So we’ve been in Patzcuaro for a couple of weeks now and, wow oh wow, is this place cool. It’s a mountain town colonized by the Spanish in the 1500’s with its indigenous roots going all the way back to the 1300’s. It’s your quintessential colonial town complete with winding cobblestone streets, high walled houses with hidden courtyards, bustling mercados (markets), beautiful tree-lined plazas and ancient churches. Cool huh? But one of the best parts? It’s located on a giant lake named (conveniently enough) Lake Patzauro.

Deidre and I are both water lovers so the lake definitely figured into our planning when we decided to leave the beach to come here. We’ve explored the town a bit but have been wondering what the lake is like so last week we decided to take a day and drive around Lake Patzcuaro. Yes, a day. A whole day.

View of Lake Patzcuaro
So close, yet so far away. Lake Patzcuaro can be seen from many parts of town, but is actually about an hour walk away. Hence the reason we decided to drive to and around it.

We needed to take a full day because Lake Patzcuaro is huge! It’s about 50 square miles and is large enough to have inhabited islands, including Janitzio, home to the area’s most famous Day of the Dead celebration.

Janitizo
On the right you can just make out the giant statue of José María Morelos (a hero of Mexico’s independence) atop Janitizio.

Janitzio might be the lake’s most famous feature, but by no means its only one. On this trip we chose not to take the boat trip to the towns on the islands and instead decided to explore the many towns ringing Lake Patzcuaro. No plan, just a day driving around seeing where the road took us.

One of the biggest surprises that we had all day was just how quickly the city changes to farmland. There’s no transition area where the buildings begin getting sparser and further apart and the fields start creeping in, no suburbs. One minute you’re stuck in a traffic jam on a narrow city street and 100 yards down the road BOOM! you’re in the country. Nothing around you but cornfields and pastures.

donkeys by lake patzcuaro
We headed through farms and towns and sometimes? Sometimes both at the same time.

And then you’re back in a town again, just like that. One of the first towns we stopped in was San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro, located on the shore of the northern tip of the lake. We decided to stop and look for a nice place with a view of the lake to relax and take some pictures. It was here we found just how hard it is to get a good view of the lake while inside any town.

Since the towns are colonial, all of the houses and buildings are walled which means you just can’t see very far in any direction. If there’s a view of the lake it’s going to have to come from someone’s roof or balcony and no one seemed inclined to invite us in. We settled for wandering around a bit, which found tends to lead to some of the most unexpected and delightful discoveries, and this time was no exception! In our wanderings we gradually headed towards a church steeple visible above the rooftops hoping it would be on the main plaza of the town. Indeed it was and while it was a lovely little plaza, it was the church itself that grabbed our attention.

Other than an occasional wedding or funeral it has been a long time since I’ve set foot in a church but I couldn’t pass this one up. The churches in this area are magnificent, hundreds of years old and full of rich detail and history. They are certainly worth checking out and this one didn’t disappoint.

Church in San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro
The altar in the church of San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro was just too massive and detailed for pictures to do it justice but hopefully you get the idea.

As cool as the church and town of San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro were, after awhile we needed to get back on the road to see more of what we’d come to see – the lake. After driving a few blocks from the church we were quickly back in the country again and on the lookout for stray livestock. We weren’t on the road more than a few minutes before we found the kind of sweeping lake views we had been hoping for so we stopped again (I told you we took all day).

Lake Patzcuaro
I’m no farmer but if I did have a farm this looks like a good spot to put it.

After oohing and awing about the view for a few minutes we noticed that we’d parked close to a roadside shrine. In many parts of Mexico you will see roadside shrines dedicated to friends and loved ones who have passed on and this area of Michoacan is no exception. There is a subtle difference here though, a lot more Day of the Dead influence.

Day-of-the-Dead-Shrine-by-Lake-Patzcuaro
It’s important to remember that these aren’t sad or scary sites, they’re places to visit loved ones who have passed on. Some of the candles were still burning though so it was a bit creepy.

After looking around for a few minutes we continued on down the road – directly to a cemetery. No, we’re not death mongers or morbid people but death is treated a bit differently here and we find that interesting. The best analogy I’ve heard to sum up Day of the Dead and attitudes toward death in general in this area is this: “Without night you cannot have day and without death you cannot have life”. Makes sense to me, ying and yang, give and take and all that stuff. Anyway, back to the cemetery.

We don’t make it a habit of going around taking pictures of peoples’ graves or cemeteries but the cemeteries here are quite beautiful and this one was pretty unique so we stopped and respectfully snapped a few photos.

Tzintzuntzan Cemetery
There seems to be no issue with using Day of the Dead rites alongside Catholic rites. I guess a little tolerance goes a long way.

While snapping our photos we realized that on the hillside across the street there was a massive ruin (seen in the background of the picture above). A massive ruin that we’d never heard of? Of course we stopped there next.

The ruins of Tzintzuntzan (pronounced zin-zoon-zahn) were largely destroyed when the Spanish arrived in the 1520’s but what is left is still very impressive and commands fabulous views over the lake.

Lake Patzcuaro from Tzintzuntzan Ruins
Finally! These are the views we’ve been looking for!
Tzintzuntzan Ruins
Not too shabby for being torn down about 500 years ago.
View from Ruins of Tzintzunzan
Sometimes when you’re sitting at an ancient ruin site overlooking a giant mountain lake you just have to wonder – “How in the heck did I get here?”

Tzintzunzan is only a few minutes from our house and while we’d had a fabulous day and seen many cool things we were still trying to answer the question, “What is Lake Patzcuaro like?” We rounded a bend and saw a site that caused us to stop yet again.

Lake Patzcuaro Fishing Boats
I looked around but no one seemed to want to lend me their boat. I forgot to ask about the burros.

Boats, birds, burros, mountains and ancient towns all in super peaceful and beautiful surroundings? Yep, that’s exactly what Lake Patzcauro is like. We’d found the answer to our question.

Now I just have to find the answer to this question, “Are there any fish in this thing?”