It was a road that did it. I fell in love with the little-known state of Michoacan, Mexico in the back of a pickup on the bumpy mountain road from Lake Zirahuén to Santa Clara del Cobre.
Neat pine forests lined the road, skirted by purple and yellow wildflowers, framing a deep emerald mountain that speared the sky in the background. The road looked more like something from the Alps than any landscape I’d imagined I’d see in Mexico. It, like the rest of Michoacan, was completely unexpected – and utterly beautiful.
Michoacan might not top many Mexico travel itineraries, but the state has a lot to entice visitors. Not least a distinct lack of other tourists, especially when compared with more popular destinations. Then there’s the stately capital of Morelia, with its pink-hued colonial buildings. The rolling countryside, filled with avocado plantations, endless lakes, mist-topped mountains and soft grassy valleys. And, of course, the rich history, excellent cuisine, and lively culture.
Keep reading for my Michoacan travel guide, covering everything you need to know about this incredible state…
Michoacán, aka Michoacán de Ocampo, is a state in the centre of Mexico, west of Mexico City. The state is known for its gastronomy, history, and mountainous countryside.
Although popular with local tourists, the state isn’t too well known outside of Mexico. As a result, it sees fewer foreigners than more popular parts of the country – which is part of its appeal.
The capital city of Michoacan state is Morelia, so this is generally the best place to start. You can either base yourself in Morelia and explore the rest of the state on day trips, as I did, or you could start and end a road trip here. Here’s how to travel to Michoacan…
Morelia International Airport is about 30-40 minutes drive from the city centre. It’s served by direct flights from several cities in both Mexico and the USA. But you might find that flight prices are generally a little higher than to some of the country’s larger airports.
Alternatively, Mexico City airport offers a lot more flight options. It’s about 4-5 hours drive to Morelia so is a convenient option. Especially for those flying in from further afield.
You can travel to Michoacan by bus from Mexico City to Morelia very easily. Buses depart very frequently from the Terminal de Autobus Poniente, which is on the outskirts of CDMX. It’s a “Luxury Bus” service run by ETN – featuring reclining seats with TV screens* and a free snack and drink. The journey takes about 4 hours and is pretty comfortable. The price as of Jan 2020 is $635.00MXN (around $33 / £25).
*(only Spanish-language offerings when I travelled).
You can also travel from the Terminal Norte with Primera Plus. There are fewer departures, and the journey time is about an hour longer, but the terminal is more central and better located for CDMX airport.
Both bus companies allow you to search and book online, so you can check the latest departure times and prices before you travel.
If you plan on road tripping around Michoacan state, it may be convenient to rent a car in Mexico City. To travel to Michoacan from Mexico City takes around 4 hours by car, depending on traffic etc.
FYI – we couldn’t find a company offering one-way car hire, so if you rent in Mexico City you’ll need to return the car there.
The best way to get around Michoacan state is by car. There are a couple of rental places in the city or at the airport. In my experience, the roads were in good condition and shouldn’t be too hard to drive on.
There are fairly decent bus connections between the larger towns, such as Morelia to Patzcuaro, but, of course, this offers less freedom and convenience.
In Morelia there are taxis, as well as both Uber and DiDi-Rider (another taxi app), so getting around the city is very easy. The old town area is also very walkable and you can easily cover a lot of ground on foot.
The state capital of Morelia was named after the hero of the Mexican War of Independence, José María Morelos. Amongst the rose-hued colonial buildings of the picturesque historic centre, you’ll find the house of his birth.
Dominated by the stunning Morelia Cathedral – considered one of the best in the country – and built almost entirely from an unpainted pink coloured stone, the downtown is a beautiful place to explore. You can tour the various museums to learn more about Morelos, the Mexican Revolution, and the history of Michoacan in general. Or, you can simply make the most of the many incredible restaurants and cafes, both traditional and modern, which can be found on almost every corner.
Not far from Morelia, the mountain town of Patzcuaro overlooks a sprawling lake of the same name. In the style of the area, all the houses in the historic centre are painted a uniform white-and-red, with terracotta roof tiles.
It is this unique colonial architecture – along with the dramatic mountain scenery and the rich Purépecha culture – that gained Patzcuaro its status as a “Magic Town”. Spend time browsing for locally made handicrafts, exploring the numerous churches, or simply wandering through the pretty streets.
Explore the Pueblos Magicos and Mountain Towns
Pueblos Mágicos, or “Magic Towns”, are part of an initiative by the Mexican tourism board which awards certain towns a special status according to strict selection criteria. Towns with particularly outstanding natural beauty, cultural richness, historical relevance, and/or cuisine, make the list.
I’ve rounded up the 8 Pueblos Magicos in Michoacan here, to help you discover them all. From the lakeside town of Cuitzeo, with its stunning monastery, to the glittering Santa Clara del Cobre – famed for copper production – there are so many beautiful towns to discover across Michoacan.
Hit the Lakes
As you travel around Michoacan state, you’re bound to notice the lakes! There are many, and some – like Cuitzeo Lake – are so vast they almost look like seas.
Patzcuaro Lake is surrounded by many pretty towns, and is home to several islands. These include Janitzeo Island, which is topped with an enormous and dramatic statue of José María Morelos. Cuitzeo Lake is the second-largest freshwater lake in Mexico, surrounded by marshlands that are rich in birdlife.
My personal favourite was Lake Zirahuen. Although smaller, it’s in a particularly picturesque spot with rich woodland and mountains around it. Better still, there are numerous resorts where you can rent a lakeside cabin to enjoy the peaceful setting.
Discover the Purépecha People
You’ve probably heard of the Maya and the Aztecs, but they weren’t the only Prehispanic civilisations in Mexico! In Michoacan state, the indigenous people were the Purépecha.
Although the empire ended when the Spanish arrived, the people remain and form a large part of Michoacan culture. Today, the Purépecha language is spoken by nearly 200,000 people, and many traditions remain, feeding into the local culture, cuisine, and crafts. This is what makes Michoacan so unique, so it’s worth finding out more.
There are many archaeological sites to explore, such as the pyramids, called Yacatas, at Tzintzuntzan. Or, in Patzcuaro, you can visit the Centro de Interpretacion Ruta Don Vasco for an amazing introduction to Purepechan Life.
Dia de los Muertos
If you happen to be travelling to Michoacan in October, try to time your trip to tie in with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This is considered one of the best places in Mexico to see the traditions.
The small town of Santa Fe de la Laguna was the inspiration for the town in Disney’s recent hit Coco. But all around the region, the festivities are spectacular and beautiful to witness.
READ MORE: Dia de los Muertos around Patzcuaro Lake
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
Every winter, millions of monarch butterflies migrate to Michoacan from Canada and the United States, in search of warmer climes. Most of them make their home in the pine forests of the UNESCO Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Visit between mid-November and March to see the trees turned red and gold with vast flocks of these stunning creatures.
By volcano standards, Paricutín is kind of a baby. In fact, it’s the youngest volcano in the world. It appeared suddenly from a local farmer’s land in 1943, and erupted over the next nine years – completely burying two towns and forming a perfect cone.
Today, the volcano is extinct and has become a tourist attraction. If you fancy a challenge, you can climb Paricutín itself – but you’ll need a guide as the route is tricky. More popular is the pilgrimage to San Juan Parangaricutiro Church, which was half-buried in lava but still stands, its bell towers jutting eerily from the barren landscape.
Mexican cuisine varies a lot from state to state, and Michoacan has plenty of its own specialities. Purépechan influences combine with flavours and ingredients brought by the Spanish, for a pretty unique gastronomy that you won’t find in the rest of the country.
The local produce also has an impact. Michoacan is Mexico’s largest producer of avocados and berries, thanks to the rich farmland. Be sure to try both as you’ll struggle to find them fresher anywhere else! Here are a few of the must-try dishes while you travel around Michoacan…
A soup made from blended black beans, tomato purée and dried chillies. It’s usually served with served topped with strips of fried tortilla, sour cream, and cotija, a dry local cheese.
Michoacan has a few variations on the well-known dish of tamales. Uchepos are one, made from ground sweet corn. These are sweeter and smoother than other tamales, and sometimes served with condensed milk or cream as a dessert. They can also be served with green or red salsa.
Corundas are another variety of tamales you’ll find in Michoacan. They are triangular shaped and wrapped in corn leaves. Corundas are usually stuffed with cheese, chilaca chile peppers, pork, vegetables or legumes.
Atole de Grano
Another typical Michoacano dish is atole de grano, a popular street food originating from Patzcuaro. It’s a savoury, soup-like dish made from sweetcorn cooked al dente in a light green broth flavoured with anise. Hot, hearty, and perfect for the chilly mountain nights.
Carnitas are popular all over Mexico, but the Michoacan style is particularly famous. Pork meat is stewed in copper pots from Santa Clara del Cobre, then served in tacos with coriander, onion, and lime.
You’ve probably heard of gazpacho before, but this isn’t the cold tomato soup from Spain! This is a Morelian fruit salad containing a weird-sounding mix of fruit, onion, and crumbled white cheese. Yep, cheese and onion. Most shops will give you a choice of fruit so you can tailor the dish to suit. Sounds bizarre but it’s super popular, especially in Morelia!
Pasta de Nieve
Originating from Patzcuaro, pasta de nieve (snow paste) is a sweet, creamy sorbet. It’s made from caramelized milk and usually flavoured with cinnamon, vanilla, and almonds.
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Morelia makes an ideal base while you travel Michoacan. I can recommend a couple of great hotels in the city. Although I didn’t stay in any of these myself (I shared an AirBnb with some amigos), I dined in all of the hotels and had a poke around at the same time.
Rather go self-catering? Sign up to AirBnb using this link to get a £25 credit for your first booking.
Hotel de la Soledad
Hands-down the best breakfast I had in Morelia! This is a beautiful boutique hotel with a serene central courtyard full of leafy plants and tinkling fountains. It’s also in a prime location just around the corner from the cathedral and main square.
Check Prices: Booking.com | Hotels.com
Hotel Casa Grand
Overlooking the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral, this hotel boasts some of the best views in Morelia. It’s also housed in a 17th-century mansion and feels more like a palace than a hotel. Breathtaking!
Check Prices: Booking.com | Hotels.com
Herencia By Hosting House
My friend actually stayed here before and he said it was gorgeous. The location is ideal, the restaurant is fabulous, and the rooms look beautiful. It’s a more mid-range hotel than the two above but you get a lot for the price, so it feels like “affordable luxury”.
Check Prices: Booking.com | Hotels.com
Hostal San Fransiskun
If you’re on a budget, there are a handful of hostels in Morelia. Hostal San Fransiskun has the highest ratings on Hostelword, with an ideal location and cute decor. They offer reasonably priced private rooms as well as small mixed dorms.
Check Prices: Hostelworld
That’s it for my Michoacan travel guide! If you have a question, feel free to scroll down and leave a comment – I’ll be happy to help!