I can't believe that I've reached the end of my fourth week in Morelia—the time has passed so quickly!

Previous weeks can be found here:

Week 3  Week 2  Week 1

 

The people here have been overwhelmingly welcoming, and they have continued to compliment me on my excellent Spanish. (I think these statements belong in the category of "little white lies.") But being back in Latin America for an extended period of time has boosted my confidence in my language skills—although I still have so much to learn. I've met a great local Spanish teacher with whom I plan to study in the fall.

 

What's up with the white trees?!?

It is so common now that I barely notice, but everywhere in México you'll see trees with the lower five feet (I guess I need to get used to saying 1.5 meters!) painted white. While this color might provide a unifying element, and perhaps makes the trees easier to see from a car at night, that's not why they're painted.

Calcium hydroxide (often called "slaked lime," or in México, simply "cal") is painted on the bases of trees to protect them from a number of insect pests, especially the leafcutter ant. Something in the calcium hydroxide irritates the insects, and they won't cross a span painted with cal, which serves to protects the tree's leaves. It is, once again, another example of a simple, low-tech way that this country solves common problems. (In the United States, municipalities would most likely conduct expensive spraying campaigns using insecticides—which often kill beneficial insects along with the pests.)

While it was once a novelty to me, now the sight of the cal on the trees makes me happy, knowing the trees are being well cared-for in a responsible way.

 

Méxican Food

Trying to discuss Méxican food in the short space of a blog post is a little dangerous—it is a vast topic filled with regional and seasonal differences, and I am only beginning to scratch the surface. But the biggest generalization I can make is that it is nothing like the dishes we call "Mexican food" in the United States. Those dishes were popularized by border towns all along the U.S./México border, and made ubiquitous by Taco Bell.

Certainly some of those dishes appear in México, but mostly just in that Tex/Mex border region. In Morelia, there are no chalupas, or crispy tacos, or flautas, or gooey cheese. Instead, many dishes are based on grilled meats served with freshly-made corn tortillas and pickled vegetables. The plate might be dressed with a small amount of cheese, but this is usually manchego (a Spanish sheep's-milk cheese usually made in México with cow or goat's milk); Cotija (from the city of the same name here in the state of Michoacán), which is a dry, crumbly cheese not unlike feta; queso fresco (literally "fresh cheese), also moist and crumbly; and crema, which is sort of a cross between sour cream and crème fraîche.

Michoacán has its own native dishes, including uchepos and corundas, which are (generally) unfilled tamales made of freshly ground corn. Tacos and sandwiches filled with carne asada and al pastor are favorites, and I've had some great tacos with grilled shrimp.

And of course there is the avocado. The avocado originates in the central Mexican valley, and the country is the largest supplier of avocados in the world, supplying more than 45% of global demand. (And of all those global avocados, more than 92% come from the state of Michoacán.) So yes, we have a LOT of avocados here, and the local guacamole is fantastic.

Let me share three highlights with you:

Lasagna
One of my first meals here was at an Italian restaurant that was highly recommended. The lasagna I ordered was probably the best I've ever eaten: creamy, meaty, with perfectly cooked pasta in a heavenly sauce. The one surprise ingredient was finely diced potatoes, because who wouldn't want an opportunity to consume even more carbs with a plate of lasagna!

Spoa Tarasca
In sopa de tarasca, we get a soup made from pureed pinto beans, so very creamy and smooth. It is enhanced with narrow strips of corn tortillas and dried chiles that have been fried, adding some spice and crunch to the dish. Finally, the flourish of crema further enhances the creaminess of the soup.

 

Torta de milanesa

In nearly any restaurant, no matter how humble or grand, you can find the torta milanese. An impossibly thin pork cutlet is breaded and deep-fried, and then layered on a crispy sandwich bun with sliced onions, avocado, carrots, and jicama. Totally juicy and delicious, and just a couple of dollars buys a sandwich and a drink.

 

Just like in the U.S., the Mexican government is concerned with dietary habits of its citizens, and provides notices on many processed foods to alert the consumer to the poor choices they might be making. A series of octagons in the upper right-hand corner draws attention to foods that are particularly high in fat, or sodium, or total calories.

No one likes having their poor grocery choices called out, but this consistent labeling scheme makes it a little easier to look for better alternatives. (Although we all admit there isn't going to be a more healthful version of Doritos, right!?!)

But on the back of the package is something really interesting: along with the nutritional information (in much the same format as in the U.S.), Mexican products also include another range of nutritional information. For this product, the "official" serving size is 30 grams, but the government understands that most people don't eat just the amount in one serving—they tend to eat three times more. So the nutritional label also lists the numbers for the serving size that is probably being consumed (here, 100gr), not just the serving size the manufacturer lists.

I think this could be helpful for products sold in the United States!

 

Doritos bag - front

Doritos bag - back

 

Getting Around

The absolute best way to get around the city is by using the colectivos. (Sometimes they're called combis, because many years ago Volkswagen made a small van called the Combi that was quickly placed into service transporting people.)

Morelia's colectivos (presumably because they 'collect' a number of people) have routes throughout the city and the suburbs, and are a super convenient way to get around. Service begins at 7:00 each morning, and runs until 10:00 pm, seven days a week.

There is an app that shows all of the routes, allowing you to select which line (delineated by color) you need to reach your destination. When you see the colectivo coming down the street, you flag down the driver, who stops and causes the side door to automatically open. You climb in, and it is mandatory that you greet the other passengers in the van with a ¡buenos dias! or ¡buenas tardes!  It would be very rude not to acknowledge your fellow travelers!

Hand the driver your 9 pesos fare (about 45¢) and off you go. (He'll give you change if you need it.) When you've reached your destination, press the buzzer to alert the driver, or just call out that you'd like to get out.

Even though a twenty-minute Uber ride across the city costs less than $2.00, I prefer the communal experience of the colectivo. (And, as a cheapskate, I enjoy saving that $1.55—which will buy me three more colectivo trips!)

Colectivo interior

Orquidario

Morelia has a large park south of the centro, which contains the convention center, a large playground for children, a planetarium, and an orchid house.

The orchid house has a beautiful grand passageway leading to its three buildings. On the day I visited, only the main building was open, as they were installing a new temporary exhibit in the other two. But that main collection, housed in a fantastic domed building, offered a great collection of orchids and succulents.

I learned that of the world's 1,400 species of orchids, over 200 of them are native to México.

Once I'm back in Morelia with an apartment of my own, I'd like to come back here and purchase some of the orchids that they offer for sale.

 

Orquidario park

Pink orchid

White orchid

Michoacán

My visit so far has just concentrated on the city of Morelia, but the state of Michoacán has so many incredible little towns. I decided to book a tour with a local guide to visit three pueblos magicos.

México's Secretariat of Tourism has created a national program to identify and promote smaller towns and villages that offer touristic potential. These pueblos magicos ("magical towns") are promoted heavily by the government to draw tourists and enhance the local economies. However, there are very strict standards that towns must meet in order to qualify for the coveted pueblo magico designation, including signage, cleanliness/sanitation, security, infrastructure, etc. Any town that has achieved this designation is well worth a visit!

Michoacán map

Click map to enlarge

TZINTZUNTZAN

The first stop was the village of Tzintzuntzan, the site of a major pre-Columbian ruin from the Purépecha peoples, the church of San Francisco, and the ex-convent of Santa Ana.

The monastery was run by Vasco de Quiroga, a Franciscan priest who became a great friend to the native population. He went from town to town, identifying for each a specific trade or craft. One city worked in copper, another in wood, while another made pottery. This gave each village a specialty, which provided a basis for a robust regional economy. (It also helped him keep the native people in line, and assisted in his efforts to convert them to Catholicism.)

As part of the conversion of the native people, he insisted that they stop the use of human sacrifices in their religious rituals. (Pre-Columbian people all over México—Purépecha, Aztec, Maya—all sacrificed humans.) Because they trusted Quiroga, they agreed to this, but they were befuddled when the church displayed images of a man nailed to a cross until he died. To them, this was no different than their sacrificial rites, and Quiroga had to admit they were right.

The solution was that all crosses (at least those visible in public plazas and church courtyards) displayed symbols of the crucifixion rather than Jesus himself. On the cross outside the church of San Francisco we see a crown of thorns, a set of nails, a pair of pliers and a hammer, and a ladder—all elements of the crucifixion story but without the gore.

Throughout México today, when you see a cross decorated with these symbols, you know you're standing in an old Franciscan churchyard.

Franciscan corss

Church tower

 

SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE

We drove south along the lake to get to Santa Clara del Cobre, another pueblo magico in Michoacán. Because there had once been extensive copper mines in the area, Vasco de Quiroga encouraged the city to become the region's premier coppersmiths. Today, a number of workshops operate throughout the city, producing a dizzying area of copper products—cooking utensils, jewelry, tableware, vases, tabletops, and even bathtubs!

The process is all the more amazing because it's all done by hand, from heating the piece of copper in a fire until it becomes red-hot, and then hammering the piece until it begins to form. The artisan must monitor the temperature carefully—if the piece cools too much, it can crack or break. The workshop employs a number of metal forms around which they hammer the copper into ever-thinner sheets.

They let me have a try with shaping a water pitcher, and it took exactly 30 seconds for me to understand how challenging this process is. I'm afraid I introduced a bunch of lumps into the piece (which will need a serious craftsperson to repair!), but it made me appreciate this ancient craft. [The vase pictured here is definitely not the one I ruined worked on!)

Copper artists

Copper hammering

Finished copper pitcher

PÁTZCUARO

Patzcuaro square

We ended our tour in Pátzcuaro, a charming little town that used to serve as the capital of Michoacán a long time ago. (Vasco de Quiroga had firmly established the seat of the church's power here, but Spaniards looking to wield their secular power founded the new city of Valladolid in 1541 and built their own church. Their city was renamed to 'Morelia' in 1828.)

Today, Pátzcuaro boasts some lovely churches and ex-convents, and a peaceful main square dominated by a large statue of Vasco de Quiroga, who remains revered in this part of México.

 

Class Photo

Class picture

The other evening, a small group of students graduating from a university program staged their class photo near the cathedral. The sky was clear, the lights had just come on, and they were rocking their Pittsburgh black and gold!

 

Morelia's Place in Mexico

If you've been reading the posts, then you realize how much I enjoy learning about the history of the place. Morelia certainly has a lot of history, enough to keep me busy researching for years.

But I realized that it's not just me that appreciates the rich history of the region. In México's monetary system, the main bills are for 500, 200, 100, 50, and 20 pesos. But take a look at the 50 peso note below: the front side includes a portrait of José Maria Morelos (for whom the city is named), and also a Monarch butterfly, one of the state's most iconic sights.

This recognition of Morelia continues on the reverse: more Monarchs, and the city's aqueduct. No other city (other than México City) is as represented on the currency, and this gives me a bit of pride!

50 peso front
50 peso reverse

 

 

I return to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, so I don't know if I'll post another Morelia story next weekend. So I may take a summer vacation, and resume posting once I've moved here at the end of August.

Thanks for reading—I appreciate your comments!

 

 

Morelia—Wrap-Up