The media will tell you that the Mexican state of Michoacan is a war zone. Drug violence and senseless killing is commonplace. U.S. citizens are warned against traveling there. A year ago, Pope Francis chose Michoacan as the poster child for drug violence, visiting the beleaguered state’s capital city to spread hope. “Jesus does not want you to be hit men” was how the media summarized his message to the region’s youth.
So why did I want to visit Michoacan? I have a friend who grew up in the city of Patzcuaro, near Michoacan’s capital city of Morelia. He always raves about its culture, its people, and its history and architecture. On top of that, he swears that Patzcuaro has the best food in Mexico.
It runs out he was right. Nobody kidnapped me or shot at me in Michoacan. Throughout my trip, the cities and countryside were brimming with life and culture.
El Sagrario church, Creative Commons, Flickr, Tomascastelazo.
Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. Creative Commons, Flickr, Quokant.
Bartering onions. Creative Commons, Flickr, Tomascastelazo.
Mural in the public library showing Patzcuaro history from pre-Columbian times. Public Domain.
Specifically, Patzcuaro is one of the finest towns I have ever visited. My friend was not kidding about the rich history and beautiful old colonial buildings. Their marketplace, their churches, and their public spaces were a privilege to visit. The lake and its islands and vistas are breathtaking. Everyone I met there was kind and welcoming, providing many opportunities to learn about the culture.
One of the islands in Lake Patzcuaro. Creative Commons, Wikimedia, Adavyd.
Mural showing traditional fishing scene on the lake. Creative Commons, Flickr, Thelmadatter.
And the food? It was as good as advertised. I have tasted great food in other parts of Mexico before, but Patzcuaro’s chefs and cuisine are equal to anything else I have experienced there. They certainly know their avocadoes, since Michoacan is the center of Mexico’s avocado industry, at least when the drug lords let farmers sell their fruits.
Avocadoes in Michoacan. Houston Chronicle.
Besides the guacamole, here are some of my other favorite dishes:
Sopa Tarasca is a specialty of Patzcuaro that some believe is the original tortilla soup. It is named for the Tarascan people who inhabited this region prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. While it tastes like tortilla soup, sopa tarasca is much richer and the pasilla pepper is much more flavorful. I could eat this stuff every day.
Sopa Tarasca. Courtesy of Mexico Tourism Board.
Corundas are triangle-shaped tamales. The corn masa flour is steamed inside corn husks and/or banana leaves. These tamales can be filled with beans and cheese, pork, or sweet fillings. You can see them in the foreground of this picture.
Now this is a meal. Creative Commons, Flickr, Viajeccangrelo.
Enchiladas with Chicken Breast are really good, too. These are not your greasy, North American-style enchiladas. You would not recognize them here. This is good, old-fashioned country soul food.
Enchiladas with chicken breast. Yum. Creative Commons, Flickr, Thelmadatter.
Charales are freshwater fish from the lakes in this region. You could call them minnows. The fish are dipped in lemon or lime juice and other seasonings like chile pepper, and then they are fried in egg batter. You can eat them in tacos, tostadas, or alone as fish-n-chips. There are many other fish dishes in Patzcuaro, but many incorporate charales.
Charales at a restaurant. From Third House Journal.
Pasta Ice Cream WTF? In the market, they sell ice cream that has been made the same way for generations. The regional specialty is “pasta” flavored ice cream. There is no spaghetti sauce. The “pasta” term really means dough. If you like cookie dough ice cream, this stuff tastes like it is flavored with almond cookie dough. It is quite delicious. But you cannot go wrong with the tequila, mango, or berry flavors either.
Neveria La Pacanda in the market, home of the original pasta ice cream. Mexico Tourism Board.
And that barely scratches the surface with the food. There are many more dishes, including some amazing breads. Patzcuaro is a culinary treasure.
Celebrations and Beyond
When I was in Patzcuaro, I missed out on its festivals, but the town and region are especially well known for their Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. There are many Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead crafts in the town year-round, but I understand that the occasion itself is not to be missed.
Market with Dia De Los Muertos Skeleton. Creative Commons, Flickr, Leonora (Ellie) Enking.
Someday, I hope to return, and perhaps I will be fortunate enough to see this holiday from October 31 to November 2. Here is a nice short video in which a visitor documented her experience during the holiday.
Don’t let the media scare you off. Or maybe you should; I won’t say Michoacan is not dangerous. The drug violence in Mexico has gotten out of hand. But I have always believed that some of the best travel destinations are those that are slightly dangerous, since the lack of tourism makes them more authentic. I saw nothing but people with happy faces and welcoming hearts on my trip there. If I ever become a SteeMillionaire, perhaps I will hire a Michoacan chef to cater my meals.
Until then, I am plotting my return visit.
Thumbnail: Flickr, Creative Commons, Thomassin Mikael.
News story on the Pope in Michoacan: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-mexico-idUSKCN0VP1TJ
Avocadoes in Michoacan: http://www.chron.com/business/article/Demand-for-avocados-has-sparked-growth-in-1902835.php
Wikipedia Entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A1tzcuaro