KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
When we read our guidebook about the places to see around Morelia, there were three sights that ranked high on our list of things to do. One was the Monarch Butterfly Reserve, the second was the small towns surrounding Lake Patzcuaro and the third was the Volcano Paricutin. We had put off travelling outside the city until after the festive season was over, but now it was time to start exploring because we planned to leave for Mexico City on January 9th. Maria from Casa Rosa had recommended a driver named Jesus Lopez, a trustworthy Morelian who speaks very good English. We contacted him and found his rates very reasonable so we made plans to see all three places over the course of six days.
The volcano sounded particularly interesting because the mountain that was created, when the eruption took place in 1943, rose from what had been a farmer´s field. Within the course of one year, the mountain reached a height of over four hundred metres. The lava flows submerged two villages but left the steeple of the Church of San Juan Parangaricutiro peeping out near the edge of the twenty square kilometer lava field. When I read that it is possible to hike to the crater of the volcano, or to the steeple of the church, I decided that this was something we should attempt. The round trip to the volcano was more than we could manage, but with all the walking we had been doing in Morelia, we felt that we were in good enough shape to make the shorter hike to the church. We had adjusted to the altitude and found that the thinner air didn´t bother us too much anymore.
We set out earlier than usual in order to take in as much as possible, it was not the ‘crack of noon’. The drive to Uruapan was pleasant, though we were surprised to see thick fog blanketing the mountains around Morelia. Apparently, Morelia is situated in the middle of a six-hundred-kilometer-long range of volcanic mountains, called the Cordillera Neovolcanica. The fog gave a magical feeling to the morning light, but within a half an hour, the warmth of the sun began to burn off the fog and we found ourselves in the midst of breathtaking scenery. As we drove along, we would climb steep ridges and pass from one valley into another. It was along this road that Jesus pointed out the red line down the middle of the highway on particularly steep descents. This line was a warning to drivers to slow down, but also served as a guide to trucks that might experience brake problems. Whenever there was a ‘run-away lane’ the red line would guide the driver off the highway and onto the safety of the steeply upward sloping lane. Brilliant!
As we neared the city of Uruapan, we began to see vast orchards of avocado trees. Mexico is the world´s largest producer of avocados and most come from the mountains around Uruapan. The Mexicans eat a lot of guacamole, over one billion kilos of avocados are grown annually, and only five percent is exported. Now for the funny bit. The word avocado comes from the Spanish 'aguacate', which came from 'ahuacatl', the Nahuatl word for testicle!! I am not making this up, it's from the Lonely Planet. The rich and sensuous fruits, considered an aphrodisiac by the Aztecs, do indeed dangle in pairs from the trees. They actually banned young women from strolling outdoors when the avocados were being harvested.
“The avocado has a diverse fan base. It's dunked into Ecuadorian soups, pureed into Southeast Asian smoothies, mashed into sushi rolls in California, and blended into ice cream in Brazil. You can stuff it, batter it, or cream it and spas use it in facials and skin and hair treatments. Its high fiber content, cholesterol-lowering abilities, and anti-oxidant benefits make this the perfect fruit. Just remember to enjoy it in moderation, as a good-sized avocado can pack over three hundred calories!”
Unfortunately, it is the season for the avocado trees to flower so I wasn’t able to take a photo of the pairs of fruits hanging together on the tree. You’ll have to use your vivid imagination to picture how they look just before picking.
We stopped for lunch in Uruapan, (alas, no avocado on the menu). We chose to bypass the large national park in the centre of the city, because we wanted to focus on the volcano and the nearby town of Paracho, where musical instruments have been handcrafted for generations. If we had time at the end of the day, we could return to Uruapan and stroll through the park to see the raging Rio Cupatitzio, which supplies all the water for the city and beyond.
We continued north towards the site of the volcano, and as we left the highway, it seemed like we stepped back in time. The road through the village of Angahuan is unpaved, the buildings are made of wood and stone, and few are plastered, and the poverty is palpable. The local people in this area are the Purepecha. The women look dramatically different in their traditional dress, none were in Western clothing, and all wore skirts instead of trousers. In the cool morning air, the women were bundled in woolen shawls, many were carrying babies tucked into the folds. I felt uncomfortable taking photos of them as we drove by their homes, but did manage to snap one quick picture through the windscreen of our car. The women were on their way to the local church and all carried baskets with food.
The road through the village was under construction, probably to allow more tourists to reach the trailhead, where horses can be rented for those who do not want to hike. We were forced to pass between farmer's fields on a very narrow, dusty, lumpy road and it was laughable to see all the cars in front of us struggle to keep from scraping bottom. We could have been at least one hundred years back in time. We parked our vehicle and declined to rent horses. I could see the disappointment on the faces of the guides, but I find riding too uncomfortable and we didn´t want to end up smelling like a horse at the end of the adventure. We started off on foot down a steep rocky incline. We felt sure that the entire hike would be as rough as the start, but within a short distance, the path levelled out and it was easy walking. We joked that the guides deliberately made the beginning tricky so that most walkers would turn around and rent a horse for the journey.
Dozens of Mexican families passed us on horses, some returning from the volcano and others just setting out. One horse got spooked and the young boy guiding the horse had to stop it by holding on to its tail. I was totally convinced that we had made the right decision to walk instead of ride. After about a half an hour, we came to the edge of the lava field and we could see the steeple of the church rising out of the black volcanic rock. Here the trail left the dusty soil and we began to climb on the sharp rocks. Footing was tricky and we had to make way for the horses and riders who were constantly passing us. I imagined that we would continue to climb right up to the church, but instead, we came into an open area where dozens of food stalls were set up along with souvenir stands. There were even cars and trucks parked in a makeshift parking lot, evidence that it was possible to reach to site by road.
At this point, all riders dismount and climb on foot a short distance to where the ruins of the church lie buried in the black stone. The trail here is a little dangerous, and the footing difficult and I was delighted when Jesus offered me a hand on the toughest sections. Jesus laughed as Anil climbed on ahead of us, he said he had read that Indian men customarily walk ahead of their wives. It was crowded when we reached the ruins so we studied the damage the lava had done, but did not scramble over the rocks to the far end of the church where other people were standing. It´s quite a sight to see and I was pleased to learn that all the villagers had managed to escape the danger because the lava had moved very slowly.
After climbing back down to the flat ground again, with the helpful hand of Jesus (that sounds a little religious, doesn´t it?), we decided to stop for a bite to eat at one of the food stalls. I was attracted by the sight of quesadillas and gorditas made from blue corn. We placed our order with Jesus translating, and when we sat at the table, a young girl brought over a cob of blue corn for me to see. She was a real cutie and willingly agreed to have her picture taken with the corn. We gobbled up our meal; hiking really works up an appetite. The women were busy cooking more food and had their backs turned as we readied ourselves to leave, but I called out to them “Gracias, mui bien” as we walked away. They looked a little stunned. I guessed they spoke the Purepecha language instead of Spanish, but I was wrong. They sent the young girl after us to remind us that we had forgotten to pay for our meal. They seemed to understand it was our mistake, and in the end, there were smiles all round.
The walk back seemed easy after the climb on the volcanic rock and before we knew it, we had covered the two kilometers to the horse stables and our car. The rocky incline at the end was the only difficult part, but we seemed to be in great shape and I marvelled how my level of fitness was improving. I knew I would face a much tougher climb when we headed to the butterfly reserve after one day’s rest. The village looked even more poverty-stricken as we passed through it again and Jesus was dismayed that the government hasn´t done more for this region, considering its huge potential for tourism.
Instead of heading back to Uruapan, we turned north towards the small town of Paracho, to have a look at the beautiful guitars and other musical instruments that have put the place on the map. We knew that August is the best time to visit in order to attend the annual Feria Nacional de la Guitarra (National Guitar Fair), but that´s a long way off and I wanted to see the lutheriers at work when they were in a more relaxed period. The town of Paracho is also famous for its roasted meat, so we stopped at the market to try the food at El Pony, recommended in our guidebook. We were shocked to see the raw meat hanging at the back of the stall, but sat at the bench anyway, along with the other locals. I preferred the lamb to the pork, probably because I was staring at the upside-down head of a pig opposite me. Anil remarked that his mother would be mortified to see him eating in such a place, so against all the teachings of the Hindu religion.
Tummies full, we set out to walk around the central square and peek into the shops around the circumference. Most of the shops were selling only the finished products, but we saw beautiful guitars, mandolins, violins and violas as well as small items made of various kinds of wood. I imagine they are produced out of the scraps remaining when the instruments were made, but some were obviously made out of larger pieces of wood. It makes sense that people who work with wood would be inspired to make things for people who have no interest in things musical. I especially liked the little Christmas tree that was decorated with small guitars.
At last we came to a small studio where guitars are actually made. There were dozens partially completed and it was possible to study the interior construction techniques that go into the creation of a fine instrument. I have never learned to play a guitar but I did play the violin in junior and senior high school, so I do have an appreciation for the fine work that is done by the craftsmen in Paracho. The gentleman who showed us around told us that this studio was built by his grandfather, and then pointed out a photograph of his own father at the knee of the patriarch of the family. It´s wonderful so see the tradition of fine workmanship being passed down in the family.
Time to head back to Morelia. If had been a very full day and we enjoyed every minute of it. There was no time for a visit to the National Park in Uruapan, or the nearby waterfall. I guess we have to save something for a return visit. As we drove along the winding country highways, I saw a couple of men sitting beside a smoldering hill of earth. Now this is something I had never see the likes of before, and so I asked Jesus to stop and find out what they were doing. We were still high in the mountains so I couldn´t imagine that they were smoking fish. When he learned that they were making charcoal, I was excited to learn how they did it. In several of the countries we have visited, we have seen people selling sacks of charcoal along the mountain highways, but the work was done deep in the forests and I had never learned the process used. Beside the smoking hill mound was another pile of cedar strips. This is the wood the men were using to make the charcoal.
Apparently, they put down a base of stone, then pile the wood on top. Then a thick layer of pine needles is piled over the wood and the whole hill is covered with soil. Small openings are left around the edges for the smoke to escape. If I understood it correctly, it is the pine needles that burn and char the wood, leaving the chunks of charcoal behind. As the wood burns, more strips are inserted through the holes until all the pine needles are burned. Then the soil is removed and the charcoal loaded into sacks and stacked by the road for people to buy. Fascinating. I also learned that the Spanish word for cedar is encino. Oh yes, Encino, California must be named for the abundant cedar forests that once stood nearby.
It was late when we reached Morelia and we were happy to have a hot shower and hit the bed early. It had been a terrific day and Jesus was a resourceful driver. When we had left twelve hours earlier, one of the first things that he told us was that he had never been to see the Volcano Paricutin, nor had he been to the Mariposa Monarcha Reserva. I appreciated the fact that he didn´t try to make us think that he was a knowledgeable guide, but we found it was more important that he spoke good English. All along the way, he continually checked with local people to ensure that we were headed in the right direction, and we never once lost our way. Gone was the assumption that I had that Mexican men are so macho, here was one man, not afraid to ask for directions, now tell me, how many men do you know who are willing to do such a sensible thing? Right!