Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Colima Part 5: Suchitlan's mask craftsmen & Lago de Maria

Suchitlan craftsman puts finishing touches on a new creation. Gregonio Candelario Castro operates a small, rustic shop behind his house in the little town of Suchitlan, about 1/2 hour north of Colima. Carole and Maya and I wanted to see a mask craftsman at work, and Suchitlan has a reputation as the home of some of the best in the area. We also wanted to visit Lago de Maria, a scenic lake on the slopes of the Colima Volcano. For a map of the area, click here.

Suchitlan's plaza kiosko, simple but elegant. Suchitlan is a small town, with only about 1600 residents. It lies at an altitude of 4232 feet (1290 meters), about 1/2 way between Colima and the active volcano. We had to find El Centro and the plaza by continually heading down hill through the town from the main road, and occasionally asking directions. The whole area is wooded and very scenic, and the town was serenely quiet when we arrived. The serenity belied some of the town's history.

Friendly horse waits patiently outside the Suchitlan church. I have a soft spot for Mexico's animals and usually try to carry some carrots or an apple for the horses, who often lead hard lives. This one happily munched my little gift, and then posed with great dignity.

Near the church, I found a plaque detailing the origin of Suchitlan's "Fiesta de San Juan." During the Cristero War (1926-29) between the recently established revolutionary government and right-wing Catholic activists, Suchitlan was the scene of fierce fighting. One of the local Cristeros was named Maximino Avalos. Maximino ran low on ammunition and went to the plaza to find more. When he got there, he was amazed to find a piece of wood shaped in a human form by a smoldering campfire. Clutching the wood, he crawled through a storm of bullets to bring cartridges to his men. He figured his chances of survival were 100 to 1, but he made it and gave the credit for this "miracle" to the piece of wood he still carried. Maximino told his wife Tomasa all about it and she insisted they tell the local priest. The priest heard them out and decided that the piece of wood should be named after the saint of that day, St. John, or San Juan. Ever after, Maximino held an annual fiesta for San Juan in honor of the saint's help in saving his life. After he died, his relatives carried on the tradition, which Suchitlan still celebrates.

Gregonio's shop was not easy to find. When we asked various people for directions to the mask makers' shops, we got somewhat contradictory information. Finally, a little boy walked us up the street and pointed out a white house on the corner. There was no sign, but he indicated with a vigorous nod that this was the place. A young man finally answered the door and directed us to the rear of the house where we found Gregonio and a young assistant at work under a rustic, open shed. They were surrounded by masks in various stages of production.

Mask making is an ancient art, practiced with ancient tools and methods. For my picture above, Gregonio's assistant laid out a variety of adzes on the top of an old stump. These are handmade, probably by Gregonio himself, or the local blacksmith. An adze is a truly ancient tool, originating far back in the stone age. There are hieroglyphs from the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt showing men using this tool, and it is found in cultures all over the New and Old World.

Early stage of mask making. We found various pieces like this scattered around the workshop. The inside of the mask is curved to fit the wearer's face, with eyeholes which may, or may not, correspond to the eyes of the mask itself.

Finished mask on the drying table. Mexican masks represent a variety of beliefs, mixing paganism, Catholicism, and history. The one above represents a handsome Spaniard on one side, but a figure of death on the other. This certainly seems to fit the indigenous people's experience with their Spanish conquerors.

Animals are another popular subject for mask carvers. Above, Gregonio's assistant models a jaguar mask. The jaguar is an extremely powerful animal, the third largest of the big cats, after lions and tigers. Jaguars have been a popular subject of indigenous carvers of Mexico back as far as the Olmecs, hundreds of years before Christ. In fact, the Olmecs would have related very well to the picture above, since one of their gods was the Were-Jaguar, half-man, half cat. To contact Gregonio Candelario Castro about his masks, go to his house on the corner of Lirio and Jasmin in Suchitlan, or call him on his cell phone at 044-312-100-6716.

Masks by Gregonio and other makers hung in this Suchitlan restaurant. Los Portales de Suchitlan can be found just off the plaza. From the outside, the restaurant is unimpressive, but a step inside brings a different picture.

Beautiful photos of Suchitlan and the Colima Volcano grace the walls. The restaurant has both inside and outside dining areas, with most of the tables outside under the trees.

Los Portales was once a coffee plantation. The outside dining area is much larger than this picture shows, capable of seating 200 people among a large grove of coffee trees. Food is traditional and quite good, and prices are very reasonable.

Lago de Maria was also on our agenda for the afternoon. The day was sunny with a light, cool breeze, perfect for a visit to this very scenic lake on the slopes of Volcan de Colima. There are areas for picnicking and camping a Lago de Maria, as well as a rustic motel. There were only a handful of people visiting that day and the overall scene was serene.

An agile duck. This little bird repeatedly outwitted a young Mexican trying to catch him. Apparently the ducks are used to this and this one seemed very unafraid. At one point, his pursuer dived for the bird and pitched headlong into the water. The Mexican's companions roared with laughter at his discomfiture and, with us, cheered for the bird.

A jungle rises from the water's edge. The drive from Suchitlan to Lago de Maria was wonderfully scenic as we rose up the skirts of the volcano. Deep forest alternated with wide-open views of the valleys leading down to Colima.

Maya enjoys a quiet moment beside the lake. Our friend Maya is a talented local artist who makes jewelry and collects folk art. I will soon be writing an article about her, and the highly unusual house where she lives, for a local on-line magazine called Mexico Insights.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.... A young Mexican girl snoozes in a hammock strung from a convenient low-hanging branch beside the lake. This was just the sort of afternoon for a quiet nap, but we had to return to Colima, and to our home in Ajijic.

This completes Part 5, my final part, of our visit to the City of Colima and its surrounding area. I hope you have enjoyed the series. Feel free to share the link with this blog with family or friends. If you would like to leave a comment, please so do below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Hi Jim and Carole, I am beginning to believe that you must have been an explorers in your past lives, and it is still in your blood.

    Keep up the wonderful work. I send your blogs on to my friends and family.

    Cheers and happy and safe traveling,

  2. https://www.facebook.com/mellowyellowuzonyi Hello. Please add us! It would mean the world to me. Thank you!


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