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Michoacan's Colonial Treasures

MORELIA: Flavor of old Mexico lingers.


MORELIA, Mexico — From Quito to Cuzco, from Pelourinho to Popayan, I've been to some great old colonial cities and districts while working and bumming around Latin America the past 25 years. (Those are places in Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Colombia, respectively, in case you're wondering.) But for my money, none is more evocative of times gone by than this, the capital of Michoacan state.

There have been times I've sat in Jardin de las Rosas, a 17th century plaza surrounded by the oldest music conservatory in the hemisphere on one side and the Baroque Las Rosas convent church on the other, half expecting a procession of carriages, sword-brandishing soldiers or religious flagellants to appear at any time. That's how strong the sense of time standing still is in this, my favorite corner of one of my favorite cities.

So when my two grown kids, Maria Helene and Christian, visited from California last December, I didn't hesitate to choose Morelia as an escape from Mexico City, the fast-paced and polluted capital where I live and work. It was an inspired choice. They loved the town--its people, its pink limestone colonial buildings, its food, clean air and quiet.

Morelia's uniqueness is due largely to the fact that it's in Michoacan, a region southwest of Mexico's capital that is embarrassingly rich in history, crafts and natural beauty. Day trips from here easily fill a long weekend or more: The migrating monarch butterflies, the pre-Columbian ruins of Tzintzuntzan and the cobbled streets of Patzcuaro are all nearby and beckon. But for me, Morelia is a destination city in itself, and the ambience of its historic core district exerts the strongest pull.

Founded in 1541 and laid out in 1570, Morelia has managed to retain a pleasingly archaic character and proportion, even as so many other historic centers in Latin America have been erased from map and memory, victims of redevelopment, earthquakes and neglect.

The city spent its first 286 years as Valladolid, then in 1827 renamed itself Morelia after native son and revolutionary hero Jose Maria Morelos.

Morelia's historic district is no smattering of a few old buildings, but instead encompasses 120 blocks. It also spans more than four centuries, from the austere and fortress-like San Francisco church and monastery, begun in 1530, to the eclectic Palace of Justice, built in the 1880s by a free-thinking Belgian engineer named Guillermo Wodon de Sorinne.

Vigilantly towering over the scene is Morelia's eponymous cathedral, one of Mexico's three largest and, I think, the most beautiful, best illuminated and most dramatic.

Framing the city's east side is perhaps the city's most striking relic and strongest preservation statement: a mile-long limestone aqueduct completed in the late 1700s but which hasn't funneled water into the city since 1910. UNESCO designated Morelia, the jewel of the Guanangaro Valley, as a World Heritage Site in 1991, an honor given to places whose historic significance and authenticity merits global recognition.

We approached the issue of how Morelia pulled off the feat of preserving its historic core as something of a mystery and began investigating. It turns out that the survival of old Morelia owes much to geology. The city sits on a miles-wide sheet of solid bedrock, a limestone layer from which many of its structures were quarried. Because of its foundation, Morelia has not been ground to dust by seismic shifts that over the years have leveled much of, for instance, Mexico City and Lima, Peru.

But most of the credit for Morelia's preservation is due to Morelians, who are jealous guardians of their past. Zoning laws, in place since the 1930s, forbid construction of anything in the historic center that is out of character. In fact, much of that district has been restored and rebuilt, but in strict adherence to design standards respectful of the city's past.

I had given the town quite a buildup, so my kids, both in their 20s, were eager to see the place after the four-hour luxury-bus ride from Mexico City. The road wound through the cornfields of Toluca Valley, past the piney Zinapecuaro mountains and down past Lake Cuitzeo, whose reflection of the pale blue Michoacan light reminded me of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border of Bolivia and Peru.

Arriving in the new bus station five miles east of town, we quickly became aware of Morelia's climate: It's ideally mild and dry. At 6,300 feet, Morelia is 1,000 feet lower than Mexico City and so a bit warmer. Then, after the taxi ride into town, came the pleasant shock of streets devoid of the vendors, called ambulantes, who clog many Mexican cities to distraction. Morelia expelled street vendors last July, and, for now, its sidewalks are clear and the historic sights accessible.

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