Why We Came, Why We Stayed – Vanlife in Patzcuaro, Mexico

Let me tell you about Patzcuaro. It’s a charming colonial town in the highlands of the state of Michoacan, deep in the indigenous Purépecha country. Patzcuaro is one of Mexico’s “magic towns”, a designation reserved for towns that offer a special experience to visitors. Its rich and dramatic history is reflected today in the architecture, people, local crafts and traditions, food, and culture. Patzcuaro has attracted some ex-pats and international tourists but for now, their influence on local real estate, business, and culture appears limited. We had heard and read enough about this town from friends, fellow travelers, and online that we felt confident it would be our kind of place. So confident in fact, that we planned to spend at least 3 weeks there. A big commitment from two very nomadic people.

View of the town from the top of Cerro Blanco

We had based so much of our trip around this place that as we neared it, I started to get a bit nervous. I worried about what we would do if we got there, and it didn’t meet our (by now) very high expectations. As those of you following this blog know, our time in Patzcuaro got off to a rough start with a murder in Plaza Grande within 24 hours of our arrival (you can read all about that here). As you can imagine, murder doesn’t make a great first impression. However, we were immediately so enamoured with the place that we decided to give it a second chance. And boy, did it deliver! Patzcuaro is easily one of our favourite towns in Mexico and one that we will likely return to on future adventures. In this post, we’ll explain why we came to Patzcuaro and what held us there for almost a month and kept us wanting more.

Exploring, Shopping & Eating in the Historic Colonial Centre

Patzcuaro is a very old place, at least by Canadian standards. It was the capital of the Indigenous Purépecha people from ~ 1325 – 1400 AD, long before the Spanish arrived in 1522. We’re fascinated with Mexico’s old colonial towns and cities, their history and culture, and love spending time in the markets, squares, restaurants, and shops that now call these ancient places home.

> The Local Market

Patzcuaro has an excellent local market in Plaza Chica. It’s a beautifully chaotic interior/exterior installation made up of a slightly derelict building, tarps roped up for shade, folding tables, and makeshift shelving. It’s a place where you can find anything you might be looking for, from tiny, delicious bananas to rhinestone-laden belts. Need a haircut? You can get it done here! Hungry for lunch? Grab some tacos at one of the market restaurants. For me, a trip to the local market is grocery shopping and sightseeing, all in one. This market had every fruit and vegetable I could imagine (and then some) and we made a point to stop here several times per week for fresh produce, cheese, and eggs. Plaza Grande also had a weekend pop-up market with exotic treats. Click here for a market tour!

A source of drama during our visit was the city’s plan to bulldoze the existing market and build a new, modern market in its place. The current vendors (there are thousands) will be hugely impacted by this plan and are not at all happy about it. While we were in Patzcuaro, there were ongoing protests. We really sympathize with the vendors and can’t imagine Plaza Chica being the same without this lively and bustling shared space.

> Plazas Grande & Chica

There are two main plazas (squares) in Patzcuaro. The big one (Plaza Grande) and the small one (Plaza Chica). We spent a lot of time (perhaps a little too much) eating delicious Mexican food, drinking coffee, and enjoying weekend markets and entertainment in Plaza Grande. The plaza is lined with old mansions, which have been converted to businesses, and filled with enormous trees, walkways, benches, fountains, and grassy spots. We did our best to try every café on the square, and I think we succeeded (Yay us… sorry wallet!) Some of our favourites were La Suitidora for coffee, Casa del Naranjo for breakfast, and La Casa de Los Arc Angeles for dinner. On weekends, there’s always live entertainment. I loved seeing the traditional Danza de los Viejitos (dance of the little old men), however, Marc was creeped out by the masks and Walter feared the noises made by the dancer’s wooden shoes… so mixed reviews from us on this traditional dance.

The area surrounding Plaza Grande, including Once Patios is full of shops and galleries selling local handicrafts. We’re not shoppers but we couldn’t resist peeking in the shops and picking up some gifts for friends and family (and ok I’ll admit it… some for us too😉).

Dancers performing the Danza de los Viejitos
A cute little corner in the sprawling Once (11) Patio area

The small plaza (Plaza Chica) is less grand but often busier and filled with locals, especially on weekends. While I would pick up groceries at the market, Marc and Walter would people-watch in the square. It would fill with families gathering, kids playing (and occasionally lighting off fireworks – Walter loved that lol), and everyone eating food from the many street vendors. It was the best place to eat ice cream paletas. We enjoyed watching the locals and they enjoyed watching us. It’s not every day that they see ice cream-eating gringos with a Nordic mutt.

Living in a Temperate Climate

The climate in Patzcuaro was a huge draw for us and the weather was as perfect and predictable as we had been led to believe. Overnight lows are 7-8 degrees celsius and daytime highs are 22-25 (while we were there). We don’t mind warmer temperatures, but Walter is part husky, and his ideal climate is the arctic. This can make travelling in Mexico a challenge. A perfect compromise to keep us all happy is high-elevation, temperate destinations like Patzcuaro.

Camping with Community

We chose to stay at the Villa Patzcuaro Hotel & RV Park. It’s lovely. The campground is surrounded by large pine trees, providing shade throughout the day. There was lots of space to walk with Walter. The reddish-coloured buildings blend with the landscape and bright flowers give a pop of colour. The shower was often on the fritz but that aside, the campground had all the amenities that we needed to relax into a comfortable routine. Best of all, it’s an oasis in the middle of town, just a 30 min walk to the historic centre and a 20 min walk to the lake.

“Mrs. Lopez” – everyone’s favourite camp dog
Marc and Walter walk the tree-lined street leading from the campground to Plaza Grande

The campground and the community of travelers calling it home were a big part of why we stayed. When we travel, we leave behind all our friends and family for months, and that can sometimes get lonely. Occasionally, we stumble upon a special campground where travellers stay for a while and form a little community. The Villa Patzcuaro RV Park was one of these places. We met so many new friends here. Friends with which to eat out, have happy hour at the end of the day, go on an adventure, or exchange travel stories and recommendations. Even Walter had community, with several dog friends on site. His favourite was “Mrs. Lopez”, a local dog who may or may not have an owner but who spent almost all her time at the RV Park, filling the role of greeter. The community was a big part of why we stayed as long as we did and would consider returning another year again.

Hiking in the Mountains Surrounding the Town

If you follow our blog, you know hiking is one of our favourite activities. The fact that the town of Patzcuaro is surrounded by trails was part of the reason we chose it as a destination. Each hike in Patzcuaro winds its way (sometimes gently, often not!) up the surrounding mountains, offering stunning views of the town and lake. The best and most popular hike is Estribo Grande (named for its shape like a big saddle). We convinced our new friend Brian to join us for the hike. From the campground, it took several hours. We made our way downtown, across the highway, and up the volcano into the picturesque hills that tower above the city. It was a lovely, winding, cobblestone street to the overlook, followed by a slightly punishing 400-step climb to the top. It was challenging, but the views were worth every drop of sweat. We were pleased with our effort until we passed a local doing a set of squats at every tenth step. Now that is impressive!

Admiring Lake Patzcuaro (From a Distance)

Patzcuaro is one of several villages along the shore of Lake Patzcuaro. From the photos online, we imagined ourselves spending a lot of time at the lake: taking the taxi boat to the islands; SUPing from the local dock; and bringing picnic lunches to enjoy the view. Well, it was not to be! The lake is beautiful from a distance, and we enjoyed admiring it from every viewpoint in the city, but up close, it appears shallow and polluted. Any ambitions of getting on my SUP were dashed when we reached the somewhat grungy shoreline. There was no easy way to access the lake in a SUP and an accidental fall into the water would surely result in some sort of infection or a new body part. A picnic at one of the docks could have been fun, but there were so many better locations for that in town or at lookouts. The lake was the only attraction in Patzcuaro that didn’t meet our expectations.  

The main dock… Lake Patzcuaro is definitely more attractive in pictures than in real life

Venturing Out for Day Trips – Stay Tuned

One of the most pleasant surprises of our time in Patzcuaro was the seemingly infinite number of day trips within an hour’s drive of the town. The surrounding area is filled with villages, many of which are known for their beautiful handicrafts and quaint, historic centres. Stay tuned for our next blog where we’ll take you with us on several day trips to discover what each little village has to offer.

4 thoughts on “Why We Came, Why We Stayed – Vanlife in Patzcuaro, Mexico

  1. What a spectacular write-up! Well, well done!! We were so glad to have met your acquaintance (Walter you too!) and we grateful for our time together, stories told, drinks shared. Love the blog. Stay well and stay in touch! Nancy & Doug.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awe, thanks Nancy and Doug. It’s great to hear from you guys. We are so glad to have met you! We will keep in touch for sure and hopefully we will meet again on the road 😉


  2. We really enjoyed your post and the campground sounds wonderful. Do you happen to know if there are Spanish language schools in Patzcuaro?


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