Exploring Colonial Mexico©

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The Lake Pátzcuaro region of Michoacán is noted for its scenery, quaint crafts villages and its many historic colonial monuments ­ architecture, paintings and sculptures.

Our survey of the area is in two parts: first we look at the principal town of Pátzcuaro itself, a charming tourist spot on the southeastern shore of the lake.

In in a follow-up piece, we visit several rustic villages located along the lake shore, many with colonial building of great historic and artistic interest.


The attractive lakeside town of Pátzcuaro is famed for its Spanish colonial ambience. But long before the Spaniards arrived it was a pilgrimage center sacred to the Tarascan kings of Michoacán, who knew it as the "Gate of Paradise". Although little of the ancient royal city is now visible, many of Pátzcuaro's colonial buildings are founded upon the remains of Tarascan temples that overlook the town from its eastern hillside.

Vasco de Quiroga, the charismatic first bishop of Michoacan, looms large in the history of Pátzcuaro. It was here that he planned to erect his innovative Cathedral, a dramatic structure of five radiating naves, of which only one was built - now part of the Basilica of La Salud.

The Basilica, or Colegiata, is the principal shrine to Pátzcuaro's patron saint - Our Lady of Health - and is set on an ancient temple platform on the heights above the colonial city. Despite the ravages of fire, earthquake and occupation by French troops in the 1800s, the much re-built basilica remains an impressive structure. The venerated 16th century image of the Virgin, brought here by Vasco de Quiroga, stands in splendor inside the church, opposite an 18th century painting of the controversial bishop.

Other colonial buildings founded on Tarascan pyramids include the Museum of Popular Arts (left) formerly the College of St Nicholas - the first university in the Americas - also founded by Don Vasco in the 1540s. Beneath a baroque belfry, the octagonal vestibule leads to an arcaded courtyard whose surrounding rooms display an array of striking colonial crucifixes as well as collections of dance masks and other folk arts. A section of an early temple platform can be seen at the rear of the museum, beside the remains of the colonial jail. The unusual carved stone pulpit in the vestibule is a relic from the church of San Agustín downtown.

The adjacent Jesuit church of La Compañía (right) and its former seminary also rest on pre-hispanic foundations. A predecessor of the present church served Vasco de Quiroga as his episcopal seat while work on his ill-fated Cathedral proceeded, and his staff of office is still kept here. Recently restored, this elegant 18th century church is typical of the austere baroque style of architecture favored by the Jesuit order.

As part of his humanistic mission, Vasco de Quiroga also built a hospital for the use of the indigenous population. The much beloved image of Our Lady of Health that he brought was intended for the hospital chapel and indeed rested here for almost 300 years before moving to the Basilica up the hill. Known originally as Santa Marta, parts of this early hospital structure, still survive within the rambling hillside convent of Las Caterinas, to which the crafts center of Las Once Patios also formerly belonged. The old convent doorway, now a window, can still be seen on Calle Portugal. Above it are emblazoned the city arms of colonial Pátzcuaro, that include an outline of the lake .

Downtown, several fine colonial buildings grace the old Spanish center. Numerous colonial mansions and civic buildings surround the large Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, named for the crusty old bishop whose statue (above) stands in its center. Some of the colonial mansions are now hotels, while others house civic offices. Especially notable are the old Town Hall, or Palacio Municipal on the west side of the square, and the Casa del Gigante opposite. The old house at #48 is one of the oldest, built in the 16th century for Huitzimengari, the last of the Tarascan kings.

The rambling 16th century monastery of San Francisco, with its old stone crosses and rugged carved doorways, lies to the west of the plaza, beyond the colonial Customs House on Calle Ponce de Leon. The imposing Renaissance archway to the convento, dated 1577, is decorated with medallions and twisted ribbon moldings.

A few blocks north of the Plaza Grande lies the Plaza Chica, also called the Plaza Bocanegra in honor of Gertrude Bocanegra, a regional heroine of the Mexican Independence movement.

The principal colonial monument, facing the square, is the grand baroque church of San Agustin (right) - all that remains of the once vast Augustinian priory situated here. Although the cloister was demolished-replaced by a cinema-the cavernous church is now the Bocanegra Library, site of Juan O'Gorman's panoramic mural depicting the tumultuous history of Michoacán. The magnificent baroque entrance is flanked by ornate moorish style belfries atop the gable, and the ornate doorway to the lost cloister, still visible in the upper choir, is a reminder of past glories.

If you go... Tourist facilities abound in Pátzcuaro. Downtown, several colonial era hotels face the Plaza Grande. They offer inexpensive accommodations, featuring large rooms with an old Spanish ambience, and adequate restaurants. TheHotel Los Escudos and theMisión San Manuel are the best bets here. The moderatePosada Don Vasco along the entry road to town, near the lake, is a little more luxurious, also with a good restaurant. Another good choice for eating in Pátzcuaro is theCamino Real, a modest restaurant noted for its regional dishes and popular with the locals at lunchtime, located beside the main turnoff into town from the Morelia highway.