El Estribo: A Scenic Overlook
For a good view of the town and the lake, head for the lookout at El Estribo, on the hill 3km (1 3/4 miles) west of town. Driving from the main square on Calle Ponce de León and following the signs takes 10 to 15 minutes on an unpaved road. Walking up the steep hill will take about 45 minutes. Once you reach the gazebo, you can climb more than 400 steps to the summit of the hill. The gazebo area is great for a picnic; there are barbecue pits and sometimes a couple selling soft drinks and beer.
No visit to Pátzcuaro would be complete without a trip on the lake to one or more of the islands. A hilltop statue of José María Morelos dominates the island of Janitzio. The village church is famous for the annual Day of the Dead ceremony, held at midnight on November 1. Villagers climb to the churchyard carrying lit candles in memory of their dead relatives and then spend the night in graveside vigil. The long day begins October 30 and lasts through November 2.
The cheapest way to get to Janitzio is by colectivo launch, which makes the trip when enough people have gathered to go, about every 20 to 30 minutes from about 7:30am to 6pm. It's best to go during the week when fewer travelers are around. Round-trip fare is 55 pesos; children 4 and younger ride free. A private boat costs around 850 pesos for a trip to Janitzio for 1 hour and then a cruise by the other three islands. Sometimes the cooperative has launches available that are significantly cheaper. The ticket office on the pier, or embarcadero (tel. 434/342-0681), is open daily from 8am to 6pm. The pier is 1km (about 2/3 mile) from the main square, and the 5-minute taxi ride costs 30 pesos. At the ticket office, a map of the lake posted on the wall details boat trips to various islands and lakeshore towns. Launches will take you wherever you want to go. Up to 20 people can split the cost.
Tzintzuntzan: Ruins & Handicrafts
Tzintzuntzan (Tzeen-tzoon-tzahn) is an ancient village 15km (9 1/4 miles) from Pátzcuaro on the road to Quiroga. In earlier centuries, Tzintzuntzan was the capital of the Purépechan kingdom (a confederation of more than 100 towns and villages). On a hill on the right before you enter town, pyramids, called yácatas, remind visitors of the town's past. The village is known for its pottery and woven goods. Several open-air woodcarving workshops, full of life-size wooden saints and other figures, are across from the basket market.
There is also an interesting church and former convent that dates from the time of Don Vasco. Parts of the convent have been restored, and there are plans to restore the rest. To get to it you will walk through a wide atrio (enclosed area in front of a church) populated by ancient, gnarled olive trees brought from Spain more than 400 years ago. The Franciscan convent is austere, but with a few surprising details, such as the ruins of an intricate ceiling of Moorish design, and building stones etched with non-Christian symbols, which obviously must have been taken from native constructions. The short tour costs 15 pesos and is led by one of the community's members charged with preserving the convent. None of the guides speak English.
Lakeside Villages: A Portrait of Indian Life
For a close-up view of the Purépecha, contact Kevin Quigley and Arminda Flores, who live in Ihuatzio (see below for contact info). Arminda is Purépecha and can explain much of what you'll see and hear when visiting the villages in the area. Another good guide is Miguel Angel Nuñez (tel. 434/344-0108; email@example.com). He's a Mexican anthropologist who has lived in the area for years.
Santa Clara del Cobre: Copper Smithery
About 30 minutes away by car, Santa Clara del Cobre is a good side trip if you want to purchase copper items or see how copper is worked. Although the copper mines of preconquest times have disappeared, local artisans still make copper vessels using the age-old method of hammering pieces out by hand. They don't work on Sunday and are strict observers of "San Lunes" -- taking Monday off to recover from the weekend. On other days, the sound of hammering fills the air. If you want to see someone practicing the craft, go to one of the larger stores and ask if you can visit the taller (studio). You can also visit the Museo del Cobre (Copper Museum), a half-block from the main plaza at Morelos and Pino Suárez. The museum section of the building displays copper pieces that date to pre-Columbian times. A sales showroom to the left of the entrance features the work of local craftsmen. Admission is 10 pesos. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30am to 3pm and 5 to 7pm.
The National Copper Fair is held here each August. It coincides with the Festival de Nuestra Señora de Santa Clara de Asis (second week in Aug), with folk dancing and parades. For information, call the tourism office in Morelia.
Buses for Santa Clara leave every few minutes from the Pátzcuaro bus station.
Tupátaro & Cuanajo: A Historic Church & Hand-Carved Furniture
Just off Hwy. 120 between Morelia and Pátzcuaro is the village of Tupátaro (pop. 600), which in Tarascan means "place of reeds."
The village church is the Templo del Señor Santiago Tupátaro. It was built in 1775. Indian artists painted the entire wood-plank ceiling with scenes of the life and death of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The gilt retablo (altarpiece) is adorned with Solomonic columns and paintings. Santiago (St. James) is in the center of the retablo, and the face of the Eternal Father is above him. The symbol of the dove crowns the retablo. The church and its ceiling were restored in 1994 by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, which oversees its maintenance. There's no admission charge, and photography is not permitted. The church is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Days of religious significance include the Tuesday of Carnaval week and July 25, which honors Santiago. From Tupátaro, you can get back on Hwy. 120 or take a small road that leads to Cuanajo 8km (5 miles) away. From Cuanajo, a small road leads directly to Pátzcuaro; it's not designated yet by any number.
Cuanajo (pop. 8,000) is a village of woodcarvers who make brightly painted pine furniture. On the road as you enter, and around the pleasant, tree-shaded main plaza, you'll see storefronts with colorful furniture inside and on the street. Parrots, plants, the sun, the moon, and faces are carved on the furniture. Furniture is also sold at a cooperative on the main plaza. Here you'll also find soft-spoken women who weave tapestries and thin belts on waist looms. Everything is for sale. It's open daily from 9am to 6pm. Festival days in Cuanajo include March 8 and September 8, both of which honor their patron saint, La Virgen María de la Natividad.
Ihuatzio: Tule Figures & Pre-Hispanic Architecture
This little lakeside village is known for its weavers of tule figures -- fanciful animals such as elephants, pigs, and bulls, made from a reed that grows on the edge of the lake -- and for some pre-Columbian ruins nearby. Kevin Quigley, an American from San Francisco, and Arminda Flores, a Purépechan (tel. 434/344-0880; www.casasantiagomex.com), rent comfortable rooms to guests at economical rates. Both Kevin and Arminda take people around the area, explaining the local culture, the society, and the local crafts (and Arminda is a good cook). The turnoff to Ihuatzio is a paved road a short distance from the outskirts of Pátzcuaro on the road to Tzintzuntzan.