Uruapan (pronounced ooh-ru-AH-pan) was founded by the Franciscans in the early days of Spanish exploration. It served as an administrative center for the area sugar cane haciendas. In the late-20th century sugar cane dwindled in importance. Today, the avocado is king. Uruapan and environs is known as the avocado capital of Mexico, some say the world. Michoacan’s second-largest city is perched in a transition zone between the colder highlands and super toasty Tierra Caliente.. Known for its warm, relatively mild climate, Uruapan means “Land Where Everything Blooms.” Among other crops the region produces citrus, bananas, papaya, and blackberries. There’s also a significant amount of marijuana grown in fertile rural areas; you’ll obviously want to steer clear of any drug-related activity, and not go wandering into fields guarded by men with shotguns.
A Short Drive from Pátzucaro
In June a friend and I made the short drive from Pátzcuaro to Uruapan on the toll road. It’s just 55 km (33 mi) on this route. Along the road we passed puff-shaped pino chino (“Chinese” pines) along with the taller “coyote” pine trees. We passed freshly plowed fields and others in which the first summer rains had emancipated green shoots of new corn.
The free road through Tingambato, however, is just 10K (6 mi) longer, and there are archaeological ruins to see. Built in a step-and-fret design like those of Monte Albán and Teotihuacán, they belonged to a culture prior to the Purépecha.
Uruapan isn’t a picturesque city, but it’s small and easy to negotiate. Very few historical buildings have been preserved, although there is a fine example of an early-16th-century huatápera, or Indian “hospital” facing the main plaza (which, surrounded by traffic, doesn’t feel much like a main square).
The coolest thing about Uruapan itself is Parque Nacional Barranca de Cupatitzio, formerly known as Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruiz. This urban park is amazingly shady, fresh, green, and quiet. Several springs join together here to form the Cupatitzio River. Streams rush alongside cement and dirt paths or are channeled into dozens of fountains. Large trees support clinging vines and shade tropical flowers. You can feed the fish at the trout farm, or eat them at the adjacent café.
A Base for Exploration
To religious travelers, however, or just lovers of idiosyncratic art, Uruapan is more than anything a great base for exploring the region’s small towns. Michoacan has some lovely, iconoclastic churches whose most distinctive feature is their painted wooden ceilings---as well as the lavish attention paid their patron saints, whose statues are often elaborately dressed or surrounded by beautiful bouquets of flowers.
Mists were hanging low over the fields as we made our way to Cocucho, whose small Franciscan temple has fantastic naif paintings on its sotocoro, or underchoir. Saint James the Apostle rides against the infidels; petitions on white paper fly up to the Virgin Mary. Because the underchoir is not far above your head, these paintings are easy to see.
The original intent must have been to make it easy for new or potential indigenous converts to appreciate these Catholic saints by surrounding them with icons familiar to the Purépecha religion. The Virgin Mary stands on a crescent moon; smiling conquistadors hold a sword decorated with a moon and a flag bearing the image of the sun. See The Purépecha Nation to read about the most important Purépecha gods and their iconography.)
We chatted with an ancient but spry lady who kept an eye on the church. She told us about her brothers, killed in the Mexican Revolution, of her grown children, and about the church. We gave her a small tip para un refresco (“for a soft drink”), as is customary.
We twice visited the town of Nurio because I was eager to see the church. Considered the finest of the old-school Michoacán churches, its wooden ceilings are entirely covered in paintings. Both times, the church was closed and no one around had the key. I chatted with a group of fifth-grade girls and visited their school. I looked through the images on my digital camera. I was patient. But I never did get to see the inside of that church.
My friend and I continued a few kilometers down the road to Pomacuaran. Although not as revered as Nurio’s, its church has a vaulted ceiling covered in paintings with vivid reds, greens, blues, black, and flesh tones. Large angels carry banners with beatitudes from the Bible: “The meek shall inherit the earth” and “Blessed be the pure of heart, for they see God,” and so on.
Driving through these tiny towns with packed dirt or cobblestone roads, we saw many styles of homes, including old-school wooden trojes with laminate roofs. A mother burro wandered loose with her baby. Most of the women were dressed in traditional dress: luxuriant pleated skirts called rollos, silky, puffed sleeve blouses trimmed in lace; and long, fancy aprons.
The highlight of a trip to this area, however, is a visit to the church at San Juan Parangaricutiro. It is buried in lava, with only the top and the bell tower exposed. You can’t get inside, but I didn’t mind missing out on flower-decked saints and painted wooden ceilings. It’s too much fun climbing up onto the lava flow and jumping from there onto a ledge near the top of the church and the bell tower. Now that’s something I haven’t done before.