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About Pátzcuaro

The Pátzcuaro region includes the city of Pátzcuaro (population 50,000) and the pueblos near Lake Pátzcuaro. It is comprised of a mixed indigenous and mestizo population and is mainly rural.

Prior to the Spanish conquest (which began in the early 1500’s), Pátzcuaro was part of a civilization known as the Tarascan or Purépecha Empire. Among its many distinguishing characteristics — the Aztecs were never able to conquer it. At its height, that part of the Tarascan Empire nearest to Lake Pátzcuaro may have been inhabited by up to 200,000 people (the present population is less than 150,000). As with the native populations of the U.S., most of the Purépecha people died within the first 50 years of Spanish arrival, from disease, famine or war.

Still, many cultural traditions survive in part because of the Spaniard Don Vasco de Quiroga, who, on arriving in 1532, and having recently read Thomas More’s “Utopia”, was determined to save the people and culture and develop a utopian society. While his efforts were only moderately successful, today about half of the towns set around the lake still consider themselves to be Purépecha. Most of the people in these towns speak Purépecha and many of the women continue to wear traditional clothing.

The Pátzcuaro area is known for its many expert artisans, a tradition dating to before the Spanish arrival and strengthened by Don Vasco (who remains a revered figure). Many towns specialize in specific crafts including mask making, production of fine copper pieces, guitar making, intricately engraved and painted pottery, fine embroidery, and the famous Catrina dolls — to name a few.

Other common work includes farming and bricklaying. These occupations don’t earn much money, and most people are very poor and at times go without meals. Close to two-thirds of the indigenous households lack refrigerators. The illiteracy rate among indigenous women is 28% (twice that of the men) and, as of 2005, 89% lacked health insurance (as compared to 50% for Mexico as a whole).

Pátzcuaro might be most famous for its Day of the Dead activities on Nov. 1 and 2, when the area attracts thousands of tourists, mainly Mexican, but also hundreds from other countries.

Elevation is 7,000 feet or higher and the entire area is part of a volcanic region with its most recent eruption in 1943 (Paricutín, about a two-hour drive from Pátzcuaro). The volcanic peaks paired with the lake make for a striking landscape, and tours into the countryside with stops to visit local artisans are very popular.