travelog 106

Travels with Maggie I - Patamban & Patzcuaro

Every last Sunday in October the 'Fiesta Cristo Rey' is celebrated in Patamban, Michoacan. For eons the streets of this small village on the Meseta Tarasca were decorated with flowers. The first flower carpets were created for Princess Ttzetzangari, a granddaughter or grand-granddaughter of Tariacuri, the founder of the empire of the Purepecha culture. Later, the carpets of flowers were only put up at the entrance of the village when a famous person came to visit. A huge statue of Christ was put up on a hill above the village in 1926 and the then priest had the streets from the church up to the statue decorated with flowers. Soon all of the important streets were decorated and today it is about five kilometers (three miles) that are decorated every year for an event that takes place only during a few hours.

Our Swiss friend Maggie, known from previous travelogs, had a visit to Mexico planned exactly at this time of the year. This year the festivities fell on October 30, which was ideal to first admire the flower carpets in Patamban and then go on to Patzcuaro to visit the area for the 'Noche de Muertos', the Night of the Dead. When we were approaching Patamban around noon, we were of course not the only visitors. The free parking along the only access road was already all occupied. We drove as close to the village as the police allowed and parked on a huge meadow whose owner earns some extra bucks with these improvised parking spaces every year. The road was lined with stands selling all kinds of Made-In-China hideous things. In between one could buy fruits, beverages and eats. Very rarely did we see the typical green glazed ceramic pieces of Patamban. We were flabbergasted when we even saw car seats and mirrors for sale. You could have equipped an entire kitchen with colorful plastic containers and ladles. Of course the pirated CD's and DVD's could not be missing either. The visitors strolled close together along the lines of stands towards the center of the village. We soon took one of the quieter streets looking for the flower carpets because of which we had come here in the first place. Entire families were sitting in the shade of the walls in front of their houses. We saw the 'ingredients' for the decoration of the streets stored in colorful plastic containers and woven baskets. During the month of October many flowers are still blooming at higher altitudes in Michoacan and many of them were used for the festivities. The locals also used acorns, pine needles and cones, maiz kernels, grasses, dry leaves and much more. The easy variant was the use of colored sawdust which of course was not remotely as beautiful as the many different variations in color and form of what Mother Nature created. We were a little bit astonished that shortly after noon only a handful of people had actually started with the decoration of their street. We strolled through the village, always looking for the most stunning flower carpet. There was a stage put up at the main square for the band. Here you could also buy some original craftswork. Smoke rose up into the sky from the many food stalls. Under a blue tarp the priest stood in front of the church, swinging incense and blessing his flock over the loudspeakers. In the early afternoon arches decorated with garlands were already put up in some streets and the flower carpets in the middle of the street were almost ready for the procession. Since we had planned to see a few other villages on our way to Paracho and wanted to avoid the biggest hustle and bustle in Patamban, we set off soon.

The Meseta Tarasca is famous for its churches from the time of the evangelization in the 16th and 17th century. Under Don Vasco de Quiroga, the first bishop of Michoacan, Franciscan and Augustine monks started in the 16th century with the construction of hospitales de indios, architectural complexes consisting of a monastery or church and a hospital. Many of these ancient churches did not at all look very promising from the outside, but once you stepped inside, you could not get over your astonishment. The wooden ceilings were often colorfully painted from one end to the other with religious scenes, people and wild animals and plants. The proper authorities had started to restore many of the churches within the last years but there was still a lot of work left to preserve all the details. We drove from village to village until we reached Santiago Nurio. The big church was open but we were more interested in the small chapel behind the church. At its entrance stood two of the biggest Yucca filifera we had ever seen. They looked like they had been planted by the same people who had started the construction of the church. In the police station they sent an officer to find the guy with the key, apparently not an easy task on a Sunday afternoon. Finally a woman told us that we should put out a call for the man with the key in a little store on the corner. For ten pesos the lady at the store called several times over the loudspeakers that were installed on her roof, saying he should at once come to the chapel to open it for visitors. Unfortunately, all our efforts were without success and we left for Paracho, the guitar capital of the world, where we arrived early in the evening. At the entrance into town a colossal steel guitar throned on a pedestal. Almost in the center of town we found a relatively new hotel with nice rooms. The main street through Paracho was lined with stores and ateliers producing and selling guitars. Around the main plaza orange marigolds and purple orchids and more flowers were sold for adorning the graves for the Day of the Dead. At dusk taco stands were put up along one side of the square and we searched for the most crowded one. We also bought some sweet bread rolls that were sold out of large woven baskets for the coffee the next morning.

We left Paracho for a late breakfast in Cheran, a small town where the inhabitants had taken their fate into their own hands. At all entrances into town the roads were blocked with barricades where masked and armed men kept guard. There was no way in or out after 8PM. That's how the inhabitants wanted to protect themselves from illegal loggers who are often working together with some drug gangs. We were stopped at the barricades and asked what business we had in Cheran. After we explained that we only wanted to have breakfast in the market and then drive on to Patzcuaro, they let us pass without further questions. At the market where we had a delicious breakfast with handmade blue corn tortillas at a small restaurant, not everybody was so enthusiastic about the actions of their fellow citizens. To us the town center looked as busy as always but apparently business had fallen off and traders were let in or not at will of the guards. On small backroads we drove on to Patzcuaro where we strolled through downtown. Stands were put up all around the main square where craftswork from Michoacan was sold.

We spent the short time to the night of November 1st with sightseeing around Patzcuaro and visiting with old friends near Morelia. The small church at Tupataro, also called the 'Sistine Chapel of Latin America', was absolutely worth a visit. From the outside the 16th century church looked inconspicuous but once in its inside we were amazed by its beauty. One walked over the original, 500-year old, creaking wooden floor. Statues lined the walls and the altar with oil paintings was generously decorated with gold. But the most spectacular sight was again the painted wooden ceiling depicting the Passion of Christ, the twelve mysteries of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and representations of the 33 archangels and other religious sympols. Without the knowledgeable explanations of a local teacher we would never had discovered all the details of the paintings and statues in the church.

On the first of November we made another shopping tour through the crafts market in Patzcuaro. Late in the afternoon we drove along the lake to Erongaricuaro where there were some stands put up around the main square. Here it was mostly Mexican hippies and emigrated Americans and Canadians who were selling crafts and mostly organically produced local products. We were lucky at the second hotel and found two rooms for a night which normally is fully booked for months in advance. Richly filled and deep fried quesadillas filled our stomachs. On a short digestive hike to the cemetery we could not detect any special activity for the 'Noche de Muertos'. First we drove to Jaracuaro, a village on a small peninsula in the lake of Patzcuaro. Mass was read on the huge square in front of the church. Children with plastic pumpkins copied from the American Halloween were constantly bugging us, begging for sweets and money. Around 10PM we drove back to Arocutin, a small village above the lake which was something like an insiders tip but was now also starting to get overrun by foreign tourists. The cemetery was located next to the church, rather rare in Mexico. The sight of the cemetery bathed in yellow candle light was breathtaking. The graves were decorated with orange marigolds and purple flowers of Laelia autumnalis. The favorite foods and preferred beverage of the dead person stood between the flower arrangements. Sweet 'Pan de Muertos' laid in baskets covered with colorfully embroidered towels. Wrapped in warm woolen blankets and rebozos, entire families sat around the graves on rocks or camping chairs. The later the hour, the more the cemetery filled up with families and the more candles were lit. In front of the cemetery we got hot ponche, a fruit punch made with guavas. Martin tried it with alcohol, but judging from the smell it was cheap high-proof alcohol mixed into the otherwise tasty punch. Some time after midnight we called it a night and walked back to our hotel to crawl under the warm blankets.

Now it was time to prepare for the highlight of Maggie's visit, the train ride through the Copper Canyon, but that's enough material for our next travelog.

November 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen