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.
I can't help it; I've always been a sucker for Mexican markets. They wallop the senses, fill me with energy, and tempt my inner glutton without fail. Some people consider dining on street food to be risky business in Mexico, but without risk there's little reward. My most memorable, authentic Mexican meals have all been plastic-plate affairs at markets or modest family restaurants. A few rules of thumb diminish the chances of unwanted trips to the bathroom: Sit at the busiest counter, where the food is sure to be freshest; avoid raw fruits and vegetables that may have been sprayed with unpurified water; and when in doubt, a spritz of lime (or a sip of tequila) can go a long way toward warding off pesky bacteria.
Pátzcuaro: Cobbles, crafts, and comfort food
"I have ants in my pants," admitted Cristina a few days later--her polite way of saying, "Let's move on." So our lazy stay in Uruapan climaxed with a farewell meal at Urani, the open-air restaurant next to our hotel. Overlooking the government-protected park waters and sweeping vegetation, we enjoyed an appetizer of chunky avocado, then grilled trout, fresh from the mountain brook babbling below. It was perfect nourishment for a final stroll in the park. Along the lushly lined paths, the swan-like orchids craned out from jacaranda trunks; banana trees reached Jurassic heights.
Throughout our tour, Cristina and I became avid fans of aguas frescas (flavored "fresh" water). Easily Mexico's favorite drink, the sweet and semisweet concoctions come in exotic, mostly fruity, flavors. One sweltering day in colonial Zacatecas we achieved personal records of 10 each. A healthy percentage of the nation's aguas frescas are sold at open-air stores called
La Michoacana. Not an original name, I was told, but not franchises--vendors simply want to capitalize on Michoacán's rep for freshness. Most mornings, I started with a creamy horchata, made with rice milk, honey, and cinnamon, graduating to tamarind or jamaica (hibiscus blossom) agua fresca for afternoon pick-me-ups. We also stumbled across some surprising flavors, such as chía (as in Chia Pet), which has a sprightly, wheatgrassy appeal, or tepache, a fermented, rough-around-the-edges pineapple brew that Cristina insists smells like cat urine. Thankfully, there are dozens of flavors to choose from.
Of the 35 towns and cities on our aggressive itinerary, we were probably most excited about visiting colonial Pátzcuaro, the beating heart of the Purépechan homeland. Our exuberance was not unfounded; we hankered for dishes made with the flaky white fish (pescado blanco) from nearby Lake Pátzcuaro, and we breathed easy knowing the charming, historic Hotel Mansión Iturbe had a room with our name on it. Time in Pátzcuaro doesn't pass linearly, as if turning pages of a book. It's a dreamy place, surrounded by mountains and full of craggy cobblestone streets; days can meld together without explanation. At first I thought this was simply the effect of a potent "welcome cocktail" or the weirdly wonderful beer-flavored ice cream I ate upon arrival. Or maybe I'd been hypnotized by the fluttering of winged "butterfly" nets still used by locals for fishing.
We checked into the hotel, a 17th-century house overlooking Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, a central square with willowy trees named for the beloved Spanish bishop who championed the rights of the indigenous people. The inn's mother hen, Señora Margarita Arriaga, gave us a tour of the exquisite property, which has been the pride of her family for centuries. She even invited us to sip tequila with her in the drawing room--keeping us up well past our usual bedtimes.
On the second day, Cristina and I gave up on browsing Pátzcuaro's copper-crafts shops, and meandered lakeward to the ramshackle fish joints for fried charales, minuscule, smelt-like fish. While we ate, the lake's largest island, Janitzio, beckoned, so we boarded a longboat to its shores. Onboard, a trio of musicians kept time by slapping the sides of their cello and guitars.
The foods of Michoacán aren't defined by ingredients that set the chest on fire; instead, regional dishes support richer, mellower flavors that have been enjoyed since ancient times. Señora Arriaga encouraged us to sample classic Michoacán cuisine in the hotel's restaurant, Doña Paca. We settled on churipo, a rich stew made with beef, chicken, and pork that tasted like it was given a kick in the pants by sour cactus fruit and ancho chiles. This traditional dish was served with corundas, steamed corn tamales shaped like pyramids that reminded us, in miniature, of the nearby archaeological sites of Tzintzuntzán and Ihuatzio.
Morelia: Michoacán's sugary center
After a painless 40-minute drive from Pátzcuaro, we entered Morelia. Perhaps we should have started in the aristocratic state capital, slowly acclimating ourselves to the other parts of Michoacán, places where nature and native influences rule. Instead, Morelia left both of us wanting to turn the car around--at first. Unprepared for its swaggering sophistication, I felt overwhelmed by its majestic plazas, dizzy over the number of city festivals, and annoyed by the swarms of students on mopeds.
Once beyond the fray, it was hard not to admire Morelia's architectural treasures or cosmopolitan allure. And within hours, I was more than curious about its famous local candies. Even the blush-hued facades of the city's innumerable colonial buildings look as if they were carefully extracted from giant sugar molds.
At the Mercado de Dulces, or sweets market, slyly tucked into the rear section of a former Jesuit convent, Cristina and I scoped out the goods: ates (thick fruit pastes), candied-fruit wedges, pralines, more cocadas, colossal lollipops, and loads of piloncillo, unrefined sugar that comes in flavors such as blackberry, licorice, and pumpkin and is often mixed with cocoa to make atole, a murky beverage. After an hour of grazing, guaranteeing ourselves a sugar rush, we moved on.
Like drug addicts looking for the next fix, we zeroed in on another source: an old-fashioned candy store called Dulces Morelianos de la Calle Real, whose towering shelves were packed with over 300 of Mexico's finest cavity-inducing treats. I immediately spotted bags of glorias--chews made from cajeta, or caramelized goat's milk, that Cristina used to bring back to school from visits home. But looking wasn't enough. I made my way to the café, where a waitress in a kitschy colonial bonnet promised me that the iced café con leche, laced with my favorite cajeta syrup, would produce sweet dreams of Michoacán. Sure enough, it did.