Architecture / Mexico / Travel

Morelia: And Now For Something Completely Different!

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Stop numero dos on our tour of the Central Highlands of Mexico is Morelia. This large city and capital of the state of Michoacán, is 120 miles southwest of San Miguel de Allende.

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It’s in the Sierra Madre Mountains, at a similar altitude as San Miguel, and has an excellent collection of Spanish Colonial architecture in its historic centro. But that’s where the similarities end. The best expression for a comparison of the two is the segue phrase from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “And now for something completely different!”

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Founded in 1541, Morelia was one of the first cities in Nueva España. Its large, natural stone buildings, Baroque facades, and elegant archways were built from the 16-18th Centuries.

Many of the buildings are constructed from a faintly pinkish-gray volcanic rock (trachyte for the rockhounds), which adds to their beauty.

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And unlike the Capital of Color, San Miguel, the stone is natural, unpainted, and has been allowed to weather to an attractive patina. But what the buildings lack in color, is more than made up for with grandeur.

One of the saving graces for Morelia is that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, and since that time, strict building codes have ensured that the original look and feel of the city are preserved.

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Honestly, when we began our research for this trip, neither of us had heard of Morelia. It’s not exactly on the well-worn tourist track (which was one of its appealing traits), and we were looking for a different experience in the highlands. We’ve only had a few days, but so far, we’re very surprised at how few tourists are in town. The city feels very Mexican and Spanish, and unlike San Miguel, you’ll need some Spanish language skills. Tourists are still rare enough to turn heads in the market, but the people are friendly, helpful, and pleasant to deal with. Our stammering Spanish raises a few eyebrows, but we always work it out with a smile.

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For those curious travelers thinking that Morelia is for you, an online search may ping the US State Department warning about travel in the state of Michoacán. We saw this as well. We’re never blasé about security concerns, but the major problems relate to a turf war between two rival drug gangs in the western part of the state (100 miles away). As always, we’ll keep a low profile, and go about our business.

We’ll be posting from Morelia for the next few days, and hope you’ll follow along.

Happy Trails
James & Terri

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71 thoughts on “Morelia: And Now For Something Completely Different!

    • Thanks Darlene. As we said, Morelia is off the beaten path, and there’s no reason you would have heard of it. But like most colonial cities in Mexico, it has a long, interesting and sometimes turbulent history. Who knows, for someone like you there might be the seeds for a book there. ~ James

  1. Play safe out there you two. Doesn’t the blue and white dome look a lot like a dome from some not so distant posts of yours. Can you refresh my memory?

      • Thanks that’s it James! Well glad to hear the security is being managed although not sure if it’s comforting or terrifying to have Rambo like dudes walking about the street corners. 🙂

      • Actually they’re not walking the streets Sue, but riding around in shiny, new, military issue pickup trucks with 3-4 guys in the back. And we’ve seen a couple of trucks with huge, mounted machine guns with very serious looking hombres at the trigger. For these guys, we stop and let them drive by. ~James

    • That’s a tough call Jeff, because the cities offer two very different experiences. We enjoy both, but for different reasons. Ultimately, our barometer is: Would we go back? Using this test, I’d say yes to San Miguel and no to Morelia. But they’re both cool places. ~ James

    • Thanks for following along Denise. And no, the mural isn’t Rivera. It is very well done and walks you through almost all of Morelia’s history. Our info says: “some of the work was done by well-known local artist Alfredo Zalce.” As you walk around the arcade there appears to be different techniques used. So I suspect that a number of artists were involved. ~ James

  2. It’s wonderful when you find places to visit that are “off the beaten” tourist path. You get a real feeling of the place and people. I do have to chuckle at the placement of the images of the two gentlemen just before the warning about the rival drug gangs. I’m sure was by coincidence, but it did make me laugh.

    • Thanks for pointing this out Laura. It’ amazing what we miss sometimes. We had a good laugh over it, but it really wasn’t planned. Actually, we took that photo out of the post because we try to be sensitive to anyone taking offense at something we say. We have lots of international readers, and don’t want to intentionally offend anyone. Thanks for the heads-up. ~ James

    • Thanks Andrew. I haven’t been to Talavera, but I can believe that the two cities look similar. When the Spanish Viceroy came to Morelia, he liked the city so much, that he convinced (strong armed) a number of Spanish families to move to Morelia. I suspect that part of the deal was that it wasn’t home, but he would make it look like home. ~ James

    • Thanks Anita. If you want to get off the tourist track, Morelia is perfect. It’s carnival week here so there’s some extra action in the plaza, and the food is delish. ~ James

  3. Great photos, as always, and glad to be following along with you. This is one of many of Mexico’s treasures that we missed during our time there. – Mike

    • Mike, if you want to be off the tourist/expat circuit, Morelia is the place. We’ve rented an apartment, and some of our neighbors are tourists. But once we leave the apartment we hardly ever see any other gringos. And the city is giving me a chance to practice my limited Spanish. When you get back down this way, you should visit. ~ James

  4. I haven’t heard of this place. The architecture is astonishing, very unlike what you’ve shown here before. It’s what I’d call more ‘serious’. This is a nice tour you’re leading here. 🙂

  5. We stopped in Morelia on a road trip from Queretaro to the West coast and were also happily surprised – beautiful buildings and murals and great food. If you have a chance, stop by colonial Queretaro too, it’s another gem in central Mexico!

    • Thanks for the comment Dianne, and for dropping by the blog. Our next stop is Guanajuato, which we’ve also heard good things about. Did you visit there, and if so, how was it? ~ James

    • Not many travelers have been to Morelia, and I’m sure when they do come, like you, they’ll enjoy it. I’m a bit surprised that the word hasn’t gotten out, particularly given how close it is to San Miguel de Allende. ~ James

      • You may be right. There is a obvious military presence here now, with heavily-armed Federales patrolling in trucks. Also, there is a hotel near our apartment that is heavily guarded as well. So if travelers aren’t accustomed to armed soldiers around, I guess they could be put off. But, I haven’t read of anything happening in Morelia, and it seems quiet here. ~ James

    • Thanks Sheena. As you can probably tell, we love architectural details as well. I’m not sure how many posts we’ve done on them, but it’s a few. One reason we enjoy them is that it makes us more observant and helps us look into all the nooks and crannies of buildings. ~ James

    • Thanks Lynne. This is a moving exhibit, and luckily, we caught it before it moved. I don’t know the whole story, but the artist’s name is Javier Marin. I looked at the technique closely, and I can’t imagine how the he pulled it off. ~ James

  6. Thanks for this post! We’re leaving Mexico in a few weeks, but when we return next winter, we’ll be sure to visit this place. Beautiful!

    • I think that you and Louise would enjoy it here Tom. It really is almost tourist-free. And as you may know, the bus fare to San Miguel is about $15, and that’s on the luxury bus. Also, Morelia is considerably less expensive than SMA. ~ James

  7. This was one city we never got to in our travels so thank you for the tour. We have it on our list of places to explore when we return. As for needing a bit of Spanish, we found that was true when we visited Guanajuato as well, but with our “passable” Spanish skills, we did just fine.

    • As we said LuAnn, Morelia is a very different experience, but I think you’d enjoy it. It’s considerably cheaper than SMA, and there are lots of hole-in-the-wall cafés with tasty, cheap food (and ice cold Negra Modelo). And FYI, we used Primera Plus buses from SMA to Morelia, and we will use them to Guanajuato. They are clean, comfortable, professional, have WCs, and are cheap. First class service SMA to Morelia was $15/per. If you haven’t used them, check them out. ~ James

      • We have not used Primera Plus buses but have had similar experiences with ETN service. Actually, we were quite amazed at the quality of the buses in Mexico, except for the “chicken buses” in the local villages, but they were still an experience that needed to be had. 🙂

    • Isn’t it funny Jo, how some combinations of colors and textures grab the eye and seem more pleasing than other combinations. The easy answer is that we are conditioned to react this way, but I’m not sure that’s the entire answer. I’ve always liked the look of unfinished stone that is so prevalent here and in countries around the Med. I certainly didn’t have this sort of thing in my childhood. Anyway, I agree with you on Bougainville and weathered stone. ~ James

  8. The last picture of the sculpture is really interesting. Based on the ‘pegs’ it’s resting on, it looks like it might be a massive piece of carved wood….but then it has these funny lines in the face that suggests it might be several pieces of ‘something’ assembled together. Any clues as to what it is?
    That bougainvillea (didn’t know until now that’s what it was) is positively gorgeous!!!

    • Joanne, the sculpture is bronze, and the artist is Javier Marin. He lives in Mexico City, and his work is in museums all over the world. The heads are hollow, and I was able to look inside. It is a huge piece made up of separate sheets of bronze. I can’t imagine how he managed to piece it all together. We’ve had a number of questions about these photos, so we’ll be doing a post in a few days. Keep an eye out. Bummer about the snow. I’m sure that you and everyone else must be fed up. ~ James

  9. What a pretty place — and very appealing since it’s not that touristy. Love the unpainted facades and the tile work. You’re right, too, about getting around even when you don’t speak the language: We’ve managed to point to food, hold out money for someone to count, and say thank you with our eyes!!!

    • Luckily Rusha, I speak enough Spanish to get by, and to know if I’ve ordered cow or cabbage in a restaurant. It also enriches the experience to be able to interact a bit with the residents. Most of them seem to light up when you ask a question in Spanish. I guess like most people they like it when someone takes an interest. ~ James

    • Curt, the artist is Javier Marin. He’s from Mexico and his work is wonderful. A number of people have asked about this piece, and wonder of wonders, we’ll be doing a post on it soon. Keep an eye out. And the woman in the market has a lovely smile. It’s amazing what a few words of Spanish an a bit of flirting will get you. ~ James

  10. I was looking forward to read this post! Indeed, different architecture. When you get to travel a lot you get to see these subtle differences. Loved reding your comparisons and details. San Miguel de Allende, as you mention, is close enough to share its past architecture and yet is so colorful and different. May I ask, which did you like best? 😀 Also, I was surprised to hear about your Spanish skills! Travelling is the best way to acquire those, isn’t it?

    • Thanks Virginia. They’re each so different it’s an apples and oranges comparison. SMA is a fun, delightful place with interesting Colonial architecture, and we enjoyed it a lot. Morelia is a much bigger city, and will probably appeal to true fans of architecture, because most of the important buildings are in their natural state. But if I had to pick one, it would be SMA, because it’s smaller and more intimate. ~ James

  11. Gorgeous bougainvillea! That’s one of the things from the southwest US that I miss here in DC. (That and sunshine, warm weather, and civil people… but I digress). It’s a pleasure to see the photos you take for your posts- really pretty. I hadn’t seen that volcanic tuff anywhere but Yerevan Armenia before so that was quite a surprise! Thanks for sharing “something completely different”!

    • Volcanic tuff! Very impressive Jonelle. I put these nerdy geology terms in knowing they’ll be Greek to most folks. It really is a pretty stone, and it’s the primary stone in so many buildings here. As to the bougainvillea, they make a beautiful contrast to the unfinished stone. And one guarantee, if they grow, the weather is going to be hot (unlike DC of late). We lived in DC for a while, and know how cold and snowy it can be, but you guys have really been pounded this year. Hang in there, April is just around the corner!

      • Can’t wait for April in DC- rain and wind, late frost… doesn’t it make you weep with envy?

        As for the tuff, if you ever see Yerevan’s center plaza, it’s a circular area with beautiful curved facades that range from dark red to pink to rusty orange all the way around. It is one of the most beautiful architectural stones I have seen used for buildings.

        Unfortunately, in the rush to transform itself, I’m afraid Yerevan’s historic buildings are being overshadowed by new (glass, totally not like a UNESCO protected heritage) construction. Cheap money with no culture, so sad.

        I guess I will have to stick to gorgeous shots taken by folks who appreciate history and preserved culture. Thanks for filling in the blanks for us all!

  12. It looks like a lovely place! Steve and I will see if we can make it there. By the way, what was that woman in the picture cooking? I couldn’t tell if it was some kind of enchilada or mole sauce, or even chocolate. I love French food, but I sure am looking forward to some amazing Mexican! Have fun!

    • Leslie, definitely get down to Morelia if you can. It’s a totally different feeling than SMA (much bigger city, etc), but it’s worth the trip. We took Primera Plus buses and they make the trip easy and fun. The buses are luxe, have WCs, and are cheap. The one way fare (1st class) is approx. $15US and it takes 3-4 hours. The woman in the market was stirring up a number of sauces, and some had to be mole. FYI, in the market in Morelia (not sure of SMA), you can buy a big dollop of mole concentrate which you dilute at home. It is wonderful, so don’t miss it. ~James

      • Oh, I love mole! Steve and I are in San Miguel now! It’s amazing, and we are already thinking we want to live here someday. We took the Primera Plus bus from Mexico City to Queretaro, and it was so nice! I couldn’t believe how clean the bathroom was. 🙂 We’ve got quite a bit of work to catch up on, but once we do, I think we’ll have to check Morelia out. You guys have given us so many ideas as far as exploring Mexico goes…thank you!

      • Thanks Leslie. Sorry for the delay in the response, this one fell through the cracks. I’m glad that you’re enjoying SMA, and Steve tells us that you’re considering buying property. That sounds really exciting, and I hope that it works out. We looked at a few window ads in realtor’s offices, and it appears that there’s lots of cool places available. Best of luck, and keep us posted. ~James

  13. Wow, these pictures look like a more modern Havana Cuba. I can’t believe it. I am just catching up on your blog. How did you get from city to city? Did you rent a car? how safe is it? What is nearest airport? Sorry for all the questions but I would love to check this part of Mexico out someday! Looks lovely!!!

    • Nicole, we flew in and out of Leon, which is the closest (and best) way to get in. We traveled between the cities on buses, which were wonderful and cheap. The bus company is called Primera Plus, and it’s great. The buses are modern, clean, AC, and WCs. The fares are also cheap. For example, the fare from San Miguel to Morelia (3.5 hours) was $15/per. ~James

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