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.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Why is there any certainty that the ball park is that?

    This looks like a perfect terraced agricultural system.

    Is there a reason why that is not the explanation for these forms?

  2. As always, enjoyed the Guachimontanes series, Jim. We visited some time ago, and it would be worth going back.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    Yes, that is definitely a ball court. I can say so for several good reasons.

    1) If you look at the site map, you will see the ball court is closely sandwiched between Conjuntos 1 & 2. It would make a very odd sort of planting field, given all the fertile land outside the are containing the complex of pyramids and their circles of platforms, particularly down the hill nearer the lake.
    2) The ancient people did not make it a practice to plant their fields in close proximity to their pyramids and temples. These area were set aside for the nobility and priesthood, and for religious activities. The fields would have been on the periphery of such areas, particularly someplace flat, easily tilled and close to water, which once again suggests the area by the lake.
    3) I have visited most of the major, and some minor sites around Mexico that have ball courts. Although larger (at least in length) than nearly all of them, the layout of this ball court follows the general design very closely: a long, narrow, ground-level, playing area flanked by sloping walls on either side which were also part of the playing field, with vertical walls on top of which the spectators sat. At either end are short rectangular areas like the cross pieces you find on a capital "I", also part of the playing area. The ball court in the photo has all of these elements.
    4) There is no disagreement among the various archaeologists who have visited or worked at the Guachimontones that this was definitely a ball court. Believe me, when there is an opportunity for archaeologists to disagree, or propose alternate theories, they seldom hold back.

    Thank you for your interest, Jim Cook

  4. Jim to your knowledge its obvious that these people had the concept of the circle. Were they aware of the wheel as s form of transportation or moving things?

  5. Hi there. I am currently teaching a college course on ancient Mexico and your photographs are priceless. Do you mind if I share them with my class?
    The text is well informed and well written. Thanks so much for adding good stuff to the blogosphere!

  6. Don Jose,

    The people of Mesoamerica never used the wheel for transportation, largely because they lacked any domestic animal large enough to pull a wheeled vehicle. I supposed they could have had teams of humans pull such a vehicle, but it would have been much simpler to load them up with packs, particularly since there were also very few roads suitable for a wheeled vehicle.

  7. Deborah,

    I am pleased and flattered that you want to share my photos with your class. Since you have no commercial interest in the matter, please go ahead.

    Best regards, Jim


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