Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mazamitla Part 2: The Ex-Hacienda de Contla and the route through the Sierra del Tigre

The arches suggest a ruined cathedral, but this was a sugarmill.  The small town of Contla sits astride Mexican Highway 110 in the foothills of the Sierra del Tigre. I found it, and the ruins, on an expedition to find some huge double waterfalls far back in the mountains. The next posting after this one will tell the story of the series of expeditions we made to explore the waterfalls. The ruins of Hacienda de San José de Contla, and the history behind them, are so evocative that I thought they deserved their own posting. The story of the Hacienda is also the story of Mex 110, an excellent two-lane road stretching through the heart of the Sierra del Tigre. Starting in La Barca, near the eastern end of Lake Chapala, the road passes over steep and heavily wooded ridges and through long narrow valleys toward the southwest. Passing through the mountain resort of Mazamitla, and then through Contla, Mex 110 ends at the city of Colima near the Pacific Coast. For a Google map showing Mex 110 as it passes through the Sierra del Tigre, click here.

Entrance to the hacienda. The ruins look like the skeleton of some immense dinosaur. They stand just off the highway on the west part of town. At least one family has taken up residence in a corner of the remains. For a panoramic view of the ruins, click here. The main activity in Hacienda de San José de Contla's later years was producing sugar. The lush, iridescent green cane still grows for miles all around Contla. The Spanish word hacienda means "place where something is done or made". In spite of its function as a factory, the building seen above is graceful and architecturally appealing. Archways supported by tall columns seem almost lacy in their delicacy. Mex 110, which passes in front of the ruins, follows a route through the Sierra del Tigre important since pre-hispanic times. It connects the uplands of Michoacan, once the heart of the Tarascan Empire (also called the Purépecha) to Colima and the Pacific Coast. The Teco Kingdom was based in the area of modern Colima and trade between the Tarascans and the Tecos passed back and forth along this route. Both areas were home to even earlier cultures, whose names are unknown but whose remains have been found. These early cultures also appear to have communicated and traded.

Shyly curious, a little girl clings to her father's leg. The woman whom we initially encountered was not particularly welcoming. However, after a few moments, a man stepped out. When he understood that we only wanted to photograph the ruins, he quite amiably told us to explore as much as we wanted. His beautiful little daughter attracted almost as many cameras as the ruins. The modern village of Contla has 1752 inhabitants, and sits in a long narrow valley at 1160m (3835 ft) in altitude. The local economy is based on agriculture, largely corn, cattle and sugar cane production. Photo by Chuck Boyd

Pastel paint still outlines the archways, set off against the white plastered walls. As we approached the ruins, I could see lines of columns inside. My photographic instincts switched into high gear. More than trade passed along the route that now traverses Contla. Armies marched this way. In 1165 AD, the Aztecs founded nearby Mazamitla as a military outpost guarding their frontier against their ancient enemies, the Tarascans. In 1481 AD, the Tarascans invaded the area. They passed through what would become Contla on their way to capture the salt beds near Laguna de Sayula, just north of Colima. Salt was an extremely important comodity for food preparation and preservation, and for industrial processes such as textile manufacture. The Tarascan Empire had little salt of its own. The Teco Kingdom controlled the Laguna Sayula and resisted the Tarascan invasion fiercely in what became known as the Salt War. The struggle continued until the Tecos finally drove out the Tarascans in 1510 AD, only a few years before the Spanish arrived. It was just such intramural conflicts as this that made the Spanish "divide and conquer" strategy so successful.

Rain water beads the petals of this frangipani. Lowering skies gave the ruins a somber look but didn't detract from their beauty, which was enhanced by the flowers we encountered just to the left of the ruin entrance. Their formal name, Plumeria rubra, was provided by my flower expert Ron Parsons (see the link to his website on the "Other Sites to Visit" to the right). The rain had prevented our group of hikers from reaching our waterfall goal. Our disappointment gave us extra incentive to spend some time at the Hacienda de San José de Contla. The Spanish conquistadors under Crisobal de Olid and Juan Rodgriguez Villafuerte passed through here in 1522, sent by Hernán Cortéz to explore the area after his conquest of the Aztecs. Over the next several years they conquered the Tecos, who put up a fierce resistance but to no avail. Some years after that, Nuño Beltran de Guzman shattered the Tarascan Empire with a brutality that rivals Heinrich Himmler. The ancient kingdoms and their rivalries disappeared in the holocaust of Spanish oppression and European diseases.

The ruins' tall smokestacks tower over the town of Contla, marking the hacienda from miles around. The smokestacks, framed above by one of the many arches, are the tallest structures in Contla and make the ruins easy to find. After the Conquest, the Spanish imposed the encomienda system on the local indigenous people. Cortéz and later Spanish authorities parceled out the indigenous people to their soldiers as rewards for services to the crown. The conquistadors could demand tribute from local villages in terms of food and other goods and, most importantly, labor. The early haciendas, churches, and great public buildings were built under a system that, in effect, was little more than slavery by another name. In 1537, the Spanish crown permitted the establishment of the town of San Cristobal Mazamitla. At about the same time the indigenous people of the Contla area became part of an encomienda that later became known as the Hacienda de San Jose de Contla.

Remains of ancient rafters droop from walls and pillars. The whole structure is roofless, except for the small part occupied by the family we met. The thick plaster has peeled away from the walls in places, showing the brickwork underneath. The conquistadors and their descendants continued to extort labor and goods from the local people for almost a century before the first legal documents appeared officially recognizing the Hacienda de San José de Contla, which had become an important center of production. In 1643, the Spanish Viceroy Garcia Sarmiento, Count of Salvatierra, signed the papers creating the Hacienda. The next year a man named Alcaraz gained control of it because of his military services to the Crown. By the mid-18th Century, Francisco José Alcaraz y Silva appears in the records as the owner, indicating that the same family was still in control. He was a priest and Commissioner of the Spanish Inquisition, a position of great power. When Francisco died in 1752, another relative named Salvador Alcaraz gained control and expanded the estate to include three neighboring haciendas called Buena Vista, San Lazaro, and Santa Gertrudis. The Hacienda was becoming a power in the area. Documents from 1749 show the Hacienda's owner as the most senior official in the District Church of Zapotlan el Grande. At this time church and state power were still closely intertwined.

From death and decay, life emerges. I was impressed by the tenacity of this fern growing at the end of one of the rotting rafters. Life passes to death and then returns. Perhaps some day this ruin will once again become full of life and energy. When Salvador Alcaraz died, his wife Michaela Gomez Cordero was the executor and heir apparent. In 1779, she married Captain Juan Domingo de Istalarti of the Provincial Militia. There appears to have been some dispute in the family over who should have been the real heir, and Spanish authorities finally declared that José Maria Alcaraz was the owner. He married Mariana Macías Valadez in 1821, just as the Mexican War of Independence ended. Disputes like this were not uncommon in colonial New Spain and 19th Century Mexico. Haciendas were a key locus of political and economic power, much as feudal estates were in Europe of the middle ages, and among the plantations of the pre-Civil War American South.

Large round windows grace the back wall of one of the stately, tall-ceilinged rooms. Once filled with glass, they now are filled only with wild vegetation. Life on the Hacienda moved at a leisurely pace that would seem glacial to modern sensibilities. However, there were occasional moments of great crisis. Throughout the colonial period, and well into the 19th Century, epidemics threatened to wipe out the local population. The inhabitants of the area resorted to ancient shamanistic remedies, coupled with Catholic religious processions. Another kind of crisis occurred during the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821) when local insurgents battled royalist troops at Zapatero, a pass on the road through the mountains about half way between Mazamitla and Contla. The insurgents were led by Francisco Echeverria who triumphed over the Spanish troops but died of his wounds in Mazamitla shortly after the 1812 battle. Once again, the route that today forms Mex 110 played an important role in the struggle for control of passage through the Sierra del Tigre.

Vaulted ceilings covered both the ground and second floor of this portion of the main building. Following War of Independence, common people (indigenous and mestizos) were freed--at least theoretically--from the yolk of the hacienda owners. However, the struggle between the common people and the creoles (people of Spanish origin born in the New World) had existed since long before the beginning of the independence struggle, even though they were united in their desire to oust the royalists. This social tension weakened the insurgency, and probably caused the independence war to go on much longer than it would have otherwise. Basically, the creoles wanted to continue their dominance through the hacienda system. The common people wanted freedom and the social revolution promised by Miguel Hidalgo, a martyred early leader of the insurgency. A local Sierra del Tigre man, Gordiano Guzman, rose as a leader during the Independence War. Born on land controlled by the owners of Hacienda de San José de Contla, Guzman led post-Independence resistance in the Sierra del Tigre against the reimposition of control by the creoles who formed the landed oligarcy.  In a struggle called the "Revolución del Sur" (Revolution of the South) Guzman fought heroically from 1821 until 1831 when he was finally persuaded to sign a peace agreement at the Hacienda de San José de Contla with representatives of Nicolás Bravo, an early President of the new nation of Mexico. Guzman was one of the very few early leaders of the War of Independence to survive the war and its immediate aftermath.

Evangelina and Patricia chat in the great hall of the Hacienda. This photo gives some sense of the size of the room. The two lower windows in the front have been bricked up, but in its glory days they, along with the two windows above, would have flooded the room with light. Evangelina and Patricia are two Mexican hikers who were part of the expedition to the double waterfalls. After the formal end of the Revolución del Sur, the struggle continued informally and morphed in the the broader fight between the Conservatives and the Liberals, called the Reform Wars, that lasted into the 1860s. In 1854, Gordiano Guzman came out of retirement in a bid to reignite the social revolution. However, he was captured and shot by Conservative forces. The present community of Ciudad de Guzman was named after this hero of the common people.

An arched passage has been bricked up by the adobe behind the peeling plaster. 19th Century Mexico was full of wars, insurrections, foreign invasions and general chaos until the final victory of Benito Juarez over the French-imposed "Emperor" Maximilian. Installed by French Emperor Napoleon III, Maximilian used French troops and turncoat Mexicans from the Conservative Party in his unsuccessful attempt to subdue Juarez, Mexico's democratically-elected president. French forces invaded the Sierra del Tigre and burned the archives at Mazamitla. Many creole hacienda owners supported Maximilian because he represented stability and protection of their privileges. Others supported Juarez because he advocated stripping the Catholic Church of the wealth and special powers it had accumulated since the earliest colonial times. These creoles turned greedy eyes toward that soon-to-be-dispossessed wealth. I have been unable to determine where the owners of Hacienda de San José de Contla stood. Many creoles changed sides as the political and military winds shifted, so the Ochoa family, owners of the Hacienda at this time, could have been on either side at one time or another. In order to protect their wealth and privileges in the chaos of the 19th Century, many hacienda owners banded together and formed private armies called Guardias Blancas (White Guards). While banditry was unquestionably a problem in the rural areas, the Guardias Blancas were also used as death squads to suppress any attempt by rural people to organize.

At Hacienda de San José de Contla, the past looks out onto the future. A series of empty windows frame emerald sugar cane fields and the blue Sierra Tigre mountains beyond. While the old hacienda ruins stand in empty solitude, the ripening cane outside will sometime soon be harvested and might even end up on your kitchen table. The reforms of Benito Juarez were followed by the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the Ochoa family sold their interest in the Hacienda de San José de Contla to an American named Livingston. Under Diaz, hacienda owners regained and increased their power, and he also encouraged foreigners like Livingston to invest in Mexico. Many hacienda owners used the "company store" system to impose a form a debt-slavery on the hacienda workers, and others illegally seized indigenous communal lands to expand their domains. All this was enforced by the formal power of the Diaz government, and informally by the Guardias Blancas. Finally, in 1910, the pot boiled over and the Mexican Revolution tore through the countryside. Rural people, known as agraristas, rose up and joined the Revolutionary armies. Pancho Villa's forces were active in the Sierra del Tigre area. The agraristas' aims of land reform were supported, off and on, by the various Revolutionary governments. Although I have not been able to determine the exact circumstances of the demise of Hacienda de San José de Contla, the fact that it stands today as a hollow shell of its former glory testifies to a bad end. Most probably, it was broken up and the land distributed to local agraristas, with the buildings and machinery of the Hacienda looted and allowed to fall into ruin.

This concludes Part 2 of my 3-part Mazmamitla series. Part 3 will show the gorgeous double waterfalls deep in the mountains to the north of Contla and detail the 4 attempts it took to finally reach the bottom of this elusive waterfall's canyon. I always appreciate feedback and if you'd like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. 

If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I may respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. WOW! This is FASCINATING! Must read over again and again!

  2. Another Great Story, lots of Mexican Historical Information tied into the story of the Hacienda. Duncan

  3. Great post Jim! I love all the amazing places just hours away from the Chapala area. All of your research is much appreciated.

  4. Hello Jim & Carole, I stumbled on your blog looking up the history of the Cora Indians. One thing led to another and then I'm feasting my eyes on all your beautiful pictures. I have only just found your blog so am looking forward to reading your older posts as I love architecture, archeology and history.

    There is notably one place I see you have yet to visit, Nayarit. It is notable to me because I will be moving there this year to join my husband and have been trying to find out about it's history. I hope to someday read about your adventures there as well.

    In the meanwhile I plan to devour where you have already visited. Your pictures and stories are amazing!


  5. Wow, Jim. This post made me want to plan our next trip to Chapala right now! So Mexico herself.

    Where do you find all your information?

    Diana Moore at

  6. Like to know if a photo can be used in a painting.

  7. Beautiful picture "Atlante pequeño in the main tollan museum" - I have been looking for a Toltec statue or high-quality photo of one with his arms raised and this is the only one I've found! I am a physician and would like to somehow get a nice print of this to frame for my colleague going into Endocrinology. Pemberton's sign is referenced by a Toltec statue with his arms raised in Sapira's Art and Science of the Bedside Examination" - could I send you a check for you to email me the largest pixel density photo you have? Or do you know of a book that has this statue in it? Thanks! Todd

  8. hi! what a great page on the history of the hacienda in contla. my husband is from contla and we saw on another site that there were many people with the last name Alcaraz who owned the hacienda-one of my husbands last names is Alcaraz so now I'm on a mission to find out some more info on the hacienda and it's history. Thank you very much for your research and for putting it on your site! Very cool to learn more about the area! =)


  9. WOW, this is great! I don't really know how I stumbled onto your blog but I am glad I did. My parents are from this town, Contla, and I have visited it many times before but I never knew any history! Fantastic pictures!!!


  11. My is dad is from Contla, thanks for sharing pictures of the Hacienda, thank you very much for your research, it was great learning more from Contla. Love visiting this place!!!!

  12. Jim I've recently discovered the Jewish roots of the Alcaraz last name---for instance Villa Alcaraz ( a Jewish cemetery outside Buenos Aires ).

    I was wondering if you had any knowledge on the subject. My email is :



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