Handmade Visions on the Crafts Trail in Mexico

Unlike Morelia and Pátzcuaro, colonial showstoppers both, Uruapan’s pleasures are humble: evenings spent people-watching on the broad central plaza; snacking on sweet corn tamales, called uchepos, at the Mercado de Antojitos, or snack market; and sipping dark, fragrant coffee at Café Tradicional, a dim, wood-paneled coffee house with atmosphere as dense as cigar smoke.

It was here that I met the historian and teacher Arturo Ávila on my first evening in town. “Uruapan, throughout the centuries, has always been a crossroads,” he told me. An Indigenous town before the arrival of the Spanish, the modern city of Uruapan was established by Franciscan monks in 1533 and declared a settlement for Indigenous peoples in 1540. A communal garden and public hospice formed the center of the town, where weavers would come to trade cotton shawls for clay bowls thrown in ceramics towns farther north or woven mats from the lakeshore.

The products we think of as artesanía, or craft, Mr. Ávila told me, were initially developed out of necessity, using available materials and binding communities through mutual reliance. More than art objects, they were known, Mr. Ávila said, as “the skill and destiny” of each town, a division of labor consolidated under colonial rule.

Uruapan’s “skill and destiny” was mercantile, first as a center of trade for surrounding artisans who flocked to the town in particularly large numbers during Holy Week. Vestiges of that tradition remain during the city’s Easter celebrations, when artisans from across the state sell their wares in the central plaza and under the squat stone arches of the old hospice, now the Huatapera Indigenous Museum. On Palm Sunday, easily the best day of the year to visit, Uruapan puts on the finest of Michoacán’s more than 20 craft competitions, gathering all the state’s most accomplished artisans in one place.

The morning after meeting Mr. Ávila, I took a short taxi ride to the hilltop Hotel Mansión Cupatitzio, a throwback to 1960s hacienda-style glamour, where I sipped a coffee in the flower-draped gardens, then wandered into the Cupatitzio Canyon National Park, one of Mexico’s most beautiful urban parks, established in 1938. I spent the better part of an hour wandering down stone paths damp with mist kicked up from waterfalls. I followed the river as it poured itself into iridescent blue plunge basins, rushed under arching bridges and slipped over geometric fountains designed in the pre-Columbian revival style.

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