Monday, February 11, 2008

Mezcala: Doorway to a dramatic history

Doorway ruins on the fortress island of Mezcala
Carole and I have visited the village Mezcala several times over the past seven months or so, each time finding more to enjoy and admire about this small fishing town about thirty kilometers east along the lake from our home in Ajijic. The pictures in this posting reflect those separate visits, although the bulk of them are from our third visit which included historic Isla Mezcala, about five kilometers off shore.

Isla Mezcala from ridgetop
This photo was taken from the crest of the mountain ridge overlooking Isla Mezcala, which appears tiny in the vast lake, with an even tinier islet to its right. You are looking due south. Yup, that's a long way down.

The ridge crest from atop the fortress walls on Isla Mezcala
This view looks back at the ridge crest looming over Mezcala village. I took the previous photograph from the ridgetop. Yup, that's a long, steep hike up the mountain.

Spiral petroglyph design is found widely in Mexico and the US
Mezcala was settled by Coca Indians who moved into the area about 1400 AD, and also settled in the Ajijic and Jocotopec areas further west along the north shore of the lake. Evidence of even earlier occupation can be found on the rocks just outside Mezcala where early inhabitants left petroglyphs—ancient designs pecked into the flat surfaces. The people have always supported themselves in part from fishing, their catch including White Fish (now nearly extinct) and Charales, a small fish about the size of a sardine and still prevalent and eaten all over the area although probably somewhat toxic from the pollution in the lake. For more information about the area's prehistory, click here.

Mezcala under the mountains
There is not much agriculture around Mezcala because the mountains come down almost directly to the shore except for the relatively narrow strip of sloping land containing Mezcala itself. There are small fields of corn and agave up on the mountainsides, but they are difficult to till or even to reach except by narrow switch backed trails.

Nopal cactus leaves are highly edible and nutritious
Nopal cactus and camote roots are found growing wild in the area, both of which provide nutritious food. Mezcalans also raise cattle and goats. Still, all of this doesn’t provide enough to support all the people in the town. Many of them have to work as far away as Guadalajara or even the US according to Exciquio Santiago Cruz, the founder and director of the local non-profit museum, located just across the street from the church on the Mezcala plaza.

Exciquio has lived in Mezcala all of his life and one of his goals is to eliminate poverty in Mezcala by promoting tourism and visits to Isla Mezcala where the State of Jalisco is extensively restoring the ruins. The tourists spend money in local restaurants where food is excellent and prices are modest, and some take tour boats over the channel to the island, about 5 kilometers off shore. Fishermen organized into two local cooperatives operate the boats. The standard rate is 250 pesos (a little less than $25) for the trip plus an hour on the island, whether transporting one person or a dozen. Additional time costs about 100 pesos more.

Helen and Carole get briefed by Exciquio
We decided that visiting the island with a knowledgeable English-speaking guide would be ideal, so we stopped by the museum where we met Exciquio, who immediately agreed to round up a boatman named Beto and go with us. Exiquio asked for “150 to 200” pesos for his time. He ultimately spent about three hours with us, for which we paid him 300 pesos, so it was a real bargain given his extensive knowledge of the island’s history and the history of Mezcala itself. Both Exciquio and Beto seemed very happy with the deal. So were we, since the experience was wonderful and the cost came to only about $15.00 (US) each for the four of us, including boat and guide. One caution to the visitor: bring your own drinks and some small snacks. To make advance arrangements with Exciquio, he can be reached at his Mexican cell phone number: 333-174-0796. He's a great guy, and a good guide! Tell him we said Hi!

Beto, the boatman
Beto handled his craft very professionally. The boat was equipped with an overhead canopy for the sun and—to our surprise—life jackets. There are no services on the island and on a warm day it can be thirsty work to clamber all around and through the ruins, and one can also work up a good edge of hunger. However, there are very nice small restaurants on the streets leading to the harbor and in the plaza area where you can eat either before or after your visit to the island.

Great White Egret surveys his domain.
Canadians Gerry and Helen Green joined Carole and I on a couple of different jaunts to Mezcala. We four had previously visited the town to see the petroglyphs and sample the local cuisine. After eating lunch on this earlier trip, we wandered down to the waterfront where we watched a local fisherman cast his net into the glassy harbor water as egrets and other water birds stoically looked on.

He winds up!
A local fisherman caught in motion as he swings his net back in preparation for a throw that will spread it out over a broad area of the placid harbor water. Weights around the rim of the oval net help the net stay flat and even.

He throws!
Various birds float just outside the range of the net, hoping for an easy meal. The small bird in the foreground is an American Coot. Just like me.

It's a catch! (Hopefully)
The fisherman has released his net and my photo caught it just before it hit the water. This process involves a lot of work, and did not yield any fish while I watched. The fisherman must reel in his net in just the right way so that he can make it open properly when he throws it again. Later he must stretch it out to dry and repair any tears. This kind of fishing is not for the weak or easily discouraged.

Isla Mezcala from the waterfront, as the Spanish would have seen it
Gazing across the channel at Isla Mezcala, we hatched plans to visit the site of the longest siege of the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21). A couple of years after it started, the war came to Mezcala when Spanish troops visited the area to arrest a local activist. The Indian villagers mobilized and ambushed the well-armed regulars with little more than rocks and clubs. They won the fight and beat back several other attempts by the Spanish to take Mezcala.

Aerial view of Isla Mezcala looking northwest
However, each time the Spanish came with stronger forces, and finally the insurgents decided to retreat to Isla Mezcala as a more defensible position. Ultimately about four thousand insurgents occupied and fortified the island, bringing with them rifles and cannon captured from the Spanish and building defenses with Mezcala’s volcanic rocks. (This photo courtesy of Kim Miller.)

Thus began a four-year siege, which drove the Spanish authorities nuts. They completely failed, after numerous attempts, to take the island. In one of the attempts, the insurgents killed or captured all the Spanish soldiers including the commander who had just slaughtered the inhabitants of the south shore village of Tizapan and burned the village. The insurgents took the Spanish commander back to Tizapan where they executed him and fourteen of his soldiers for the massacre.

Worse yet for the Spanish, the insurgents used the island as a base for raids against Spanish garrisons in Ajijic, Chapala, Jocotopec, and other towns around the perimeter of Lake Chapala. Many of the hacienda owners around the Lake were sympathetic to the independence movement and provided supplies to the besieged insurgents. Some of the haciendados who had been officers in the Spanish army provided military leadership as well, but the great bulk of the fighters appear to have been Lake Chapala area Indians.

The siege continued from 1812 to 1816 and ended only when the insurgents became too ill from poor sanitation to continue. The Spanish authorities leaped at the chance to end this vexing and embarrassing stand off. They negotiated an honorable surrender and an amnesty for the insurgents, which included help in rebuilding their villages and seed and livestock to enable them to live. This was an extraordinary agreement and one, which the Spanish, for once, actually carried out. Generally, the Spanish favored insurgent heads on pikes, but they were so exhausted and fed up that they appear to have just wanted the fight to end.

For more details of the siege, click this Link.

Fortress walls, moat, and northwest bastion
The Spanish appreciated the military possibilities of Isla Mezcala and used it as a military base from 1819 through 1821, when Mexico won its independence.  Later, a prison was built on the island.  Most of the ruined structures appear to be from this post-siege period. The fortress was built as a large square with cylindrical bastions at each corner from which cannon and rifle fire could be directed along the walls against any attackers. The high walls and a deep moat (now empty) all around would discourage all but the most determined and well-equipped assault.

Fortress walls under reconstruction surround courtyard area
The sleeping quarters, food preparation areas, and hospital are contained within the thick walls surrounding the large inner courtyard. You can clearly see the iron bars and other materials being used to reinforce the walls. It is not clear whether the tree existed in the original courtyard, but it is quite large, so it may be old enough.

Stairway to northwest bastion
A stone stairway leads from a bakery on the ground floor to the fortress rampart walls and the northwest bastion, which also contains a small lighthouse.

Gerry enters the stone blockhouse
The fortress and a large stone blockhouse just outside the fortress overlook the prison, on an arm of the island extending to the southeast. According to Exciquio, this structure was built on the site of an ancient Indian temple. However, when Gerry and I examined the blockhouse from the inside, there was no question of its military purpose. It is a two-story structure, which can be seen from the slots in the interior walls about half way up which once contained the wooden rafters supporting the second floor. The three walls not facing the fortress each had large gun ports for cannon on the second floor and smaller ones for rifles on the ground floor.

Stone walkway from prison leads past blockhouse fortress
Clearly, anyone approaching the fortress along the stone walkway from the prison area, or from the east or west shores, could be covered by fire from the blockhouse ports even before they reached the fortress walls.

Friendly reconstruction workers
The prison is in fairly bad shape, but is currently under reconstruction. On the day of our visit, we encountered three very friendly workers who were delighted to pose for my picture. They are standing in front of the wall shared by the two long rooms of the prison.

Prison interior
The structure itself is comprised of two rooms, about fifty meters long by ten meters wide (a meter is approximately 1 yard). A long common wall separates the two rooms and over each is an arched ceiling, now mostly fallen. According to Exciquio, there were no individual cells. Everyone was just thrown into one or another of the big rooms, with little ventilation or light.

A prisoner's work is never done
During the days, prisoners worked building or repairing the stone structures on the island, including the large cobblestone plaza surrounding two sides of the fortress. I was amazed by the intricate patterns of stonework in the plaza until I realized that its purpose was probably to keep the prisoners busy. They were also kept occupied by constantly refilling the fortress moat, approximately six meters deep, from which the water was then let to run. The long trek up from the lake with buckets of water must have led them to curse that moat.

Exciquio explains tannery ruins
Another area of activity for the prisoners was the tannery, which sits just under the low plateau on which the fortress, church and other structures are located. The tannery site included several pits where the hides were soaked, and some shallow caves where Indian families once lived, possibly during the siege.

Exciquio told us that there were regular attempts to escape the prison, a testament to the harshness of conditions. Most attempts ended in drowning as the prisoners chanced the 5-kilometer swim across channel to Mezcala floating on stray pieces of wood. Overcome by the chilly lake water, few succeeded. However one large break was successful for at least some of the prisoners, who managed to escape to the south shore of the lake and the many sympathetic villages beyond.

Government House was the administrative center.
During the post-siege period, Government House was where senior officers of the fortress and prison conducted their business. It is a large structure, many-roomed, with most of the walls remaining but no roof. What appears to be snow in the tops of the walls in many of the pictures is actually cement placed there to stabilize the walls.

Plaster originally covered the inner side of the stone walls
Inside Government House there is a large room, which I call the Great Room, where I imagine significant business was conducted. One can still see the original plaster on the interior walls.

Lava block floor
Another original feature was the volcanic lava block floor, worn smooth by many feet over several decades of traffic.

Even a fortress island with a prison has a church
The reconstruction of the church was also under way. Exciquio would only allow us to take pictures from the outside because of religious considerations. The inside was pretty well gutted, but one can still see some of the original marble lining the places where the first floor walls met the ceiling.

Stone buttresses for support
The stone buttresses of the church, seen from the northwest side, helped support the thick volcanic stone of the walls. Use of these kinds of buttresses on churches goes back to the Middle Ages.

Another beautiful day on Isla Mezcala
After about three hours on the island we were tired and hungry and ready to go, but also delighted with all we had seen and heard. It had been a gorgeous clear day with wonderful vistas from every vantage point of Isla Mezcala, especially this one looking northeast. Even though the insurgents, the garrison soldiers, and the prisoners may have felt the conditions to be harsh, they at least had the benefit of beautiful views in every direction.

From the mountains over Mezcala
Well, to quote a great 20th Century American philosopher*, “th-th-th-that’s all folks!” Hope you enjoyed this posting and can visit Mezcala and its historic island yourself some day. Hasta luego!

*Bugs Bunny


  1. Hooray! You're back!

    Cochineal grows on nopal - the little bug that makes red dye and figured in empire building for centuries.

  2. You said:
    "The Spanish appreciated the military possibilities of Isla Mezcala and from 1819 through 1855 used it...".

    Remember that Mexico became independent in 1821.

  3. Agustin- You are absolutely right! Thanks for catching the error. I always appreciate when people inform me of typos or factual errors.

    Saludos, Jim


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim