San José de Gracia may look like many other small towns in Michoacán, but it is hiding a secret.
In the patios, kitchens and living rooms of almost all its citizens lurk rare and beautiful orchids.
“All of us are addicted to growing them,” a local man told me, “and this is why we started holding orchid exhibits here many years ago.”
For 12 years in a row, San José held its Orchid Festival the first weekend of every February, up until COVID came along. The event was canceled both in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, but this year it came back.
“They toned it down quite a bit,” reports visitor Rodrigo Orozco. “In 2019, the whole plaza was festooned with orchids and crowded with people. They had even erected a big stage where local girls were dancing in bikinis. Honestly, it was quite a show.”
In keeping with pandemic control guidelines, this year’s event was more of an expo and less of a spectacle, with attendance by many of Mexico’s experts not only in growing orchids, but especially in creating hybrids.
One of these was Enrique Navarro Olivares, owner of OrquideasGDL, an online store operating out of the town of Tlajomulco, Jalisco.
“What’s your specialty?” I asked him.
“We’re producers,” he told me. “We produce a big variety of plants, most of them exotic. By this I mean they’re not endemic to Mexico. You know, our country has a huge biodiversity of orchids, and many of the participants in this expo specialize in growing them, but we are interested in species from other parts of the world. Our challenge is to bring in species from Brazil, Indonesia or Africa, for example, all of which are exotic, as far as we are concerned.”
One of the orchids Navarro had on display was a cymbidium, which I knew from past visits to San José was one of the favorites of the townspeople, grown by just about every family in town.
“The cymbidium,” Navarro told me, “originated in Southeast Asia, but curiously, it grows particularly well in this part of Mexico because the climate is the same.”
Navarro says that this all started when somebody brought a few plants of the species here from the United States. Other people told me that this event took place more than 80 years ago.
“Those first orchids,” continued Navarro, “did extraordinarily well here, at an altitude of 1,990 meters — just over a mile high — and soon people appeared, asking to buy them. Before long, everybody in San José was growing them!”
People in San José are crazy about cymbidiums because they get such great results, Navarro said.
“This has spurred them on to looking for other species, and this interest has now spread to other communities in the area.”
In the course of our conversation, I was surprised to learn that Navarro is an architect.
“Yes, yes,” he said, laughing, “For me, this all began as a hobby, but I kept collecting more and more plants. I realized that we also have a great climate in Tlajomulco for growing orchids and that there is a huge market for them. In time, I discovered that this is not only a very good business, it’s also a really beautiful business; in fact, I would call it a noble business, where you not only share your life with these marvelous flowers but with marvelous people.
“These orchid growers turn out to be ranchers, politicians, homemakers, professionals, even kids! I discovered that orchids are culture, a magnet that brings together all kinds of people who otherwise would have nothing in common. I love it!”
The genus Cymbidium is called the boat orchid in English and has over 50 species. According to the American Orchid Society, plants in this genus are prized for their long-lasting sprays of flowers. The Australian orchid nursery calls it the king of orchids.
Along with moth orchids (Phaleonopsis), these orchids are cool-tolerant and hardy and will grow in most temperate locations worldwide. They come in many colors, sizes and shapes.
The Royal Horticultural Society rates them as one of the least demanding of indoor orchids but warns that they do best in climates with cool nights.
If you missed the 2022 event, you might still consider making a visit to San José de Gracia at any other time of the year. It’s only a 17-minute drive from the extremely popular Mazamitla, Jalisco, and in the plaza you will find examples of what locals insist are the most beautiful orchids in the world.
What to do after that?
First, you might wander over to the town hall to see a curious “cartoon mural” depicting San José’s most illustrious sons.
One of them, wearing an eye patch, is Luis González y González, said to be the inventor of microhistory — writing histories that focus on a single place, event or individual. He wrote the book, Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia, which was translated into English by John Upton as San Jose de Gracia: Mexican Village in Transition. González also founded the Colegio de Michoacán, one of the most highly esteemed institutes of education in western Mexico.
Then you can go shopping because it just so happens that San José is the number-one producer of milk in the entire state of Michoacán.
As a result, local entrepreneurs insist that this is the best place in all Mexico to buy cheeses, yogurt and other milk products like chongos (a dessert made with curdled milk, sugar and cinnamon) and cajeta (caramel).
If those are not sweet enough for you, please note that local people told me (repeatedly) that right here in San José de Gracia, you will find the prettiest women in all Mexico!
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, since 1985. His most recent book is Outdoors in Western Mexico, Volume Three. More of his writing can be found on his blog.