Monday, February 1, 2010

Colima Part 3: Mysterious ruins of Chanal & the Magic Pueblo of Comala

The pyramid of Colima's mysterious El Chanal ruins. I admit it. I am a sucker for ruins. Whether archaic cave dwellings or haciendas abandoned in the early 20th Century, something about the physical remains of people and their activities of bygone times fills me with curiosity and occasionally awe. The city of Colima encompasses within its boundaries not one, but two ancient sites that drew us like a magnet. Carole shares my passion, but of Maya, our companion, I was not so certain. As it turned out, she enjoyed herself hugely. The ruins of El Chanal and La Compana both lie on the northern outskirts of Colima. El Chanal lies near the end of Venustiano Carranza street just north of the Tercer Anillo Periferico (3rd ring highway). We didn't have time to visit La Compana, so you'll have to find that one on your own.

On the same day we visited El Chanal, we also stopped by the "Magic Pueblo" of Comala, famous for its folk arts and craftspeople, and its link with one of Mexico's greatest authors. The last part of this posting will focus on that wonderful little town.

The ruins of El Chanal are fairly compact, on a level plateau overlooking Colima. The site map above shows the principal areas of the ruins. The red dotted line shows the walking route we followed. By clicking twice on the map, you can enlarge it. At regular intervals, signs in both Spanish and English explained the meaning of the ancient structures and the culture which built them. We had the site to ourselves, except for some workmen who were taking a break. I most enjoy exploring ruins when they are at their loneliest. It frees the imagination. However, housing developments are starting to close in on the area, I hope not so closely that they ultimately destroy the serene atmosphere.

El Chanal was constructed around a series of large adjoining plazas. In the upper right of the photo is the central pyramid, which faces the Plaza del Tiempo (Plaza of Time). Behind the central pyramid is another ceremonial platform, separated from the central pyramid by the Plaza del Dia y la Noche (Plaza of Day and Night). To the center-left side of the photo is another ceremonial platform with the stumps of 4 columns that I nicknamed the Temple of Pillars. The name of El Chanal and those of the structures within it were given by people of a much later time, including modern archaeologists (and me). There is much that is unknown about El Chanal, including what ethnic group occupied it and what they called themselves. We do know that the site was occupied from approximately 1100 AD to 1400 AD, and was abandoned 120 years before the Spanish arrived. Archaeologists have also noted the evidence of strong influences from the other cultures of Mesoamerica. Symbols carved on stones used in the stairways indicate that the gods worshiped here were closely related to those of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs, among others.

Various altars can be found around the site, including this unusual circular one. Archaeologists believe that, among other purposes, these were used for human sacrifice. The ancient people of many of the cultures of prehispanic Mexico believed that blood was the substance which ensured the continued rebirth of life. Human sacrifice was accomplished by cutting out the hearts of living people, or flaying them alive. Blood was also sacrificed through self-mutilation of the tongue and ears. All this was believed to help maintain the equilibrium of the universe, the balance between darkness and light. The Spanish were shocked and horrified by the human sacrifices they found everywhere. In their horror, they conveniently forgot the ongoing bloodlust of the Spanish Inquisition, with its own forms of horrifying human sacrifice.

The Ball Court, a key social and religious structure. The games played on the Ball Court symbolized the struggles of the gods to maintain the balance between the day and the night. This passage from day to night and back again was governed by the god Xolotl. He accompanied the sun on its night passage through the underworld and announced the rebirth of light through the Morning Star--Venus. This is the same Xolotl who was associated with the little clay dogs found in many tombs. The dogs, which have become a symbol of Colima, accompanied the soul as it traveled through the dark of the underworld to a sunny afterlife. Archaeologists believe that the struggle of balance day and night symbolized by the ball games also meant that they were accompanied by human sacrifice. Ball courts have been found in ruins of the Mayas of Central America all the way up to Anasazi ruins north of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Plaza of Palaces was surrounded by what may have been priests' residences. This area was not marked on the map or explained by a sign, but it had the appearance of a residential area so I nicknamed it the Plaza of Palaces. Since this was a theocratic society, with priests as rulers, it seemed logical to me that they would have lived here, near the main ceremonial sites.

The Temple of Day and Night. Maya and I took a break at the base of the temple, while Carole took a picture. We enjoyed Maya's company, since she was endlessly cheerful and interested in everything. The temple spaces on top of the platforms were for the priests and the gods, while the wide plazas were for the faithful multitudes. On top of the remaining stone platforms there were once perishable structures of wood. Many sahumadores, or incense burners, were found in this area, which indicates that ordinary inhabitants came here to burn fragrant incense as an individual homage to the gods. Over 120 years later, when Hernan Cortes and his men arrived, the indigenous people thought that they were gods. Conquistador Bernal Dias del Castillo often wrote of ceremonial "fumigations" by the native people at each encounter.

The ruined structures of El Chanal were substantial, but not overwhelming. Unlike ruins we have visited previously, such as Chichen Itza, these were not huge. The photo above, which shows Maya (left) and Carole (right) walking through the Plaza del Tiempo, gives a sense of scale to the plaza and the central pyramid, the tallest remaining structure.

The Temple of Pillars. The photo above shows three of the four remaining stumps of pillars that once rose above the platform. It is likely that the roof structure they supported was wood. This structure faces onto the Plaza del Tiempo and the central pyramid. The Plaza, the pyramid, and the Temple of Pillars are thought to have been restricted to the priestly rulers. The priests mediated between the gods and the people, and this gave them their authority to rule. The palm tree and forest beyond gives the appearance of remote jungle. However, just beyond the trees were homes with barking dogs and clucking chickens.

A broad stairway leads up into an area used by ordinary people. A notable feature of the culture of El Chanal was the existence of artisans who worked with obsidian, gold, and copper. The obsidian (volcanic glass) was available in massive quantities because of the two nearby volcanos. Obsidian was very valuable in ancient cultures because it could easily be worked into razor sharp tools and weapons, as well as jewelry and other decorations. Apparently the artisans formed guilds to govern their crafts. The products of the artisans were widely traded with other regions of Mexico. Other features of this area, called the Plaza del Agua, included stone cisterns to contain water and channels to control its movement.

Symbol of the gods. This symbol, found on stones in various areas of El Chanal, apparently represents one of the gods worshipped here through human sacrifice. The symbol is also evidence of the connection between El Chanal and that of other major cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica. The stone now lies at the foot of a non-descript, tumble-down stone wall along the edge of the site. How far the mighty have fallen.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Near the stone in the previous picture, we found this mano and metate. The grinding stone (mano) and grinding tray (metate) are at least six hundred years old, and may be far older. This technology may pre-exist agriculture, since wild seeds could be ground up with these tools. Ironically, in an age of space travel and the internet, I have found almost identical manos and metates for sale in village stores around Mexico. They are not sold as souvenirs or folk art decorations, but as functional tools for grinding corn to prepare tortillas, tamales and other Mexican staples.

The Magic Pueblo of Comala

Comala is a center for folk art, masks in particular. After our visit to El Chanal, we continued on to Comala, a small town about 6 miles north of Colima which has been continuously occupied for 3000 years. On our way back from Manzanillo last year, we had by-passed Colima to stop briefly in Comala, because Carole had heard about local indigenous masks. On that visit she picked up the first mask of our growing collection. On this trip, we stopped at the same little store on the Comala Plaza, and this time I chose one--the intricately carved and painted mask shown above. The style of the mask indicates that it was not locally made, but is from Michoacan. For those who may visit, the store is on the corner of the plaza between the Church and the Restaurant Comala. It is well stocked with folk art and the prices are very reasonable. The mask above cost about $19 USD.

Parrochia San Miguel dominates Comala's Plaza. At the time we visited, towering clouds had moved in, creating the dramatic backdrop to this photo. The name of Comala comes from the Nahuatl word meaning "place of clay griddles." In 1961, the town decided that all structures should be white with red-tiled roofs. It has largely maintained this custom, which gives it a quaint and attractive uniformity and no doubt contributed to its success in gaining Pueblo Magico status in 2002.

San Miguel's sanctuary shows simple grace. The Parrochia was built in the early 19th Century in the neoclassical style, which emphasizes clean lines and simplicity. Notice the prominent placement of the Virgen de Guadalupe above the crucified Jesus at the far end of the church. Theologically, Jesus is the more important figure, but the Virgen is the one to whom many Mexicans pray. As a mother-figure, she is someone to ask for intercession and special favors rather than the more remote figure of Jesus or the even more distant and forbidding figure of the Christian god. The Virgen de Guadalupe is also a powerful political symbol in Mexico, having been used to rally the campesinos and indigenous people to support the War of Independence against Spain.

One of many saints which lined the walls of the Parrochia San Miguel. I fell prey to a gentle scam while photographing the outside of the Parrochia. An elderly man motioned me to follow him inside the church, which I had assumed was closed for the day. He took me from saint to saint, urging me with gestures to photograph each. Finally we came to the Virgen of Guadalupe and he indicated I should donate something to the alms box. On the way out, he stuck out his hand, indicating that there was one more donation expected. Since I had allowed myself to be sucked into his little game, I good-naturedly paid up. The whole interaction took place without a single word spoken between us.

Bronze statue of Mexican author Juan Rulfo reads a story to a small bronze boy. The statues in the Comala Plaza commemorate the life of one Mexico's greatest authors. Juan Rulfo wrote only two short books in his life, "Pedro Paramo" and "The Burning Plain." Pedro Paramo was set in Comala, or a mythical town of the same name. His style greatly influenced his Colombian friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez to develop what is now widely known as "magical realism." He has been called one of the two most important Spanish-language writers of the 20th Century (the other being Jorge Luis Borges). Comala's role in Rulfo's book also contributed to its Magic Pueblo status.

Restaurant Comala serves fantastically abundant botanas. Located under the portales on the south side of the Plaza, the restaurant lies just across the street from our favorite folk art shop. While we waited on Maya (also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Shopping, Patron Saint of Folk Art Tiendas), to complete her voluminous business with the store, we decided to get something cold to drink. Sitting down at the table, we were soon overwhelmed with various un-ordered dishes which just kept arriving, seemingly without end. These were the famous botanas, or appetizers, served to anyone who orders a drink. They constituted a full meal in themselves, and we later found out that the restaurant is famous for them. The local Mexicans at the next table were highly entertained by our consternation and kept offering us one of their beers as a reward for our amusing performance.

Local artisan in action. Just before entering Comala, on the left, is sculpture garden featuring large works by Juan Soriano, and various buildings occupied by local artisans. Since the road is divided, you must enter town, make an immediate left and head back out again in order to access the gate of the facility, which is just beyond a large restaurant. In the building we visited, they were making furniture decorated with beautifully detailed paintings of birds and flowers.

Finely detailed quail filled the space on cabinet doors and drawers of this piece. Not only was the painting beautiful, but the furniture itself was exquisitely designed and crafted.

A small end-table with more quail. The top of this table was covered with leather, and then painted in precise and exquisite detail. Not being in the market for more furniture, we didn't inquire about prices. The artisans didn't seem to mind our poking about and photographing their work. Comala is a town worth a visit, because of its beauty, its literary history, its botanas, and its artisans and their beautiful work.

Thanks for coming along on the visit to El Chanal and Comala. Next week, I'll show our visit to the Museum of Popular Arts in Colima, a museum filled with local crafts from throughout Mexico. If you'd like to make a comment, you can use the section below, or email me directly. If you use the comments section to ask a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Beautiful photos Jim!!! And the commentary gets better and better with each passing adventure! Can't wait until you get down to Chiapas some day.

  2. We were just recently in Cabo San Lucas and at the Las Ventanas resort they had a beautiful metal lize sized tree that I was told made by an artist in Guadalajara and wonder if you might have seen him. It was approx 10-12 feet tall and decorated with blown glass hearts.

  3. I've been to Comala ...Loved the food and music....Beautiful and very clean...

  4. Jim. Is there any chance that the huipil shown in the image Pop+arts+embroidered+shirt2.jpg is for sale? Thanks, John from California (

  5. Jim I am trying to reach someone to translate strange runes found carved on stone @ my friend's property in Colima, Mexico. I have no clue where to look or who has knowledge of these symbols. The only info I have gathered is that five separate cultures lived in the region from 2000 BC - 1000 AD. The Otomi, Nahuatl, Tolteca, Chichimeca, and the Tarasca. I also have no clue to which culture said runes belong. Can you please help me translate these runes or find someone who can? My name is Eric P. My e-mail is: and my cellular phone # is: 1 (561) 352-5591. Feel free to contact me anytime asap please. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter! :)

  6. This really has me looking forward to our upcoming visit. Thanks, Jim.


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