Mid-February, 2013 – This was our third season of enjoying boating in Zihuatanejo, and we wanted to see something new in the area. Our friends Joe and Nancy, who have a condo in Ixtapa, kindly invited us join them on a whirlwind driving trip to the beautiful colonial city of Morelia, Mexico, about 4 hours inland.
We packed some bags, left Groovy quietly swinging on the anchor in Zihuatanejo Bay, and jumped into the back of their car for a fun four days of adventure.
The sights were stunning right from the get go. The drive began at sea level and then climbed up and over some mountains, scooted back down along the cactus-studded desert floor and then soared into the mountains and pines once again. Along the way we passed the Infiernillo Dam and its lake which spreads out between the brown mountain peaks like a rich blue carpet.
There are six wonderful steel bridges that criss-cross the river, each painted vivid yellow or orange. The bridges winked in the sun at us as we approached, and we played with trying to catch something of their essence with our cameras as we zipped under them at breakneck speed.
It was an odd feeling to be back in a car on the highway again after nearly four months of leisurely, barefoot ocean living. Our socks and shoes felt clunky on our feet and the world whipped past in a blur. Little haystacks and vast valleys filled with farms seemed to open their arms to welcome us, and the scenery looked achingly like our beloved home state of Arizona.
Arriving in Morelia, we were now at 6,300′ (2,000 meters) elevation, and the air was crisp and dry. This historic city was built in 1541 (the same year that Michelangelo completed his fresco “The Last Judgment” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel). The city was originally named Vallodalid after a city in Spain. It was renamed Morelia in 1828 in honor of José Maria Morelos y Pavón who was a hero during Mexico’s push for independence from Spain. In 1991 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our first stop was at the Sanctuario de Guadelupe which looked like a plain old stone church on the outside but is a jewel box of colorful decorations and gold leaf inside. We walked through the mammoth front doors and stood in awe at the back end of the church. What a sparkling and glittering space!
This church was under construction from 1708-16. (For reference, J.S. Bach was a young, budding composer on the other side of the Atlantic at that time). The intricate sculpted patterns all over the walls and ceiling of this church are a feast for the eyes.
We wandered around soaking up this wondrous place, marveling at the elaborate and brilliant designs that filled every inch of the interior walls and ceiling. We wanted to yell across to each other, “Wow, did you see THAT? Have you been over HERE yet??!!”
But this is a church, and devout worshippers came and went throughout our stay, sitting in pews and kneeling in front of the altar, crossing themselves and murmuring their prayers. We felt a little guilty intruding on their private moments, wondering if we should silently tip-toe out and respect their privacy.
Yet the beauty of the place enchanted us. Maintenance people wandered around sweeping and running wires for some event, and that made us feel a little more comfortable about clicking away with our cameras.
Outside this amazing church there is a narrow tree-lined cobblestone walking street that passes by stout colonial walls of houses and buildings. The walls are a bit imposing, but have a decidedly grand air.
How perfect it was when we came across a young girl dressed up for her quinceañera (15th birthday). This is a very important celebration for girls in Mexico, kind of a coming out party, and a full ball gown and photo shoot and elaborate fiesta are all part of the fun.
We joined the professional photographers to get some pics of her too, and suddenly she nervously mouthed “Mama” at her mother as the paparazzi moment became a little too much. The party was going to be a few days later, and her parents were visibly proud of their lovely daughter.
Romance is definitely in the air in this part of town, and at the end of this street there is a narrow “Lover’s Lane,” (“Callejon del Romance”). This is a spot for hand-in-hand strolling and even some smooching, and we did our best to keep up the tradition while we were there.
Water flowed from a pretty fountain further down this lane, and pink flowers spilled from bougainvilleas clinging to the walls.
A tiny bistro and bar at the far end of the lane beckoned us in, and we peeked in the doorway to see a grand piano adorned with a sculpture of a large hand holding a miniature violin. This place had an artsy air and seemed to be a charming place to stop for a bite in the evening.
Morelia is loaded with captivating places like that. Sculptures, fountains, columns and flowers are the kinds of ingredients that make up this city, and it is a place to linger and enjoy the sights. We didn’t have time to stretch out our visit like that, but we’ll be back…
Of course, since this is a city with character, it has its fair share of characters. Mark spotted a cluster of hot gals strutting down the street and instantly made a beeline in their direction. But the joke was on him this time, as the gals turned out to be a group of cross-dressers. They simpered and posed for him with delight.
One of the engineering marvels that sets Morelia apart from other Mexican colonial cities is its 4+ mile long aqueduct. As Morelia rose in prominence, Spanish nobility were encouraged to settle there, and the city grew rapidly. The aqueduct was built in 1785-1788 (near the end of Mozart’s life, just prior to the French Revolution) to supply the growing city with fresh water.
There are 253 arches, and we were delighted when they lit up for us in the afternoon sun.
We hopped back in the car and headed towards the historic city center, hoping to catch the sunset on the cathedral spires. Of course, Morelia is loaded with pretty churches, and on our way there we had to stop and peek at another one or two…
The cathedral dominates the city skyline, piercing the heavens with two towering spires. It took over a century to build, starting in 1640 with the style of architecture that was popular at that time and ending in 1744 with a “more modern” style of architecture popular 100 years later. For reference, while the cathedral was in its latter phases of construction, Vivaldi was born, lived 63 music-filled years, and died.
The sunset didn’t develop for us, but a rising crescent moon floated in the night sky above the beautiful stone steeples. We wandered around the plaza in front of the cathedral, trying to figure out how to get the whole thing in one image. Not possible!
A very short Mexican university student named Geronimo suddenly approached us, speaking in an unusually accented English. It turned out he was an English language major with hopes to become a high school English teacher or to work in the tourist trade in Cancun. Part of his homework was to go out and practice his English with tourists.
We were more than happy to oblige and were fascinated to find out that English was his third language. His mother tongue was Tzeltal, an indigenous language spoken by Mayans in Mexico’s state of Chiapas. He had learned Spanish in grade school. We had loved seeing the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque a year earlier, and we were charmed listening to his accent and talking about the wonders of his hometown.
He was equally intrigued to learn that Tzeltal is taught at the school where we took a week of immersion Spanish classes last spring, Instituto Jovel in San Cristóbal de las Casas. If teaching high school English or working in Cancun doesn’t pan out, he could always teach Tzeltal.
One of our favorite things about travel, besides spectacular sights like these in Morelia and learning a little of the history behind them, is meeting unusual people we wouldn’t be able to meet in our old neighborhood at home.
Geronimo disappeared into the night to find some more folks to speak English with, and we drove away in heavy commuter traffic along the impressive aqueduct. The arches stood in a row like soldiers, iconic and proud reminders that Morelia was an important city centuries ago when Mexico was “New Spain.” Even in the hustle and bustle of today’s crazy, traffic-filled modern world, this city brings home the depth of Mexico’s Spanish roots.
In addition to beautiful old architecture and history, Morelia is also known for its nearby mountains where millions of monarch butterflies migrate each winter. The next day we drove higher up into the mountains to see these lovely creatures deep in the woods.