Made in Mexico In the country's heartland, two old friends discover a paradise of natural ingredients and no additives Budget Travel Friday, Mar 19, 2004, 11:39 AM Budget Travel LLC, 2016


Made in Mexico

In the country's heartland, two old friends discover a paradise of natural ingredients and no additives

Cristina's fingers, dusted with oily crumbs from our tombstone-size bag of pork rinds, slipped on the steering wheel, and we careened through burning debris. "Hold on, and roll up your windows. Now!" commanded my friend and former college roommate as we drove into the yellow smoke that poured across the mountain road.

I never would've imagined, sitting in our dorm room 15 years earlier, that this would be our end.

To be clear, we were not chasing wildfires in California. We had just crossed from Jalisco, Mexico, into Michoacán at the tail end of the dry season--the time of year when the fields that creep to the road's edge are singed to their roots to make way for new crops, and when driving becomes something of an extreme sport.

"This is what happens when you take the back roads," declared Cristina, who is now a chef and restaurant owner in San Miguel de Allende, in the neighboring state of Guanajuato, and knows a thing or two about farming cycles. We made a vow to avoid the roads less traveled.

As far as I can tell, Michoacán has never had a problem coaxing anything green and useful from the earth. It's legendary nationwide for its everlasting bumper crop of fruits and vegetables. Cristina spent a good portion of our six-week road trip waxing poetic about Michoacán cuisine--the abundant local produce, of course, but also the nifty molded tamales, nutty cream sauces, spiced stews, and ancient, hearty dishes made with beans and wild game. Only a few hours into my visit to what is arguably Mexico's most alluring western state, I became aware that its reputation is only a slight exaggeration.

Uruapan: South-of-the-border Switzerland

Until recently, Michoacán was a monolithic challenge to visit because of its lack of roads and poor public transportation. Most important, there was no easy way to connect the state's three main cities: Uruapan, Pátzcuaro, and Morelia. But just a decade ago, government initiatives forged a tire-friendly toll, or cuota, superhighway, connecting them. This smooth, multilane route is dramatically safer than previous roads, but it's not cheap. Tolls run upwards of $7 (so at least there isn't much traffic). After our close call on the back roads, Cristina and I were both more than ready to shell out a wad of pesos.

With a heavy dose of adrenaline still rolling through our veins, we snaked through eucalyptus and pine forests, carefully making our way toward Uruapan. The rush subsided with the distraction unfolding before us. We'd entered another world, a deeply green place of conifers and unusual local architecture--cabins called trojes that look as if they'd just been airlifted from the Alps. I half expected to see locals sporting snowflake-pattern sweaters, skis on porch steps, or Swiss Miss herself splitting logs.

This scene evaporated when we entered Paracho, a town of indigenous Purépechans, the majority of whom are woodworkers who carve out a living whittling everything from back-scratchers to Mexico's finest guitars. Women with babies strapped to their chests swished by us in intricately embroidered skirts while their braids, woven with colored ribbons long enough to wrap 20 presents, slapped their backs. We felt a shade like intruders, but every local smiled, their dark eyes welcoming us without reservation.

Admittedly, our hopes for Uruapan were not high. Cristina and I had heard it was an industrial place you weren't likely to visit unless you needed to negotiate contracts for your avocado import business. However, within minutes of our arrival at Hotel Mansión del Cupatitzio, a gracious hotel on the edge of the city and abutting the staggeringly beautiful Parque Nacional Eduardo Ruíz (often called Barranca del Cupatitzio), we suspected we'd heard nothing but lies told in an attempt to keep this heavenly semitropical corner of the planet a secret. In search of dinner, we put on sneakers for the downhill walk and strolled past stalls selling towering piles of toasted coconut patties called cocadas to the main plaza, Jardín Morelos. We bypassed the town's main tourist attraction, a well-tended crafts exhibit called the Huatápera, and made for the Mercado de Antojitos, a market devoted to the region's best small dishes. Cristina and I pushed our way past racks of cheap clothing, pirated Eminem CDs, and teenagers sucking on bottles of Coca-Cola to the central dining area. Women stirring vats of savory liquid startled us as they yelled like carnival barkers, but we were too hungry to care.

Cristina always orders well; she has an uncanny ability to hone in on local specialties, so I followed her lead. We greedily tucked into fried poblano chiles stuffed with local Cotija cheese and a regional soup (sopa Tarasca) thickened with pureed beans and infused with guajillo chiles, cream, and a stomach-soothing herb called epazote, only to follow up the first two courses with a couple of rounds of our requisite tacos al pastor, made with marinated roasted pork. The entire meal, including cold Victoria beer, cost all of $3.

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