Pre-Hispanic traditions and colonial-era architecture meet in Michoacán. The state is home to three of Mexico’s coolest under-the-radar cities: the adobe-and-cobblestone town of Pátzcuaro, where Purépecha women sell fruit and tamales in the shadow of 16th-century churches; the lush agricultural city of Uruapan, gateway to the mythic Paricutín volcano; and the vibrant and cultured colonial city of Morelia, with an ancient cathedral and aqueduct built from rosy pink stone.
Michoacán is also gaining renown as a crafts capital: the Purépecha artisans of the state’s Cordillera Neovolcánica highlands create wonderful masks, pottery, straw art and stringed instruments – all on display at the annual Tianguis Artesanal de Uruapan craft fair. Rich in natural treasures, Michoacán has one of the world’s truly unmissable sights: the annual butterfly migration to the rugged Reserva Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Reserve), where millions of mating monarchs cover the grass and trees in a shimmering carpet.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Inland Michoacán.
In the eastern-most corner of Michoacán, straddling the border of México state, lies the incredible 563-sq-km Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site since 2008. Every autumn, from late October to early November, millions of monarch butterflies begin to flock to these forested Mexican highlands for their winter hibernation, having flown all the way from the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada, some 4500km away. The butterflies arrive in waves, the last remaining until early to mid-March, when they begin their return journey north.
The upstart Volcán Paricutín (2800m) might be less than 80 years old, but clambering up the volcanic scree slopes to its summit and looking out across blackened, village-engulfing lava fields will be a highlight of your travels in this part of Mexico. You can trek to it on horseback or on foot, though the final ascent is always by foot. Whatever you choose, prepare for a long but rewarding day.
Morelia’s cathedral, considered by many to be the country's most beautiful, dominates the city center, where it flanks rather than faces the central plaza. It took almost a century to build (1660−1744), which explains its potpourri of styles: the twin 70m-high bell towers, for instance, have classical Herreresque bases, baroque midsections and multicolumned neoclassical tops. It's particularly impressive when lit up for the Encendido de Catedral.
South of the lake and just west of Hwy 120 lies this enormous religious compound built partly with stones from the Purépecha yácatas (temples) taken from the site up the hill. This is where Franciscan monks began the Spanish missionary effort in Michoacán in the 16th century. The complex is composed of two churches fronted by shady olive trees in the churchyard planted by Vasco de Quiroga. Most of the monastery now houses a fascinating new museum.
Highlights among the well-curated exhibits of this impressive folk-art museum include a room set up as a typical Michoacán kitchen, cases of gorgeous jewelry, copperware, ceramics and guitars from Paracho, and an entire room filled with votivas and retablos – votives and crudely rendered devotional paintings offering thanks to God for saving the creator from illness or accident.
House in the former Franciscan Monastery of St Anne, this fascinating museum showcases Purépecha culture and history and documents the arrival of the Spanish and the people's conversion to Christianity via excellent displays set up in the cloisters, refectory and two open chapels. The galleries include a number of faded murals and Mudéjar-patterned wooden ceiling ornamentation as well as a carved portal at the main entrance. A section of the first floor is also dedicated to rotating art exhibits. Signage is in Spanish and English.
This 18th-century palace, originally a seminary and now housing Michoacán state government offices, has a simple baroque facade. Inside, its soaring historical murals (1960) in the stairwell and 2nd-floor hallways are the magnum opus of Pátzcuaro-born artist Alfredo Zalce (1908–2003), and arguably the city's best. Enter from Calle Juárez.
From 1660 to 1767, the Palacio Clavijero, with its magnificent minimalist main patio, imposing colonnades and pink stonework, was home to the Jesuit school of St Francis Xavier. Today the enormous building houses a cultural center with exhibition spaces showing off contemporary art, photography and other creative media.
Built on a hill atop a pre-Hispanic ceremonial site, this cathedral-cum-pilgrimage site was intended to be the centerpiece of Vasco de Quiroga’s utopia. Begun in 1540, the church was not completed until the 19th century and only the barrel-vaulted central nave is faithful to his original design. Quiroga’s tomb, the Mausoleo de Don Vasco, is in the side-chapel to the left of the main entrance. It's a massive structure and quite austere, but always full of worshippers.