Discovering Mexico: Michoacán

Despite all the negative media attention, travel advisories, and the potential future construction of Trump’s wall, Mexico is still the most preferred travel destination for Americans. I would be hard pressed to find an American who hasn’t at least been to Cabo or Cancun. Anyone?

While I do not blame people for going to those locations (been to Cabo and loved it, guilty) Mexico is a gold mine full of amazing jewels that are often overlooked that just require you to step a little off the beaten path.

My most recent excursion in February took me to the Mexican state of Michoacán. Stretching from the Pacific Ocean far into the country’s interior highlands, Michoacán is a region riddled with volcanic peaks and loads of history and culture.

Lately Michoacán has mainly been in the news for the wrong reasons: violence stemming from drug cartels and vigilante groups. This is the perception that most Americans and many Mexicans for that matter have of the state, which is a pity because the behind the shroud of violence is a vibrant, explorable and tourist-friendly corner of Mexico begging to be traveled.

I’ll do a little PR for Michoacán and shed some light into the awesome sights that I visited during my whirlwind trip to the state.

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Arriving Day 1 in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. A nice and easy 3 hour flight from Tijuana.
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Morning coffee in Morelia.
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Ancient aqueduct of the city, constructed in the 1600’s.
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Carnitas quesadillas.
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Walking around Morelia, stumbling upon this enchanting little alley way.
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View from my hotel room.
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Morelia’s cathedral lit up at night.

Pátzcuaro & Janitzio

On the second day of the trip we decided to head over to Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, two of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos. Pueblo mágicos (magic towns) is an initiative by the government to promote towns with cultural/historical significance.

The region is full of indigenous culture, and when you leave the city and go out to the towns it’s a completely different walk of life where you can hear the native languages being spoken as much as Spanish.

Pátzcuaro is situated an easy one hour bus ride from Morelia, so we were in no rush and slept off the jetlag a little, heading out around noon to explore the town.

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Arriving in Pátzcuaro.
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Checking out the town market.
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Pátzcuaro’s plaza.
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Church at the plaza.

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Churches on churches.

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Next we jumped in a quick mini-bus over to the island of Janitzio, located in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro.
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Jumping on the boat out to Janitzio.
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Janitzio is a little town located on an island in a lake, quite interesting. The statue that you see on top of the island is José Maria Morelos, a key figure in Mexico’s independence.
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Quick little jaunt up to the top of the island gives you amazing views of the lake and the surrounding peaks.

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Visiting the Monarch Butterflies

Michoacán is known for its Monarch butterfly reserves. All of the gift shops in Morelia sell Monarch butterfly themed trinkets, the murals around town all contain Monarchs, and the soccer team is even called, you guessed it, the Monarchs.

Where I grew up in Santa Cruz we have a Monarch butterfly reserve as well, and boy did I take its easy accessibility for granted.

The reserve that we went to visit is located in a really remote location up in the mountains, far from any major city or town. Like true budget backpackers, we decided to not pay for one of the tours that takes you there by car in two hours and do it by public transportation.

We should have taken the fact that no one reeeeally knew exactly how to get there by public transportation as a red flag. Everyone was telling us contradicting directions.

Well, after three buses and an overpriced taxi, we had arrived at the trail head. We had already taken about 5 hours to get there and spent almost as much money as just paying for a tour, but hey, we got there. Another 45 minutes or so of hiking through the dense crowd of mostly Mexican tourists and we arrived at the Monarch reserve.

It was awesome, but quite similar to the one in Santa Cruz, which is why I will no longer take its quick, easy access for granted.

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Hiking up to the butterfly reserve.

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If this isn’t obvious, those dark clumps in the trees are butterflies. They migrate from as far as Canada to spend the winter down here.

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Fed up with the taxi drivers trying to rip us off for a ride down the hill, we resorted to hitchhiking and didn’t have to wait too long until this nice couple from Guadalajara gave us a ride to a place where we could catch a bus.

The ride back wasn’t as bad because we figured out a more efficient route. We had vowed not to take one of the crammed town buses back to the hotel (due to their erratic, windy routes around town) from the bus terminal and just pay for a taxi. We were exhausted.

However, we arrived to the bus terminal to find that the streets were packed with people and riot police were everywhere. Apparently the soccer stadium is located next to the bus terminal and a game had just ended. It didn’t appear that anyone was being violent but the police were treating it very seriously and borderline freaking out, screaming at people, directing traffic and whatnot.

The point was there were so many people in the streets there was no chance of getting a taxi. Even the buses were full until we finally found one with some space in it and took the less comfortable way home. I slept good that night.

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The following day we just relaxed and cruised around town. Sushi for lunch.
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Walking around town, checking out the houses of Morelia.

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This also happened to be Super Bowl Sunday. We posted up at a cafe and surprisingly nearly watched the whole game.
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I ordered the smoothy, thinking it would be more fruity than milkshaky, however it was far on the milkshake side of the spectrum. It was good, however I was a little disappointed.

Tzintzuntzan

On our final day in Michoacán, we headed over to the mouthful of a town, Tzintzuntzan. Tzintzuntzan is the ancient capital of the Tarascan state, which was an enemy of the Aztecs. They estimate that the city housed up to 30,000 people before it was conquered by the Spaniards in 1520. Nowadays it is just a little town on the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, but some cool remnants of the ancient civilization remain.

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View of Tzintzuntzan with Lake Pátzcuaro in the background.
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Overlooking the town is a series of semi-circle pyramids, called yácatas, which they say is where government, burials, and religious ceremonies took place.

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Walking down into town and checking out the church, which I discovered the Spaniards constructed mainly with destroyed yacata pyramids

So I hope I gave you a little peek into one of the off the beaten path destinations that Mexico has to offer, an alternative to the Cancún and Cabo trips. Michoacán is a big state and I only explored a little sliver, but my nonexistent expectations were far exceeded. Of course I would never live somewhere so far from the ocean, but the culture and nature of the region make it a great place to visit and perfect for backpackers. Now maybe you should be a little extra cautious when going to certain areas of Michoacán, but don’t let it deter you altogether. There’s plenty to do and see to keep a backpacker occupied.

Let me know if you need any tips!

3 thoughts on “Discovering Mexico: Michoacán

  1. Evan: There are many wonderful and little-known places to see in Michoacán and elsewhere in Mexico. Your photos of little neighborhoods bring back a lot of memories. I’m happy that you have an adventurous soul and that you’re wandering off the beaten path as you explore the world around you. Come visit us when you can. Love, Lee

    Liked by 1 person

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