The western state of Michoacán doesn't rank high on most must-visit lists for Mexico. But at times, traveling over its rolling green hills has felt to me like visiting an idealized version of Mexico. Perhaps because it's off the major tourist route, the place feels sleepy, humble, unselfconsious.
Yet it accommodates visitors comfortably: in the small town of Pátzcuaro, for example, where Mexicans often vacation; and in Paracho, a Purépecha village high in the mountains where streets are dotted with mom-and-pop guitar-making shops and craftsmen will happily pause to explain their trade.
Then there's the food. Michoacán is said to be the birthplace of carnitas, the wildly popular fried pork dish. And it's home to the largest avocado-producing region in the world, known as the "avocado belt." Avocados are so important to the local economy they're referred to as "green gold." The area turns out the rich, creamy Hass variety that's perfect for guacamole. Mash up a Michoacán Hass, add chopped onion and salt, and you're in guacamole heaven.
Unfortunately, Michoacán is now center stage in Mexico's drug war. The ominously named "La Familia" cartel is based there, and the violence is ratcheting up. The bodies of 12 federal officers were recently found alongside a highway. The recent killing spree was likened by one Mexican writer to the Vietnam war's Tet offensive, the massive attack on U.S. and allied troops that ultimately failed but stunned Americans and raised doubt about whether the U.S. could ever win the war.
To counter the attacks in Michoacán, the federal government recently announced it was sending more than 5,000 troops to the area. Black Hawk helicopters will be deployed.
The U.S. embassy in Mexico has warned travelers to avoid crowds and demonstrations in the region. It noted that U.S. citizens had not been targeted in the violence, but no matter. Even if Americans aren't threatened, the headlines are enough to keep most visitors away.
Thomas Jefferson once famously remarked that travel makes us wiser but less happy. He believed that young people who travel ultimately feel unsatisfied upon returning home -- that, as he wrote, their "eyes are forever turned back to the object they have lost, and its recollection poisons the residue of their lives."
I can recall riding down the road in Michoacán on a fall afternoon, looking out at the countryside and feeling as though I were seeing the world as for the first time. It could have been the way the waning sunlight was breaking through the trees. Or perhaps it was a conversation I'd had with a stranger on the bus that reinforced my belief that most people are kind. Or maybe I was just reveling in the mystery of what I'd find around the next bend. Whatever it was, I can only describe it as pure happiness.
I never felt that the experience tarnished my life back home. But there's another way that travel can make us less happy. Watching the news out of Michoacán now, with vivid memories of the place in more peaceful times, I feel a pain I wouldn't otherwise know.