Bicycle touring is fairly restrictive when it comes to non-essential luggage. It’s not often that you see a bicycle tourer with a guitar strapped atop their panniers. For this reason, we may be the first bicycle tourers to have rolled into the infamous guitar maker town of Paracho in search of a tiny travel guitar.
We heard about Paracho from a music shop owner in San Miguel de Allende and we read a fun blog post about a guitar hunt road trip. After some further Googling, we discovered that Paracho happens to be the guitar making hub of Mexico. It is situated at 7,300 ft (2,200m) elevation in La Meseta de Púrepecha of Michoacán state, the avocado capital of the world. The landscape is rugged and much cooler than the Michoacán coast. It is home to a large percentage of the indigenous Púrepecha, especially in nearby Cherán and Nahuatzen.
There is some mystique in the story of how guitar making came to Paracho. Most say it arrived in the 16th century, introduced during Spanish colonialism. However, an old article by veteran Paracho guitar exporter Kenny Hill suggests otherwise. A large proportion of the current male population (currently around 16,000) is involved in guitar making (known as “luthiery”).
Paracho is home to some of the best guitar makers in the world, but there is also a lot of low quality, high volume export production. Many of the luthiers we met don’t actually play guitar, but their sons are learning all sorts of styles: Mexican nortena, Spanish flamenco and Bolivian charango.
In order to reach Paracho, we took a detour around the north side of Lake Patzcuaro. The extra distance around the lake and up into La Meseta de Púrepecha was definitely worth it, even without the trip to Paracho! The roads are quiet, landscape is beautiful and the people were incredibly friendly in both Nahuatzen and Cherán. You can zoom into see our route here.
Upon arriving in Paracho, we managed to store our bikes at the local ciber (internet cafe) and fueled up on some nice local coffee before surveying the shops for the perfect tiny guitar.
Following the advice of our friend Barbara from San Miguel de Allende, we went to visit a couple of luthiers she recommended: Javier Pascual Jasso and Hermanos Hernandez.
There are so many guitars in Paracho! I mean, thousands! It was hard to stay on task to find a travel guitar when there were so many beauties hanging on the walls. Although neither of us are guitar experts by any means, we definitely appreciated the superior craftsmanship, wood quality and sonido (sound) that we encountered at the more premium luthiers (Salvador Castillo, Abel Garcia, Carlos Piña, Daniel Caro, etc). A more complete directory of the top luthiers can be found here.
Lars reminded me that we needed a small beach guitar that could get battered around on the back of a bike, not the £600 beauty that I fell in love with. We were also tempted to buy a tiny Castillo charango, but we decided that we would wait until we reach Bolivia (where charangos originate).
Unfortunately, none of our recommended luthiers had any travel size guitars, which they referred to as ‘mas chica’. So we went back out to the street, bypassing the souvenir shops where they sell mass produced guitars made out of plywood.
After a few hours ducking in and out of the sweet smelling workshops, one luthier must have heard our prayers for a tiny guitar. Jesús Herrera Leon poked his head around the corner of his workshop when he heard the door ring its hopeful tune. Jesús had a nice selection of handmade guitarras finas as well as an estudio guitarra para los ninos; a cute little student guitar for a child. Perfecto!
Such a rich aroma smell of Canadian spruce, it’s clear that there was no plywood used for this little guitar. It’s small, plays well, fits on the back of a bike and cost around £70 including the soft case. Sold!
It’s certainly not my dream guitar, but that’s not what we need for a bicycle tour. It does make me miss my Tanglewood back home, currently being looked after by my bandmate Ben from Bell Pepper Jam. Ben, I hope you are taking her out to play every once in a while!
So, we need a good Mexican name for our tiny guitarra chica! Any suggestions? Please feel free to comment below!