Morelia: The Heart of Mexico
Guadalajara is often called “the Mexican’s Mexico,” and it’s true that tequila, mariachis, and charrería embody Mexico’s spirit. It’s my opinion, however, that Morelia is just as representative of Mexico ... on a less tangible level. Mexico is an amalgam of indigenous and European cultures. Capital of the state of Michoacán, Morelia’s strong indigenous background can be noted in the faces of its people and the place names of surrounding towns. It’s in architecture imported from Spain juxtaposed with monuments and plazas named for one of the country’s most important independence-era heroes.
Morelia’s “Mexican-ness” isn’t its tequila or rodeos. It’s the subtle fusion of competing cultures, which is, after all, what Mexico is all about.
Heart Still Viable Despite Expanding Girth
Today a city of some 700,000, Morelia has nearly doubled in size since the mid-1980s, when a massive earthquake sent many Mexico City natives looking to relocate. In the past two decades, new homes and housing developments have spread up the hills above town and traffic has becomes noticeably worse. But Morelia still feels small town and Old School; it is still a pleasant city with a historical heart. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a great place for just walking around to admire the scenery.
The main plaza and its lovely pink sandstone cathedral sit at the center of the city. Within a 10-block zone more than four dozen impressive edifices tell the story of Morelia’s colorful history. Downtown buildings span the centuries, from baroque to plateresque, neoclassic, and ostentatiously Porfirian. (The latter defines the style of early 20th-century
“president for life” Porfirio Diaz.) Some of the restored mansions and churches serve their original purposes, while others have been co-opted for use as museums or government buildings.
Although architectural styles vary, neoclassic and plateresque buildings of locally quarried cantera stone predominate. They are interspersed today with one-, two-, and three-story buildings of newer vintage whose warm color palate of coral, sand, and yellow ochre for the most part harmonizes well with the older buildings.
At the northern end of Morelia’s historical center are several icons of the city. Across from Jardín Villalonguín, the bronze sculpture of three indigenous women is said to have been made with keys collected among the city’s residents. From there the city’s 250+-arch aqueduct is visible. Built at the end of the18th century, it served as a water source until the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, in 1910.
Not so interested in history or architecture? How about a rock concert at the bullring, classical ballet at Teatro Morelos, or a drink at an open-air cafe at Parque de las Rosas, adjacent to the oldest music conservatory in the Americas. Maybe instead of museums you’d prefer to enjoy a movie at one of a half dozen multiplexes or an evening of live rock, salsa or trova in a downtown bar. Morelia is a great city to just do Mexico; you don’t necessarily have to do the sights.
Lovers of handcrafts will be quite content to visit Morelia, where boutiques and government-run shops sell folk art and items from nearby towns and villages. That Michoacán state produces a great variety of handcrafts is by design rather than by accident. In the chaotic years after the Conquest, the enormously energetic Spaniard Bishop Vasco de Quiroga came to the region with ideas to improve the lives of the natives. (All but a privileged few natives lacked any sort of financial security. They had no land and no status.) Empowered by a book entitled Utopia, de Quiroga expanded upon indigenous knowledge of copper smithing, pottery making and other arts. Artisans in each town were given specific glazes or techniques, leaving a legacy that still fuels local economies.
Morelia still has a relatively small foreign community, and most vacationers are from Mexico City or elsewhere in Mexico rather than from Canada or the United States. And if many of the shopkeepers and cabbies you’ll encounter speak English well, it’s probably because they spent years working in el norte rather than attending foreign tourists. (Michoacán habitually has the highest percentage of its population emigrating for work than any other state in Mexico.) In other words, in Morelia you’ll find a quintessentially Mexican city. If you still want to see “the Mexican’s Mexico,” however, Guadalajara is only about three hours away.
For more things to do as well as hotels and restaurants, check out our Morelia Travel Guide.