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Dave and Jan's travels, day 177:
Guadalajara to Queretaro

12th November
Another string of pretty North Mexican towns to report on. I am aware that more of the same, whilst lovely for us to enjoy, doesn't make for the varied reportage that our regular listeners like to here. So we'll start today's article with a brief review of the common characteristics that make these towns such delightful places to spend time, and then we'll run through some highlights.

All these towns have pretty similar histories. A bunch of basically happy people, living in harmony, just the occasional ritual human sacrifice. Then along come the Spanish Conquistadors, town razed to the ground, and the locals exploited into near extinction to generate wealth for the interlopers. The wealth contributes - along with the locals' hard labour - to the construction of a new town between the 16th and 17th centuries. So all these towns have this beautiful, spaciously planned colonial architecture, the product of plenty of money and labour. Add no redevelopment since - all the new stuff gets built on the outskirts - and every town has a delighful centre. This usually comprises plazas of mature trees, baroque and neo-classical churches and public buildings of distinction, private houses built around cloistered courtyards and nicely proportioned streets.

For more reasons why these towns are just fun to be in, try this article.

OK, the travelogue. We left Guadalajara, and drove via the Lago de Chapala and onto Patzcuaro. The Lago is literally not what it used to be, as the growing demands for drinking water of Guadalajara and the more distant Mexico City have, for several years, drained more water than rainfall can replace. Amongst the quaint reminders of this are wharfs stranded 100 feet from the lakeside.

Also along the wayside there's evidence of the Mexican obsession with death. The 2nd November was the "Day of Dead", when every good Catholic pays homage to their dearly departed. The evidence of this lingers in the form of cemeteries bedecked in orange marigolds, multicoloured wreathes and curious offerings like people-shaped bread and sugar skulls.

Patzcuaro is tourist central. A couple of hundred years ago the place fell under the influence of a truly Christian bishop named Vasco de Quiroga, who successfully freed the Indians from their dependency on the Spaniards by setting up a series of local craft industries. Nowadays they still make the crafts, and most of the product goes to rich Mexican tourists. The rest of the town cleans up on hotels, restaurants, guided tours and all the rest of the paraphenalia.

One particularly stunning craft is that of the feather painter. Just collect several thousand minute feathers of various colours, and glue them onto a sheet of paper to form a pleasing design. It's astonishing: it looks like an oil painting of impossibly delicate texture, until you get within inches, when the truth is revealed.

Also in Patzcuaro we took Beluga the car up a rocky dirt road to see the view. As we left, a woman with a small baby and a friend asked for a lift. Fine, said we, and the next thing we know they're in the back along with some old bloke and a couple more kids. A couple of hundred yards down the road they realize they've forgotten two more kids, who shortly appear, and the now rather crowded party sets off. We receive the close attention of a couple of dogs, who turn out to be the property of one of our smaller passengers. The whole procession trails across town, dogs keeping pace, and we had a fun conversation before dropping them all off in the central square. Patscuaro also features some fine local delicacies, including a splendid soup of tomatoes, cream, crispy tortillas and lots of chilli.

From Patzcuaro we travelled north to the town of Morelia. Along the way we took in two sets of ruins left by the Purupesha Indians, at places called Ihuatzio and Tzintzuntzan (why do 50% of all Mexican placenames begin with 't' and have at least three syllables?). These were both set on hills, and pleasantly atmospheric, albeit sufficiently thoroughly ruined to make empathy with the original owners difficult.

Morelia is a very prosperous mining town with lots of banks and an enormous cathedral. The exterior has a nice neoclassical design: the interior is an exercise in squeezing as much gold and gilt carving into the given amount of space.

We also saw another political demo in Morelia (remember the previous one in Guadalajara?). This one featured the biggest PA system that I've seen outside a Rolling Stones concert, and some guy whose precise point I couldn't quite follow, but who was certainly very concerned about the Mexican educational system. Apparently one of the demonstrators had tried to set fire to the door of the Government Building the previous night. This could explain why when Jan asked the armed guards at the door of said building if we could go in and see the historic murals inside, they gave us a wry grin. Mexico seems a considerably better democracy than I expected from reading the western papers. These tend to focus on facts like the 75 years that the PRI party has been in power, and their murky internal politics. What this doesn't reveal is a lot of freedom of speech, and what is so refreshing to someone from Britain or the US, a lot of impassioned exercise of that freedom.

And from Morelia we moved on to Guanajuato. This is a nicely sized University town. It's sandwiched between two hills which have stopped the town from sprawling, and in fact its tightly packed and steeply sloping streets are mostly closed to traffic. This makes it a most peaceful place to be, full of opportunities for aimless wandering and people watching.

The whole town has a bit of an obsession with Don Quixote, which is centred around an annual Cervantes arts fair. But even outside the festival, there's a museum of related art - lots of fun - and other statues of the Don scattered around the town.

Another obsession - this time Mexico-wide - is with death. Guanajuato's contribution is something called the "Museo de Momias". The graveyard is rather undersized, so if families don't pay the rent on the ground that their loved ones occupy, the cadavers are removed to make room for the more recently deceased. It turns out that the dry ground in this area is perfect for creating mummies, so the cadavers that they dig up often turn out to be in surprisingly good condition. Rather than just cremate these, they put them on display. Nothing like a pleasant stroll past a couple of hundred corpses. The locals all love it, families enjoy the day out and take their 5 year old kids, we felt rather queasy.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Don Quixote

Street scene, Patzcuaro

Mummy museum. Serious caution: not a nice picture

Altar, Quanajato

Decorated cemetery, Michoacan State

Boats, Lake Chapala