By Felipe Elvira
Imagine waking up in Uruapan. Many thousands of Uruapenses who have crossed the border over into the USA dream of doing just that. They make films about it. Uruapan, with its orchards and breathtakingly beautiful national park built along river banks.
Uruapan’s park has hundreds of fountains all carved out of volcanic rock, each one original, different.
The river Cupatizio gives life to Uruapan. It is born inside the city out of a pool called the Devil’s Knee. The story goes that the devil fell to Earth on his knee creating a dent in the ground and cracking it so that a spring of water rushed up.
The Cupatitzio is the most beautiful young river possible to imagine. It jumps, it dances, it gushes, it rushes about and foams, it splashes with its arms wide. When the water reaches a pool it sleeps, still as a baby, riverine eyes transparent and open. Cupatitzio in the Tarazco language means ‘The River that Sings’.
So, it is not surprising that the municipality of Uruapan is the world centre for avocado growers, that Uruapan produces its own coffee, the fragrance of which wafts seductively through the town. Well-watered, Uruapan has trout and macadamias and fruit of all kinds, some you have probably never heard of, like yellow, sulphurous changungas.
It is has often surprised me that Uruapan is relatively unknown. It hosts what must be the greatest market for handicrafts in the world every Easter. There are two million beautiful objects on sale. You can buy furniture: tables, trunks and chairs inlaid with mother of pearl, copper pots and lamps from one town, guitars from Paracho, clay sculptures of green pineapples from another, beautiful cloth in luminescent colours. The colour of the traditional rebozo from Uruapan is electric blue.
Uruapan is famous throughout Mexico (and the United States) for being the home of carnitas. It has a whole market dedicated to the most wonderful food: El Mercado de Antojitos. Delicious! You’ll find it when you walk through the narrow lanes behind the Huatapera. The tables and benches are heavy and painted black. There are rows of cooking stations where women work all under two roofs made of solid timber.
Uruapan surrounded by volcanos, even has its very own active volcano. The only one for 50 years which people ever witnessed appearing out of the level ground anywhere in the world. Paricutin was active for 9 years before it went quiet. It is a grey black hill in the distance. When it was exploding there were free fireworks for everyone, and in the morning the streets and cars were covered in grey dust. Many poor people lost their land to the lava.
Uruapan’s people are friendly and generous. They are Purhepechas crossed with Spanish and a little French and smidgeon of Italian. Uruapenses are conservative and devout. Religious occasions are all well-observed and all society is on show at the large Immaculate Heart church. On festival days there is dancing in the streets and there you see young men and women dressed as old men and women doing the dance of the old people with walking sticks and masks. The masks are hook nosed and painted pink.
The city of Uruapan has grown and grown and where once it was as picturesque as Patzcuaro, prosperity made it a little rough around the edges. The best houses in the centre all have central courtyards and are made with the traditional material, adobe. But adobe is expensive now and the new build uses too much brick and breezeblock.
Uruapan even has its own alcoholic beverage. It is a spirit called Charanda, and now there are people who are refining the drink into something special and they have asked for protected designation of origin and got it. You can’t make it anywhere else under the same name.
But the people of Uruapan love their city and there are constant restorations. Cobbled streets are reopened. The old churches are renovated and repainted. The jewel of the town is the Huatapera, built in the 16th century. It is both ornate and simple. It is beautiful. It even smells heavenly, of wood and porous stone.
Imagine that you are waking up in Uruapan and about to take an early morning walk. Has it just rained? It rains a lot in Uruapan. Coffee and sweet breads await you.
Photos by Felipe Elvira, words by Philip Hall