The state of Michoacan has not only one but two important state-level handcrafts fair each year. Both consist of outdoor markets called “tianguis” and competitions for artisans to show the best wares they are able to produce. Both offer the opportunity to see the best handcrafts of the state and purchase directly from artisans, but each experience is different because of the settings.
Patzcuaro is Michoacan’s biggest tourist draw. Located near a lake of the same name, it the head of a number of handcrafts-producing communities that rink this body of water. The various communities specialize in different handcrafts, such as pottery, mask making, wood furniture, etc, thanks to a guild system created by Friar Vasco de Quiroga in the early colonial period to support the indigenous population.
Originally Patzcuaro was the capital of Michoacan, but later in the colonial period, political struggles moved it to Morelia, where it remains. Despite the fact that physically it is still a small town, Patzcuaro remains crucial to the Purhepecha indigenous identity of Michoacan, which includes dance, dress and a very famous ritual related to Day of the Dead, called Noche de Animas or “Night of the Souls.”
The Tianguis and Competition all reflect this. The biggest difference between Patzcuaro’s and Uruapan’s event is that Patzcuaro’s is part of the larger Noche de Animas and Uruapan’s is stand-alone, where the focus is only on the handcrafts and the Michoacan cultures that produce them. Each event has a different feel because of this. In Patzcuaro, the handcrafts are important, but they are not center stage. With some exceptions, the market and competition here is more attractive to Lake region artisans, and more tourist-type general attendees.
The Competition of both places is very similar, and attract very similar quality pieces. The best pieces are here, and at both, for sale. One difference, however, is how sales are handled. In Uruapan, sales are made but pieces stay on general display through the week of the event, with judging coming during that week. I arrived to Patzcuaro the day after the general market opened and found that judging in the competition had not only taken place, pieces were already disappearing. This means that those looking to see the best of Michoacan handcrafts at this event had better come to the Antiguo Colegio Jesuita Cultural Center early, because by the the main events of the 1st and 2nd come around, much will be gone.
The market is officially called the Tianguis Artesanal de Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead Handcrafts Market) and takes place on the important Vasco de Quiroga Plaza. Uruapan bills itself as the largest event of its type, which is probably true, but in number of vendors, Patzcuaro is not far behind. In both, only artisans can sell, but in Patzcuaro the selection is a bit different. There are few vendors from outside the lake area, with many from Patzcuaro proper, but what struck me was that trinket-type items dominated the wares for sale here. That is not to say they are not real handcrafts, but rather smaller pieces, with few breakable details, best-suited for a tourist market, as they can be bought on a whim and easily carried home. There were exceptions to this, to be sure, mostly of artisans from Patzcuaro proper.
Which market is better really depends on the reason for being in Michoacan. If handcrafts, especially fine handcrafts, are your main purpose, I recommend Uruapan, whose event starts just before Palm Sunday. The selection is finer, larger and aimed more towards collectors and those interested in the cultures that produce the items.
If your purpose is to attend Noche de Animas… which is a once-in-a-lifetime experience… along with the food and handcrafts of the Purhepecha people, then Patzcuaro is the best choice. This is particularly true if you have only one chance to be in Michoacan.