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High on Life in the Mountains of Michoacán

Victoria Ryan at her hotel in Patzcuaro, Mexico
Victoria Ryan

A self-avowed rebel born in Australia and raised in New Mexico, Victoria Ryan now is high on life in the mountains of Michoacán living in Mexico on the shores of lovely Lake Pátzcuaro.

She was born in Surfer’s Paradise on the Gold Coast of northeast Australia 70 years ago. Her father was stationed in the Philippines and met her mother while on leave in Australia. After her birth, the family settled in New Mexico. Dad – born in Chihuahua in northern Mexico – bought a cattle ranch and went to work in the airline industry.

“I was a rebel growing up,” Ryan said. “I dropped out of high school and was a hippie as a young woman. It took me a long time to have compassion for my parents, but they deserve a medal for putting up with me.”

She headed for New York City to attend art school in the mid-‘60s and then came a series of jobs from bartender to selling solar heating equipment to real estate sales. Along the way she lived in Montreal and West Virginia before moving west again to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She married twice and had two daughters. One lives in Australia and the other in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As a child, Ryan visited Mexico often. Her father loved taking the family to Guaymas on the state of Sonora’s western coast, which was an easy drive from New Mexico.

“My dad used to love coming down to Guaymas,” she said. “When we were little kids we also would to go to Mazatlán a lot because it was an easy hop from Albuquerque.”

In 1992, Ryan decided to spend some time in San Miguel de Allende to take Spanish lessons and study watercolor painting. One weekend a friend suggested they go to Pátzcuaro for the weekend.

“The first time I set eyes on it,” she said, “was in the winter of 1992 and I fell in love with Pátzcuaro immediately. When I got out of the car I was bewitched. I really fell hard for it.”

High in the mountains of Michoacán, Pátzcuaro lies about 7,200 feet in elevation on the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, which is a natural lake over 30-miles long.

“It’s an old 16th century colonial city about halfway between Mexico City and Guadalajara,” she said. “With such a high elevation, the area looks a lot like the Sierra Nevada in California or the mountains of Oregon and has lots of pine trees. May is the warmest month of the year here and the rest of the time it’s kind of like eternal fall. I love the climate here. Because of the altitude, there is a big temperature swing from day to night. The leaves actually fall off the trees for about a month during the winter and last year we even got snow for practically the first time in recorded history. The summer is the rainy season but it only rains for about two hours a day. The rain keeps everything green in summer and into fall. There are sunflowers and beautiful orange flowers that carpet the countryside.”

Plaza Grande Patzcuaro, Mexico
Credit: Victoria Ryan

Over 80,000 people live in Pátzcuaro and its beauty and climate attract many visitors year-round. The expat community in the surrounding area now numbers around 400. Most are retired and spend their days at coffee shops, hiking and attending cultural events. When Ryan first moved to Pátzcuaro 19 years ago there were just four English-speaking expats living there. She said her adopted city reminded her of Santa Fe, not only because of the topographic similarities, but also the area’s historic artisan culture.

“A lot of artsy people are attracted to the area,” she said, “because Pátzcuaro and the surrounding villages are well-known centers for arts and crafts. The city itself is known for its wooden and copper plates painted with lacquer. Nearby villages are noted for hand-pounded copperware, painted furniture and pottery. We also have four famous potters living in the area who are known internationally.”

After spending winters in Pátzcuaro for several years she began looking at real estate for a pied-à-terre to purchase. Instead, she became the owner of an old colonial building that was built in 1784 in the orchard of the sisters of Catherine de Sienna. She became its second owner and began two years of construction to turn her new property into a B&B hotel.

“I opened Hotel Casa Encantada in 1999 and we are now the #1 hotel in this area on TripAdvisor,” Ryan told us. “The hotel has 12 rooms and prices that range from US$57 to US$100 per night. The price also includes breakfast.”

Hotel Casa Encantada Pátzcuaro, Mexico
Credit: Victoria Ryan

Ryan said her two slowest months are May and September but the rest of the year the hotel is always booked well in advance. Mexican families and expats who live on the hot and humid coasts come for the cool summers. During the winter, tourists from the U.S., Canada and Europe visit.

She also has several apartments she rents for longer periods of time, primarily to expats who live on the coasts and want to spend summers in the cool mountain air.

Ryan said there are plenty of things to do in and around Lake Pátzcuaro pretty much year-round. Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, in early November of each year is a big draw.

“I’m actually booked for next year with a waiting list,” she said. “Easter, which is the Semana Santa holy week, is another fabulous time here. There are processions and traditional events too numerous to describe. Christmas is also wonderful, but it’s not the Santa Claus and lighted trees visitors may expect. The emphasis is on the religious traditions of Christmas.”

Ryan also pointed to other nearby attractions like the butterfly sanctuary less than three hours away. They are on view December through February. The beach resort Zihuatanejo, with its beautiful Playa La Ropa, also is just three hours by road, and the capital of Michoacán, Morelia, with its over 600,000 population, cultural attractions and airport, is just 40-minutes away by car.

She counts on her seven employees to take care of daily business while she spends time painting and sculpting. She works in fiberglass and bronze and is currently working on a bronze deer dancer similar to what you might see at the ballet folkloric.

“I don’t have any dealers at the moment,” she said, “ but I would like to find a gallery in Puerto Vallarta or San Miguel de Allende. Mainly I have shows here every year for those people who collect my work. I do art because I love it. The most important thing for me about someone buying my work is that they value it enough to have it in their house. Art is my passion, not my business.”

Victoria Ryan in Patzcuaro, Mexico
Victoria Ryan

Ryan has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship, speaks Spanish and understands the local culture well. But it was not always that way.

“I have been here almost 20 years,” she said, “and I can tell you that it takes a long time to break through the cultural barrier and find Mexican friends who really consider you a friend. You need the language, and with language knowledge comes an understanding of the culture.”

She offered a few pieces of advice to those who wish to call Mexico their home.

“I would tell anyone thinking about moving here to rent first,” she said. “I have seen people buy a home and then realize that it wasn’t the community they thought it was. You have to be very independent, for example, to live here. Places like Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende have lots of organized activities for expats, so it’s just a lot easier to meet people. Here, you have to make your own activities. I also would encourage people to spend more time with their mouth closed and their eyes open. If you first observe the country and learn why the local people do things the way they do, you’ll be much happier and better culturally integrated.”