West of Mexico City and southeast of Guadalajara lies the state of Michoacán (Mee-choh-ah-kahn), the homeland of more than 200,000 Tarascan Indians, properly known as the Purépecha. The land is mountainous in the east, north, and center. In the south and west, it drops to a broad coastal plain before it meets the Pacific. The state gets more rain and thus is greener than its neighbors Jalisco and Guanajuato. Many Mexicans consider it the most beautiful state in their country, yet it remains relatively unvisited by foreigners.

High in the mountains, in the northeastern part of the state, a miraculous ritual occurs every year. Millions of monarch butterflies congregate in an isolated highland forest. They are the final link in a migratory chain stretching from Mexico to as far away as Canada and back. During peak season (Dec-Mar), the tree limbs bend under their cumulative weight, and the undulation of so many wings creates a dazzling spectacle. In the state's center, highland lakes and colorful Indian towns evoke the Mexico of old. These towns are known for their handicrafts and all-night celebrations on the Day of the Dead. Farther west and south is the famous volcano El Paricutín, the only major volcano born in modern times (1943).

The two most important cities in Michoacán, Morelia and Pátzcuaro, present contrasting visions of the colonial past. Morelia is a city built of chiseled stone, planned with architectural considerations, and possessed of a clear-cut geometry. Pátzcuaro is all about undulating adobe walls, crooked red-tile roofs, and narrow meandering streets. While the former is proud of its Spanish heritage, the latter remains rooted in its Indian origins.

The native Purépecha are an intriguing people. Where they came from and how they got here we don't know. Their language is unlike any other in Mexico; the closest linguistic connection is with native peoples in Ecuador. Their civilization developed contemporaneously with that of the Aztec, and they successfully defeated Aztec expansionism -- the only highland civilization to do so.

As they were not vassals of the Aztec, they didn't simply submit to Spanish rule after the collapse of the Aztec empire. In the history of the conquest and conversion of the Purépecha, two men represent the extremes of Spanish attitudes toward the Indians. One was the conquistador Nuño de Guzmán, a man so rapacious and cruel that he became infamous even among his fellow conquistadors. He was later imprisoned in Spain for his crimes. The other was Vasco de Quiroga, a humanist who believed in the ideas of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. He joined the church late in life and came to Michoacán as the first bishop of the Purépecha, establishing his see, or religious jurisdiction, in Pátzcuaro. Here he strove to build a society of cooperative communities, organizing and instructing each village in the practice of a specific craft. To this day, his organization of crafts among the different villages is largely followed.