A sudden burst of sunset orange hue fills the air; fluttering wings stirring the dusty green needles of ancient pines and an ascending cloud, as sunlight beams down upon their exuberant bodies. These are nature's ever-returning gift to the people of Michoacan – over one billion Monarch butterflies descending annually, upon the corrugated mountains of Sierra Madre del Sur. The Monarch Butterfly Reserves of Michoacan form a large part of touristic interest in the region, however it's close proximity to Mexico City is also influencing a new wave of visitors, eager to discover the wealth of historical heritage littering the rural and coastal areas. El Rosario and Sierra Chincua comprise the two main areas of the 124,000 acre Biosphere reserve, and are best reached from the town of Angangueno.
Semi-occupying a part of the Mexican Plateau, Michoacan is a mixed bag when it comes to aesthetic character. The region's diversity is influenced by a 200km stretch of Western Pacific coastline, as well as the Inter-Mountain and Sierra Madre del Sur Mountain ranges which run South-East to North-West of the region. Morelia, the state capital, lies in the North-Central part of the region, within a flourishing canyon known as Guayangareo Valley. Reflecting a strong colonial background, the heart of Morelia bears the trademark relics of architectural excellence – including the 17th Century Morelia Cathedral, a simulation of France's infamous Notré Dame. Saturday nights recognize an unexpected transformation of the Cathedral, into the center-piece of a spectacular sound and light show. You'll find choir music, mariachi bands and entertainers within the forecourt, while a cascade of spellbinding fireworks shower above the bell towers, lighting up the elaborate baroque statues and tiled cupolas. The show's finale features a cacophonous explosion of cannon-fire, amidst a shower of thousands of tiny stars.
After such a theatrical display, the wonders of Morelia may seem to pale in comparison, however there are secrets and legacies to be found around every corner. The other most impressive feat of architecture is the 17th Century aqueduct running along Avenida Acueducto, which brought water to the city in the 19th Century. Within the Centro Historico lies the Templo de Las Rosas; a humble brick building with a baroque facade and home to the former Dominican convent. Upon entry, you'll realize why the exterior was created to look so “average”. Ornate frescoes adorn every wall, plinth and ceiling space, climbing right up into the sunlit dome itself, which glimmers with gold-leaf carvings. The 30 foot altar spans the entire ceiling height of the church – it too encrusted with gold-leaf effigies, and the embodiment of the crucifixion.
If you can bear to drag yourself away from the aristocratic splendor of Morelia, the neighboring ancient Tarascan empire on the North shores of Lake Pátzcuaro beckons. You might question the term pyramid upon arrival, for the five yacatas are actually ovular in shape. It is thought they may predate the 12th Century, when the indigenous P’urhépecha king Taricuri founded the small settlement of Pátzcuaro. The Grand Platform features deep excavated trenches, forming paths within the stone walls of what was once a grand palace, where the stairs of former pyramids can still be viewed.
Neighboring city Pátzcuaro is the highlight of North-Western exploration – a little of a contrast to colonial Morelia, in that the Spanish influence is still very apparent. The semi-ruinous forts built by settlers in the 16th Century can still be seen within the Barrio Fuerte district. The baroque Church of San Ignacio de Loyola contains an abundance of rich art in the form of wooden sculptures and cherubic paintings – including a detailed panel of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The kooky “punished” clock atop the tower has a controversial history – some say it does not chime twelve noon as the Spanish monarch Charles V detested this hour, while others are of the persuasion the clock jammed when a bell-ringer got in the way and subsequently met her fate. Situated to the rear of the Basilica is another of Pátzcuaro's hidden gems – the Museo de Artes e Industrias Populares. Formerly the 16th Century College of San Nicholas for priests, the building was transformed at the turn of the 20th Century into a textiles museum, housing art, clothing and mosaic works over 200 years old. A highlight to any Pátzcuaro visit is a bunga cruise onto the lake, or out to the fishing islands of Urandene and La Pacanda. White carp are raised and harvested here, providing the town with a near constant supply of fresh catch for sumptuous menu offerings. Drop by for dinner at Mariscos La Guera in the heart of town, to see the palate-teasing transformation!