Morelia: A Colonial Gem in the Heart of Mexico

Morelia Mexico
Four hours from Mexico City, Morelia is a cultural hub… and a haven for expats.|©iStock/Esdelval

I'd heard from various Mexican friends that the highlands city of Morelia was delightfully livable, with its traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, its grand Spanish architecture, its unique and sumptuous regional cuisine, and its nearby monarch butterfly migration.

Even though I’ve been happily living in the historic, colonial-era city of Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico, for the past two years, my urge to explore—and possibly relocate—hasn’t faded. I decided to explore Morelia for myself.

A 16th-Century Cathedral in an Ancient Downtown

Morelia, in the Michoacán state of Mexico, has a population of around one million. Though the main part of the city itself is fairly flat, Morelia is situated at the base of the southern end of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. Distant peaks, some reaching nearly 10,000 feet, are visible from town.

Most of Morelia’s main attractions are found in its historic center, where I stayed on my visit.

In this district, over 200 buildings date back to the 16th century. Like the mountains in the distance, one building is visible from almost everywhere in the centro histórico: the Catedral de Morelia.

Constructed with locally quarried pink cantera stone, the cathedral boasts twin bell towers, and houses a massive organ of German origin—El Órgano Monumental (the Monumental Organ)—which has an astounding 4,600 pipes.

This grand cathedral, and the 16thcentury Plaza de Armas in which it’s located, are the beating heart of Morelia. The plaza’s grand gazebo and plentiful benches, tucked beneath shady trees, are a welcome retreat from the busy city. University students—there are over 30 colleges here, including the oldest in the Americas, the Universidad Michoacána de San Nicolás de Hidalgo—sprawl in the grass, or gather in the eclectic surrounding cafés.

The plaza is relatively quiet during the day, unless it’s playing host to an event, like the huge book fair held during my time there. Some authors were presenting readings of their latest books to attentive listeners; Morelia is a city that reads.

As dusk falls, the plaza fills with all kinds of people—families, tourists, kids, and comfortable older couples. Children play, couples and tourists stroll, teenagers gossip and flirt, and students talk seriously. People come to relax or to attend the many free activities given through the week, like the vintage car show they had while I was there, or the free pop concert that entertained large appreciative crowd one weekend evening.

If you enjoy fine food and people watching, the restaurants around the plaza offer al fresco dining with a great selection of local and international fare.

A Locale for Arts Enthusiasts and Lifelong Learners

Morelia is at its core a college town and, in keeping with its emphasis on education, cultural events abound.

When I visited, I watched the Ballet Folklórico del Estado de Michoacán’s 65th-anniversary performance at the historic Melchor Ocampo Theater. Multiple troupes performed pieces in different styles with several distinct costume changes; the theater was beautifully constructed; the seating was cushy; the acoustics were excellent; and best of all, the performance was absolutely free.

In addition to performing arts venues, Morelia hosts quite a few excellent museums. If you are over the age of 60, they’re free. Even if you’re under 60, they won’t cost more than $2 or $3. I enjoyed the paintings, photography, murals, and sculptures at the Centro Cultural Clavijero and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Alfredo Zalce.

A Hidden Gem for Expats

I didn’t hear much English spoken in Morelia, except at one event: the weekly expat get-together.

Every Thursday for over a decade, a varying collection of roughly two dozen expats meet for brunch at La Guarecita—a café with great food and even better hot chocolate. Most hail from the US, and nearly all are retirees. Morelia’s expat community, though relatively small, is well-established and tight-knit. They were a delightful, welcoming group, and without exception, were happy to answer my exhaustive list of questions.

A couple could live well here for $2,500 a month or less.

Once a month, the group gets together at a local restaurant for dinner, too. Sometimes, other activities are announced—a trip to a craft village where Christmas decorations are made, for example, or perhaps to an archeological site.

The Expats in Morelia Facebook group provides frequent announcements of events around town, as well as other information of interest to expats.

The Amenities of Mexico City Without the Price Tag

"At dusk, the plaza fills with children playing, couples strolling, and teenagers flirting."
"At dusk, the plaza fills with children playing, couples strolling, and teenagers flirting."|©iStock/Roberto Galan

Many expats choose to live in the hills in the newly developed suburbs just south of the city center and near the sprawling Paseo Altozano shopping mall. Homes here offer spectacular vistas of Morelia and the surrounding mountains. Some say it’s worth it to come here just for the views.

The cost of living is less than in many other expat destinations in Mexico, including QuerétaroSan Miguel de Allende, and Mexico City. Furnished one-bedroom houses and apartments range from $400 to $900 per month, depending on the location and the length of your lease. You’ll pay even less for unfurnished homes.

If you want to buy a home, the average cost is about $72 per square foot—less than in most other Mexican urban areas. Facebook Marketplace seems to be the main source people use for locating housing.

Your electric bill won’t be much as you’ll rarely, if ever, need heat or air conditioning. Morelia’s 6,300-foot elevation keeps the climate spring-like year-round.

A couple could live quite well here for $2,500 a month or less.

Quality healthcare is easy to access, too; the expats I spoke with have been satisfied with the high-quality, affordable care they’ve received at the Hospital Angeles Morelia. The full-service private Star Medica Hospital is another good option for any serious medical issue.

From Morelia, You Can Go Anywhere

On my journey home, it struck me how central Morelia is. A three- to five-hour drive could take you to Mexico City; San Miguel de Allende; Guadalajara; or the Pacific beach resort of Zihuatanejo. Luxury buses go to all these places, while local buses and combis (shared vans) go from Morelia to towns and villages in central Michoacán.

Plus, Morelia’s international airport has routes to plenty of domestic destinations, as well as direct flights to US hubs like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Morelia has everything I look for in a place to live, and its easy access to history, art, tradition, and culture—with great food, a friendly expat community, and a low cost of living—makes it a stimulating and fun place to live.

It may well be my next home in Mexico.

Some of Michoacán’s Best Dishes

Michoacán cuisine is so good that UNESCO has designated it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and it’s perhaps the best food I’ve had in Mexico. Somehow, even standard Mexican fare, like enchiladas, taste better here. Many ingredients are locally grown and used in innovative combinations including regional herbs, corn, chilis, cocoa, and beans.

If you journey to Morelia, I recommend a few special dishes.

Uchepos are slightly sweet tamales that are served with green tomatillo or red salsa, fresh grated white cheese, and crema. I ordered these several times during my brief trip to Morelia; they were absolutely addictive.

For uchepos, head to La Guarecita or Cenaduria Lupita, a popular restaurant convenient for lunch or dinner.

Corundas are a type of tamale wrapped in corn husks or long reed leaves, and folded in a triangular shape. They are steamed until golden and eaten with crema and red salsa.

For breakfast, try fried eggs cooked over jocoque, a fermented buttermilk product that tastes considerably better than it sounds.

I loved the hot chocolate; it’s found at nearly every restaurant in town, in a variety of flavors, all from Mexican-grown cacao beans. If you prefer coffee, some of the best coffee in Mexico is grown in the mountains here; it’s rich and delicious.

If you’re looking for a special dining experience, La Tradición de Apatzingán expertly prepares Michoacán folk cuisine and offers a 5-star experience at three-star prices.