Lake Pátzcuaro

On Lake Pátzcuaro, men from Janitzio Island (in the background), site of one of Mexico's most celebrated Day of the Dead observances on Nov. 1, paddle traditional fishing skiffs. (CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS / LAT)

Four hundred and twenty-two years ago, when the local big shots hitched up their wagons and moved to new headquarters down the road, this city lost its juice. And perhaps thanks to that, a newcomer in the right mood can still taste its old flavor.

I mean juice as in power. Pátzcuaro sits on a hillside by a lake, and as you stroll through its shady plazas and crowded markets or stand near the basilica and look down Calle Buena Vista, you can imagine it as a handy base of operations when Spaniards began to take over this area in the early 16th century.

In those days, Pátzcuaro's power radiated out to the islands on nearby Lake Pátzcuaro (pronounced POTS-kwa-ro) and surrounding towns of the indigenous Purépechas (also known as Tarascans), and the region's destiny was largely in the hands of an aged bishop named Don Vasco de Quiroga. Nearly five centuries later, whether you're slipping down an alley past the cooking tortillas and soaking corn cobs, or sitting by the strumming mariachis in the plaza, there's still no getting around this town without hearing about Quiroga.

But once his tenure had passed, church and civil officials decided in 1580 to move the state's seat of power from here to Morelia, about 45 minutes away. Over the generations, Morelia grew and grew, its colonial center eventually surrounded by a population of more than 600,000, and an airport on its outskirts. It remains the capital of the state of Michoacán and the seat of the region's Catholic bishop. Pátzcuaro, meanwhile, stayed smallish, its 40,000 residents ambling along on cobblestone streets between adobe buildings with red-tile roofs.

I came to amble among them because I believe in enjoying the slower, small-town Mexico while it lasts. I had heard about Pátzcuaro's colonial atmosphere, the scenic lake and islands next door, and the string of craft villages circling the lake like a necklace. I was far from being the only tourist (Pátzcuaro has long been popular with admirers of Mexican crafts and folk art), but because there are no beaches here, and no 300-room hotels, tourism usually casts a shorter shadow.

My first stop was downtown Pátzcuaro, where government offices, shops and lodgings stand shoulder to shoulder in old mansions surrounding the stately shade trees, benches and fountains of a main plaza named, yes, for Don Vasco de Quiroga.

But it wasn't an easy introduction: Booked into the Mansión Iturbe, a bed-and-breakfast in a historic building facing the plaza, I arrived in a late summer rain and was told that the hotel's off-street parking lot was several blocks away. By the time I had clawed my way to the lot and back through the thick, wet, end-of-day downtown traffic, I had all but abandoned the idea of Pátzcuaro as a smaller, slower place.

But the rain abated, the hotel proved pleasant, the traffic never got that bad again and, as long as I was staying in the city, I didn't need to use the rental car anyway. Soon enough I was comfortably established amid the brightly colored walls and rustic furniture of my $95-a-night room, a tiny balcony just outside.

It didn't hurt that my favorite restaurant in town turned out to be a Euro-Mexican place called El Primer Piso (the First Floor), just across the plaza. Nor did I mind that the many arches of the 17th century Templo del Sagrario, my favorite piece of architecture in town, were just one block east of the plaza on Calle Portugal.

During the next few days I walked a lot and found that Pátzcuaro, more than 7,000 feet above sea level and 240 miles west of Mexico City, is a good place for sweaters and umbrellas. It's cool most of the year, with winter lows often dropping into the 40s. In the summer, highs can reach the 80s, but afternoon showers are common.

One of my frequent stops was the Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra ("Plaza Chica," or little square, in the local shorthand), which fulfills more blue-collar purposes than the main plaza, including a farmer's market that goes on for blocks, snaking down alleys and around corners. Next to the Plaza Chica, I stepped into a building that I expected to be a church--and in fact it was built as a convent dedicated to St. Augustine in the 16th century--and found that it's now a library. Further, its back wall was covered with an enormous 1942 mural of Michoacán history, painted by the acclaimed Mexican muralist Juan O'Gorman.

The star of that mural, of course, is Don Vasco de Quiroga. Trained as a lawyer before joining the priesthood, he was in his early 60s when he reached this region in the early 1530s. Most accounts put his age at 67 when he was named bishop of Michoacán, and by all accounts his tenure was as mild and paternal as his predecessors' had been fierce and repressive.

Having read "Utopia," Thomas More's 1516 imagined vision of a Christian socialist island paradise somewhere on the way from Europe to the Americas, Quiroga aimed to draw on those ideas to establish a model society on the banks of Lake Pátzcuaro. He died in nearby Uruapan in 1565, at age 95, but his remains rest in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, Pátzcuaro's principal church.

Quiroga may have fallen short of building a perfect society, but he didn't fail entirely. One of his priorities was to encourage each Purépecha village to develop and cling to a commercial specialty. As an introduction to that strategy, I spent a pleasant hour on the site of another Quiroga innovation: the Primitivo Colegio de San Nicolás Obispo, founded in 1540 as one of the first colleges in the Americas. The university later moved to Morelia. But its old site remains in business as Pátzcuaro's Regional Museum of Popular Arts and Crafts. The museum, an 18th century building designed as a rectangle around a pleasant central courtyard, gives a fine overview to the craft-making of the surrounding countryside, with ceramics, masks, woodwork, lacquerware, copper pots and clay jars filling 11 rooms.

If you spend a few hours on the 55-mile drive around the lake (there's also bus service if you're on a tighter budget), you see further manifestations of Quiroga's vision. My first stop, about 10 miles from Pátzcuaro, was Tzintzuntzan (pronounced sin-soon-sawn), named for the sound of local hummingbirds and home to a modest town and several immodest pre-Columbian pyramids. At the height of its pre-Columbian days, Tzintzuntzan served as the Purépecha capital and had enough juice of its own to muster a sizable army. In the town there are a handful of roadside woodworking studios and vendors offering embroidered cloth showing local scenes and customs. (None of the towns around the lake approaches Pátzcuaro's collection of colonial architecture, but you do see striking churches here and there, and pleasant views abound of the lake and the countryside.)

As you continue around the lake, Erongarícuaro (11 miles from Pátzcuaro) is known for embroidered cotton fabrics and, more recently, furniture. (During World War II it is said to have been a refuge for André Breton and other surrealists looking to keep a low profile.) Tocuaro (eight miles from Pátzcuaro) is known for masks. Santa Clara del Cobre (also known as Villa Escalante, about 12 miles south of Pátzcuaro) is the copperware capital of the region and hosts a festival every August. Farther afield, more than an hour's drive from Pátzcuaro in the mountains above Uruapan, there's Paracho, the guitar-making capital of Mexico, which has its own August festival. Throughout Michoacán, merchants display colorful lacquerware (especially hand-painted wood serving trays known as bateas).

Apart from Morelia, there are at least two notable side trips possible from Pátzcuaro. One is the drive (about an hour each way) and hike up Paricutín volcano, which in 1943 buried a town near Paracho in lava.

Wherever you go in or around Pátzcuaro, you're likely to encounter Purépechans. Along its mountains, lakes, forests and rivers, the state retains a larger indigenous population than most regions of Mexico. A recent study by the Mexican government found that of the 4 million residents in Michoacán, more than 100,000 speak an indigenous language (mostly Purépecha) besides Spanish.

Other studies, meanwhile, hint at a population you're less likely to find: ambitious men of working age. Every year, while thousands of American visitors head this way to savor the Old World atmosphere, thousands of Michoacanos are heading north to seek work in the U.S. A 1998 Mexican population study found that among males age 18 or older in the state, one in three has at some point gone north to the U.S. to find work, a rate that puts Michoacán among the Mexican states that export the most workers. The week before I arrived in Pátzcuaro, in fact, the city played host to a traveling seminar from the University of Iowa's School of Social Work: "Understanding and Valuing the Mexican Immigrant/Guest Worker."