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


  1. Fascinating history of a very unusual pueblito. Thanks, Jim!

  2. Very interesting post about a corner of Mexico that I have never visited.

  3. I remember that a few years ago my Mexican Civilization professor lectured about the Aztec people's origin, and shared a mystical story about this special place. What a great adventure you had in Aztlan! Thanks for sharing.


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