Monday, February 27, 2012

The Masked Dancers of Tuxpan's Candelaria Fiesta

Chayacate dancers in front of Tuxpan's main church. For several years, Carole and I had been trying to get to Tuxpan's famed Candelaria Fiesta. The last time we tried, a deluge of rain nixed our plans.  I began to wonder whether we'd ever get to participate in this wildly colorful blend of Catholicism and indigenous religion. This year, el Dia de la Virgen de Candelaria (February 2) dawned bright and sunny. From our home in Ajijic on Lake Chapala's North Shore, Tuxpan is only a 2-hour (one way) drive. Two carloads of us set off on this easy day-trip. The small, attractive town of 33,000 is worth a visit even without the fiesta. We took Highway 54 down the long valley that stretches south from Guadalajara to Colima. The almost arrow-straight road passes some large, shallow lakes with high mountains rising dramatically on either side. Tuxpan is situated about 16 kilometers (10 mi.) south of Ciudad Guzman. There is only one turnoff to Tuxpan after Ciudad Guzman on this long straight stretch. If you reach the place where the road begins to wind through the canyon country, you have gone too far. Tuxpan is about 4.8 kilometers (3 mi.) east of Highway 54. At the intersection with the main street leading down into town you will find a large statue of a costumed indigenous dancer. A right turn here takes you almost directly to the church plaza. When you get to a cross-street called Juarez, the plaza is only about 1 block to your left. For a Google map showing the area, click here.

The meaning of Candelaria

Mid-day sun frames a steeple of Tuxpan's church. The brilliant sunshine and deep blue skies promised a successful fiesta, although I wondered if the high contrast would give my photos a "washed out" look. It was tricky, but the miracle of digital photography allows adjustments that cover a multitude of sins. Also it helps if you take more than 2000 photos, as I did. Even a blind pig can find an acorn if he roots around long enough. Prior to setting off, I had done a bit of research about Tuxpan and its Candelaria celebration. For much of this, I am indebted to Judy King who edits the "Mexico Insights, Living at Lake Chapala" website (see "Other sites to visit" on the right column of this page). The choice of February 2 for the fiesta grows out of the biblical Jewish tradition that a woman is considered "unclean" for 40 days after she gives birth. After that time, a new mother could present her baby at the Temple. Since the traditional date of Jesus' birth is December 25, the 40 days would expire February 2. In 540 AD, early Christians began to celebrate this as a special day.

All around us, women moved toward the church carrying beautifully dressed dolls. Many of the dolls wore elaborate costumes like the one we found above, just outside the church's main door. The little figures represent the Baby Jesus or el Niño Dios (the Child God). Some of the dolls were female, but this didn't seem to matter and they were all taken into the church to be blessed during the mass. We were even more fascinated by this old tradition when we learned that prehispanic people believed in a child god called Pilzintecuhtli. The Spanish were always alert for ways to coopt indigenous people into Catholicism, so they simply incorporated Pilzintechutli into the Candelaria tradition. The little figures play a role throughout the Christmas season. They occupy the manger in household nativity scenes before getting blessed at the church on Candelaria. Niños Dioses are often handed down from generation to generation and some are quite old.

View from the church door toward the plaza and Sierra del Tigre. In the foreground, Carole (left) chats with Jerry and Hal, two Americans who recently came to live full-time in Mexico. I invited them along because of their interest in Mexico's indigenous cultures. Additionally, Jerry is an accomplished photographer. Above, they are silhouetted against the broad plaza on which much of the dancing will later take place. In the middle of the plaza stands a tall, stone cross from Jalisco's earliest days. Behind the cross, the mountains of the Sierra del Tigre rise. Archaeologists believe that the area around Tuxpan was initially settled by the Toltecs in 642 AD. The town lies near a pre-hispanic trade route (now Highway 110) that passes through these southern Jalisco mountains, connecting Michoacan with Colima. This strategic route became the scene of many conflicts over the centuries. At one point in the late 15th Century, the Tarascan Empire (modern Michoacan State) sent an army through here in an attempt to seize the valuable salt beds along the edges of the shallow lakes we passed on the way down. The Teco Kingdom of nearby Colima resisted fiercely in what became known as the Guerra de Salitre (Salt War). The Tecos managed to oust the Tarascans after a long struggle which lasted until only a few years before the Spanish arrived. After his victory over the Aztecs in 1521, Hernán Cortés sent out armed parties in every direction to explore his new domain. Francisco Cortés, Hernán's nephew, led the conquistadors who passed through the Tuxpan area in 1529. In 1536, Franciscan friars founded the village of Tuxpan which, in the native Nahuatl language, means "place where the rabbits live." Armies passed and battles were fought along the Sierra del Tigre route during the War of Independence (1810-21), the French invasion and occupation (1862-67), and the Revolution (1910-20).

At the base of the plaza's stone cross I discovered this carved skull and bone. I was mystified by the ominous carving and could find no explanation for it. The octagonal cross itself is reputed to be the oldest colonial monument in Jalisco State. Candelaria, sometimes known as Candlemas, also has pre-Christian roots from the Old World. The reference to candles relates to a pagan festival celebrating the mid-point of the winter season. Since February 2 is normally cold and gloomy in Europe, people celebrated by lighting up their homes with candles. The Church cleverly turned this pagan celebration to its own advantage by linking it to the legend of Simon, a holy man at the Temple when Mary first brought in her new baby. Simon prophesied that the newborn would "bring a light to all the nations." The Church declared to Europe's pagans that candles represented this light, and began holding a special service to bless them on February 2. This special Mass was called Candlemas or Candelaria.

The Prelude

Local craftsman fashions a mask. Mexico has a tradition of mask making that stretches back thousands of years. All through the fiesta dances, this craftsman worked quietly and steadily on his creation. Attached to the face of the clay mask is an impressive rack of antlers. While these appear to be clay, I saw many dancers wearing the real thing. Local residents take great pains in assembling their costumes and practicing their dance routines. I was pleased that the whole affair seemed to be by, for, and about the local people. Even including our party, there were only a handful of tourists in evidence, foreign or Mexican. Many of the indigenous dances I have witnessed around Mexico seem to have evolved into a show aimed at entertaining tourists. While they are interesting and colorful, these dances sometimes feel a bit detached from their original purpose and meaning. Not so at Tuxpan, at least up to this point. Each of Tuxpan's several barrios (neighborhoods) hosts its own troupe, made up of local people of all ages. The various troupes create colorful costumes, unique to that neighborhood.

A dancer adjusts his peacock-feather head dress. This dancer wears a red tunic that reaches his knees, and red stockings. Long bangs of artificial hair extend down from the front part of his head dress, obscuring his face. Peacocks were unknown in pre-hispanic Mexico, so ancient dancers would have used feathers from the tail of the quetzal bird. By about 10:30 AM, dance troupes had begun assembling in their neighborhoods. Above, a scattering of dancers had arrived at the church's plaza and were adjusting their costumes. The troupes arrived one group at a time and danced their way into the plaza, a process lasting a couple of hours.

Taking in the view. The dancer with the bangs finally lifted them up for a a better view of the scene. Tuxpan has earned the nickname "pueblo of the eternal fiesta" because of the 50 (count 'em, 50!) fiestas held here every year. Mexicans are seriously into partying, but these people take it to a whole new level. Everyone was cheerful and upbeat and many people smiled at us as we wandered about, gawking and taking photos.

The kids couldn't resist my camera. As soon as they saw me shooting, they began waving and engaging in other antics. I finally called a group together and got them settled down enough to take their photo, making them the envy of their friends in the area. Everywhere we turned, we were greeted with warm hospitality. Quite a number of people spoke at least some English and many asked if they could explain what the fiesta was about, or otherwise assist us. We were amused to find that some had lived in the US, often quite near our former homes in Los Angeles and Oregon. We have experienced the same open friendliness in many of Mexico's small towns and rural areas. Previous to our arrival in Mexico, we had lived in several big cities in the US and this left us a legacy of what Carole likes to call "psychic body armor". This involves an automatic suspicion toward friendly strangers, and the immediate thought of "what do they want?" It is an unfortunate aspect of modern life, based on a real need to watch one's back in urban areas. In all my encounters with Mexico's rural people, I have always been greeted with a warmth and concern for my well-being that always felt genuine. The people of Tuxpan were no exception to this. They are proud of their town's traditions and eager that others should understand them.

Los Sonajeros, the dance of the warriors

A Güegüe leads los Sonajeros as they march into the plaza. The horned monster with the foaming mouth is called a Güegüe (pronounced gway-gway). These are beings who drive away evil spirits and are usually armed with a whip for that purpose. Behind the Güegüe, massed Sonajeros march, each holding a long wooden rattle that sounds like a tamboreen. There are two kinds of dancers in the Candelaria event, los Sonajeros and los Chayacates. The Sonajeros'  (rattle dancers) tradition is by far the oldest, harking back to the prehispanic warriors who used to march into battle carrying a fearsome weapon called a macuahuitl (hungry wood)These were wooden swords with razor-sharp obsidian blades fitted along the side. The rattles the Sonajeros carry look quite similar to macuahuitls both in size and shape. Their costume consists of white cotton shirts and pants, a red belt, a colorful scarf, and an extraordinary vest made of rows of looped, multi-colored ribbons. The vest may represent the quilted armor the prehispanic soldiers wore. Most of the Sonajeros also wore a white cowboy hat that probably came into fashion in the 20th Century.

Los Sonajeros whirled in twisting lines as they filled the plaza with color and sound. They were accompanied by a flute called a carrizo and a deer-hide drum. Their dance resembles a cross between country line dancing and military close-order drill. It requires great skill and obviously a lot of practice. Known as the Dance of the Warriors, it is performed in honor of Xipetotec, the god whom the Aztecs believed invented war. He was a life-death-and-rebirth deity, and therefore was connected to agriculture, vegetation, the seasons, disease, and--somewhat oddly--silver and goldsmiths. He is often depicted in the ancient codices carrying a bloody weapon and wearing a flayed human skin. As part of the ceremonies held to worship Xipetotec, captives were sacrificed by cutting their hearts out. Their skin was then removed, or flayed, and worn by priests or warriors. The person emerging from the dead, rotting skin represented life being reborn from death. Ancient life was not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Young Sonajero crouches and brandishes his noisemaker like an ancient macuahuitl. The wooden device is about 1 meter (3 ft.) long and contains from one to three slots along its length. In each slot are several thin, metal disks. The device has a handle on each end with which it can be held or shaken. When shaken, the clashing metal disks make a sound similar to a tamboreen. Masses of Sonajeros rhythmically shaking the instruments create an impressive din.

A Sonajera shows off her rattle. People of all ages and both sexes participated in the dances. When I asked to take her photo, this young Sonajera rewarded me with lovely smile. Her rattle is appropriate to her size, and contains only a single slot for the clashing disks. As with most of the Sonajeros, her pants are beautifully embroidered around the ankles and she wears sandals on her feet. The large statue at the edge of town that you pass when entering Tuxpan shows a dancing Sonajero.

Los Chayacates, the horned dancers

A Chayacate with a full rack of horns towers over the crowd. Cayacates have a somewhat more recent pedigree than Sonajeros. I found two completely different explanations for the Chayacate dance and I can't verify which is true, so I'll give both. Although each neighborhood that fields a Chayacate troupe produces its own unique costume, there are some similar features among troupes. One of these is a white-faced mask with a dark beard. Since indigenous people at the time of the Conquest were dark skinned and had little or no facial hair, the masks appear to represent Spanish faces. According to one account, the Chayacate dance was a way that indigenous people could safely ridicule their oppressors. The horns represent evil, and the whips some dancers carry represent the cruelty of the Spaniards. At the same time, the agility and grace of the dancers themselves represents the ancient indigenous warriors.

The Chayacates produced their own music with their own kind of instruments. Most of them carried a rattle called a cirian made from a gourd filled with seeds and attached to a short wooden handle. In addition, many troupes were accompanied by a violinist. The violin is an instrument introduced by the Spanish, and was unknown in Mesoamerica prior to the Conquest. The alternate version of the Chayacate dance story begins in 1774. At that time a virulent plague of smallpox devastated Tuxpan and the surrounding communities. The people appealed to San Sebastian for deliverance, since he is the patron saint of health. The appeal apparently succeeded, according to this version of the story, because the grateful people organized the Chayacate dance to honor him for his help.

Some Chayacates wore long blonde "hair" with their Spanish-featured masks and antlers. The Nahuatl word Chayácatl means "man wearing a mask."  It was a warm day and I imagine that the vigorous dance activity raised quite a sweat under all those clothes and heavy masks. Some dancers even wore gloves.

A young boy peeks from under his mask as the festivities gain momentum. Apparently, in the early days, all the Chayacates were children. If one believes the first version of the story, this may have been to protect the dancers from retribution should the Spaniards figure out they were being ridiculed. As the dance became a long-standing tradition, grown men and women began to participate as dancers.

A Chayacate with hair made of maguey fibres. This one also sports a truly impressive set of antlers. Which version of Tuxpan's story is true? I can't say for sure, but I tend to favor the ridicule version. It is not uncommon for people to find ways to make fun of their oppressors, if they can do it covertly. Certainly any overt show of disrespect would have resulted in savage Spanish reprisals. Also, there exists another famous indigenous Mexican dance called the "Dance of the Old Men." That dance mocks the feebleness of Spaniards who did no work because of the ready availability of indigenous slave labor. In the Dance of the Old Men, the performers also wear white faced masks and blonde wigs. The epidemic version may have been a clever story created to cover the real intent.

Dancers came in all sizes. By early afternoon, the crowd was packed around the dance area and performers ranging from niños to abuelos (kids to grandparents) filled the air with the sound of their rattles, vioins, flutes, and tamboreen sticks. By now, all the troupes had arrived and the dancing was building to a frenzy.

Chayacates began to file into the church to be blessed. The long blonde hair worn by these dancers was made from maguey fibres. The maguey plant is a relative of the agave from which tequila is made. Maguey fibre was used by ancient indigenous people for a variety of purposes including ropes and sandals. Also, apparently, they used it to create mocking wigs.

The great parade

A huge parade began, with many of the audience participating. After all the dance troupes had arrived, performed, and been blessed, everyone prepared for the big parade through town. Quite a number of statues and other sacred objects were brought out to be carried by the faithful. Above, several versions of the Virgin Mary are carried on palanquins. Each statue is dressed in a different color and at least one is adorned with bouquets of flowers. To get a better view, I had climbed up on the wall surrounding the octagonal stone cross in the middle of the plaza. While I was able to shoot over the heads of most of the participants, it was a fairly wobbly position. I had some concern about providing unintended free entertainment to the crowd by tumbling over backwards.

San Sebastian was martyred by being shot full of arrows. Sebastian was a very early Christian martyr, who died in 268 AD during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian. He had been a captain in the Praetorian Guard, the emperor's elite troops. Somehow he became a Christian and promptly began converting prominent Romans, at least one of whom, according to legend, was cured of muteness as a result. The emperor got wind of this treachery and ordered Sebastian to be tied to a stake (or possibly a tree) and shot with arrows. The widow of one of his martyred convertees went to retrieve Sebastian's body and discovered he wasn't dead. She nursed him back to health, after which he is said to have cured a blind girl in the household. Then, apparently determined to have a successful martyrdom, he stood up during a procession while Diocletian passed by and denounced the emperor publicly. His comments were not well received. Diocletian made sure of the job this time by having him beaten to death and his body thrown into a privy. San Sebastian is thus famed for being the only saint to have been martyred twice. The people of Tuxpan probably appealed to San Sebastian in 1774 (if that version is true) because he was said to be a defense against the plague. In the Dark Ages, a plague ravaged the barbarian (but partially Christianized) Lombards. The story goes that they erected an altar in honor of San Sebastian and brought the plague to a halt. According the Tuxpan story, he was successful there too, and now is paraded through the streets during every Candelaria fiesta.

A big smile from a little girl. She was my seat mate on the wall by the cross and was very curious about my photography. I asked her for a photo and she obliged, nearly blinding me with her radiant smile. Kids are great! At the end of the big parade, all the troupes and their supporting neighbors returned to their barrios for food, drink, and more partying. While we understood that everyone would be welcome to visit any and all of these parties (and food and drink would be free to all), the day was getting on and we had a long drive back. Before we left, however, I noted that the Hotel Plaza Juarez is right down the street from the church plaza. It appears to be an excellent and quite inexpensive place to stay, should we decide on an overnight visit in the future.

This completes my posting on the masked dancers of Tuxpan. I encourage you to visit during Candelaria, or at any other time if you are in the area. Who knows how much longer this wonderful fiesta will remain unspoiled by the temptations of the tourist dollar. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below. In addition, if you would like to forward a link to my blog to friends or relatives, help yourself. The more the merrier!

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 7: Archaeologists unearth the mysterious ruins at Palacio de Ocomo

Palacio de Ocomo is another of Western Mexico's unique archaeological sites. Above, you can see three successive layers to the walls, the most recent running along the bottom. This wall is a staggering 125 meters (410 ft.) long, and the other 3 sides are of equal length. Arguably, Palacio de Ocomo is the largest palace of its kind in all of Mesoamerica. There are some claims that the palace of Moctezuma at Tenochtitlán was larger, but since much of that structure is buried under modern Mexico City, this cannot be verified. Archaeologists used to consider Western Mexico a backwater lacking in sites worth investigation. However, the Etzatlán area possesses three kinds of archaeological remains that are unique to Mesoamerica: the Shaft Tombs (Part 5 of this series), the circular pyramids and huge ball court at the Guachimontanes (Part 6), and the vast Palacio de Ocomo. In my research on Etzatlán, I had read about archaeological projects under way in the area. Accordingly, I emailed the local Oficina Turistica to arrange a visit for my party during our two-day adventure. The tourist office provided a guide to Palacio de Ocomo and persuaded the chief archaeologist to give us a tour. The Palacio is located in the the pueblo of Oconahua, about 10.6 kilometers (6.6 mi.) west of Etzatlán, to the the south of Highway 4. For a Google map showing Etzatlán and Oconahua, click here.

Our group got an excellent tour from the young archaeologist in charge. Sean Monte Marquez Smith (far right) obligingly walked us through the entire site. It was well he did. Although American archaeolgists Phil Weigand and his wife Acelia first alerted the scientific world about Palacio de Ocomo in 1958, it was not until 2007 that any significant work began. At present, the only part of the site that has been substantially restored is the long north wall, seen above in the background. Some exploratory holes have been dug, and workers have filled many sacks with pottery shards. Without a knowledgable guide such as Sean, it would have been difficult to appreciate the site's significance. The ancient city covered 500-600 hectares (1235-1452 acres) on a rolling plateau at the base of steep mountains. The Palacio was a huge complex with in the city, encompassing about 50,000 cubic meters (164,042 cubic ft.).

Part of the uncovered but, as yet, unrestored north wall. An uneducated eye would easily pass over something like this. In the late 1950s, local residents told Weigand about old ruins they called "Ocomo", and when he investigated he was intrigued by the site's unusual size. While farming their lands and building their houses, the locals had turned up many artifacts, including polychrome vessels and semi-precious turquoise jewelry. Tests showed that the turquoise originated in Cerrillos, New Mexico, near Santa Fe. This clearly indicates that the ancient people of Palacio Ocomo were involved the Mesoamerican trade network that extended all the way from the US Southwest to Honduras.

Sean explains how a dig proceeds. Sean is an engaging and highly intelligent young man whose work is sponsored by a university in Michoacan. His father is American and his mother is Mexican, so he speaks both languages well. Archaeology is a science that requires great patience and attention to detail. Workers sometimes use toothbrush-sized implements to painstakingly remove the earth from artifacts. Looters, by contrast, are only interested in what they can sell. Their crudely-used shovels and picks often destroy the most important aspects of a site. The items they recover lose much of their meaning when removed from the context. Fortunately, most of Palacio Ocomo is still buried, and its obscurity has left it largely unlooted. Local people were suspicious of the intentions of Weigand and other scientists at first, and it took almost 50 years for archaeologists to get permission to proceed.

The further west we moved along the wall, the more dilapidated it became. According to the local people, there used to be many stelae (upright blocks of carved stone) in the area. Some had carvings showing feathered head dresses. However, in 1890 a Franciscan priest appeared and denounced the stelae as works of the devil. He ordered that they be destroyed and the remains thrown in the local creek. Residents managed to keep some artifacts safe in their homes, but Weigand found fragments in the creek that verify the stories about the priest. The outside walls shown above had an adobe core faced with stone which may have been plastered or stuccoed. The sides of the walls facing the courtyard may have either been plastered or finished with cantera stone.

A sunken lane was built by farmers right through the main Palacio site. Some of the stones in the walls lining the road no doubt came from ancient structures just under the earth. So, what went on here? In ancient times a palace like this was called a tecpan. Similar--but smaller--palaces have been found in other areas of Mesoamerica. Moctezuma's tecpan was extensively described by Hernán Cortés in letters to the King of Spain. Because the overall outlines of Palacio de Ocomo so closely resemble these other tecpans, archaeologists speculate that the activities conducted at the Oconahua site would have been similar. Behind the thick stone walls was a large sunken courtyard. Around the courtyard would have been rooms for the ruler and his wives and children, as well as for the nobility and priestly class who administered the temporal and religious affairs of the kingdom. Historians, philosophers, and poets would also have used the maze of corridors and meeting rooms for their activities. The royal treasury would have been kept here, and other rooms would have contained weapons. Still other spaces would have been maintained for the various palace functionaries and for visitors.

A heap of loose stone covered by vegetation conceals more ruins. Sean confirmed that this was an unexcavated Palacio structure. When intact, structures like this would have been stuccoed and painted beautifully. Palacio Ocomo flourished between 500-1100 AD. At its peak, the Palacio and its environs may have contained as many as 8,000 people. The present population of Oconahua is 2000. The civilization that built the Palacio and its surrounding city was probably the same one which caused the downfall of the Teuchitlán culture (see Part 6). Archaelogists note that construction suddenly stopped on circular structures like those of the Guachimontones. Thereafter, only squared structures like those found at and around Palacio Ocomo were built. The abruptness of the change suggests a conquest.

Below the north wall, a broad, flat plaza stretches out, bounded by a stone wall. The wall was probably built by post-Conquest farmers and contains many stones from the ancient ruins. Beyond the stone wall is the arroyo in which the stelae fragments were found. On the other side of the arroyo, rolling hills rise up. On these, the ancients built their homes and planted their fields. The archaeologists have been digging in four sites within about 300 meters (984 ft.) of the Palacio. At least one of the sites contains ancient homes around a sunken courtyard.

The foundations of an ancient pyramid lie underneath the church above. As was their usual practice, the Spanish dismantled the pyramid and used its stones to build the church. Other ancient buildings are not available for excavation because residents homes or small stores are built over them. Palacio Ocomo, on the other hand, is largely located on the pasture land you can see in the foreground. Notice how the spurs of the mountains in the background come down to the very edge of the town.

A burro grazes contentedly on pasture covering the south side of the Palacio. The wall in the background probably contains many stones retrieved from the ancient structure. The people who built the Palacio were fairly advanced for their time. They used the newly-introduced bow and arrow and worked with copper. They also seemed to have discovered how to work iron. In this they were more advanced than the later Aztecs who had no knowledge of iron at the time the Spanish arrived.

Sean showed us a broken piece of ancient pottery recovered from the site. There were several decorative styles but all of it was geometric in design. Numerous bags of potsherds were stacked inside the vacant house the archaeologists use as a workshop. On a rustic plywood table, he spread out a selection for us to examine.

Polychrome potsherds. It was not clear to me whether these pieces came from the same or several different pots. However, the design was attractive and the paint was still bright and colorful after 1000 years of burial. Plans for the Palacio Ocomo include planting a screen of trees around the site to maintain its sense of seclusion. There is also talk of changing the approach to the site to create a more dramatic entrance. While most of the Palacio is still underground, I still found it fascinating. As an active archaeological dig, new discoveries are turning up regularly. The archaeologists are using high technology such as ground penetrating radar to identify the places to dig, and have already detected a possible grave site.

This pet deer appeared to be the mascot of the site. Its tiny antlers indicate that the deer was apparently not much older than a fawn. The creature seemed a little anxious about the sudden flood of unfamiliar people as my 12-member party filed through. The mountains that rise immediately in back of Oconahua are no doubt thick with such deer.

Tot and horse commune on the doorstep of a local tienda. The little adobe store is located right across the street from the archaeologists' workshop. The photographer in me found the scene irresistible. Except for the Coca Cola sign and the electric meter, this had the appearance of something right out of the 19th Century. Much of rural Mexico has that antique feel.

This completes Part 7 of my Etzatlán Adventure series, and brings the series itself to an end. I hope I have given you incentives to visit Etztatlán. As I said in Part 1, the town of Etzatlán, and the area around it, are a largely undiscovered jewel full of things to do and see. I would advise contacting the Oficina Turistico ( beforehand or when you arrive so that you can arrange for a guide. However, the directions and maps I have provided should allow you to see things on your own, if you so choose. I always appreciate feedback from my blog viewers. If you would like to do so, please use the Comments section 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

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 6: The unique circular pyramids called Guachimontones

The Guachimontones are a unique set of ancient ruins not far from Etzatlán. Seen above is the circular pyramid of Conjunto 2, the second-largest--and best preserved--of the Guachimontones' several pyramids. The ruins are located on a plateau overlooking the small town of Teuchitlán on Highway 4, about 20 minutes by car to the east of Etzatlán. In fact, someone traveling to Etzatlán from Lake Chapala or Guadalajara will have to pass right by the town on the way. I noted this while preparing for a couple of my Etzatlán trips, particularly since several of my companions had never visited the Guachimontones.  The photos in this posting were taken on three different occasions, leading to the differing appearances of the vegetation. Teuchitlán is about 1.5 hours west of Lake Chapala's Ajijic, and about 1 hour west of Guadalajara. To locate the town and ruins on a Google map, click here.


Aerial view of the Conjunto 2 complex. This photo appears on the large sign at the entrance to the ruins. It helps give a sense of how the circular pyramids and their surrounding platform circles are laid out. The circular aspect is what makes the Guachimontones unique in Mexico, and perhaps in the world. They were discovered in 1970 by archaeologist Phil Weigand and his historian wife Arcelia Garcia. Weigand died only a few months ago, and I regret never having had the opportunity to meet him. The ancient people who created the site are part of what is called the Teuchitlán culture, named after the nearby town. The Guachimontones ceremonial site flowered as early as 200 AD, and was suddenly abandoned about 900 AD. The Teuchitlán culture is related to the culture of the Shaft Tomb people seen in Part 5 of this series.  About 200 sites with a similar plan to this one were built in Western Mexico in many of the same areas that the Shaft Tombs were found. However, construction of Shaft Tombs stopped approximately 600 AD, three centuries before the the Teuchitlán tradition disappeared. Because of looting at the Shaft Tombs and destruction at Teuchitlán culture sites like the Guachimontones (parts of which were used for local building materials) the connection between the two is not entirely understood.

Site map of the Guachimontanes. This map gives a sense of the whole site, at least that part which has been excavated to date. The area shown above covers about 19 hectares (47 acres). The total site must be very much larger, since at its peak the ancient population may have reached 40,000 people. Conjuncto 2 is the center pyramid of the 3 largest circular complexes seen above in a rough diagonal line from top right to bottom left. Conjunto 1, the largest pyramid, has not been fully excavated. Between Conjunto 1 and 2 is a long narrow slot which was the largest of two ball courts. Overlooking the north end of the Ball Court is Conjunto 4, which consists of an altar surrounded by 6 platforms. Conjuncto 3, on the lower left, is the smallest of the 3 central pyramid complexes. The map also shows several other outlying ruins which are partially excavated. Our guide told us that additional, unexcavated, circular pyramids can be found on the other side of the large hill which overlooks this site. (Photo of a sign near the Guachimontones' museum).

What the Guachimontones may have looked like when inhabited. Seen above in the foreground is Conjunto 2. Behind it is Conjuncto 1. The pyramids have staircases leading to their tops on 4 sides, corresponding to the 4 cardinal directions. Set into the top level of Conjuncto 2 is a high pole, the hole for which was discovered by archaeologists. Some of the other pyramids had similar holes. The archaeologists speculate that the poles were used by voladores (flyers). Clay sculptures from Shaft Tombs appear to portray this practice, which involved priests who hung by ropes and spun around the poles. The ceremony may have been part of the devotions to Ehécatl, the wind god. It is believed that the circular shapes of the pyramids are related to the fact that the wind blows from every direction. Ehécatl is associated with Quetzalcoatl, the creator-god worshiped throughout Mesoamerica. The structures on top of the rectangular platforms surrounding the pyramids were made of perishable materials and so did not survive to the present. However, the creators of this model used the clay Shaft Tomb sculptures of houses and buildings as their guide for what these structures would have looked like. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Horses peacefully graze where a city of thousands once teemed. The ceremonial center sits on a broad plateau on the side of a high hill overlooking the town of Teuchitlán (above, background). In the distance, just out of sight to the left, is a large lake used by the ancients (as well as present inhabitants) for water and fishing. The land immediately around the ruins has been farmed for centuries. Plowing has unearthed artifacts but has also destroyed some aspects of the site. It is believed that the area within the ruins was restricted to nobility and the priesthood, except on special religious occasions. Most of the ancient people lived at the bottom of the hill, in and around modern-day Teuchitlán. Trade in salt brought from the flats around Sayula to the south was a major economic activity in ancient times. Another was obsidian production. There are more than 1000 ancient obsidian mines in the area, and the people used the volcanic glass to produce knives, spearheads, mirrors, jewelry, and macahuitls, or flat-bladed swords. Supposedly, the macahuitls could chop off a leg or an arm with a single blow.

Blue Agave growing near the ruins. Blue Agave is one of the many species of maguey. The ancient people cultivated agave, just as their modern counterparts do. They used it for the production of a mildly alcoholic beverage called pulque, as well as for fibre to make clothing, baskets, and sandals. Today, the Blue Agave is used almost exclusively to produce the many varieties of Jalisco's fine tequila, named after the nearby town of Tequila. The ancient people also operated an extensive irrigation system including canals, dams, floodgates, and chinampas, or floating gardens. The chinampas were similar those used later by the Aztecs near their capital of Tenochitlán (modern Mexico City). This irrigation system is considered one of the most sophisticated in Mesoamerica and would certainly have been necessary to feed the estimated population of 40,000.

Conjunto 2: The Central Pyramid

The pyramid of Conjunto 2 mimics the cloud-covered Tequila Volcano seen behind. This pyramid is constructed with 13 steps up to a platform which contains an additional 4 steps. The total structure is 18 meters (60 ft.) tall. It was not unusual for the ancients to construct pyramids so that they followed the lines of adjacent mountains. The Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan is designed the same way.

Circling the Conjunto 2 pyramid are 10 rectangular platforms. Many of the platforms, like the one seen in the background, have steps leading up to their tops. The platforms are constructed with 2 to 4 levels. Originally the top level of the platforms contained buildings made of wood with thatched roofs. These buildings may have been connected to particular elite families or lineage groups. Separating the platforms from the pyramid is a broad walkway, or patio, about 360 meters (1181 ft.) in circumference. Archaeologists speculate that large numbers of people gathered on these platforms and in the patios to witness the volador ceremonies.

Another view of the Conjunto 2 platforms. My friend Diana happened to be walking by when I took the photo, and her presence provides a handy sense of scale.

The Ball Court and Sacrificial Platform

The Ball Court is one of the largest in Mesoamerica. In the photo above, I am standing at the north end looking directly down the middle. The far end is 111 meters (364 ft.) away, and is bounded by the trees seen in the distant background. This ball court is surpassed in size only by the Great Ball Court of the Maya at Chichen Iza in Yucatan. In addition to entertaining the population, the ball games were used to settle important political and economic issues. Some of the other ball courts in Mesoamerica have rings set into their sides, with points scored by passing the ball through them. No such rings exist at this court, so the rules must have been somewhat different.

Sloping shelves line the two sides of the court. Diana and Mike, seen above, were two of the people who accompanied me on my second visit to the Etzatlán area. The surface they are walking on was part of the playing field. It is gently sloped from the vertical wall on the left down to the sunken central lane. A tree now grows in the middle of the playing field, seen to the right of Diana. Clay sculptures found in Shaft Tombs portray the game as it was played here. Spectators lined the walls at the sides and each end. The players used their hips to propel a heavy stone ball covered with rubber. This may explain the high number of broken pelvises found in burials in the area.

The Platform of Sacrifices. The remains of eight human sacrifices were found buried in this platform at the south end of the court. Archaeologists speculate that these sacrifices were done in conjunction with the game. According to some theories, it was the winning team's captain who was sacrificed. This was considered a great honor and a celebration of his achievement.

Conjunto 1: The Buried Pyramid

Conjuncto 1 contains the largest of the pyramids at the site. The photo above shows how the Guachimontones site must have looked to Phil Weigand and his wife when they first arrived. What they found seemed little more than rounded heaps of stone, covered by trees. These hillocks gave the site its name. Guachi trees grow on the montones (heaps) of stone. The imposing size of this pyramid is difficult to appreciate because at the moment I took the photo, I lacked of a person or object to give it scale.

Heading to the top. Above, the group I came with on my third visit heads up a switchback path to the summit of the pyramid. This photo provides a bit more sense of scale. My friends still have fair a way to go to get the top. On this side, more excavation has been performed and the heap begins to look more like a man-made structure. There were originally 4 staircases leading up to the top of this pyramid, corresponding to the cardinal directions.

We encountered a rough wall on the way to the top. Unlike the carefully fitted stone of the Conjunto 2 pyramid, the structure here is still pretty much in the condition in which it was found. The building materials used in the pyramid were stone, lime, and clay. The top can be seen in the background, still some distance up.

View from the top of Conjunto 1. Through the Guachi trees, the pyramid of Conjunto 2 can be seen, along with one of its surrounding platforms. Teuchitlán is visible in the distance. When the Conjunto 1 pyramid was in good condition, without trees or other obstructions to block the view, the visual effect must have been powerful. Buried beneath the top of the Conjunto 1 pyramid, archaeologists found the grave of an important ancestor, perhaps one of the founders. The Conjuncto 1 complex is the oldest part of the Guachimontones.

Other Conjuntos

Two more of my party descend from Conjunto 5. Dave (left) and Larry (right) are hiking buddies who came along on our second venture to Etzatlán. Conjunto 5, at the extreme north end of the site, is still mostly unexcavated. I didn't have time to do more than catch this quick shot. On a future visit, I want to look this site over more carefully, along with some other ruins on the fringes.

Stairway to heaven. A broad set of stairs leads up to Conjunto 4. They arrive at a wide flat platform with a view overlooking the Ball Court, the pyramids, and a good bit of the surrounding countryside.

Platform of Conjunto 4. In the center of the platform is a low, square, stone altar. In the background, high mountains rise, and on the far left you can glimpse the blue lake.

Conjunto 3 is the smallest of the three central complexes. There are only 4 levels and the structure is probably not more than 2 meters (6.5 ft) tall. However, a pit was found on the top level, no doubt for the volador pole. Several platforms surround this pyramid, but most are small and not in good condition.  Conjunto 2 can be seen in the background through the trees.

Pelicans, aqueducts, and frogs' legs

Lake Teuchitlán stretches south from the town, across Highway 4. The lake is shaped like a long, thin wedge, with the wide part on the north end. It extends on a north-south axis and is about 8 kilometers (5 mi.) long and about 3.2 kilometers (2 mi.) wide at the widest. Highway 4, and Teuchitlán, run along the north side. The lake is home to a wide variety of birds, including White Pelicans, Great White and Snowy Egrets, American Coots, seagulls, and many others. Above, a motley congregation of chirpers and squawkers gathers on the stump of an old aqueduct.

The remains of an old hacienda aqueduct stretch out from the shore. The water near the shore is thick with green lirio, or water hyacinth, a non-native and highly invasive species introduced by 19th Century hacienda owners as decoration for their garden ponds. It grows incredibly fast and today is considered a major pest.

Soky's Restaurant, on the lakefront. Just before reaching Teuchitlán on Highway 4, heading west, is a side road that leads south along the east side of the lake. Side-by-side restaurants line the road, most serving excellent meals at reasonable prices. They possess an ambiance that is hard to beat on a sunny afternoon. I would suggest visiting the Guachimontones during the cool morning, then retreating to one of these restaurants for a great lunch during the mid-day heat. Most days, you can easily find a table right on the water at Soky's or any of the other restaurants.

Mike recommends the frogs' legs. My friend Mike is an adventurous sort and, upon finding frogs' legs on the menu, immediately decided to try them. He hugely enjoyed them and even persuaded a few of us to give it a go. They are locally caught and really quite tasty!

This completes Part 6 of my Etzatlán series. I am always happy to receive comments if you are so inclined. Please leave your message in the Comments section below, or send me a return email.

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Hasta luego, Jim