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Lake Patzcuaro, in the State of Michoacan in Central Mexico plays a key role in the history of Michoacan and indeed all of Mexico. The large volcanic lake has been a center of the native Purhepecha people, called by the Spanish invaders the Tarascan Indians, since well before the arrival of the Spanish. The town of Patzcuaro was founded in 1324 by the king Curatame and reconstructed in 1372 by his descendant Tariacuri. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Purhepecha empire was a powerful and prosperous civilization whose influence spread as far as what now are the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Colima and Guerrero. The Purhepechas had already discovered iron and they were the only people that the Aztecs or Mexicas were unable to defeat in the many battles they fought. By 1528, the Perhepechas were overrun by Spanish forces led by Nunio de Guzman, their temples destroyed and those remaining alive dispersed into the surrounding mountains.
The history of the Purhepechas at Lake Patzcuaro might have ended there except for the wise management of Don Vasco de Quiroga. In 1531, at the age of 60, Vasco de Quiroga was sent to become administrator of the Michoacan area and set about repairing as much as possible the ravages brought upon the native people by Nuno de Guzman. He established hospitals, facilities and systems to care for the poor and boarding houses for traveling friars. At Patzcuaro, he helped set up villages around the lake organized as collectives and dedicated to the manufacture of crafts and skilled work, each village assigned its own specialty. From this stable base, the Purhepechas could again fish the waters of Lake Patzcuaro using cotton butterfly nets of ancient design. Their skilled craftsmen, now generational businesses, are still one of the most powerful drawing cards for visitors to the lake. According to the people here, the spirit of "tata" Vasco still inhabits the lakes, valleys and mountains of this earth that he loved so much.
Lake Patzcuaro lies in a large shallow basin and is dotted with several fair-sized islands. The shoreline is primarily wetlands which help to filter sediments washed down from farming and logging. Larger islands support villages who have for generations thrived on fishing the lake as a form of livelihood. A recent government estimate suggests the lake supports around 800 fishermen who fish for black sea bass, Patzcuaro chub, trout, perch and white fish or blanco - a fish in the sardine family. There is no true tourist fishery, although visitors occasionally try their luck. Due to sedimentation and drought, the lake is losing an estimated 173 acres annually. The blanco are becoming scarce. International efforts are aimed at encouraging better land use practices to alleviate the problem.
A visitor to Lake Patzcuaro, located 35 miles west of Morelia and 200 miles west of Mexico City by improved road, usually comes by bus or private car. The nearest airport is located at Morelia. Thousands of visitors come here for festivals such as the Day of the Dead in November, Christmas and Holy Week. Each village holds its own celebration of these holidays. One of the best attended is usually the one held on the island of Janitzio. This colorful island sports a giant statue of one of the initiators of the Mexican War of Independence; Jose Morelos. The Janitzio village Day of the Dead celebration - not nearly the morose and morbid affair the uninitiated might expect - is so popular that people wait in line for hours to take the ferry to the island.
Lake Patzcuaro isn't the kind of lake where people come to engage in major water sports. The Patzcuaro region is noted for it's beautiful buildings dating to the time of the Spanish Conquest, its plentiful birds, wildlife, handicrafts and history. Here, visitors can find vacation rentals in the form of villas equipped with every amenity, lodgings in small hotels and cottages and modern motels. Some of the nearby villages have lodging facilities also. There are a couple of campgrounds near the village. The city of 70,000 has the feel of a small village, with two plazas, excellently preserved Spanish architecture, many small restaurants and handicraft establishments.
Most tourists visit the Museo de Artes Populares to orient themselves to the different villages and their unique handicrafts. Buildings a visitor absolutely must see are the The Basilica, Old College of San Nicolas (now the Museum of Crafts and Folk Artists), Convento Dominico De Santa Catarina (or House of the 11 Courts-which now contains artisan's shops) and the House of the Giant, among others. Also nearby are the ruins of the old Tarascan capital at Tzinzuntzan with yacatas (pyramids) and an old monastery built in 1533. The olive trees - still producing - are said to have been planted by Vasco de Quiroga himself. A wildlife sanctuary is nearby which provides nesting grounds for a variety of native and migratory birds.
Both in Patzcuaro and in the 26 villages on the islands and around the shore of Lake Patzcuaro, handicrafts are king. There is wood working - from toys, to laquerware, to furniture such as chairs, tables, doors and carved trunks, and everything in between. Also, there are wrought iron, tin, paper mache, and wool - woven and knitted sweaters, zarapes and rugs with characteristic designs. Of equal beauty are products made with reeds that grow around the lake, and with henequen, brought from outside Patzcuaro and used to make small carpets, pouches, tablecloths and other things. As for jewelry, the traditional Purhepecha style consists mainly of designs that mix silver and red coral,or red porcelain. A primary manufactured commodity in the city is pure cotton fabric (and large tablecloths), dyed in bright and contrasting colors. Cut-work embroidery, stitchery, and clothing characteristic of the region, such as hand woven shirts, shawls and other items customary to the Purhepecha way of dressing are also available for sale.
Cruise boats, much like water taxis take visitors to the different villages and islands. There is a modern road around the lake which connects with the road to Guadalajara. A nearby town, Paracho, is noted for fine handcrafted guitars and well worth a visit for music lovers. The scenic "C"-shaped Lake Patzcuaro, nestled beneath the 11,000 foot high pine-covered peaks of the Tarascan Sierra is serene and beautiful to behold - a calming respite from a busy world. Immediately to the west of the Lake Patzcuaro, the slopes of the central plateau abruptly end, and plunge into the humid tropics.
Here at Patzcuaro, life slows to an idyllic holiday interlude far from the cares of the work-a-day world. For this reason, ex-pats have often selected Patzcuaro as prime real estate for a retirement home. They are careful not to try to 'modernize' Lake Patzcuaro though as to do so would take away its special charm. Come to Lake Patzcuaro for a visit. You may find yourself scheming to join them!
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