologist and Gertrude was a journalist and photographer. The couple spent over fifty years in Chiapas collecting tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing, especially related to the Lacandon Jungle and people. The museum is dedicated to this collection along with keeping some of the old household rooms intact, such as Franz’s study. It also contains a library with more than 10,000 volumes dedicated to the history, culture and anthropology of the region. There are magazine and sound libraries as well as the old chapel which contains colonial era religious art. The back of the structure contains a botanical garden.

Here is a photo of the sign on the Casa Na Bolom taken by AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

While there, I purchased a small jaguar pin made of silver. The jaguar is a symbol of the spiritual quest, so I enjoy wearing it to remind myself of my purpose in life.

Although I’d been there before, the last time I visited San Cristóbal, I decided to go on a tour to Palenque, which can be a truly magical place.

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This photograph shows the main palace, which is unusual for a Mayan site, as they usually have a temple as their central focus.

My tour left very early in the morning, so I hoped there would not be too many visitors, as a crowd tends to destroy the ambiance of the site. agua azul, waterfalls, chiapas, mexicoWhile Aqua Azul is beautiful and certainly worth visiting, we stopped there for an extended lunch break and a swim, so by the time we got to Palenque, it was teaming with tourists, most of whom were Mexicans enjoying their spectacular heritage. Nonetheless, I did manage to find a few peaceful spots so I could absorb the magic.

According to Wikipedia, “it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.” The mind boggles.

The Temple of Inscriptions

The online Ancient History Enclyclopedia is particularly helpful. The following is an excerpt on the temple taken from the article on Palenque written by Mark Cartwright:

Set into a hillside and completed c. 682 CE, the pyramid has nine different levels, corresponding, no doubt, to the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Carrying out an archaeological survey at the top of the pyramid in 1952 CE, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz famously discovered that a single curiously holed slab in the flooring of one chamber could be removed, and beneath it he revealed a staircase which descended into the heart of the building. At the base of the twisting 65-step staircase, after clearing away the deliberately left rubble and now deep inside the pyramid, Ruz reached a single corbel-roofed chamber, outside of which were five or six human skeletons, almost certainly sacrificial victims. Clearly someone important had been buried here. Inside the richly decorated crypt were nine stucco attendants on the sloping walls and two more in jade standing by the room’s most remarkable artefact. This was a sarcophagus topped with a magnificently carved 3.8 metre long slab depicting a Maya ruler falling into the jaws of the Maya underworld Xibalba. On finally opening the sarcophagus, Ruz discovered the jade and cinnabar-covered remains of that greatest of all Palenque rulers, King Pakal the Great. The king had been given a life-like jade mosaic death mask and a great deal of matching jewellery to accompany him into the next life. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, and it finally proved that the great Maya pyramids had not simply been built as temples but also as tombs for great rulers, just as in ancient Egypt.

Jade Death Mask of Kinich Janaab Pacal

The death mask can be seen in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which is one of the top anthropological museum’s in the world, in other words, a must see.

When I visited the Temple of Inscriptions, a plaque inside stated that the other jewels were in the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge, MA.

Later that year, I attended a conference in Boston, so I used the opportunity to visit the Peabody Museum. They had a special section which displayed the Mesoamerican plaster casts that had been made in the 19th century. While these were fascinating and worthy of another blog, the jewels were not on display. I wonder what has become of them.

 

 

At Home in Puebla

When my husband and I visit Mexico, rather than stay in the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, we usually go to Puebla, which is only two and half hours away by bus and relatively peaceful, but it too has expanded considerably since we first visited it some twenty years ago. You can easily get there by bus, and if you sit on the righthand side, you can see the famous volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl that figure in Malcolm Lowry’s modernist masterpiece, Under the Volcano.

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The city of Puebla has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1531 to encourage Spanish settlers in the New World, but it is also where the Mexican army defeated the French in 1862 and the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20. Due to its colonial history and architecture, the area around the Zócalo, or main square, was declared a world heritage site in 1987. I first visited Puebla in the late 1990s when I attended a conference at La Universidad de las Américas. I immediately fell in love with this charming city and have returned almost every year for a short visit. I always stay in the historic centre at the Hotel Colonial, my home in Puebla.

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The Hotel Colonial was originally a Jesuit monastery built at the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the building was used to accommodate travellers from Veracruz on their way to Mexico City. In the middle of the 19th century, it became the Hotel Jardín; then in 1930 it underwent a restoration and became the Hotel Colonial.

The hotel is also known for its restaurant where they serve Mole Poblano, a traditional Mexican dish consisting of chicken smothered in chocolate sauce. mole Many people don’t know that chocolate is indigenous to Mesoamerica. Mole is not sweet; rather it is delicately spiced with chili peppers. Puebla itself is known as a culinary centre, so you will find many excellent restaurants to choose from. My favourite is El Mural, which is on the other side of the Cathedral pictured below.

8142344765_c7df076d5a_bThere are a number of interesting museums in Puebla, but the top one is undoubtedly the recently renovated Amparo Museum, which features a stunning collection of pre-Columbian art and a roof-top café with an excellent view of Puebla and the surrounding mountains. 2612699844_ac05ec8650_bBesides the Amparo, I would recommend the Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution, a converted house where the first shot of the revolution was fired. You can still see the bullet holes in the wall.

Another fantastic site not to be missed is the Palafoxian Library. Founded in 1646, it was the first public library in Mexico and may be the oldest in the Americas. Not only is the collection intact, all the shelves and furniture are original. 245px-biblioteca_palafoxiana_de_puebla

 

 
Puebla is also famous for Talavera, a type of ceramic that has been produced for over four hundred years.

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Many years ago my husband and I bought a genuine Talavera urn to decorate our living room. We also have hand-painted dishes, but these are copies that we purchased in Dolores.

Last but not least there is a bustling antique market and many fine shops to wander through if you should visit Puebla. These are just the highlights.