Tag Archives: 1000 places

Patzcuaro… Story-style

Here is a more “creative” version of our time in Pátzcuaro.

Our car jostled down the narrow cobblestone street, flanked on either side by two-story, white-washed adobe walls with red doors and overhanging red tile roofs. As we looked at these 400-year-old haciendas with wrought iron balconies and open, inviting patios, we felt the anxiety of the last fifteen days ease out of our tired bodies.

“This is what I thought Mexico would look like,” I exclaimed excitedly.

My husband shrugged and asked me which way he should turn.

Squinting out the dusty car window, I frantically searched the building walls for any kind of street sign that could help me fulfill my duty as navigator. Unable to stop on the narrow street, I saw Mex’s forehead start to wrinkle impatiently. “Izquierda,” I shouted, having no idea where we were on the map. He swerved to the left and the towering 200-year-old ash and elms of Plaza Vasco de Quirago, more commonly called Plaza Grande, came in to view. “Thank goodness,” I thought. I had guessed the correct direction.

After circling the plaza three times in search of our hotel, the crisp uniformity of the buildings in Pátzcuaro became slightly less charming and a little more frustrating. Once the homes of the areas rich land holders, these beautiful haciendas are now restaurants, shops and hotels. Finally, we saw a small circular sign on the sidewalk proclaiming Hotel Misión San Manuel and darted in to the last parking space.

Walking through the grandiose archway, we felt like we were entering a realm of spa treatments and luxury linens. Then, remembering we were only paying $40 a night, we reined in our expectations. The petite woman behind the desk handed us our keys and we toted our suitcases up two flights of cement stairs. Buttery yellow walls, 20-foot archways with pale stone pillars and orange floors seemed to glow in the afternoon light. The central courtyard, which would have been open in the 1700s when the home was built, was now covered by an elevated sheet of Plexiglas allowing air and light but not rain to enter. The iron railings were punctuated with terracotta pots filled with draping plants and flowers.

After putting the suitcases in our quaint, beautifully tiled room, we walked around Plaza Grande looking for souvenirs. In 1536, Bishop Vasco de Quirago arrived in this region of southwestern Mexico to help the Purépecha Indians recover from the blight of Spanish conquistadors. Some say that in order to reduce competition and create proficiency and economic stability, Quirago taught each village surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro to specialize in a different craft. Those specialties can still be found in the shops around the plaza, almost 500 years later. We passed shops displaying delicate lacquer boxes with designs so intricate they seemed to have been painted by elves, and painted pottery with electric blues, pinks and greens. We ducked through a doorway and into a small courtyard circled by copper pots of all different sizes, straw sculptures of people and animals, and hundreds of skull and skeletal figurines, which seemed to call us back for November’s Day of the Dead celebration.

Exhausted from shopping and driving over endless speed bumps, or topes as they are called, we were lured in to a café by the smell of ground coffee and fresh pastries. Seated under the shade of the towering trees, we watched the uniformed school children play in the plaza. Ordering two iced mochas and, at the last moment, a slice of strawberry cheesecake, we felt like we were back in Minnesota living our normal lives. Putting aside itineraries, budgets and travel worries, we relaxed and begin to sketch a menu for the restaurant we hope to own one day.

Waking up the next morning, the peacefulness of Pátzcuaro was forgotten and the ticking of my watch seemed to echo off every stone wall in our room.

 “What do I wear?” I said anxiously. Nothing in my suitcase looked appropriate. Had I not thought of this until now? After six years together I was finally meeting his father and five sisters and with only one chance to make a first impression, I needed to get it right. My stomach wrenched.

“Anything,” Mex said. “They all look nice.”

“This is no time to try and score brownie points,” I sputtered. “I need help! My hair looks terrible.”

Seeing that there was no right answer, and clearly a lot of wrong ones, he chose to turn his attention to refolding clothes in the suitcase. Looking at my husband’s face I saw his cinnamon skin wrinkled in thought. Remembering that this day was his, a return to his father’s house after 13 years in the US, I grabbed my green travel pants and pink striped shirt and hurriedly put them on. With a quick hug, I said, “Let’s go, olorosito. I’m tired of travelling.” 

As our car left the shadowy canopy of Pátzcuaro and returned to the sun-drenched highway of Michoacán, I squeezed his hand, looked at my map and pointed east, counting the miles until we would arrive home.

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Copper Canyon – Barranca del Cobre

The courtyard of our El Fuerte inn, the Posada Don Porfirio

Here is a slightly out of order narrative of our Copper Canyon trip with some scattered advice. And, yes, it has a well-deserved place on the 1000 Places list!

We got on the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico train in Cuauhtémoc and took it through the canyon for 11 hours to El Fuerte. A couple of notes… you can not buy tickets at the Cuauhtémoc train station (at least not when we were there) so you have to either get on in Chihuahua (or Los Mochis on the west) or risk that you won’t get a seat. There was plenty of room on the train but, during the busy season there might not be. We paid on the train and the conductor “forgot” to bring us change but my Spanish-speaking hubby tracked him down and got it. Tickets are not cheap. It cost us about $200 US to go from Cuauhtémoc to El Fuerte and $130 US from El Fuerte to Creel. When going East sit on the Right side of the train. When going West sit on the Left side of the train for the best views.

About an hour east of El Fuerte the train starts to cross rivers for some breath-taking views (and really high bridges)

The El Fuerte train station is about a mile outside of town so we got in a taxi with two other tourists. We arrived after dark. It was a little nerve-wracking because as we were driving past a corn field some guy stepped out of a corn field and tried to flag down our taxi. I could tell the taxi driver was nervous as he swerved and sped around him. That put both of us on edge right away. In El Fuerte, we spent the night in a 200-year-old hacienda called Posada Don Porfirio, which cost about $400 pesos ($38 US). The room was nice with a private bathroom and very high ceilings – about 14 feet – giving it an open feeling. We arrived late at night so felt a little uneasy about the group of men huddled in the courtyard but when we awoke the next morning and the owner gave us a tour of the beautiful gardens, we realized it was just nerves. (We asked some of the passengers on our train where they stayed and they recommended Hotel La Choza, El Fuerte and the Rio Vista Lodge. We had called some of these places and they were full… probably booked up by these tour groups. The Posada San Francisco looked nice on the outside when we drove by.)

Overall the train ride was very, very scenic. We met lots of really nice people. Mainly Americans in their 60s and 70s on tour groups. The train went through a lot of very little towns and farm fields at the beginning, as we worked our way west. There are lots of apple orchards around Cuauhtémoc but most have black fences that unroll over the tree tops to prevent them from being scorched by the sun. We saw barely any clouds the entire time. The first stop of the train where a lot of people get on is a small town called Creel. It turns out we could have driven there if we wanted to because the road has asphalt the entire way.  That is the town where a lot of backpackers get off and it is possible to hire guides and go on treks in the canyon. We read that you should never go hiking without a guide because the mountains are actively used for drug smuggling. If you are adventurous, take a small bus down 4500 feet to Batopilas, a little mining town at the bottom of the canyon on the river. There are quite a few hostel-type hotels and all the “young” people seemed to congregate here.

View of Copper Canyon from Divisadero, the only stop the train makes in the entire 11 hour journey.

Copper Canyon, in Divisadero

The second day, on our way back through the canyon, we did get off in Creel and went into the canyon to a hotel called the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge in Cusásare for about $185 US a night.  It is a fairly nauseating, twisty, 30 minute van ride to the lodge. If you get easily car sick, beware! The lodge had no electricity and was lit by kerosene lamps and heated by a little wood stove which was definitely not powerful enough. Luckily, the bed had about 10 blankets. It was charming in a rustic sort of way. The only downside was the lamps put off a very, very strong gas odor that made me want to open the

A fuzzy picture of our room at the Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge

window despite the frigid temperature. All our meals were included (because you are in the middle of nowhere and have no other food option). Since the train was late, we did not get down in the canyon until about 6 and 6:30 was “margarita time.” There was a group of mountain biker guys who had gotten some local moonshine from down in the canyon that they shared with us. They were super friendly and fun to chat with. Needless to say, a little moonshine and a few margaritas later I had my head in the toilet for about three hours. We were at about 7000 feet and I guess I miscalculated the elevation in relation to the effect of alcohol. Although Mex had almost as much

Electric-free Copper Canyon Sierra Lodge (American-owned by the way) down in the canyon

as me and felt nothing so it may have been the beef I ate that he skipped. It was very sad because that meant I felt like crap the next morning when we had a chance to hike to the nearby waterfall. My husband was very wonderful and not upset at all. He did have fun trying out some of the bikers multi-thousand dollar bikes. In the morning, there were a handful of Tarahumara Indian women sitting on the steps right outside our door selling their baskets but they were not pushy at all. We got back up to Creel about 2 pm and ended up taking the bus back to Cuauhtémoc because it left earlier than the train (and cost less).

Street vendor right next to the train stop. Take a bite! The chiles rellenos were fabulous! We didnt get any stomach sickness from this street food.

A couple more notes… In Divisadero, the train stops for 15 minutes. Jump off and go down the street/stairs in between the vendor stalls to get to the edge of the canyon. Do NOT go up the stairs if you want to get to the edge of the canyon. You will get a not-so-great view for a picture and waste valuable minutes backtracking to get to the edge.  There is a hotel right on the edge (literally) where I would love to spend the night if we ever go again. We grabbed some food from one of the vendors. I had tacos and Mex had chiles rellenos. It was so very good! They cook it on this oil drum stoves and it is hot and yummy (with just the right amount of savory grease). You have to chew your food quickly though because you can’t bring it on the train. Neither one of us got sick from this but who knows. It could have been the start of why my stomach has been a little off since the train ride. There were also many, many Tarahumara indian women selling beautiful baskets. They were not too pushy and none of them just begged for money. They were always offering baskets which truly are beautiful. We bought a hand-made tortilla basket for Mex’s sisters and wish we could have found more of them.

The train Copper Canyon train making its way over one of the many bridges

I think the train goes over 80 some bridges and almost 40 tunnels. It really is an amazing train ride. The first class train is very nice with a lot of room and there is the spot in between cars where you can take pictures through open windows (although you have to fight for a spot at the best parts). There are many tour packages that leave from the US or you can fly in to Chihuahua City and leave from there. We would definitely recommend it and advise stopping in the canyon at least one day. Early March was a nice time to go weather-wise although the scenery was pretty dry. They say the summer is really, really hot in the canyon. Another time that is supposed to be nice is in October or November because it is after the rainy season and there is a little more greenery and wild flowers.

Great views about 2 hours east of El Fuerte

Some notes on scenery spotting. If you are looking at a guide-book like Lonely Planet with a map, the area between Cuauhtémoc and Creel is mostly farm fields and little towns. South of Creel about an hour the scenery starts changing to pine trees. In Divisadero, you get to jump off and see down in to the canyon. Get off the train and look because, sadly, you never really get a great view IN to the canyon from the train. The area around Temoris is stunning! About 1.5 – 2.5 hours north of El Fuerte the train crosses rivers and lakes and is really beautiful. Right around El Fuerte it is more of a desert landscape with Saguaro cactuses and scrub brush.

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Filed under Chihuahua State, Mexico, Travel Tips