Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sierra del Tigre Adventures Part 3: Ex-Hacienda Toluquilla & its 17th Century aqueduct

A rushing stream passes under the 17th Century aqueduct of ex-Hacienda Toluqilla. I found the ruins of this hacienda by accident. Sometimes, when you are in search of one treasure, you stumble across others. In this case I had come into possession of a hand-drawn map showing the location of a large waterfall in the heart of the Sierra del Tigre. This turned out to be Las Cascadas Paraíso (see previous posting). My friend Larry drives a high clearance 4X4, and is always up for an adventure, so I recruited him and three others to see if we could find the as-yet-unnamed waterfall. At that point it was little more than a few squiggles on the map. As we scoured Google Earth to determine the waterfall's precise location, we kept finding mention of an old colonial aqueduct located in the same general area. A bit more internet research revealed that the aqueduct had once provided water to a 17th Century hacienda that had played a role in the founding of the nearby town of Concepción de Buenos Aires. We decided to include a search for ex-Hacienda Toluquilla on our waterfall expedition. However, finding the physical ruins proved easier than finding their history. My information is still a bit sketchy, and if any of my readers can supply more (or corrections), I would appreciate it. For a map to locate Toluquilla, click here.

Ex-Hacienda Toluquilla

The crumbling adobe ruins of the hacienda's Casa Grande stand in the center of the tiny town. Sometime during the Revolution, or not long after, the hacienda's lands were broken up and shared out among the former peones (farm workers) whose families had worked there for centuries as little more than serfs. In many such cases, former peones cannibalized hacienda buildings for materials to improve their own homes. That appears to have happened at Hacienda Toluquilla. Contrary to popular conception, a hacienda was not simply a house where a rich man lived. The word hacienda means "place where something is done or made", and refers to a large economic operation. Haciendas were generally devoted to raising livestock such as cattle and horses, or cash crops such as wheat or sugar cane. The casa grande (great house) of a typical hacienda was both the residence of the hacendado (owner) and the center of an administrative complex called la casca (the helmet).  Generally, Mexican haciendas possessed at least 2000 acres and were relatively self-sufficient. However, some were huge, comprising 65,000 acres or more. Some of these even possessed their own railroad stations. The original size of Hacienda Toluquilla is not clear, but it appears to have occupied a good part of El Llano de San Sebastian, a large rolling plateau in the heart of the Sierra del Tigre, south of Lake Chapala. There was apparently enough land in 1869 for the owners to set aside a substantial portion in order to found the town of Concepción de Buenos Aires.

Next to the ruins of the Casa Grande is the old capilla. Virtually every hacienda possessed its own capilla (chapel). It was usually located very near, or even attached to, the casa grande. From the earliest days of Spanish rule in Latin America, Catholicism provided the ideological justification for the domination by a small wealthy elite over millions of indigenous and mestizo people. The hacendados always kept a watchful eye on the religious messages received by their peones, hence the proximity of the capilla to the casa grande. Under the hacienda system, the meek were unlikely to inherit anything more than their peon father's debts, and the hacendados wanted to keep it that way. Occasionally a hacienda would have its own priest in residence, but in the case of Hacienda Toluquilla, the priest was based far away and faced a long journey to service his flock. In the early 1860s, Padre Ignacio Romo rode a circuit that extended from Hacienda Huejotitánnear Jocotopec on the western tip of Lake Chapala, to Hacienda Toluquilla, deep in the Sierra del Tigre mountains. At the time, primitive roads would have required many days of rugged travel by horse or mule. If he was lucky, the padre may sometimes have had access to a two-wheeled ox cart (unsprung, of course). Not relishing the prospect of continuing this arduous circuit, the padre took the opportunity of a pastoral visit to speak to the owners of Hacienda Toluquilla, the brothers Pablo and Benito Echuari. Padre Ignacio proposed a new town,  to be built on their land, which would have a school, a market and--best of all--a church. To his delight, Don Benito agreed. The town became Concepción de Buenos Aires, and the new church was called Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción. While we found Toluquilla's Casa Grande to be in ruins, the little chapel appeared to be functional. This is not unusual, since the country people remain deeply religious. After the demise of the old haciendas, the capillas began to serve as community churches and social centers for villages like Toluquilla.

The remains of a graceful old arch were among the few clues of former grandeur. When we entered the village, it soon became clear that the old hacienda had been scavenged almost beyond recognition. In such cases, I have found the best thing to do is to approach a local resident, the older the better. We soon encountered a gentleman with a very weatherbeaten face who was dressed in blue jeans and a battered straw hat. He seemed a bit puzzled by our quest, but readily agreed to show us around. As he warmed to our search, he began to point out easily missed details, including the ruins of this old arch, which apparently led into the stable area of the Casa Grande.

Another local resident monitors our progess. This handsome rooster poked its head out of the undergrowth that is slowly overwhelming the Casa Grande's ruins. Village chickens in Mexico are seldom confined, and wander freely in the streets, pecking at whatever they can find. As I outlined in Part 1 of this series, much of the Sierra del Tigre south of Lake Chapala was taken over by Conquistador Alonso de Avalos in the 1540s. He received encomiendas (the right to the forced labor of  indigenous inhabitants) for broad areas including El Llano de San Sebastian. In the early 1600s, these rights passed into the hands of Don Joaquin Fermin Echuari. Encomiendas granted the right to forced labor, but not necessarily ownership of the land. In the 17th Century, the encomienda system was phased out and replaced by Royal land grants through which the great haciendas were created. The land was seized--forcibly if necessary--from the local inhabitants whose forebears had worked it for thousands of years. The former owners of the land became the peones working for the hacendados. The Echuari family kept possession of Hacienda Toluquilla at least until the last part of the 19th Century, and possibly until the final breakup during or after the Revolution.

Maiz now grows inside the adobe walls of one of the casca buildings. Maiz (corn) has been a staple of the rural Mexican diet for thousands of years. Unfortunately, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) US grain companies have been able to dump huge amounts of surplus corn on the Mexican market. These surpluses, which are subsidized by US government agricultural policies, have depressed maiz prices and undercut small family farms throughout Mexico. This, in turn, has forced the migration of those farmers to work in the fields of US agribusiness north of the border. A large number of those migrant farm workers found it necessary to enter the US illegally in order to feed their families back home. This, of course, makes them easy targets of exploitation by US employers, who profit from low wages and the ability to avoid paying for any benefits such as worker's compensation or unemployment insurance. Just as the old hacienda system turned indigenous farmers into peones, US agribusiness has turned millions of modern Mexican small farmers into "illegals" hunted by US authorities and despised by some (but by no means all) Americans. 

This cut stone provides another hint of the past. We found the stone atop a rough wall surrounding a corral. The walls surrounding Mexican fields are usually built from uncut stones picked up as the fields were cleared. The presence of this carefully cut stone, complete with a rounded edge, indicates that it was originally part of one of the hacienda's casca buildings, possibly the Casa Grande. The lichens growing on the store mean that it was probably cut long ago, perhaps as early as the 1600s. Left undisturbed, lichens can have a lifespan of several centuries.

Mike inspects the Casa Grande. Mike was one of our party of five. He lives in Ajijic full time and owns one of the local real estate agencies. Although we could tell the general orientation of the building, the state of the ruin was such that little else about its interior could be determined with any certainty. By this time, our presence in their pueblo had attracted the attention of a small group of locals. They seemed as curious about us as we were about the hacienda. The kids were the boldest of the lot, as they often are. I had no doubt that our visit would be the talk of their town, since things tend to be a bit slow in this mountain back country. We were happy to provide some free entertainment.

Our local guide pointed out this old stone water trough as one of the original features. What is new is the piped water. In earlier times, water arrived via the stone aqueduct, built in the 17th Century. Today, all homes in Toluquilla are connected to the piped public water supply. According to official government records, the population of the pueblo of Toluquilla is 155 people, with women slightly outnumbering the men. About 40% of the total are children, and 13% are over 60. Of the 37 homes in town, 3 are without floors, and two consist of only one room. While only 29 of the 37 homes have indoor toilets, all have electricity. There are no computers in any of the homes, but 30 have washing machines and 36 have TVs. Although Toluquilla has not quite caught up with the 21st Century, it has at least made it into the 20th.

A sleek horse kicks a hind leg against persistent flies as it munches the thick, juicy grass. This is horse country and kids learn to ride from an early age. We encountered the horse near the gated entrance to the property where the old colonial-era aqueduct is located.

El Acueducto

The aqueduct cannot be seen from the road. It was not until we closely questioned our local guide that we discovered how to find the aqueduct. This gate stands directly across the highway (to the south) from the entrance to Toluquilla. There was no sign indicating an historic site, or forbidding entry, so we parked and walked on through. Not far beyond the gate, you can see a path leading off to the right toward the aqueduct. On the upper left is the creek bed of the stream that used to feed the aqueduct.

Martin and Larry mounted a rough stone path to the top of the aqueduct. By the latter half of the 19th Century, Hacienda Toluquilla was apparently no longer getting its water supply from the aqueduct. I deduced this from information indicating that, in the mid-1860s, the Echuari family donated stone from the structure to help build Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción, the new church in Concepción de Buenos Aires.

This stone trough once carried the water from the rushing stream down the hill to the hacienda. A steady water supply being essential to agriculture as well as to organized community life, aqueducts are some of the oldest civic structures in human history. In the Old World, they date back to at least the Assyrians of the 7th Century BC. The earliest evidence of aqueducts in the New World is in Peru, a development of the Nazca culture around 540 AD. Upon their arrival in 1520 AD at the Mexica (Aztec) capital of Tenochitlán, Hernán Cortéz and his Conquistadors discovered two major aqueducts feeding water to the city. Cortéz conquered Tenochitlán in part by destroying its aqueducts.

After crossing the creek bed, the aqueduct makes a sharp turn up a hill to the right. Notice the heavy growth of moss and liches on the old stones. This structure was built to last, and it certainly has. I have no doubt it would still be providing water if the Echuaris had not found another source, probably a well. If it kept on in the direction you see above, the aqueduct would intersect the creek in another 33 m (100 yds) or so. Out of sight at the upper left is the home of the farmer who owns the land around the aqueduct. 

Mike walks across the aqueduct where it passes over the creek. This has to be one of the most picturesque ruins I have encountered. Before our visit, the hacienda and its aqueduct were virtually unknown within expat community at Lake Chapala. I doubt it is known even by most Mexicans, except those who live in the immediate area. It would be a great place for a picnic, or just to laze away a warm afternoon.

Side view of the aqueduct after it crosses the creek. The arch originally appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the 2nd millenium BC. The Romans were the first to use it widely as a key feature of their architecture. That was how it made its way to Spain, a Roman province, and from there to New Spain in the 16th Century. The true arch is an architectural form never mastered by the indigenous civilizations of the pre-hispanic Western Hemisphere, although they had developed a precursor called a corbel arch

Another side view of the aqueduct, looking downhill toward the creek crossing. Although I have very little direct information about this aqueduct other than the century in which it was built, it probably functioned in a similar manner to those of other haciendas. One of these was the Espada Aqueduct, built in 1745 in the Texas province of Nueva España. It used a system of floodgates controlled by the mayordomo, or ditch master. He used them to feed water to one field or another, or to provide for bathing, washing, or to power a mill.

Phil peers through one of the arches from across the creek. The great estates of the Echuari family, including this hacienda, extended from the border of Michoacan to the Pacific beachs of Zacoalco, a vast area. Today, the ruins of this old, lichen-covered aqueduct, hidden in the undergrowth near a tiny, backcountry pueblo, provide some of the few clues to the fall in the fortunes of that once powerful family.

Red Bird of Paradise, also known as Pride of Barbados, grew by the road near the aqueduct. One can always depend upon Mexico to provide a burst of color wherever you go. I noticed this plant, formally known as Caesalpinia purcherrima, growing wild beside the road.  I was able to identify it thanks to my flower expert, Ron Parsons.

This completes Part 3 of my Sierra del Tigre series and also the series itself. This area of the Sierra del Tigre is lovely year-round and is relatively untouched by the more negative aspects of tourism which have (in my opinion) somewhat blighted other places in the area like the resort town of Mazamitla. I always appreciate feedback and if you would like to contribute some, 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 so that I can respond.


  1. Jim & Carole,

    Ur blog is so cool, and I love u love my country.
    Ur pictures are awesome.
    I have a blog too though its more about fashion & lifestyle.

    best ,


  2. Outstanding pictures. Loved seeing the ancient aqueduct. The arches are beautiful and the lichens growing all over the stonework looked amazing. Beautiful colors.

  3. Those flowers are beautiful, what a tranquil and gorgeous looking place!


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