Tourism is a major component of the Mexican economy, so the government is always seeking ways to enhance this important industry by drawing attention to lesser-known gems that are so prevalent in Mexico. In 2001 the government introduced a program designating towns as pueblos magicos, or magical towns, as a means of increasing tourism and building the sort of local confidence that helps preserve and develop local resources wisely. We were thrilled that our recent tour of Michoacán allowed us to experience six magical towns of Michoacán.
We had already experienced the magic of Izamal near Mérida in Yucatán, known as the “yellow city,” and were looking forward to Michoacan, which has a surplus of pueblos magicos. Out of a total of 110 across Mexico, eight are located in Michoacán!
To be designated a magic town, a city has to demonstrate that it possesses unique architecture, history, gastronomy, artisanal crafts and festivals. Once selected, cities are allocated federal funds to promote and enhance their offerings. The program has made a significant difference in many of these towns, most of which are little known outside of their own geographical sphere. Each of the pueblos magicos we visited on our trip can be accessed as a day trip from Morelia, the capital of Michoacán state.
The first of these were in the mountainous biosphere of the monarch butterfly, an area that straddles the border of Mexico and Michoacán states. The ecotourism and crafts industries have replaced mining here as the primary engines of the local economy.
El Oro de Hidalgo is an old mining town in the far east of Mexico state. The abundance of gold and silver ore, and the promise of wealth, drew immigrants and cultural influences from many parts of Europe to El Oro. The mining museum and old train station testify to those glory years. The city hall, from the Porfiriato epoch, sports sharply-spired corners and clean but ornate French beaux-arts decorative detail. The similarly antique Mercado Alvaro Obregon sweeps down the hillside with breathtaking views of the mountains in the distance. Nearby, the architecturally eclectic Teatro Juarez, built originally to celebrate the centennial of the War of Independence, and refurbished in 1938, still hosts significant cultural activities today.
The city was exceptionally neat and clean. Orange and yellow houses with red tiled or tin roofs line the streets, and the parks were replete with topiary in fanciful forms. The most intriguing culinary offering here is a green drink called chiva, concocted from anise and herbs.
Across the border in Michoacán state is the pueblo magico of Tlalpujahua. Like El Oro, it is remarkable for its mountain setting, and for the quality of architecture in the town center. Both have museums dedicated to their mining history. The Dos Estrellas mine here was the world’s top gold producer between 1908 and 1913, and allowed residents of Tlalpujahua to have luxuries such as telephones and electricity long before most of their Mexican compatriots.
We arrived in Tlalpujahua on a Sunday and immediately tried the local cuisine at a small restaurant on the neatly manicured park next to the Sanctuary of Guadalupe. The gastronomy here features the candied fruits that are typical throughout Michoacán, but also pulque bread, corundas (a small triangular tamal that usually lacks a filling, but is served with cream and a red sauce) and huchepos, a sweet corn tamal that is often served with sweetened condensed milk as a dessert. The food was ridiculously inexpensive and thoroughly delicious.
The streets of Tlalpujahua were somewhat steeper than El Oro, with greater use of cobblestones. The Sunday crafts market was in full swing, shops spilling out into the parks and plazas. Every imaginable commodity was available, and some you may not have imagined. The city is renown for its feather art, and for popotillos, which are mosaics constructed from vegetable fibers. But the crowning achievement of Tlalpujahua is the fabrication of Christmas ornaments. They dazzle in every size and shape.
The churches here are more elaborately and uniquely decorated than in El Oro, and stonework is more prevalent on the facades of public buildings. Crowning the hill above downtown is the exceptional Church of Our Lady of Carmen with three-dimensional embellishments sculpted throughout the nave and crossing. The sculpture-encrusted facade is an example of Churrigueresque, the exuberantly ornamental 18th century style that combines classical elements with twisted columns, leaves, geometric patterns and obelisks, and endeavors to leave not a single undecorated inch! From the plaza in front of the church there are stunning views of the surrounding forests. Tlalpujahua is one of the most picturesque cities we have visited in Mexico – and that is a pretty high bar!
Next time I’ll take you to several more pueblos magicos of Michoacán.