I got to go on this adventure because of the misfortune of another, and that makes for a sad beginning.  Four San Miguel gringas had planned this three-day, Palm Sunday weekend trip to experience the Tianguis Artesanal de Domingo de Ramos, the annual artisans’ festival, the largest in all of Mexico, that brings all manner of craftspeople from around the state of Michoacán to Uruapan, one of the oldest cities in the country, established before the arrival of the Spaniards.  One of the women, Kate, experienced a tragic death in her family, and so had to go immediately to the States.  My friend, Linda, invited me to take her place.   A little aside here:  Linda’s and my children had attended a tiny, progressive elementary school just outside of Philadelphia at the same time decades ago.  Linda had been the president of the board, and although I knew of her, we were not friends then.  In 2012, when we were both at the same wedding, we re-discovered each other, even though both of us had different last names from those we had while our kids were at Miquon.  We immediately bonded over our shared past, our mutual friends, the bride and groom, and being extremely happy residents of San Miguel.

I bought Kate’s bus ticket, but feared using it, as it had her name on it, and if I were asked for ID, I’d be in trouble.  So with some misgivings, I went to the travel agent that sold the tickets originally, and much to my surprise, she didn’t bat an eye, and exchanged the ticket without any hassle.  (Well, I found out it wasn’t really a ticket, just a coupon to be exchanged for a ticket at the bus terminal on the day of departure.)

At a little before 7 a.m. on Friday, March 22, I met Linda, who was to be my roommate in the hotel that had been booked, and the other two roommates, Helena and Nancy, at the bus station in San Miguel.  It turned out that I already knew Nancy as she was in my yoga class and had attended some UU services.  Helena and Nancy were new to Linda, as they were friends of Kate’s.  We all exchanged our coupons for real tickets and boarded the bus for our three and a half hour ride to Morelia, in the state of Michoacán.

When we arrived at Morelia, we discovered that our next bus, directly to Uruapan, had just left and there was no other scheduled in the near future.  We checked out the price of engaging a cab for that one and half hour ride, and at 180 pesos each (a total of $60 USD) vs. 150 pesos each for the bus that wasn’t there, it was no contest.  Our driver, Gabriel, a charming, personable young man who spoke excellent English since he had spent eight years in Oregon planting trees, drove well, but fast on the mostly two-lane highways.  Since there were four of us, Linda sat in the front seat as she had had recent neck surgery, and I got the seat in the middle of the back over the hump.  There were no seat belts for the back-seat passengers.  This is not at all unusual in Mexico.

It wasn’t Gabriel’s driving that worried and scared me; it was everyone else’s.  Since I had, unfortunately, a totally unobscured view of the road, I can’t tell you how many drivers I saw pass on a double line or a curve, coming directly at us until the last possible moment, and other death-defying feats.  I have long thought that driving laws in Mexico were merely suggestions.  Although we arrived safely, we all agreed that, no matter what, we would take a bus back to Morelia from Uruapan on Sunday.  (In the bus, a clear plastic panel with a door and a curtain is between the driver and the passengers, so mercifully, no one can see what’s happening on the road except the driver.  When we got going on the original bus ride, a friend of the driver’s left his seat and moved up into a jump seat in the driver’s area, and talked with the driver the entire trip.  I’m sure that this is an absolute no-no, but it occurred.  I hoped that rather than being a distraction, it kept the driver from falling asleep.)

Reservations had been made well in advance at the Victoria Hotel on Calle Cupatitzio (the name of the river in town) in Uruapan via booking.com, and each set of roommates had a confirmation printed out and in-hand, ready to present to the clerk.  While throngs of other guests waited to register, the clerk informed us that there were no reservations in our names and that no rooms were available.  We all knew that there was to be no leaving.  This was the busiest weekend of the year in Uruapan; there were only a few other hotels that we would consider staying in, and they were surely completely booked.  Linda was having none of the “No rooms available” talk.  While the other three of us sat nervously to the side, guarding our luggage, Linda insisted that the clerk call the 800 number for booking.com that was on the paperwork, and they confirmed that we indeed had a reservation and re-sent via fax the notification that had been sent to the hotel originally.  Magically, rooms became available.  (You must understand that this all took about an hour and who knows what out of Linda and the rest of us as we waited.)  We insisted on seeing the rooms that we were being offered, and after a great deal of back-and-forth and negotiations, we agreed on two on opposite sides of the second floor.  (Later in the day, Linda received a voice message on her cell phone from booking.com, saying that the hotel had overbooked.  Surprise, surprise!

Uruapan is a sad little town almost totally taken over by graffiti except in the city center.  We were appalled, and in true type-A gringa fashion, we came up with all sorts of plans for how the town could eradicate the problem.  It truly had nothing going for it except for the exquisite Parque Nacionál Eduardo Ruiz, filled with waterfalls (more on this later), and this annual festival which this year ran from March 22 through April 7.

By this time, it was mid- to late-afternoon, and we were starving.  We set out to find a place to have some food.  This was easier said than done  We had googled restaurants in Uruapan, and the few that came up were either gone or we couldn’t find them.  We finally came upon the Café Tradicionál de Uruapan about three blocks from the hotel.  This place wasn’t even on the list from Google!  It was extremely attractive with beautifully carved wood everywhere.  It became our home away from home and also that of many of the other gringos that had come for the weekend and the festival.  We met many folks we knew from SMA, either there on their own or with a tour the Lions Club of SMA had organized.

So here, from left to right, are my travel companions:  Helena, Nancy, and Linda, in the Café Tradicionál.  Just behind Helena, on the other side of the little piece of fence you can see, is the sidewalk.

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We gratefully had magaritas and a meal.  We returned to our rooms to get organized, to read, and to rest.  Much later we re-surfaced to have some soup (in the same restaurant) and a quick walk through some of the stalls in the artisans market, not yet officially open.

Saturday morning found us back in the Café for breakfast, as we eagerly awaited the Parade of the Villages.  I had heard that there would be around 2000 craftspeople from hundreds of indigenous communities in the state parading in their native dress and carrying samples of their crafts, either in normal size or miniaturized for throwing out into the crowd, a la Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

The locals came early to insure a place for themselves for the parade.

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The parade began at last with this official greeting, “Welcome, Brother and Sister Artisans.”  The masculine is used when it includes both men and women.  I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here.

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This group represented the neighborhoods of the host city.

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Then each successive group, representing another city or puebla in the state, paraded down the street, most accompanied by their very own band of varying sizes.

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Some of the groups reminded me of the Mummers’ Parade each New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, as they would put on a little performance on each block for the onlookers.

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These women represented a community of weavers, and proudly paraded with samples of their craft.

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With the appearance of this incredible float, there were some very tense moments.  This was from a violin-making community, and their huge violin was too high for the wires in its path.

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I fully expected that we would see some young men being electrocuted, but using a variety of unusual aids, they were able to get the out-sized violin under the wires and on its way, although there were other wires to negotiate all along the parade route.

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As we were having breakfast, we had seen this man running up the street to the start of the parade, with his display of embroidered cloths and poles under his arm, so we were particularly happy to see him again in full regalia, strutting his stuff.

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I particularly liked the name of this town, the boy carrying the sign, and the girl in representative dress.  (This is being added much later, after reading Judith Gille’s marvelous “The View from Casa Chepitos”:  “The word tzintzuntzan, when spoken rapidly and correctly [tsin-tsoon-tsahn], is onomatopoeic for the sound of hummingbird wings in flight.  In the pre-Hispanic era, the village of Tzintzuntzan was known as the place of the hummingbirds…”)  On many of the paraders, you can see confetti in their hair, as the by-standers showered each successive group with it.

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Some women with their crafts — and very necessary bottles of water.  It was hot!

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I loved how the sun shone through this woven city name to re-produce itself on the street.

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Some by-standers twirled wooden noise makers to herald each succeeding group.

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First time I’d seen women playing in the accompanying bands.

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The parade went on for a couple of hours, and it was obviously a bit too much for this little darling.

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Not sure what these next couple of photos are all about.  They don’t seem to be craft-related, but their costumes are incredibly complex.

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Back view.

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Front view.

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I was transfixed by the intricate costume and ankle-bells of this dancer.

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How beautiful these children are!

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What would any Mexican parade be without a bull?

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Lucky these women had their products to use as visors — and as cup holders.

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Great hat!

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Mexicans seem to me to have a very different relationship to danger than we do up north.  (Refer to lack of seat belts and description of harrowing taxi ride, above, for example.)  One of the floats in the parade was from a community that does copper work, which requires using a fire.  So, naturally, their float had an open fire, and workers were pounding heated copper for all to see.  You do see the thatched roof and paper and cloth decorations on the float, right?  And do you perceive the danger of riding down the street in such a float?  I certainly do.  Obviously, they don’t.  On closer examination, I did see two large plastic containers, hopefully filled with water.  But still…

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Notice her throne — a huge copper vessel.

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Another live demonstration, this time of woodworking — at least this one is safe!

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At the end of the parade, the onlookers got in line behind the final participants and followed them to the tented stalls in the central plaza where all of their creative labors for the past year were on display and for sale.  The items were of varying quality and price.  We spent about an hour and a half there, each going her own way to explore what interested her, seeing only the tiniest fraction of what was available.

(This is being added later:  I learned from reading Judith Gille’s book, “The View from Casa Chepitos,” that, thanks to sixteenth-century Spanish bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, who taught self-government, various trades, and handicraft production to the indigenous people of Michoacán, each village learning a different skill, that they became self-sufficient.  Now, nearly five centuries later, village artisans still produce the same handicrafts once fabricated by their ancestors.)

The main entrance to the display and sale area.

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I’ll show you some of the finer pieces first.

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And then there were thousands of pots, plates, baskets, spoons, chairs, clothing, musical instruments — really, you cannot believe the volume of products.  It was quite overwhelming

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For this little one, it was just too much.

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I certainly enjoyed following these magnificently-attired women down one row.

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This is my favorite photo from the weekend, as this little girl, deep into her own world, shares her tortilla with the pigeons.

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Then we met up to go to a trout restaurant we had heard of on the edge of the city.  Of course we all had trout, in various forms, but the service was poor and the food only middling.  Sigh.  But, just outside of the trout restaurant were two delightful, attractive teen-aged girls sampling “paletas” (little shovels) — popsicles.  They chopped up an avocado one and we tasted it and went wild.  Then we sampled the macadamia nut one, and all of us ordered that one, though we agreed that it was a tough choice.  They had other flavors as well.  I think this was a small, artisanal effort, and we were blown away.  We found out that the Uruapan area was a major producer of macadamia nuts (who knew?) as well as farmed trout.  Coffee, too.

From there we walked several blocks to the national park, thinking we’d walk off the meal and the unexpected dessert, but by that time it was 4 p.m. and the park was due to close in an hour.  We decided to wait until the next day when we could really give it its due.

There was a “concurso,” a competition where judges selected the best of the best in each category of craft, with cash prizes, and they were all on display in La Casa de la Cultura.

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I absolutely loved this!

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This, too.

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On Sunday, it was back to our favorite restaurant for breakfast.  Then, although we were told it was closed on Sundays, we went to see an old textile factory that had been built in the 1870s.  Because it was a special Sunday, it was open and we were thrilled.  We met the 90-something year-old gringa who had purchased it with her husband in the 1950s.  Of all things, the very day that we were hearing her story was the fourth anniversary of his death.    She is still running it as a textile factory, although using only a small portion of it.  They had a lovely gift shop featuring products made on-site.  Another huge room was being used for an art exhibit.

I liked the slogan for this year’s festival, as seen on the banner below:  “Gente Emergente” (using the word “gente” twice), which means, “The people emerging.”

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We walked back into the center of the city and found a shady place to watch the Palm Sunday procession, which we found small and somewhat desultory.

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After that it was more time in the market.  I bought a small lacquered wooden jewelry box, which is something I really needed, but it was so crowded under the tents that we all felt claustrophobic and had to leave.  It was also very hot.

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For our final meal, we went to a restaurant in the five-star Hotel Mansion del Cupatitzio, just across the street from the trout place we’d been the day before.  Here, we had a most attentive waiter and totally delicious food in a charming ambiance.  I really couldn’t figure out what such a hotel/restaurant, complete with extensive and magnificent gardens, and a pool, was doing in this lacklustre town.  It appeared to be a site for destination weddings, and we saw the bride and groom for one while we were there.

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Believe it or not, this was a tiny serving of sorbet, a palate cleanser between courses!

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Even after our sumptuous meal, we all hoped for another paleta for dessert, but, alas, the little stand was closed.  We were so disappointed.  We walked to the park again, paid our admission, and spent several relaxing hours there.

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This park was such a respite and refuge from the graffiti-scarred city and the throngs of tourists in town for the fair.  It was magnificent, and filled with both natural and man-made waterfalls.

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Water was everywhere, frequently surprising us, which was such a nice change from San Miguel, which is incredibly dry.

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Even the adults got into going down this well-worn sliding board.

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I found this rather sad.  There were at least four of these swing stands in excellent condition in this children’s play area, but not a swing to be seen.

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Lots of places to eat, of course.

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On the grounds of the park was a trout farm.  We could see it from way above, but I don’t think it was open to the public.  Naturally, trout was the main menu item at the many stands.  This sign says that here, in The Little Fish restaurant, rainbow trout are prepared.  Of course, they also serve gorditas (“little fat ones,” a type of stuffed sandwich), and quesadillas.

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And here are the trout fillets awaiting an order.

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Another of the many trout places.

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And here is dessert — fruits cut into rose shapes and put on a stick (and probably dipped in a bit of chile powder for good measure), or just cut into cubes.

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Now here was a twist on the Acapulco divers, the young men who dive into incredibly deep water to chase a peso coin tourists have thrown.  This guy first announced what he would be doing — diving into a very deep natural pool…

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then he climbed up even higher and before diving in, crossed himself…

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then in he went (I couldn’t watch!) then came back up so quickly, we couldn’t believe it, and made the rounds to collect a few coins.

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I loved this one!

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This was a wonderful, relaxing, cooling experience — to be in so much green, and surrounded by volumes of water, hearing it, touching it.  We left reluctantly.

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I thought that these sweet treats looked fairly disgusting, but one of us bought one of the lighter-colored ones, and shared, and they — caramelized coconut — are incredible!  This stand was right outside the park.  I’m not so sure about the cake.

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Just had throw in these photos of what the well-dressed lady in Uruapan is wearing on her feet these days.  Somehow I can’t even imagine it, and I certainly didn’t see anyone whom I thought would be comfortable in these shoes, but then, that is so not the point.

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Then it was back to our hotel, where we had stored our luggage when we checked out earlier.  We took a taxi to the bus station, and got our bus without a problem.  We changed busses in Morelia, and arrived back in SMA in the dark, tired but happy and fulfilled by our weekend excursion.

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2 Responses to “”

  1. susan said

    I loved it! Thanks, Cynthia

  2. Carol said

    Cynthia, you outdid yourself! First of all, you left me disappoiinted (and jealous) that this annual Festival/Fair happens after we’ve left SMA. Secondly, and second best, I felt like I took the trip with you — the photos and descriptions were wonderful. And I loved your honesty. You didn’t try to make it 100% honey and roses. My favorite photo is the girl sharing her tortilla with the pidgeons. The small girl taking a break from the excitement — wonderful, too. But one thing I VERY MUCH MISSED — just one itsy bitsy little photo of YOU? Or did you exclude those deliberately?

    And now you’re off again… and then Phila. Have a wonderful summer and we’ll see you next January.

    Carol

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