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Handcrafts From a Lake in Mexico

February 11, 1990|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

LAKE PATZCUARO, Mexico — Connoisseurs of Mexican handcrafts consider 10 villages around scenic Lake Patzcuaro, in the state of Michoacan, to be top sources for their collections.

Midway between Mexico City and Guadalajara, Lake Patzcuaro is remote enough to have retained its traditions, but is easily accessible by car, train or bus. The area is popular with Mexican tourists, but the fact that it is relatively unknown among foreigners means prices are very reasonable.

The historic Lake Patzcuaro area was the center of the Tarascan Indian culture. Many craft traditions have been handed down for generations.

Touring the area's villages, which are 12 to 50 miles apart, provides a delightful and rewarding shopping adventure. Each village has its specialties, including superb lacquerware from Patzcuaro, copperware from Santa Clara del Cobre, masks from Tocuaro, guitars from Parucho, toys from Quiroga, wooden furniture from Cuanajo, weavings from Erongaricuaro, straw work from Tzintsuntzan and ceramic tableware and figurines from Capula and Ocumicho.

You can visit artisans in their fabrica (workshops) or go to crafts shops that distribute works by several craftsmen, including those living in other towns or the countryside. Shop prices are slightly higher than those in workshops, but selections are bigger and, sometimes, of better quality.

In general, village prices are at least a third less than those in Mexico City and Guadalajara shops.

One way to tour the Lake Patzcuaro area is to focus on handcrafts that most interest you and design your itinerary around villages where they are produced. Mexico Travel Advisors, which specializes in tours of Mexico, can assist with individualized itineraries. Call (213) 462-5345.

The starting point for most shopping tours is Morelia, capital of Michoacan province about 30 miles from Lake Patzcuaro. Before leaving Morelia, visit Casa de las Artesanias (Fray Juan de San Miguel 129) for an overview of crafts found around Lake Patzcuaro.

This museum-like crafts center and shop provides information about villages and artists working in them. Dozens of shops in Morelia sell Michoacan-made crafts, ranging from exquisite pieces to tourist trash, but the villages have more.

The largest crafts town is Patzcuaro, formerly capital of the Tarascan kingdom and colonial-era capital of the province of Michoacan. This slow-paced town has cobblestone streets, lovely white adobe buildings and a vital lakeside port.

Friday is market day. Vendors, including local artisans and those from other towns, offer a full range of crafts in stalls around Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra.

Patzcuaro's artisans are famous for exquisite lacquerware trays, plates and chests, with beautiful and intricate patterns painted in gold on a black background, and for hand-loomed cotton tablecloths and napkins, serapes and rebozos, plus hand-carved red pine chests, tables, children's furniture, toys and masks.

The town's crafts center, Los Once Patios (Calle Dr. Coss)--a colonial convent converted into a school and work, is 11 crafts-filled patios. Featured are lacquerwares (priced from about $65 U.S. up) by award-winning Alfonso Guido Santillan and Rogelio Alonso Mesa, plus henequen rugs (from $40) and cotton tablecloths (from $20) loomed on the premises, plus various types of Michoacan pottery and furniture.

Excellent shops are sited around Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga, Patzcuaro's commercial center. Best bets: Lacas Patzcuaro for fine lacquer trays (from $30) and chests (from about $35 to $400). Next door, several workshops sell monumental furniture made of inlaid wood, as well as hand-carved wooden chests and furniture from the town of Cuanajo.

Prendas Tipica de Lana Y Algodon sells beautiful serapes (from $18). Muebles Y Artesanias Coloniales has masks (from $8), wooden chests (from $15) and lacquerware tables (from $75).

El Jorongo (Ave. L. Cardenas 521) and El Tarasco 2 (Calle Jaime Torres Bodet 3) feature woven rugs (from $40), serapes (from $28) and hand-knit sweaters (from $25).

Twelve miles south of Patzcuaro, Santa Clara del Cobre's artisans make hand-hammered and polished copperware dishes, vases, platters, pitchers, candlestick holders and decorative items. The town has 50 forges that employ more than 300 artisans.

The Museo del Cobre (Morelos, near the main square) shows collectible pieces by top artisans, including Joaquin Pureco Ramirez, Jose Perez Ornelos, Jose Velazquez Correa, Etelberto Ramirez Tinoco and Abdon Punzo Angel.

At Abdon Punzo Angel's workshop, El Arte del Cobre (Morelos 449), you can observe copperware (priced from about $40 for a platter to $900 for a huge vase) being painstakingly hammered into shape and hand-burnished. Work on a single piece can take two weeks.

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