Morelia was a perfect place to start this new experience : it is an old Spanish colonial city, with no tall buildings, many covered passageways and inner courtyards, bright colours everywhere, smiles on all the faces, happy families sharing life together, and we enjoyed warm weather with the sun shining in a cloudless sky. Like Montesquieu and many others, I am a great believer in the effect of the climate on the individual and on society. I felt great (bien dans ma peau, as they say in French), and everyone and everything else looked great.
Even better, our hotel, the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, originally the private home of one of the city's founders, Antonio de Mendoza, is right in the centre, overlooking the Cathedral square, the Plaza de Armas. An open deck on the third floor gives one views of all parts of the city, practically all the roofs being lower than that of the hotel.
It was pleasant to take our breakfast and eat our dinner each day at the hotel's arcaded sidewalk restaurant overlooking the Cathedral square. Part of our welcome at the hotel was a complimentary margarita which we enjoyed out on the sidewalk while watching the world go by. We subsequently spent part of several evenings sitting out on the sidewalk of the hotel drinking beer or micheladas (beer, ice and squeezed lemon in a salted-rim glass). One of our favourite dishes, after the Noche de los Muertos trip, was consomé Virrey, a mixture of carrots, zucchini, rice, corn and chicken broth, to which one could add from a side plate avocado, white cheese, onion, pieces of chicken, cilantro, green chili peppers, red chili preserved in oil, and/or lime.
The term Día de los Muertos is a misnomer, as the celebrations last for several days, this year from Thursday 1 November until the following Sunday. In fact, the highlight of the commemoration is termed la Noche de los Muertos, since observants spend the night from sunset of the 1st to sunrise of the 2nd at the graveside of deceased loved ones. Strictly speaking the festival takes place over two days, the 1st of November being dedicated to the young, and the 2nd to adults.
We arrived in Morelia on the evening of 31 October. During the day of the 1st, we wandered around the centre of Morelia, gawping (at least I did) at every new sight. We saw Day of the Dead altars, dominated by yellow marigolds (the flower symbolizing death in Mexico), being erected everywhere, in every courtyard (one with a schoolgirl choir), in the pedestrian street, Calle Hidalgo, just off the Cathedral square, and in the foyer of our hotel.
In the evening we took the guided tour of La Noche de los Muertos, eight of us plus driver in a mini-van leaving the hotel at 10 p.m. (the main group had left in a bus around 7 p.m.) and heading for the Pátzcuaro area. We went through two villages where there were altars outside, one of them, in honour of a recent death in the family, in the front room of a private house open to the street. In one of the villages we were invited into a courtyard where the family had erected an altar on the veranda and sat at a trestle table where we were served hot chocolate and a traditional corn soup. The visit to Tzintzuntzan was amazing : we walked through the convent atrium, which was in fact a park, first to the outside chapel which was decorated as a Día de los Muertos altar (the ancient chapel was outside as the Indians didn't like being inside), then to the Franciscan chapel of Santa Ana which was one big Día de los Muertos altar, with marigolds, candles and statues of the Virgin and of saints; just inside the door was a rarity, crucifixes bearing likenesses of the two thieves, Dismas and Gestas, who were crucified with Jesus.
After that we visited two cemeteries in Tzintzuntzan and again were overcome with the special atmosphere created by marigold altars on practically every grave, with candles everywhere and a large number of people spending the night sitting at the graveside of a loved one. We had brought a pan de muerte with us, and placed it as an offering on a grave that seemed neglected. Nearby was a fair, where I bought hot punch and Sarah bought two little knitted animals. We visited two other cemeteries, but by then we were all tired and finally arrived back at the hotel at 5.30 a.m. after an unforgettable experience.
Friday and Saturday were days of rest. We walked around the centre of Morelia, looking at all the altars, and seeing how the whole roadway of the Calle Hidalgo had gradually filled with Día de los Muertos decorations, with huge skulls, catrinas, corn pyramids, and marigold heads and petals everywhere. The theme of the juxtaposition of life and death symbolized by the catrinas, normally female skeletons clothed in beautiful dresses but also male skeletons, was repeated in the photographic exhibition on the Cathedral square. On Saturday evening there was also a parade of living catrinas, girls made up and dressed in a room in our hotel, on the Plaza de Armas.
The numerous buses are large mini-vans which stop at almost every intersection. Many of the intersections have "uno y uno" signs, meaning that vehicles take turns going through, like the Stop signs in Toronto. A common and beautiful flower is that of the bougainvilleas which climb many of the walls. We were amused by the pedestrian signals at traffic-lighted intersections. As well as a green countdown, there is a stylized animated figure of a pedestrian walking at the beginning then speeding up and finally running as the countdown nears "0".
First we went to the Purépecha archeological zone of Tingambato, where, among other things, there were a small pyramid, the Pirámide de la Luna, a pelota court (Mexican pelota was quite different from the Basque variety the winner in this particular court was taken to the top of the pyramid and sacrificed to the Moon God) and several lizards and monarch butterflies. The main crop of the region is avocado pears, aguacates, the groves of trees reminding me of olive trees in the South of France, though the trees themselves are a richer green and bigger. At the top of the pyramid I enjoyed the quietness with just the sound of the breeze rustling the aguacate leaves.
From there we went to the big waterfall of the Río Cupatitzio near Tzararacua. Getting down to the bottom of the falls from the car park was quite an adventure. We both went down the steep rocky slope on guided horses. We saw several monarchs and huge white butterflies, the largest I had ever seen. We were able to get quite close to the falls, one high main one and several fan falls coursing down the rock face on either side.
We then went to the Parque nacional Eduardo Ruíz, the site of the source of the Río Cupatitzio. The park is a marvel of tropical vegetation and imaginative man-made waterfalls simply making use of gravity. Everywhere there was water and the sound of flowing and falling water. We wandered along the paths following one side or other of the river. At one point we saw a variety of Mexican squirrel, and at another we watched a man dive from a great height into a pool formed by the shape of the river.
A late lunch on an outside patio followed. Sarah and I enjoyed our strawberries and cream. And so we returned to Morelia passing through Uruapan, which boasts the narrowest house in the world.
We travelled this time in a mini-van as there were also two Mexican women with us. As we climbed into the hills we saw steam rising from the ground and the installations which channel the natural energy of hot springs into electricity.
The sulphuric hot springs of the national park Los Azufres have been organized so that you can immerse yourself in one pool (baño de lodo) and cover yourself with clayey mud, then go to the steam room (vapor) to sweat, after which you clean yourself off in a second pool (baño de agua termal) and then towel off and get dressed without taking a shower. Since the weather as it was on every day of our holiday and, we were told, the same from October to May was warm and sunny, we lingered in each pool and by poolside, thoroughly enjoying the effect of the sun, water and mud on our bodies.
We were then ready for the meal we enjoyed in a nearby rustic restaurant (a cabaña), with open woodfire kitchen and trestle tables. And so back to Morelia feeling wonderfully relaxed.
We started off in Quiroga, which is a centre for cheap and practical artisan products. I bought a straw hat for 50 pesos (about 5 dollars), and was glad to have it to protect my bald pate from the sun. Every shop was open to the street and had a storefront on the sidewalk. On the main square there was a busy market where we ate slices of hot pork carved from a joint and placed in bolillos (a sort of bun): delicious.
From there we went to the Franciscan convent of Santa Ana in Tzintzuntzan, where we had also been during La Noche de los Muertos. Sarah was fascinated by the large number of stag beetles in the park, scarab beetles symbolizing death in Ancient Egyptian culture, and death being the main theme of our previous visit. The olive trees in the convent atrium or park had been imported and planted by the Franciscans, and some of them were several centuries old.
From the dock in Pátzcuaro we caught a ferry boat across the lake to the picturesque island of Janitzio. We saw a number of herons standing in the estuary. Many people live on the island and work on the mainland. Two schoolgirls were embroidering dress fronts, derived from the local Purépecha Indian culture, while we could see the finished product on two women sitting nearby. The whole Pátzcuaro region has a rich artisan heritage which one can see today wherever one looks.
We then ate a four-course meal in a nearby restaurant and arrived in the old part of Pátzcuaro as dusk was falling. Pátzcuaro is the regional centre for fine artisan work, and there Sarah bought an embroidered blouse for herself and a papier-mâché catrina for Catherine. We visited the Basílica de la Virgen de la Salud (formerly the main cathedral of Michoacán when Pátzcuaro was its capital), the Callejuela de los Once Patios, an artisan centre which is part of a Dominican convent, and the Museo de las Artes Populares in the former Colegio de San Nicolás.
Then we visited two other churches, in between Cholula and Puebla, that can only be described as stunning and unlike anything either of us had seen before. The first was that of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, built in the popular Mexican baroque style at the end of the 18th century by skilled local workers, all of whom are supposedly represented in the ceramic faces on the walls of the rich interior. The church, inside and out, was a wonderful riot of rich colours and carvings. The nearest I had seen to it before was in Italy, in the more sober Byzantine mosaics of three churches: Saint Mark's in Venice, and the Norman churches in the Palermo parliament and the monastry of Monreale. By comparison European baroque is, by and large, bland, ugly and somewhat tasteless.
The second church, again in Mexican baroque style, was that of San Francisco Acatepec. Although it had fewer wild curves and protuberances than Santa Maria Tonantzintla, it stunned through its exuberant use of shape and colour in the glazed tiles which covered it. When we entered the church there was a group of women and girls at the entrance holding flowers and led in saying the rosary by an old Indian woman. The priest joined them and they processed down the nave to celebrate mass.
For me those two churches were the ecclesiastical highlight of the holiday. I had been impressed in Morelia by the Cathedral and the Iglesia de San Diego, but not dazzled as I was in Tonantzintla and Acatepec.
After the wonders of the Mexican baroque we were glad of the light relief brought in a small artisan centre by a tasting of various types of Santa Inés rompope (a very pleasant spiked eggnog). I bought a bottle of almond flavoured rompope to bring back with me.
Our first stop, near Teotihuacán, was at an artisan centre. We were first of all treated by the person in charge to a demonstration of the qualities of agave. At the scooped-out centre there was an accumulation of sap, which we tasted. The leaves could be stripped to form thread and the tip cut into a needle, making a ready-threaded sewing instrument used to make cloth. This demonstration was done with great dexterity, and followed by a tasting of various products of varieties of agave: pulque, mezcal, tequila and sweet tequila. Thus "fortified", we were led into the main shop, where we duly bought a large, beautifully decorated cotton table cloth (me, for 500 pesos) and an obsidian carving (Sarah, for 200 pesos).
Teotihuacán was, and remains, a city of huge proportions, which flourished from about 400 B.C. to 700 A.D. At its height, in the first few centuries A.D., it is reckoned to have had about 175,000 inhabitants. It is built on the axis of the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), with the Pirámide de la Luna at one end and the Templo de Quetzalcóatl (Temple of the Feathered Serpent) at the other. The vast Pirámide del Sol is in between. Sarah climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, while I remained below looking at the itinerant sellers of blankets, clothes, carvings, musical instruments, jewellery and trinkets and feeling thankful to have my Quiroga hat on my head. One enterprising woman was selling bottles of mineral water, and doing a brisker trade than most of the other sellers. I was interviewed in a mixture of English and Spanish by three teenagers doing a school project ("How are you liking Mehico?").
We felt roasted as there was no shade. Sarah's skin made her look somewhat like a cooked lobster. We were glad then to go into the nearby shade of one of the most original restaurants in the world. La Gruta is indeed in a grotto, a very large one, and has been functioning as a restaurant since 1906, before the excavation of the archeological site started. It was lit with candles, and while we ate the delicious food (the best we had in Mexico) we were entertained first by a modern group of guitarists and singers, then on the stage by a group of Aztec-costumed traditional dancers performing a reenaction of the salutation of the four cardinal points and the four elements.
El Tajín is, or was, a small pre-Columbian town. Our main impression was one of calm and intimacy. There were trees everywhere, whose shade we enjoyed; the itinerant sellers were all outside; many different butterflies flitted through the air, or perched in the trees and bushes; dragonflies hovered; large and small tropical birds could be heard in the trees, typically giving out a rich, fruity cry we saw one or two brilliantly yellow ones; hawks circled or hovered overhead; many families were enjoying their Sunday outing. There were many small niched pyramids, the largest of which, the Pirámide de los Nichos, has 365 niches.
We went back to the mini-van through a market, where Sarah bought a white, embroidered dress, and I bought a lemon-flavoured crushed-ice drink.
Then back to the hotel, a shower and quick change back into our clothes, and we were ready to find a restaurant. Jorge was spending the night in the same hotel, and he caught us as we descended and offered us a vodka aperitif in his van. He then walked down with us to the beach, where we gazed at the sea and looked up to the clear star-filled sky. The two of us went to an open-air restaurant-cum-shop between the beach and the hotel, and enjoyed our food and drinks after the exhilaration of sea bathing.
After a good night's sleep with the sound of breaking waves as a lullaby we strolled down to the sea for a last look and sniff, ate a good breakfast on the hotel patio, and we were ready to leave.
The parlous state of the roads and Jorge's driving skill were demonstrated particularly on our drive from Casitas to the international airport in Mexico City. It was obviously a long way, and an even longer drive, as became more and more apparent as our last morning progressed. Our flight was due to leave at 3:15 p.m.; however Jorge knew the way not only to Mexico City, but also to the departures terminal of the airport. We eventually tumbled out of his mini-van at about 2:15 p.m., thankful to have arrived in time, at the end of our wonderfully rich Mexican holiday.