Despite the fact that by far, most of Mexico’s handcraft and folk art industry is supported by foreign tourism and collectors, the country does not really do enough to promote the communities that produce artesanía nor events related to them as tourist attractions in their own right. Too often, museums, galleries and government entities promote themselves as the means for acquiring authentic Mexican artesania, which is fine for these entities, but often not so much for the artisans themselves.
There are important art and handcraft events in Mexico that are worth going to, even if they are off the beaten tourist track… or waaaay off, in the case of Uruapan, Michoacan.
This small city and the surrounding area is an undiscovered gem. Surrounded by avocado fields (the main economic activity of the area). Uruapan is a colonial city that still has a strong Purhepecha identity, not to mention being close to the famous Paricutin volcano, which caught the world’s attention in the 1940s with its sudden formation. (I remember reading about it in primary school in the 1970s!) Another point in Uruapan’s favor is its coffee. Quite strong, but even more fascinating is that if you ask for it with cream at places like El Despacho coffee shop, you get cream liquor, in flavors such as chocolate or macadamia nut. Macadamias are second only to avocados here in economic importance.
Aside from not being on a beach, Uruapan suffers as a tourist destination because of Michoacan’s reputation for violence and being overshadowed by the better known nearby city of Patzcuaro. IMHO, the threat of violence is overrated, especeally for foriegn tourists. The rewards of visiting Uruapan (along with Patzcuaro) far more than make up for any small risk… certainly a risk no greater than visiting Acapulco.
Again, my opinion, but that risk/reward ratio tilts even further in Uruapan’s favor during Holy Week, when just about all of Mexico is on vacation. For Uruapan, this imporant week coincides with the start of the Palm Sunday Handcraft (open air) Market or in Spanish, Tianguis Artesanal de Domingo de Ramos.
Although Patzcuaro has a similar event for Day of the Dead, Uruapan’s is larger, and claims to be the largest of its type in Latin America. The event opens on the day before Palm Sunday and runs the rest of Holy Week, but the best to be had is on that opening weekend. The “tianguis” (Nahuatl word for market) fills the entire main plaza in the center of the city, which is sizable, with examples all the state’s major crafts traditions. While there are some stands selling cheap touristy trinkets, most sell quality wares. Real masterpieces can be seen at the Casa de Cultura for the annual state handcraft competition, where the awards are giving out the the governor of the state. Those pieces are also for sale, but are difficult to get since they get snapped up so quickly.
The activities do not end there. There is a parade and other events dedicated to showcasing the state’s major indigenous groups, fashion shows of traditional garments, a fair dedicated to Purhepecha food along with music and dance performances. The food itself is reason to go, and I recommend that you get to the stands as soon as they open, as they get crowded and sell out quickly.
Uruapan has major hotels in the downtown area near all the action, as well as an airport. Bus service is convenient as well from Mexico City and Guadalajara. If you somehow get enough of the artesania… the city has a number of interesting destinations, such as the colonial era architecture around the plaza, the Huatapera Museum, the San Pedro textile factory (still partially operational) and the Barranca de Cupatitzio National Park, whose waterfalls and springs should not be missed, even if they charge a bit more for entrance than the typical park of its type.
More photos (all photos in this article by Alejandro Linares Garcia, unless otherwise indicated)