Dead or alive: culture is kicking in Pátzcuaro, Mexico

a version of this was Originally published in Guardian Travel

A firework explodes directly above my head and I don't even flinch. Even a brief time in Mexico will do that to you – the omnipresence of fireworks is like having a friend who habitually cracks their knuckles. When I try to find out why they started at 6am, carried on throughout the day and kept me awake until midnight, the locals shrug, “Somebody’s always celebrating something.”

 I assume Day of the Dead to be the likeliest culprit - it’s not today, but ‘tis the season. Towards the end of October, the unique and beautiful Purépecha traditions draw Day of the Dead visitors like a thirsty sponge, and the runup sees endless street stalls stocked with pan de muerto, chocolate coffins and sugar skulls with icing-eyebrows and glittery eye sockets. Pátzcuaro lies 36 miles southwest of Morelia, and those who haven’t had their fill of colonial architecture head three hours northwest to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. Others flee the chilly highland nights via a three-and-a-half hour southwest drive to coastal Ixtapa.

Templo del Hospitalito. All photographs: Erica Buist

Pátzcuaro is the beating heart of the Purépecha people, and tourists come to this beautifully preserved colonial town in the Michoacan highlands to experience their culture, buy their wares and join in with their holiday traditions. But outside popular holidays like Day of the Dead and Christmas, the crowds have the good grace to retreat, leaving an easily-explored Pueblo Magico (magical town). Pátzcuaro got its Pueblo Magico status owing to its stunning colonial architecture, vibrant Purépecha artisan traditions and dramatic scenery. Waking up in the Sol apartment of Hotel Casa Encantada, my morning view is a misty blue-green mountain backdrop to red rooftops, and the dome of the town’s oldest church, Templo del Hospitalito. Casa Encantada celebrates the local area with gusto – it’s drenched in local folk art, ornaments, rugs, sculptures and paintings, and there’s a traditional Catrina skeleton grinning in the courtyard year-round, welcoming guests with her bony fingers upturned.

 I bound outside into drizzle. Some say it’s the aftermath of Hurricane Patricia. Others say “Rain happens, stop whining and see some culture.” There are five art galleries within spitting distance of the nearby Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (known locally as Plaza Grande) and you can’t swing a chihuahua without hitting a one-off exhibition or knocking over stalls of intricately-designed artisanal wares. Shoppers head to Casa de Once Patios, a set of baroque buildings named after the 11 patios they comprise. Artesanal crockery, jewellry and fabrics burst from every cranny of the two-storey complex, and enthusiastic buyers scurry over steps and courtyards with the frustration of someone trapped in an Escher painting.  

 It’s a two-minute walk up a hill to the Colegio Jesuita (free) exhibits the work of local, national and international artists. The Tzompantli exhibition, 43 paper mache skulls decorated by 43 different artists to represent the Ayotzinapa students killed in 2014, is particularly moving.

Next door, Museo de Artes e Industrias Populares (MXN47, £1.85) exhibits different aspects of Purépecha history, with quotes and detailed blurbs in Spanish. The staff helpfully sheepdog visitors to make sure they see every decorative mask and handmade fork in the right order.

 Anyone who exits the museo and doesn’t cross the road for a hot chocolate at Joaquinita Chocolate Supremo is legitimately bonkers. The family has been hand-making stunning chocolate since 1898. For something a little stronger, El Carajo mezcal bar is just steps away.

 As the rain dries up, lunch at art collective Foro Cultural Cafe Mache beckons. Started by six young people, it’s set in a colonial courtyard. The walls are covered in murals and some of the tabletops rest on car tyres rather than legs. A young man with long hair paints a skeleton in watercolours; a pair of old women drink tea. Young Americans smoke in scarves and flip flops, flowing seamlessly between English and Spanish. I’m served a beautifully smooth espresso and a cheesy, flaky quiche.

 The town is stippled with altars, edible skulls and skeleton t-shirts. Though Day of the Dead only happens once a year, some keep death close by year-round: the fascinating Templo de Santa Muerte is a five-minute taxi ride from the town centre and open to the public. Photos are enthusiastically welcomed.

The temple is set in the front garden of a family home. A man in a baseball cap is lighting incense on an altar. The centrepiece is a skull – also wearing a baseball cap – with a cigar dangling from its mouth. Tequila shots and cigarettes have been left as offerings. 

A life-sized, elaborately-dressed skeleton sits by a sign, “Waiting for the perfect man”. The walls are covered with framed pictures of death in billowing black robes, a scythe and a globe. Santa Muerte, thought to deliver followers safely to the afterlife, is the saint of choice for narcotraficantes (though most followers are not narcos).

Many thoughts cross my mind as I stare into the inky blackness of death’s empty eyesockets, but not one of them is, “Now there’s someone who’ll keep me safe”.

Yet it’s oddly peaceful to see families with young children offering cigars, tequila, prayers and silent reverence – definitely as worth a visit as any neoclassical, robe-swishing church.

The next morning, I’m the only tourist boarding the 30-minute boat ride to sunny Janitzio from the Muelle General (general dock) on Lake Pátzcuaro.

Two Purépecha women embroider a shawl and chat in Tarascan, and when the island’s 40-ft statue of Jose Morelos (one of the leaders of Mexican independence) comes into view, I’m the only one to bother scrambling over bags of grain, packets of nappies and bunches of marigolds to snap photos. We disembark onto a building site. Since the news of drug violence in Michoacán, Janitzio – which relies solely on tourism – has been quiet. Over the next three months they’re putting in pavements, gardens and public bathrooms in the hope of attracting more visitors.

Climbing the cobbled alleyways winding up towards the island’s peak, it feels like a ghost town. Empty restaurants with spectacular views over the lake and mountains blast out mariachi music to no one.

 If you’re a sucker for views, from Janitzio’s peak they border on tear-jerking – even before making the climb inside the Morales monument (10MXN, 40p), to his raised fist where you can peer out through a window.

The lake, ringed by lush green mountains, is calm and flat and blue, dotted with the traditional fishing boats and butterfly nets which gave Michoacán its name, “place of the fishermen”. Drinks and snack stalls circle the monument with shaded areas and benches lightly graffitied with declarations of love (either a lot of people love Mane, or one person loves her a lot). A girl hangs washing on the flat roof of one of the restaurants, as mariachi music drifts from below. Down at the dock, boats with more tourists arrive. I’m smug that I’ve had the island to myself.

 Back on the mainland, five minutes’ walk from the Muelle General is a magnificent lunch spot: Tiendita Verde. The ground floor feels like a grotto; even the seats are made of stone. It opens out into a lush garden. Upstairs is wood, with a glass roof and bamboo blinds. It’s like eating in a treehouse. The resident dog, a German shepherd called Lucky, approaches with a stick and asks politely but consistently for a game of fetch.

For dinner in town, it’s tough to beat restaurant/deli La Surtidora on the Northwest corner of Plaza Grande. I stick to the regional section of the menu – the tacos de carnitas are tasty and magnificently filling. I order 100g of chocolate-covered coffee beans and take a stroll around the Plaza; there’s something special about the Plaza Grande at dusk.

Plaza Grande at dusk.

Camouflaged speakers play latin jazz, acoustic, mariachi music and even the odd Spice Girls cover. Families and couples walk, sit and chat among the lit-up trees, sipping hot drinks and nibbling churros. This is about as wild at Pátzcuaro nightlife gets. As the evening turns chilly at 2,200m altitude, it’s too tempting to crawl into bed under three blankets.

I fall asleep to the sound of fireworks.