From Sayulita, we carved back inland, through delightful backroads that brought us into the little ranching town of Mascota. Here we had a cheap and tasty lunch and pondered the commonalities among many of the towns we’d seen: the mellow, rectilinear main square (this one with a fun frog fountain); the commanding church tower; the sun-baked, two-toned walls.
Then on to Ajijic, on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, south of Guadalajara. There is a substantial expat community here, and indeed we stayed in an Airbnb run by an Italian and his Mexican wife, who were both welcoming and shared homemade limoncello and pureed raspberries with us. (The western end of Lake Chapala is known for its berry production.) In addition to the charming malecón, or pier/waterfront (photo not found), we strolled through a renowned tianguis, or open-air market, right in front of our house, and took in one satisfying facade after another.
And finally on to Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán. Like so many other Mexican cities, Morelia (or its historic core) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of picturesque, ancient pink stone buildings. (We were gratified that the characteristic Spanish-style city planning on display here was an integral part of the World Heritage citation.) Nevertheless, tourism is fairly uncommon, mostly because of a spate of well-publicized drug cartel violence in recent years. But (a) this violence is not widespread across the state as a whole and (b) tourists not involved in buying, selling, or transporting drugs are wholly disconnected from this realm of violence. Certainly everywhere we went was perfectly safe, and deeply enjoyable to boot.
Especially coming from highly-touristed Sayulita, we reveled in the chance to connect with a place in a more mellow fashion. Over a couple of delightful days, we took in typical tourist sites (the aqueduct, the birthplace of Mexican war hero and city namesake José Maria Morelos, the gorgeous cathedral); attended a chamber music performance by talented students of the Conservatorio de las Rosas; and ate delicious thing after delicious thing, starting with the free Michoacán mezcal with which we were greeted at our hotel, the highly-recommendable Mansión Catrina, and including fresh gorditas and a fantastic meal at Tata Mezcalería + Cocina de Autor. Photos below – and remember you can always click on photos in these galleries to get a better look.
We have gotten really into mezcal, the quintessentially Mexican liquor derived from agave. Mezcal showed up on the US radar a few years back, and is known there primarily as a smoky, hot spirit coming mostly from Oaxaca and most frequently made from espadín (agave angustifolia). But mezcal comes from all over Mexico and has a very wide range of characters, from pure smoke and heat, to light, floral notes, to a downright cheese-like, oily body. In this way it’s more like whiskey than rum: just as a different mash bill can create big differences between a Scottish single malt and an American corn-heavy bourbon, a mezcal distilled from the wild agave cupreata has a completely different flavor profile than one made from farmed espadín.
It turns out that Michoacán’s mezcals are just fabulous. This Punch article has some good info – we gravitated mostly toward cupreata and inaequidens/alto varietals, which are savory and full-bodied. The mezcal list at Tata was superb; for me a bottle from Mezcalante, a cooperative in a small town northeast of Morelia, was a particular standout. (That price is in pesos, by the way, and equates to about $30 USD – most mezcals are satisfyingly affordable, even the really great ones.) Good luck finding almost any of these mezcals in the United States: while Oaxacan export production is finally on the rise, as of 2019 Michoacán exports almost no mezcal internationally. It’s refreshing to find a non-international commodity for once, but we’ll miss these spirits when we leave Mexico.
Enough about mezcal. After our days in Morelia, we took a day trip to Pátzcuaro, a more tourist-oriented town to the southwest. This trip, originally planned as a out-and-back, evolved into a fascinating loop through rural and urbanized Michoacán. We dined on the stately plaza (which had amusingly moody music piped in through waterproof speakers), saw some fantastically wabi-sabi stone convents and mansions, and laughed at some English-language kids’ shirts in a big covered market. (Random English phrases on clothing have been super common and super hilarious in all the countries we’ve yet visited.)
Then instead of coming straight back, we wound our way north along the Lago de Pátzcuaro. We opted against taking a boat out to the famous island of Janitzio but did catch a glimpse from the shore. Instead we explored the phenomenally-named archaeological site of Tzintzuntzan, the capital of the heretofore-unknown-to-us Tarascan empire. This was another great reminder of how much there is to know and how little we actually do know. How often do you learn about not just a site but an entire civilization you were unaware even existed?
The adjacent modern town of Tzintzuntzan reminded us powerfully of the setting of the recent Pixar masterpiece Coco, and indeed that film’s fictional town of Santa Cecilia is based fairly closely on the nearby town of Santa Fe de la Laguna. In fact, Michoacán is the epicenter of the Día de los Muertos tradition. We must return some November to see the processions, the flower petals, and the candles around the lake.
Changing gears completely, we got hungry and took advantage of our route’s passing through Quiroga, the carnitas capital of Mexico. We at at El Rey de las Carnitas – excellent – and we hear even greater things about Carnitas Olivo, which was already closed for the afternoon.
From Morelia to Pátzcuaro, and at many places in between, we felt powerfully relaxed and welcome. Michoacán was just lovely, just our speed. We would have stayed longer, given the chance.