Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Want to get high on Tequila? Try it this way...

The massive bulk of Volcan de Tequila is purpled by the late afternoon light. The first two times I climbed the peak of this volcano, I failed to bring my camera. On this sparkling, clear, winter day I made sure to pack my new Nikon. Volcan de Tequila, at 2,920 m (9,580 ft) dwarfs the other mountains in the area both in altitude and general bulk. It is no wonder that the people of the ancient Teuchitlán Tradition (300 BC-900 AD) considered it a sacred place. Aside from its impressive size, the volcano spewed forth immense quantities of volcanic glass called obsidian. This material was highly valued by pre-hispanic people because it could be shaped into tools, weapons, jewelry, and other useful objects. Obsidian can be honed to an edge finer than steel surgical instruments. Possession by an ancient society of such extensive deposits would be equivalent to possession of huge oil fields today. Notice the dome in the center of the volcano's caldera (crater). Our intent was to hike to the rim of the caldera, then down inside it to the base of the dome. We weren't going to attempt the last several hundred feet to the top of the dome because that would require ropes and technical climbing gear we didn't bring. To attempt the summit without such protection would be too dangerous. For a Google map showing the location of the volcano and its relation to Guadalajara and Lake Chapala, click here.

Approaching the volcano's caldera

The slopes of the volcano, right up to the caldera rim, are thickly covered by oak forest. My fellow hiker Jim B is seen above, walking along the cobble stone road that leads from the base of the mountain all the way to the caldera rim. The road was built to service the cell phone towers and other communication gear set up to take advantage of the volcano's commanding heights. The valleys surrounding the mountain are extensively planted with blue agave, the plant from which tequila, the Mexican national drink, is produced. The drink got its name from the small town of Tequila which sits on a plateau nestled against the northern flank of the mountain. Only the liquor produced in this area can legally be sold as "tequila." From the outskirts of the town of Tequila, the cobble stone road winds up the mountainside through innumerable turns and switchbacks. It took us nearly an hour to reach the gate where we left the cars. From there, the cobble stone road continues to the cell towers perched on the caldera's rim.

We found these lovely little flowers growing along the trail. They are of the Asteraceae or Compositae family, commonly known as asters. This is a huge family with 1,620 genuses and over 23,000 species. Members of this family can be found almost everywhere except Antarctica and the extreme Arctic. I want to thank Ron Parsons of Wildflowers and Plants of Central Mexico for this identification and his help in identifying the other plants in this posting. Ron always comes through for me, and usually on short notice.

View from the cobble stone road. The fertile valley below is bordered by the mountain ranges of northern Jalisco. The valleys around the volcano were settled by the Spanish early in the colonial period. Many ex-haciendas dot the landscape, some of them dating to the 17th Century when great herds of cattle roamed the area. In the 18th Century, some of the hacendados discovered a market for the tequila that they had been distilling for their personal use. While imported brandy and rum were expensive, tequila was relatively cheap since it could be made from the innumerable blue agave plants which grew wild in the area. Hacendados soon started distilling the liquor on a commercial scale. Well-known tequila brands such as José Cuervo, Sauza, and Orendain are all named after the original owners of 18th Century tequila-producing haciendas.

Gnarled oak trees cover the slopes of the volcano. Their spreading canopies provide welcome shade from the intense sun. Although at 3000 meters the air is cool, the direct sun can warm you up quickly. Unlike the mountains around Lake Chapala--except at the very tops--the slopes of Volcan Tequila are not jungly. In fact, there is very little underbrush between the great oaks, and even less so as you gain altitude. The ground is covered by layers of fallen oak leaves which may suppress the undergrowth. The open and park-like terrain is very pleasant to hike through.

A great valley spreads out toward the north. I took this shot standing below an electrical tower from which three power lines dropped precipitously down the slope to the next tower far below. In the foreground are the forested lower skirts of the mountain. Just beyond is open range covering a broad plateau. Beyond that, a long ridge descends from left to right. Behind this ridge is the gorge through which the Rio Grande de Santiago runs. The Santiago, one of Mexico's longest rivers, begins on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, cuts around to the north of Guadalajara, and then runs to the west through rugged mountains before finally emptying into the Pacific near San Blas. It's total length is 433 km (269 mi). The area you see above was a pre-hispanic transition zone between the settled and civilized cultures of Central and Southern Mesoamerica, and the wild, nomadic, and definitely uncivilized Chichimec tribes who inhabited the mountains and deserts to the north. Chichimec attacks plagued those early civilizations, just as they plagued the Spanish from the earliest colonial days until well into the 18th Century.

White pine stands regally erect among the oaks. While the oaks predominate near the top of the volcano, I found this white pine standing proudly among them. The white pine (Pinus flexilis) is found widely in the U.S. and in the western Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.

Peeping through the trees, you can see the northern end of the lake called Presa La Vega. The town of Teuchitlán, which borders the lake, is obscured by the branches at the bottom of the photo. The Teuchitlán Tradition gets its name from this town. Nearby are the famous circular pyramids called Los Guachimontones, which were built in a late stage of the Tradition. In addition to its unusual cone-shaped pyramids, the Tradition is marked by the use of Shaft Tombs. These unique tombs are found extensively in this area, as well as in a large arc which includes Colima, southwestern Jalisco, and Nayarit. The Shaft Tombs were dug vertically into the ground as deep as 20 m (60 ft) using only wooden or bone tools. At the bottom, one or more bulb-shaped chambers were cut, extending off from the shaft. Bodies were arranged in the chambers like the spokes of a wheel, with the feet at the center. What we know about the Teuchitlán Tradition and its Shaft Tomb People comes largely from the artifacts left in their tombs as offerings. These include many fine sculptures, including women preparing meals, parents cuddling with a child or pet dog, and people playing musical instruments or dancing in a group. The sculptures provide a deeply touching window into a vanished past.

At the rim of the caldera, we encountered this simple iron cross. We often find such crosses on mountain peaks during our hikes. They are usually shrines to which local people hike as part of religious fiestas. Although this one was unadorned, others are often draped with banners and surrounded by potted flowers and votive candles.

A view from the rim looks across a valley to a lake and another volcanic peak in the distance. Also visible is a layer of smog which has drifted over from Guadalajara, 66.7 km (41 mi) to the east. Such smog can be a problem during the dry season (November - June). Guadalajara is Mexico's second biggest city, with 7 million people. However, smog prevention policies such as mandatory emissions inspections have been implemented and, with increased enforcement, the smog may eventually be brought under control.

Once on the caldera rim, we approached one of its two sets of cell towers. The other set of towers is about 0.8 km (0.5 mi) mile away on the other side of the rim. Both sets are visible from many miles away in the valleys below. The various installations included the one seen above, owned by Telcel. Others included a communication mast put up by the local fire department. Telcel is by far the dominant company in the Mexican cell phone market. It is owned by Carlos Slim, a Lebanese-Mexican who, with a reported net worth of $72 billion (yes, that's with a "b"!), is one of the world's richest men. Visible in the photo are Jim B (left) and Gary (right). The dog in the foreground is Matty, belonging to Chuck, another hiker. Matty is an enthusiastic hiker, loved by all for her sweet disposition.

Inside the caldera

The lava dome, seen from the first set of cell towers. The second set is to the right of the dome, beyond the edge of the photo. The ridge behind the dome is one side of the caldera rim. You are looking down into the mouth of the massive crater. Examining these photos now, I am struck by how small the dome seems. In reality it is a huge block of volcanic rock, impossible to capture all in one photo unless you are a considerable distance away. However, its imposing size is dwarfed by the caldera in which it sits. The dome is what remains of a lava plug which formed in the mouth of an eruption. The soil surrounding the cooled lava wore away over time, leaving this giant monument as a reminder of the volcano's power.

Chuck, owner of Matty, clowns around behind a hollow tree. Chuck is from Arizona and has lived, full-time, in the Lake Chapala area for a number of years. Even before that, he had been a regular visitor to many parts of Mexico. Chuck is an adventurous sort, and is always one of the first volunteers for a proposed expedition. His crusty exterior conceals a warm and generous spirit.

The rest of our Volcan Tequila crew poses with the lava plug in the background. From left to right are Jim B, Kathy, Peter, Gary, and Ralph. Jim is one of the leaders of the large, informal  group of hikers who participate in adventures like this one. Earlier this year, he led a group that marched for two days through the swamps of the remote and roadless Petén jungle of Guatemala in order to visit a archeological dig called El Mirador. Kathy and Peter also participated. More recently, Jim led a group on a climb of Nevado de Colima. At 4282 m (14,050 ft) it is Jalisco's highest peak. Keep in mind that none of the people you see above is under 60 years old, and some of them are well on the far side of that.

We encountered these large thistles growing in groups at various places near the rim. With its thorns and bright flowers, it is really quite dramatic. The Cirsium thistle is part of a genus with 60 species. It is also called a Plume thistle, for obvious reasons.

From the cell towers, we circled around the rim toward the lava dome. The dome can be seen through the trees on the upper  left. From the lip of the rim, the dry stone wall seen above extends far down into the caldera. We saw no cattle in the area, so the purpose of the wall was unclear. Consider this: whoever built it moved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of large stones by hand while working at an altitude in excess of 3000 m (9000+ ft). Local folks are certainly hardy.

Suitably enough, this is called the "Tequila" flower. Salvia gesneriiflora is found in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains at elevations between 7,500-10,000 ft. In the wild, it can grow up to 25 ft high.

A view of the lava dome, seen from the side. As you can see, it is extremely steep on all sides, and some faces are almost vertical. Just to the right of the dome, you can see a small black bump of rock. The notch between the dome and the black bump was our goal.

The summit of the dome, seen through my telephoto zoom. My Nikon has a 42X zoom, and I needed all of it to get this shot. The top is wooded, except for a jumble of large boulders. It is not clear to me what might have caused this massive rock fracture. Usually something like this boulder pile is found at the base of a cliff, rather than at its top.

Our path now took us inside the lip of the caldera. To the left was a very steep slope down into the mouth of the caldera. The route here was more like the suggestion of a trail than something clear and distinct. I moved cautiously and examined the ground for evidence of human passage.

Looking up toward the lip of the caldera, the ground was covered by thick tufts of bunch grass. Rather than standing up straight, the grass was bowed over, as if a flood of water had poured down the slope. The rise of this slope is just as precipitous as the fall down into the caldera on the other side of the trail.

A volcanic monolith rose in our path, requiring some rock-scrambling to surmount it. Here, we rested and hungrily consumed some of the snacks we brought. I tend to favor a mixture of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, along with some Ritz crackers. Sometimes I'll add a chocolate bar for extra energy. Along with a couple of liters of water, that generally tides me over until our traditional post-hike feast at a local restaurant.

Our goal comes into sight. The "small black bump of rock" I mentioned previously turned out to be not so small after all. The black rock is about 30+ m (100 ft) high, but it is a tiny speck compared to the lava dome, which looms on the upper left of the photo. Our route traversed the base of the black rock beginning at the lower right of the photo. This was followed by a rock scramble up into the slot where the black rock and the dome meet. In my next posting, I'll show our party climbing around in this area, and also our return, which was accomplished by a different route.

This completes Part 1 of my two-part series on our climb of Volcan Tequila. I hope you have enjoyed joining us on our adventure. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you have any, please leave them in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If no one else has preceded you, it may say "no  comments." Just click on that and it will open the Comments window.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

San Blas Part 5: The people, wildlife, and hospitality of Mexcaltitan

A woman poles her canoe in the ancient way as white pelicans drift serenely past. Mexcaltitán is suffused with a tranquil, timeless quality. While some canoes are now motorized, many are still propelled in a way that can't have changed much since 1091 AD when the Aztecs launched their legendary migration from here to the Valley of Mexico. In my last posting, we looked at the layout of Mexcaltitán and some of its interesting buildings and streets. In this one, I will focus on the people who live here, the animals who share this little slice of paradise with them, and we'll sample the local cuisine.

A scale model from the local museum shows the physical layout of Mexcaltitán. As you can see, there are four streets laid out like the cross hatch of a tic tac toe game. They are connected by an oval street that runs around the circumference of the town. Each of the cross hatch streets ends in a pier. Tied up to the piers, and between them, are many boats. The length of the widest point on the island is only about 400 m (0.25 mi). In the rainy season, the water rises and fills the streets, transforming Mexcaltitán into a tiny version of Venice. Then, people move about the town by poling their long narrow canoes down the streets.

The People

The work day begins. A boatman poles a tool-carrying friend from the mainland to the island. Other men work on their outboard motors or prepare for a day of fishing. Activity like this continued at a leisurely pace throughout the day. Life on Mexcaltitán is pursued in an unhurried sort of way.

Some of the long, narrow canoes are tied up next to a dock. We assumed that the one in the foreground belongs to a fisherman from the net piled in the middle. About half of these boats are motorized. As you can see, the boats' shape allows them to travel the narrow streets during high water

A group of Mexican tourists cruises around the island. Some of the local boatmen make a living through tourist-related activities. We were the only foreign tourists on the island the day we visited. The green plants floating in the water behind the tourist boat are water hyacinth, locally known as lirio. It is highly invasive and can propagate at an astounding rate. A single plant can multiply to cover an acre of water in only a couple of weeks.

Mexcaltitán's fishermen are organized into a cooperative. Above, the weatherbeaten sign on their headquarters lists their coop's name as Jose Maria Morelos. He was a hero of the War of Independence against Spain. While cooperatives like this are a product of the 1910 Revolution, the concept of cooperative efforts and communal ownership of land goes far back into pre-hispanic times.

The island's museum displays artifacts of current life, like these fishing nets. Harvesting the lagoon's small shrimp is one of the chief activities of the local fishermen. The shrimp can be found in the local restaurants, along with fresh and saltwater fish cooked in a variety of ways.

Small fish dry in the warm afternoon sun. These may be charales, but I am not certain because charal is a freshwater fish and much of the water around Mexcaltitán is brackish. When completely dried, they will be served whole, as snacks. Sometimes, rather than dried, they will be deep-fried. Usually they are then sprinkled with lime juice and dipped in hot sauce.

A fisherman, his boat heaped with a net, heads out for a day's work. The house across the lagoon, and the one that is being built next to it, are among many that have been built along the edge of the water facing the island. There is very little space left on the island for new construction.

Two fishermen prepare to feed the pelicans. The fishermen and the birds have a friendly relationship. After cleaning their catch, men like these will take the waste parts in a bucket and toss them out to the waiting pelicans. The large birds hungrily rush in to grab a free meal. The squawking, flapping, and squabbling that result are quite entertaining.

The Animals

After enjoying their meal, several White Pelicans groom their feathers. White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) breed in the interior of North America but move south to the lakes and lagoons of Mexico, and even as far as Central and South America. They are among the largest birds of North America, and only the California Condor has a larger wingspan. A White Pelican can weight up to 13 kg (30 lbs). When they fly or swim in large flocks, they do so in close formations. While on land their clumsy movements can appear a bit comical. However, when in the air or water, their movements are smooth and graceful. Wild White Pelicans can live more than 16 years and some in captivity have lived as long as 34 years.

A Brown and a White Pelican swim together. I was intrigued by this companionship between two birds whose habitats and habits are quite different. Brown Pelicans are usually found on the seashore, while the Whites like freshwater lakes and brackish inland lagoons. The Browns hunt by flying over the water until they spot a fish. They then dive vertically out of the air with a great splash. By contrast, the Whites swim along in formation, herding the small fish toward the shallows, then scoop up their prey by dipping their beaks into the water. The Brown Pelican seen above later joined a large flotilla of Whites that was cruising up and down the lagoon channel.

A Wood stork stands on one leg as it perches on a bare limb. The Wood Stork likes lowland wetlands with trees where it can built a nest. Nayarit's mangrove swamps seem to fit the bill. It is the only species of stork that breeds in North America. In non-breeding season, it can be found as far south as Brazil.  This large bird is classified by the US fish and Wildlife Service as "endangered", although there have been some proposals to downgrade the listing to "threatened." I am endebted to Georgia Conti for this and other identifications.

A Great Egret stands motionless as it looks for prey in the water.  The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is also known as the Great White Heron. It is very widely distributed around the the temperate and tropical areas of the world, where it breeds in trees next to large lakes.This is a wading bird that uses its long legs to slowly and delicately move through shallow water near the shore. A sudden uncoiling of its long neck, and quick thrust of its sharp beak, will often produce a meal. Great Egrets prey on small fish, snakes, frogs, and other aquatic prey.

A Mexican Spiny-tailed iguana strikes a jaunty pose on top of a wall. From his nose to the tip of his tail, this fellow was about as long as my arm. He very obligingly remained perfectly still as I finished photographing him. Then, he then scuttled off into the brush. His lack of fear may mean that he is someone's pet.

Cattle wade neck-deep near the shore of the liro-covered lake. We were sitting in a restaurant when we noticed some movement across the channel. At first we were unable to make out what was happening. Then we spotted the heads of a small herd of cattle, just visible above the lirio. They had just waded into the lake and were proceeding along the shore with only their heads above water.

The hospitality and cuisine

The restaurant from which we spotted the cattle had no other customers but us. It was one of several scattered around the island at the ends of the piers. As it was a clean and cheerful place, we decided to try the cuisine.

Our table was in a corner overlooking the lake. The constant parade of boats and pelicans provided an on-going "floor show" during our meal. Before our main courses, the waiter supplied us with a large array of botanas (appetizers). These included a local delicacy: small, whole, dried shrimp. By "whole" I mean feelers, legs, eyes, and all. They were crunchy and actually quite good. When in Rome...

Our waiter gave me a big smile when I asked if I could take his photo. He appeared to be about ten years old, but was very efficient, as well as friendly. Following our meal, it was time to catch our launch back to the mainland. We were charmed by this tiny and very ancient community. I suspect that the tranquility of Mexcaltitán could be quite addictive.

This completes Part 5 of my San Blas series. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you have any, please leave them in the Comments section below. If no one else has commented yet, it may say "no comments". Just click on that and it will open the Comments window. You can also email me directly if you would like.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, March 3, 2014

San Blas Part 4: A visit to the island village of Mexcaltitán de Uribe

Mexcaltitán de Uribe is a pueblo on a small island that is completely surrounded by a lagoon.  Click here for a Google Map showing the route from San Blas to Mexcaltitán. Carole and I put Mexcaltitán (Mesh-cal-ti-tan) on our "priority visit" list during our San Blas adventure because of its idyllic description and exotic history. The town is about 90 km (56 mi) north of San Blas. The last couple of kilometers can only be traveled by small boat. The drive is beautiful, passing through mangrove swamps and lush fields along the way. Our guide book was a bit skimpy on directional details. It referred to the town of Santiago Ixcuintla as the "jumping off point" for Mexcaltitán. This led us to assume that the boat dock is there. When we arrived in Santiago, I asked a hotel clerk if I could walk to the dock from there and her mouth dropped in astonishment. I thought perhaps my poor Spanish was the problem. Together, we sought the help of a passerby who knew a few words of English. After further confusion I finally realized what they were both struggling to tell me. The boat dock is not in Santiago Ixcuintla, but another 36 km (22 mi) through the countryside! No wonder they both looked at me like I was loony. You never know what a crazy Gringo will ask when he wanders in off the street.  (Photo is from a display in the Museo del Origen, Mexcaltitán)

The Approach

The lagoon surrounding Mexcaltitán is part of a large estuary that empties into the Pacific. From here, all the way up Nayarit's coast to its border with Sonora, the country is low and flat with many lakes, rivers, and estuaries. Because if its warm climate, rich land, and plentiful fish and animal life, the area has been populated for thousands of years. Mexcaltitán was one of the earliest settlements, and it may be the site of legendary Aztlán, the origin point of the Aztecs. There is some archaeological evidence that they launched their great migration from here in 1091 AD, a journey lasting more than two centuries. Eight separate tribes set out from Aztlán, but the difficulties they encountered along the way tested and strengthened them, like iron transformed into steel. They became the fierce and powerful Mexica (May-she-ka) tribe. The trek finally ended when they founded Tenochtitlán--modern Mexico City--in 1323 AD. Like Mexcaltitán it was an island town surrounded by a lake. Within two hundred years of founding their capital, they built Mesoamerica's greatest empire. In 1521, at the peak of its power, it fell to Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Our boatman was friendly and the trip from the dock to the island went smoothly. The launch site, called La Batanga, consists of the docks and a couple of buildings. There are few services, other than some baños (restrooms) which were welcome after the long morning's drive through the country. The 6 km (3.73 mi) boat journey takes about 20 minutes as it winds and twists through the estuary channels, allowing a good view of the many species of birds along the way.

Solar powered channel markers were placed at regular intervals. I am always charmed by the juxtapostion of Mexico's modern and ancient aspects. Mexico is pushing rapidly toward First World status, with solar power, cell phones, and widely available wifi. At the same time, and often in the same place, one can find burros plodding under the weight of firewood destined for local kitchen stoves, or fishermen, waist-deep in the water, casting hand nets in a fashion their pre-hispanic ancestors would easily recognize.

A turn in the channel revealed the pueblo, sitting low and flat in the water. The land itself is only a few feet above sea level and the only building rising more than two stories is the church with its steeple. The oval-shaped island is 400 m (0.25 mi) long and 350 m (0.22 mi) wide. There are approximately 400 homes on the island, occupied--as of the 2010 Mexican census--by a little over 800 people. In addition to the picturesque, tile-roofed houses and small tiendas (neighborhood stores), there are a number of structures used by local fisherman located around the periphery of the island. In the center of town, several 19th and 20th Century buildings surround the small, attractive plaza. As you can see from the first photo of this posting, the island is covered from shore to shore with all these structures. The overall effect is quite picturesque. This, along with the Aztlán connection, won Mexcaltitán the designation of Pueblo Magico (Magic Village), a much-sought title shared with only a few dozen other sites in Mexico.

The street leading in from the dock is bordered by unusually high curbs. The reason is simple. In the rainy season, the streets flood, giving the town its other nick-name "Mexico's Venice." While the vision of people poling their long, narrow canoes through the streets might have suggested Venice to the Spaniards, it should be remembered that the Mexica of Tenochtitlan moved about their much larger city in exactly the same way, for very similar reasons. Some, but not all, of the streets are surfaced with paving stones like those seen above. There are no cars on the island, which leads to a quiet, unhurried atmosphere.

The Plaza

A neighborhood tienda displays a map of the town. The layout is quite simple. There are four main streets in the pattern of a tic-tac-toe grid. Circling the island is another street aptly named Venicia. Similar to thousands of other Mexican communities, the streets bordering on the plaza are all named for great figures from Mexican history such as Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos, and Benito Juarez. Interestingly, there is even one named for the dictator Porfirio Diaz, who was deposed by the Revolution. The square in the center is the plaza. There are several restaurants located on the wharves at the ends of the tic-tac-toe streets.

Iglesia de San Pedro y San Pablo occupies one side of the plaza. The banners strung around the plaza indicate a recent fiesta. The church is small, attractive, and well kept. Every June 29, the residents of Mexcaltitán celebrate the fiesta of San Peter and Saint Paul, the town's two patron saints. People divide up into two teams named after the saints and engage in a footrace around town, followed by a race of poled canoes around the island. There is music, dancing, food and, of course, plenty of cerveza,  tequila and fireworks. San Pedro's teams nearly always win the competitions. The locals insist that there is no cheating involved. They arrange for his teams' victories by stacking them with the strongest competitors. The reason is that the town is vitally dependent upon fishing and San Pedro is the patron of fishermen. In a typically practical Mexican fashion, the local people are simply hedging their bets.

Museo de Origen fills another side of the plaza. The museum is beautifully constructed and very professional in its displays and explanatory signs. These include material from the earliest settlements of the area through modern times. To me, one of the most fascinating was a display of 22 panels from the Mexica picture-history of their migration from Aztlán to Tenochtitlán. In a separate posting, I will show some of the contents of this excellent museum.

Two residents chat in the shade of one of the plaza's many trees. Behind them are multi-colored pillars called portales that support the arcade in front of some local tiendas. This photo captures the laid-back atmosphere we encountered while we were visiting.

The Ejidal office stands on a corner adjacent to the museum. In Spanish ejido means "shared or common land," a concept that has pre-hispanic origins. One of the goals of the campesinos (farm workers) in the Revolution was a re-distribution of land from the large hacienda owners to indigenous communities. Historically, such lands had often been illegitimately obtained or even seized outright by avaricious hacendados' (hacienda owners). Their aim was not only to obtain additional lands, but to force the now-landless people to provide cheap labor for the haciendas. Local ejidal organizations were created after the Revolution to receive, and hold in common, lands taken back from the hanciendas. The lands can be possessed and worked (but not "owned") by individuals unless they fail to use it for more than two years. Ejidos were embedded in the Mexican Constitution until 1991, when it was changed to allow the ejidal organizations, under certain circumstances, to sell land to individuals.

The tidy plaza is centered on a kiosco still decorated with banners from the recent fiesta. El Centro is the focal point of traditional Mexican towns, whether they are the tiniest pueblo or the greatest city. It usually includes a square with a kiosco in the center and walkways radiating out, separated by gardens. Bordering the plaza will be the main church, the government building, and various small stores under arched portales. In colonial times, the wealthiest Spaniards built mansions facing the plaza or on the streets immediately surrounding it. The mestizos lived in neighborhoods surrounding the wealthy Centro. Further out would be another ring consisting of indigenous villages. This pattern was established in 1573 by a Royal decree of Spanish King Phillip II.

The Church

Iglesa de San Pedro y San Pablo.  The church was built in the 19th Century neo-classical style and its steeple is the tallest structure on the island. The Catholic church is not only the religious but the social center in local communities like Mexcaltitán and the people are deeply religious. However, under the sometimes thin surface of Catholicism, there is often a deep layer of pre-hispanic beliefs and traditions. This came about both because of covert resistance to abandoning thousands of years of indigenous traditions, but because the Spanish priests found it easier to coopt key elements of these traditions than to eradicate them. Thus the Maya World Tree became the Christian cross and the Aztec goddess Tonantzin became the Virgin of Guadalupe.

A small boy cycles around the near-empty plaza in front of the church. The view is from the door of the church. Some of the multi-colored portales can be seen on the left. The church was serenely quiet, but not empty. At any time of the day in a church like this, one can find a person or two sitting in a pew, or quietly praying in front of a saint, or even working their way up the aisle on their knees.

The altar was decorated with loads of fresh flowers. My eye was drawn to the photograph at the lower left. It occurred to me that the person in the photo must be significant to the community.

The photo by the altar is of Santo Toribio Romo, patron saint of undocumented immigrants.  Toribio Romo Gonzales was ordained as a priest in 1922. Four years later the Cristero War began. It was an uprising by Catholic activists against the implementation of those provisions of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 which restricted the power and influence of the Church. Both the Revolutionary Government and its radical Catholic opponents committed atrocities in the 1926-1929 struggle. Father Toribio was martyred in 1928 in Agua Caliente, Jalisco, when soldiers burst into his room and shot him. He was one of a large number of Cristero War martyrs who were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. In recent decades, undocumented immigrants trying to cross the deadly desert into the United States have reported encounters with Santo Toribio's ghost. He has informally become the patron saint of undocumented immigrant workers. The prominent positioning of his photo indicates that there may be many absent members of the community who have made the dangerous journey into the United States to help support their families. The families, in turn, pray for the safe return of their relatives.

Street Scenes

Calle Venicia is the street that circles the island. Unlike some of the others, it is not paved. The bougainvillea and other flowering plants and trees along its length give it a rustic beauty. The red-shirted man down the street paused to look me over. We were the only foreign tourists on the island that day.

We encountered this old man, placidly sunning himself on the curb. He nodded quietly when I asked if I could take his photo. The man has an unusual skin condition, which I occasionally encounter in Mexico. According to my friend Tom, who is a retired dermatologist, the condition is called vitaligo, which involves a loss of pigmentation due, presumably, to an autoimmune disorder.

"Found art" on Calle Venicia. Mexicans often "make do" in the most interesting and artful ways. As we strolled along Calle Venicia, we came across this little set of stairs made from rough sticks lashed together with string and bailing wire. It is functional, but also pleasing to the eye. You could probably hire someone for a couple of thousand dollars to make one of these for you in the U.S.

A small street market attracted a crowd of neighbors. Food, toys, and musical instruments were among the items on sale. Several of the customers couldn't resist a shy peep at us as we passed them in the narrow street.

A Satellite TV dish was mounted on the corner of a house. TV, through satellite transmission, now reaches some of the most remote corners of Mexico. It is possible that the house has a traditional wood stove and that the owner gets about by poling his canoe in the ancient fashion. Even so, he can keep up with the latest news from Mexico City and the world.

A small child watches a dog across the street while both are watched by caged birds. This is one of the paved tic-tac-toe streets that cross-hatch the town. Something about the out-of-view dog fascinated the child because he barely noticed our presence. The caged birds are in the upper left of the photo. The humblest of Mexican homes will display plants and flowers, often with only a discarded plastic bucket or a coffee can for a pot.

Two boys share a snack in between rides on a new bicycle. This was one of the few wheeled vehicles we encountered on the island. The boys appear to be healthy and well-nourished and the bike indicates a certain level of prosperity.

Rough wooden pillars support awnings along another stretch of Calle Venicia.  Heading off into the woods to cut a tree for a support post is a lot cheaper than buying one that is commercially sawn and painted. Once again, rural Mexicans "make do."

Two fishing canoes lie engulfed in a sea of lirio. Both boats look well-used but serviceable. The lirio, otherwise known as water hyacinth, is not native to Mexico. It is an extremely fast-growing invasive species that was introduced to Mexico as an ornamental plant in the 19th Century. One plant can reproduce enough to cover an acre in a single growing season. They are very hard to eradicate and must be quickly removed before they take over the whole surface of a pond or lake. Next week, we'll take a look at the people who use these boats for fishing, transporting goods, or just getting about. We'll also meet some of the birds and other animals that make Mexcaltitán and its lagoon their home.

This completes Part 4 of my San Blas series. If you have enjoyed it, I hope you'll take a moment and leave a comment or question in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If no one has commented before you, it may say "no comments" below. Just click on that and the comments page will appear.

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Hasta luego, Jim