Introducing Western Central Highlands
With exquisite colonial architecture, fine food, better tequila, butterfly orgies, lonely indigenous pueblos, bustling cities, battling mariachi bands and volcanic calderas, the western central highlands are your wonderland. This region includes Guadalajara, Colima, Morelia, Pátzcuaro and Uruapan, yet tourists often forego this fascinating land, making it even more appealing. Locals are warm and generous, the streets are perfectly safe, the economy is strong and cultural traditions thrive, especially in the countryside. The climate is superb (sunny, but never too hot, during the days and cool, but seldom too cold, at night) and the natural beauty is diverse and mind-blowing. You’ll see layered mountains, expansive lakes, thundering rivers and waterfalls and an endless tapestry of cornfields, avocado groves, agave plantations and cattle ranches. This is Mexico’s beating heart.
Guadalajara – capital of Jalisco state – sprawls, but it doesn’t overwhelm; it’s a great walking city, blessed with handy public transportation. Morelia, Michoacán state’s drop-dead gorgeous capital, may be the best city (in the world, not just in Mexico that you’ve never heard of. Think stunning colonial architecture, a young population and an emerging hipster scene. Nearby is the Reserva Mariposa Monarca, a forested butterfly sanctuary you’ll remember forever. Pátzcuaro, an endearing colonial town and the epicenter of Michoacán’s indigenous Purépecha culture, is the place to be during Mexico’s Día de Muertos celebration. Uruapan and Colima both have a touch of the subtropical and are near fascinating volcanoes: Paricutín, which rose from the Uruapan countryside almost overnight, the bubbling Volcán de Fuego and the spectacular snowy cones of Volcán Nevado de Colima. Mexico does not get any better than this.
The western central highlands were too far from the Maya and Aztecs to fall under their influence, but in the 14th to 16th centuries the Tarascos in northern Michoacán developed a robust pre-Hispanic civilization. When the Aztecs took notice and attacked, the Tarascos were able to hold strong thanks too their copper blades. West of the Tarascos was their rival, Chimalhuacán − a confederation of four indigenous kingdoms that spread through parts of present day Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit states. To the north were the Chichimecs.
Colima, the leading Chimalhuacán kingdom, was conquered by the Spanish in 1523. The whole region, however, was not brought under Spanish control until the notorious campaigns of Nuño de Guzmán. Between 1529 and 1536 he tortured, killed and enslaved indigenous people from Michoacán to Sinaloa. His grizzly victories made him rich and famous and won him governorship of his conquered lands, until news of his war crimes leaked out. He was sent back to Spain and imprisoned for life in 1538.
This fertile ranching and agriculture region developed gradually and Guadalajara (established in 1542 and always one of Mexico’s biggest cities) became the ‘capital of the west.’ The church, with help from the enlightened bishop Vasco de Quiroga, fostered small industries and handicraft traditions around the villages of Lago Pátzcuaro in its effort to ease the continuing poverty of the indigenous people.
In the 1920s the region’s two major states, Michoacán and Jalisco, were hotbeds of the Cristero rebellion by Catholics against government antichurch policies. Lázaro Cárdenas of Michoacán, as state governor (1928−32) and then as Mexican president (1934−40), instituted reforms that did much to abate antigovernment sentiments.
Today both Jalisco and Michoacán hold many of Mexico’s natural resources – especially timber, mining, livestock and agriculture – and Jalisco has a thriving tech industry. In the past, both states have seen large segments of their population head to the US for work. Michoacán reportedly lost almost half its population to emigrations and money sent home has approached two billion dollars. But with a growing economy and accessible credit, the free flow north has slowed and these days many have decided to return to Mexico and open up businesses on their home soil.
Western Central Highlands destination guides
A pueblo (town) of some four million people, charmingly unselfconscious Guadalajara has somehow, and rather without trying, become Mexico’s second city.
Mexico Monarch Butterfly Trail
For the nature lover who also appreciates cultural luminescence, this Limited Edition butterfly adventure captures the brightest colours of Mexico in just ten days. From the historic streets of Mexico City, you'll travel through stunning national parks, colonial towns and beautiful countryside as you follow the migration of the monarch butterfly.
Tlaquepaque Food Tour and Tequila Tasting
Get acquainted with Tlaquepaque and its culinary traditions on this 3-hour food tour! Taste delicious local dishes and sample the tequila of Jalisco while surrounded by the art, folklore and mariachi music of Tlaquepaque, a small town near Guadalajara.