MORELIA, Mexico — Even before we reached the village limits of Paracho, guitars began appearing on roadside stands. By the time we reached the plaza with its profusion of guitarrias , we were accustomed to the sound of strumming.
This dusty hamlet at the foot of an extinct volcano in the highlands of Michoacan, Mexico, is a community of specialists in woodcraft, most specifically the making of guitars and violins, but other objects, too.
Not far away, in Uruapan, the emphasis is on lacquerware. There the Sunday market, in particular, glitters with a patent-leather shine of trays, boxes and bowls, wine and coffee sets. For a few hours at least, popular attention is diverted from waterfalls and blossoms, and the city named "where the flowers bloom" in Tarascan becomes "where the lacquer is" to visitors.
Do we seek copperware? We are directed to Santa Clara del Cobre. Pottery? Baskets and things of straw and reeds? Perhaps a full Nativity scene executed in plaited grass down to the smallest lamb? Take the road through the center of Tzintzuntzan.
Although central market towns such as Patzcuaro provide generous samples from all the villages, even a mildly addicted collector will want more than a taste. The roads are good to adequate; distances are relatively short between pueblos where generations of artisans have been carving, molding, weaving, hammering, painting or whatever in a distinctive style.
The craft villages trace their commercial art origins to one man, a lawyer-priest named Vasco de Quiroga. About 450 years ago he was named bishop of Michoacan after being enjoined by the Spanish crown to make restitution to the Tarascan Indians for their suffering at the hands of the military.
Don Vasco, the kind-hearted intellectual influenced by the writings of Sir Thomas More, saw the mission as two-fold: Provide for the immediate needs of the Indians and help them help themselves in the future.
Trained in Two Jobs
He apparently believed that religion followed function, so set up community centers that included schools and hospitals, then directed that each man should be trained both in agriculture and a craft, working alternately at each. Trade exchanges, routes and markets were established that have held true over centuries, and Don Vasco's name is still a household word.
Any circuit of villages might well begin in Morelia, the city that is national monument as well as state capital. The Palacio del Artesano, once a convent (1610) is permanent exhibition and sales center, a folk art museum where the work of the best artists is on rotating display.
Morelia has a 17th-Century cathedral faced in pink quartz, a great outdoor zoo, parks, plazas and an ancient raised aqueduct. Its municipal market carries everything from embroideries to live chickens, but its own craft specialty is candy.
The Mercado de Dulces is an arcade of sweet shops, and its prize product is the moreliana , a disk of burned milk and sugar, tastiest when slightly soft to the touch. Morelia chocolate is also prized as an instant beverage to be laced with cinnamon and drunk thick as Turkish coffee.
Patzcuaro's Friday Indian Market is a seething exchange of goods from all over Michoacan, including the specialties of communities too small to appear on any map. Bargaining is rampant, parking nearly impossible, but it is an experience to be taken at least once, even if you prefer to find your sombreros where they are made in Jiquilpan, rebozos in La Piedad, baskets and ceramics near the pyramids of Tzintzuntzan.
Bishop Vasco's Legacy
The good bishop, Tata Vasco, (1470-1565) left his spirit as well as his name to the plazas of Michoacan. His home in Uruapan is also the craft museum La Guatapera, and in Patzcuaro, the church he began in 1543 but never completed has a statue of the Virgin made poetically of maize paste, a fine example of the practical art he applauded.
Shops, inns, products and at least one town are named in his honor. In Quiroga his 16th-Century Franciscan convent is the center for the sales of regional crafts; his Colegio de San Nicolas in Patzcuaro houses the Museo de Artes Populares.
If you insist on seeing the best, you will be taken to the house of the master craft artist of the village, the one who oversees the apprentices. Don Vasco planned it that way, although he encouraged them all, hopeful that art as well as farming would keep the young creatively earning a living in the high country.
"Beauty is as beauty does," he might say. This would be followed by a heavenly strumming of Paracho guitars, a jangle of copper bells from Santa Clara del Cobre.
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Morelia is halfway between Mexico City and Guadalajara, a four-hour drive from either airport. Also, there's an overnight train from Mexico City. Aeromexico has daily DC-9 service from Mexico City to Morelia and Uruapan (a reasonable add-on to your international flight), with rental cars available at airports or in town.
Pleasant hotels are available in various price ranges. Deluxe Villa Montana, outside Morelia ($80 and up, American plan, for two); Hotel Virrey de Mendoza ($30 for two), very good in central Morelia; Hotel Mansion de Cupatitzio ($30 for two) adjacent to the park in Uruapan. There are many hotels and inns that charge $20 or less.