Jul 262014

Tzintzuntzan, designated a Magic Town in 2012, has two sixteenth century churches, equally ancient olive trees, a craft market specializing in straw goods and ornaments, plus an archaeological site which was the capital of the not inconsiderable Tarascan Empire.

The Tarascan Empire

The Tarascan Empire, contemporaneous with that of the Aztecs, stretched westwards as far as the shores of Lake Chapala, with sporadic contacts into the Sayula lake area, and to the east as far as present-day Zitácuaro. The Tarascans spoke Purépecha, and today the local indigenous people prefer to be called Purépecha. The term “Tarascan” is more properly reserved for their ancestors and their pre-Columbian empire.

“Tzintzuntzan” is an onomatopoeic Purépecha rendering of the sound made by a hummingbird. The ceremonial center was still fully active when the Spanish arrived. Tarascan buildings were constructed mainly of wood. Only the basements were normally built of stone and today, therefore, it is only these basements or yácatas that remain. Some of the cut stones which cover the rubble-filled interiors of the yácatas are ornamented with rock carvings.

The scale of earth-moving involved in constructing the temples is remarkable. The entire 425-meter-long platform is man-made. On it were built five yácatas, on the tops of which would have been wooden and thatch structures serving as shrines. The semi-circular shape of these yácatas suggests that they were built to honor the god of the wind, Ik. The Tarascan ceremonial centre commands a magnificent view over the lake, whose waters would have been lapping at the platform’s base during some rainy seasons. The area behind the yácatas, next to the village soccer pitch blazes with color during the wildflower seasons of late spring and early autumn. The archaeological site has a small, modern museum.

The Tarascans had a mixed economy, collecting fruits and forest products, fishing and undertaking agriculture, complete with terracing and irrigation. Some archaeologists have argued that many of the pre-Columbian peoples, dependent on the natural world for their immediate survival, were very ecologically-conscious. However, in this area, evidence from rates of lake sedimentation now suggests that maybe they weren’t quite so environmentally-aware after all. It seems that erosion rates were already on the rise by the time the Spanish arrived, suggesting that native agriculture was almost certainly not sustainable. Following the introduction of European diseases, the decline in population (and agricultural workforce) prompted a further increase in erosion rates as soil conservation methods could not be maintained. Erosion and sedimentation were exacerbated by the nineteenth and twentieth century deforestation of surrounding hills.

Spanish churches

Tzintzuntzan monastery and church. Artist: Mark Eager. All rights reserved.

Tzintzuntzan monastery and church. Artist: Mark Eager. All rights reserved.

The Spanish destroyed the Tarascan temples, carting off many of the stones to build Catholic churches in their new village. Observant visitors to the beautifully-proportioned patio of the former monastery beside the main church will spot petroglyphs on some of the walls there which betray the stones’ earlier placement in the yácatas. This building, decorated with fine old colored frescoes depicting Franciscan lore, and with parts of its original wooden roof still intact, houses the office of the parish notary and is not always open to the public.

There are other peculiarities here, too, which say much for the realities of sixteenth century Spanish monastic life. When the monastery of Tzintzuntzan was built, two churches were constructed, one for the monks’ private use and the other for the lay Third Order. These two churches, only a few steps apart, are about as different as can be, given that they are of similar age. The monks’ church, beautifully restored following an arson attack, is light and airy; the Third Order church is dark, gloomy and oppressing. Both, in their own way, are awe-inspiring. To one side of the Third Order church is a complete-immersion font, shaded by two tall trees.

Ancient olive trees

In the large atrium in front of the monastery are a sixteenth century cross and the bent and twisted tree trunks of some of the oldest olive trees in Mexico, brought by special request from Spain for the express purpose of providing the monks with one of their accustomed foods. They are thought to be more than four hundred and fifty years old.

Handicraft market

Tzintzuntzan’s handicraft market is a cornucopia of straw work in every conceivable color, design and size, which make ideal Christmas decorations or gifts. Also on sale are elaborately carved wooden beams, and examples of the many different local pottery styles including the Ocumicho devil-figures and strange green pineapples as well as finely detailed, hand-embroidered scenes of village life.

How to get there:

Tzintzuntzan is about twenty minutes drive from Pátzcuaro.


This post is based on chapter 32 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.