To conclude our discussion of the magical towns of Michoacán, we continue north of Morelia to the tranquil town of Cuitzeo, overlooking beautiful Lake Cuitzeo, the second largest fresh water lake in Mexico.
The lake is surrounded by mountains and has no natural outlets. Lake Cuitzeo provides one of the city’s signature culinary delights, the small fish known as charales. Also on menus here are piglets, frog legs and tortillas painted with vegetable dyes. The lake also provides tule, or bull-rushes, from which baskets and mats are fabricated.
In the center of the town of Cuitzeo, on a promontory with views down the hill to the placid lakeside, is a large church and former Augustinian monastery dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. The complex was begun in 1550 and houses a remarkable collection of frescoes, many of them striking in their monochromatic palette, yet many of them seriously faded. Some are extended geometric and floral patterns, while others portray biblical scenes. At one end of the open chapel is a stunning portrayal of the last judgment, predominantly in black and white with small accents of red.
The draftsmanship exhibited is some of the most precise and elegant we have seen anywhere in Michoacán. The most famous of these frescoes, perched dramatically at the head of a wide staircase, shows a friar being crucified. It was long a controversial image, and one that caused the collection to be closed to the public for decades.
The austere cloister also includes a small museum with both permanent and special exhibits. During our visit, there was a fine exhibit of large photographs depicting the elaborate face painting that accompanies the Dia de Muertos celebrations in autumn.
On the road from Morelia to Uruapan, second largest city in the state and an economic hub of the western area, lies one of the most striking of the pueblos magicos, Santa Clara del Cobre. The center of the copper industry, it has a worldwide reputation, one that peaks in early August when it hosts the National Copper Fair and competition. Although the copper ore itself comes from mines more than an hour away, it was the availability of charcoal in nearby forests that made this a better location for smelting. Here craftsmen are clearly the kings, and even public signs are hammered out of copper!
Copper production in Michoacán dates from pre-Hispanic times, when religious and domestic vessels, masks, rattles or earrings, were no more important than production of copper farming implements or military breastplates. The excellence of Purépecha coppersmiths surpassed even that of their Zapotec neighbors in Oaxaca, but it was the Spaniards who introduced the bellows, as well as casting and hammering, and during the colonial era elevated copper work to the prominence it holds today. The revered Bishop Quiroga, in the 16th century, granted the city exclusive rights to produce cazas, the large copper vats used all over Mexico for rendering fat or frying chicharones.
The central plaza of Santa Clara is lined with the same red and white buildings found throughout Michoacán, and, as expected, there is a lovely bandstand in the center – this one with aged copper posts supporting the roof. Some of the surrounding cafes feature copper tables and chairs. South of the square are three significant churches in which one discovers extraordinary copper chandeliers and even copper clad building trusses.
The showplace of Santa Clara is the National Copper Museum, where winning entries from the annual competitions are on display. The breadth of imagination and artistic excellence is astounding.
There is, as expected, a store with exceptionally fine merchandise, and in the courtyard, smiths demonstrate the coppersmith’s craft for onlookers. The flames are lighted and stoked with large bellows. As the heat increases the ore is removed from the fire in discs that are then hammered thinner and thinner by five men working in consort. They even invite bystanders to take a turn at the sledgehammers! It is a laborious and challenging occupation, but the results are impressive. Large items can take weeks or even months to produce.
In neighboring shops, and in kiosks and stalls all over town, copper items are available in every size, shape and quality. There is endless variety in design, surface treatments, textures and colors, from bowls, plates and cups, pots, kettles and lanterns, candlesticks, wall pieces, vases and jars, to jewelry, hammered doors, and exquisite sculpted sinks and tubs. Many pieces are purely utilitarian, though beautifully crafted, but many others are truly museum quality.
Most of the shops will ship to any address in Mexico. We took advantage of the great prices, (though haggling is not tolerated at many of the shops) and we can happily report that everything was expertly packed and arrived in Mérida a week later and in perfect shape! These masterpieces add a new luster to our home, but also serve as a happy reminder of the magic of Mexico’s copper capital.