I almost titled this post “Is Morelia the Most Beautiful City in Mexico That Nobody Visits?”, but then I decided that there wasn’t any point in pretending this was a topic that was up for debate because the answer is so obviously yes.
When we were researching potential cities to visit in Mexico, Morelia never made the list of the ones that make travelers weak in the knees, the places people just can’t get enough. They gush about the beauty of cities like San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, and maybe San Cristobál de las Casas, but for all intents and purposes, it’s as though Morelia just doesn’t exist; even for people who are passionate about travel and have made no secret of their love of Mexico, it’s just not on their radar. Morelia has got to be Mexico’s best kept secret… until now!
I’m sure part of Morelia’s charm stems from the fact that you don’t exactly have to fight the crowds to soak in its legitimate loveliness—during our entire month in the city, I think we saw a grand total of four fellow gringos—so it might seem counterintuitive that I’d be so willing to publicize it on our site. But I’m not going to feel too bad about spilling the beans about Morelia, because I know that no matter how much praise is poured upon this city, it’s never going to be at risk of being overrun and ruined by tourism. The reason for this is simple:
Morelia is the capital city of the state of Michoacan.
That may or may not mean anything to you, but do a cursory search on Michoacan, and you’ll see that it’s a region of Mexico that’s gotten a particularly bad rap. Given that Mexico as a whole tends to suffer from a bit of an image problem with international tourists, that’s saying something. For the past several years, whenever Michoacan has made headlines, it’s been related to drug cartels and narco insurgencies, and the result has been that travel advisories have warned visitors to stay away.
By and large, they have.
Even people who have traveled relatively extensively throughout Mexico and who have a self-professed love affair with the country expressed skepticism when we mentioned our next month-long stop on our tour de Mexico was in Michoacan. “Isn’t it super dangerous there?” they asked us worriedly.
I don’t want to be dismissive and pretend that everything is hunky dory in Michoacan and that one should travel there without a care in the world. Parts of the state are legitimately dangerous and absolutely should be avoided. But then again, there are other parts of Michoacan—parts like Morelia—that are placid and peaceful; when we looked into basing ourselves in Morelia for a month, we discovered that most of the dicey parts of the state were generally no closer than a 4-hour drive away and tended to be deep in the countryside. So, essentially places that would be of little interest to the average tourist and that one would be unlikely to accidentally stumble upon. Put another way, avoiding Morelia because of fears about “Michoacan” is the equivalent of boycotting the entire state of Illinois because of Chicago’s crime rates (a place many tourists still visit!) or us refusing to visit Tony’s family in Rochester, MN or my family in Toronto, Canada because those places are each respectively about as close to Chicago and Detroit as Morelia is to the volatile parts of Michoacan.
When put like that, you can see how ludicrous it is to stay away from Morelia due to safety concerns. But, of course, travel advisories are not known for their subtle nuances and instead excel in issuing blanket statements and warnings and so most travelers read that Michoacan is dangerous and non-essential travel should be avoided and that’s as far as they get.
I’ll admit that before we arrived in Morelia, even I was a little bit leery of what we might find. After all, I’m not impervious to the bombardment of negative press that Mexico and its abundant dangers that the American and Canadian newspapers love to publish. And yet, just as we found in other supposedly dangerous destinations—places like the Philippines, for instance—not only did we feel perfectly safe, but the people that we encountered were some of the friendliest and kindest of anywhere we’ve been in our travels. Maybe they aren’t burnt out on tourists, or maybe they’re just so relieved that someone has ignored the warnings and given their home a chance… I can’t say. All I know is that far from making us fear for our lives, people in these places always seem to do the best job of reaffirming our faith in the world and this nomadic lifestyle we have chosen. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, that it’s for personal moments such as these that we travel.
During our month in Morelia, we had the owners of a local ice-cream shop chat with us for an hour and offer us cold water, offering us advice on what to see and do in town (as well as the rest of Mexico), while their daughters laughed and fed our dogs cookies. Our landlady invited us over for brunch and arranged for her daughter to give us a tour around town, showing us the best places to eat and drink, and also sharing their family’s personal ties to Morelia and what it is like to live there. When Rory needed to visit a vet, our landlady’s brother told us where we would get the best care and then accompanied us so that he could act as translator and even negotiated us some discounts on medication. And one day, while walking in the park, an older gentleman asked us whether we spoke French and when we said yes, arranged for us to return the next day to help him translate the lyrics to a song he was learning to sing. We sat together in the park, translating his song, line by line, and at the end, he offered us his name and phone number and told us that he and his wife had no children but that whenever we were in Morelia, we should not hesitate to call upon them because they would always help us however they could.
All of these reasons, most of them small and none of them the ones you can capture in a photograph, are what makes Morelia so beautiful. Yes, the city is blessed with gorgeous churches, a perfectly preserved aqueduct, and a picture-perfect historic center that would put many a European capital city to shame. It’s easy on the eyes and incredibly lovely, but its beauty lies in more than brickwork, idyllic leafy green spaces, and spacious sidewalks perfect for strolling. We enjoyed all of those things, sure, but Morelia’s beauty isn’t superficial or skin deep—it’s a city with a soul, where its people will make your heart flutter more than any building ever will.