Monday, April 27, 2009

Lake Chapala's south shore treasures Part 2: Tuxcueca

Hilltop chapel overlooks the ancient village of Tuxcueca. Construction of the Capilla de Virgen de Guadalupe was begun in 1900 and completed several years later. Capilla means chapel in Spanish. According to Tony Burton, author of several excellent books on Western Mexico, the high hill on which the Capilla perches was once an island lying just off the south shore of Lake Chapala. Carole and I, joined by our friends Denis and Julika, visited Tuxcueca on the same day we stopped at the Hacienda San Francisco (see Part 1). For a map of the area we visited, click here.

Note to my viewers: In some places below, I mention that I have only limited information about a location or structure. Sometimes I am forced to make educated guesses. If you can help with background or details, feel free to use the comment section at the end, or contact me by my email listed in that section. 

The line between lake and shore has always been ambiguous at Lake Chapala. The lake is now relatively high, perhaps 75% of its historic capacity. What was recently dry land is now a watery slough. The town name Tuxcueca may have originally been Ylocuexcan. It means either "noise of rabbits" or "place of petticoats made of rabbit fur".


Little is known about Tuxcueca's earliest inhabitants. There is some conjecture that Toltecs, predecessors of the Aztecs, were once in the area. Some years before the Conquest began in 1521, the Purepecha king Tangaxoan from Michoacan invaded. Tangaxoan wanted the saltpeter deposits along the south shore of the Lake. Saltpeter, or salitre, was used as a food preservative, very important in cultures without refrigeration. Unfortunately for the Purepechans, the Lord of Colima, who may have been called Colimote, had a prior claim and defeated Tangaxoan in the Salitre War. In spite of the defeat, after 500 years Purepechans still maintain a presence in the area.

Templo de Apostle St. Bartholomew was built by the Spanish. The temple is the main church in Tuxcueca and stands beside the plaza. The town of Tuxcueca was officially founded by the Spanish in 1529, five years after the conquistador Captain Avalos came through and subjugated the Chicimeca indians who were living along the south shore. The town site was moved about 2 kilometers west to its present location in 1560.  

Only a shell remains of this old adobe house. The ruins have been prettified with various plants and flowers. Someone has set up a small shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, and especially of Mexico's indians. The Virgin became a compelling political symbol for the insurgents in the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821), hence the small Mexican flags. The adobe ruins guard at the entrance to the stairway up the hill to the Capilla.

Adobe ruins from the rear. I have no information about the original function of these ruins. They probably pre-date the Capilla on the hill behind, but that is a guess. Adobe is still used in houses and other structures in Mexico today. It is one of the world's oldest building materials, with a history of at least 4000 years. The Bible speaks of the Hebrews making mud bricks for the Pharoah of Egypt. Adobe is easily shaped from materials close at hand: clay, sand, straw, dung, and pebbles. In dry climates, it is extremely durable and its thick walls provide good insulation from heat or cold. The word "adobe" has come down from the early Egyptians with little change in pronunciation or meaning.

Stairway to Heaven. The stairs helped my photography because they afforded an increasingly expansive view of Tuxcueca and the surrounding area. At the top you can see an arched gate protecting the entrance to the grounds which form the summit of the knoll on which the Capilla sits. The people of Tuxcueca and the surrounding area use the Capilla for a variety of religious occasions. It is also a place where picnickers and lovers can enjoy a stunning 360 degree  view of the Lake and mountains.

The Capilla commands a view of the whole area. The War of Independence, the insurgency against French occupation in the 1860s, the 1910 Revolution, and the Cristero War in the 1920s all raged through the area.  Unfortunately, I have little specific information about how they affected Tuxcueca or the Capilla. However, as a former military officer, it is my opinion that control of these heights would have been important in controlling the south shore of the Lake as well as the road that extends from Tuxcueca into the mountains.

How the Capilla originally appeared. Someone set up this small plaster model of the Capilla in the cactus garden just outside the chapel door. The bell tower on the left side no longer exists, leaving only a broken stump. Given the Capilla's strategic position, the cause could have been battle damage, perhaps in the Revolution or the Cristero war. On the other hand, given the volcanism of the surrounding mountains, it could have been an earthquake. 

Cactus thrives on the Capilla grounds and on the slopes all around. The south side of the Lake is warmer and drier than the north shore. This may be the cause of the proliferation of cactus of all types. I had to step carefully while photographing the grounds, but still managed to acquire some impressive cuts and scratches.

Controlling the Lake’s shore. A battery of cannon situated here could have controlled a significant section of the lake shore, including the small harbor where present day Tuxcueca fishermen bring in their catch. The mountains on the far shore loom over Ajijic and Chapala.

Lunch at Mismaloya and the best view in the house.  We had worked up quite an appetite climbing up and down all those stairs at the Capilla. On Denis and Julika's recommendation, we decided to stop for lunch in a little town between Tuxcueca and Tizapan called Mismaloya. 

El Mirador Restaurant Familiar serves both meat and fish dishes and has a handful of American dishes as well as Mexican fare. The restaurant is easy to find, because it sits just off Highway 15 and overlooks Mismaloya and the Lake. It is open-air with a palapa (palm frond) roof and has a stunning view. El Mirador means, roughly, "the lookout". 

Mexicans eat late, so when we stopped at about noon, we were the only customers and could pick the table with the best view in the house. In the photo I am looking north by east, in the direction of Mezcala. The green vegetation on the Lake is reeds, indicating that the water is still pretty shallow out to that point. The reeds provide food and shelter to a myriad of waterfowl. 

This concludes my 2-part series on the treasures of Lake Chapala's south shore. I hope you have a chance to visit sometime. I have only covered a sample of what is in the trove, and I certainly plan to return in the near future.  

Hasta luego, Jim

 

 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lake Chapala's south shore treasures Part 1: Hacienda de San Francisco Javier


The cool shade of the Hacienda veranda was enticing on a hot afternoon. We knew virtually nothing about the ruined hacienda on our map when we visited Tizapan el Alto with our friends Denis and Julika. However, a later internet search yielded more--but sometimes contradictory--information. I'd like to offer special thanks to Tony Burton for his help in my research. Tony is the author of several excellent books about the Lake Chapala area. For a start, Tizapan's name means "white land rising", referring to the chalk deposits in the area. In 1524, Captain Alonso de Avalos subdued the Chichimeca indians then inhabiting the area. He was a relative of the Conqueror Hernan Cortes, who liked keeping things in the family. Avalos was granted huge estates as his reward. The Province of Avalos, part of the Kingdom of New Galicia, was named after him. In 1542, construction began on one of his many estates, the Hacienda de San Francisco Javier.

To reach Tizapan el Alto from the north shore area of Lake Chapala, one must drive west to Jocotopec, and then south and east along Highway 15. The one-hour drive runs along the south shore of the Lake and is very scenic. The Hacienda is located on the extreme west end of present-day Tizapan el Alto, near the Fracciamento San Francisco. Although it was marked on our map as a ruin, I found out later it is owned privately by the Garza family. The Garzas don't seem to understand the tourist gold mine they possess. There are no facilities for tourists, and no informational signs or materials. A young Mexican man and his family inhabit the ruined main house. He spoke no English and my Spanish is still poor, but I was able to elicit permission for us to wander about as we liked. No fee was requested, but I gave him 10 pesos for his trouble.

A giant grindstone dominates the porch. The square hole in the middle would have held the drive shaft as it turned the wheel and ground the corn the indians would bring in from the fields. No doubt the indians were lucky to walk away with any significant portion of the product of their labors. The hacienda system was not set up for charitable purposes. In the early days, the indians were enslaved to work the fields and the various industries. The word hacienda means "a place where something is made or done". Haciendas were self- contained enterprises whose purpose was to enrich the Patron.

A Spanish Patron lived in relative luxury. With slave labor, it becomes affordable to install lovely touches such as the graceful arches and patterned tile floors of the main veranda. The Avalos family prospered for many generations while they enjoyed the fruits of Hacienda San Francisco. They increased their holdings in New Galicia through grants from successive Spanish Viceroys in 1567, 1591, 1593, and 1601.

The eastern end of the veranda was more roughly made. The floor is not patterned tile, but cobblestone and the doors and windows have a more utilitarian appearance. These rooms may have been offices or small workshops. Since the Hacienda functioned for almost 500 years, and underwent many changes during that time, it is difficult to say what may have happened in any particular room or building. Today, the rooms on the left are used to store equipment for the horses that are still stabled on the property. Chickens wander about at will.

Well-maintained equipment shows this is still a working ranch. The "trees" hanging from hooks on the ceiling of this stone and brick room are looped with lariats and other belts and straps used by horsemen. While I took photos, a large black chicken stalked me, angrily clucking at my invasion of her turf.

Beautifully worked wood and leather saddles show pride of ownership. These were two of several saddles lined up on a rail along the wall. All the Mexican cowboys I have encountered around the Lake seem to take great pride in the appearance of their horses and equipment.

Bridles hung in rows on the back wall. Everything was neat, clean, and orderly, in contrast to the shabby condition of the other buildings on the hacienda.

Sleek and well groomed, this horse patiently waited for its rider. We encountered a number of horses in equally good condition on the Hacienda grounds. They were remarkably friendly when approached, a indication that they have been treated well by their owners.

A stately entrance to a crumbling building. This may have been one of the structures that originally had a more august function. Presently it is a combined stable and chicken coop. In the early part of the 1600's the Hacienda de San Francisco Javier passed into the hands of Don Joaquin Fermin Echauri, from Tudela, Spain. Echuari acquired many other properties in the area. He was often entangled in legal disputes at the Royal Audiencia in Mexico city. Eventually, the Echuari family became one of the richest in all of Nueva Galicia. One source indicates that in 1757, the Hacienda was producing wheat and corn, operating a "pan mill" and a sugar mill, and was breeding cattle, mules, and horses. The labor for all this came from the indians, of course. No longer slaves, they were bound to the land by debts incurred at the Hacienda store. Since a hacienda patron controlled all the records of debt, and the indians were virtually all illiterate, there was no way to ever pay off the debt. The centuries of servitude rolled quietly by.

Ancient adobe crumbles in the warm afternoon sun. This may be one of the older buildings on the property. Brick, a more durable but more expensive construction material, was introduced later. I love how adobe ages into soft curves and how--being essentially dirt, pebbles, and straw--it gradually melts back into the earth where it originated. Notice how the cactus plant has grown out of the side of one of the walls.

A stately two-story building graced the north side of the complex. Two horses wandered freely in the ruins. The mix of brick and rough stone in the construction puzzled me. Perhaps brick was so expensive that it could only be used on some parts. Plaster would have covered up a multitude of sins in construction. The Echuari family held on to the Hacienda de San Francisco for almost 250 years, but the fortunes of the family gradually declined. One reason for the decline was the destruction and killing in the Tizapan el Alto area during the War of Independence. However, one source comments that the last Echuari, Dona Gertrudis, "lacked the administrative skills of her ancestors".

An oval window stares out like the empty eye-socket of a skull. There were several oval windows of various sizes within this extensive ruin. Some of the original plaster still covers the wall you can see on the right. In 1810, the War of Independence broke out. It did not touch Tizapan el Alto or the Hacienda at first, but there was much sympathy for the insurgent cause. The indians hated the Spanish as the oppressors at the top of the heap. The hacienda owners were divided in their sympathies. On the one hand, they didn't want to do anything to endanger their own position or properties. On the other, unless they were first generation Spanish, i.e. born in Spain, they were second-class citizens in Nueva Galicia and considered socially inferior no matter what their wealth and accomplishments. Tizapan el Alto and its Hacienda threw their support to the insurgents, who had created a fortress on the island of Mezcala across the Lake. Local heros of the struggle on the south shore were J. Encarnacion Rosas and Jose Santana who organized the indians to support Mezcala and fight the Spanish.

These buildings were probably related to the sugar mill. Behind the buildings you can see the tall smoke stack used in the sugar mill. The support for the insurgents at Mezcala carried a price. At one point, Spanish Lt. Angel Linares invaded Tizapan el Alto and massacred the population and burned portions of the Hacienda. The few survivors fled to the Sierra del Tigre mountains. Lt. Linares got his comeuppance, however. He arrogantly approached Mezcala by canoe with an insufficient force and was captured. He was duly tried, brought back to the ruins of Tizapan el Alto and hanged in the square. To his body was pinned a sign: "where he killed, he died". Very probably, the destruction or dispersal of the working population, even more than the destruction of Hacienda properties, triggered the beginning of a long decline.

Rider out of the past. While we were walking along the main street in the Hacienda, a cowboy in full regalia came galloping through the main entrance and down the street, almost as if on cue. I was instantly reminded of various Clint Eastwood movies of the "Fistful of Dollars" series, which were full of similarly crumbling Mexican haciendas. In 1853, Dona Gertrudis died and the Hacienda passed to Don Felipe Macias and his family. The area was plagued with bandits and the property further suffered as the indians drifted out of the control of hacienda owners across the country. When Porfirio Diaz became Mexico's President, effectively its dictator, he decreed that the hacienda owners should keep the peace with "blood and fire" using what one source called the "White Guards". These were apparently private armies of thugs employed by the haciendados to bring the indians back under their control. The source says that "the Mexicans had left the subjugation of the Spanish but had fallen back into another kind of slavery as laborers who were nothing but slaves to the gentlemen ranchers".

The end of the line. Visitors to the Hacienda pass through this impressive arch. One source claimed that the arch was built in the 1500's as part of an aqueduct system to bring water to the property. Tony Burton is doubtful of this story. The last chapter of the Hacienda story begins with the end of the Diaz dictatorship, and the beginning of the Revolution in 1910. Little changed for the first five years of the Revolution, then in 1915, General Francisco Murguia plundered Tizapan el Alto and burned the barns of the Hacienda. He drafted the peons, gave them rifles, and marched them as cannon fodder against the forces of General Alvaro Obregon at Ocotlan, across the lake. The peons' lack of experience led to a slaughter.

However, the local people benefited from a series of land reforms between 1919 and 1937 which broke up the Hacienda and redistributed the land. The source noted that it may have been a mistake to let the Hacienda facilities fall into ruin as a result of the land reform, because the mills on the property, which manufactured sugar, alcohol, soap, flour, and tanned leather, represented the only industry in the area. Consequently, for the last 60 years, there has been little industrial activity creating jobs for local people. Instead, they have supported themselves by farming and fishing. In recent years, NAFTA has led to large-scale dumping of corn and other agricultural products in Mexico by American agribusiness, and upstream factory pollution has damaged the fishing. Many people have migrated across the border to the US to survive.

This concludes my posting on the south shore's Hacienda de San Francisco Javier. I found the Hacienda visit romantic, melancholy, and mysterious. It is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area, particularly now that you are armed with some knowledge of its history.

Hasta luego! Jim

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A trek over the mountains: Las Trojes to San Juan Cosala

The view from the top. In the Fall of 2008, a group of us decided to attempt one of the more challenging but spectacular hiking trails in the mountains rimming the north side of Lake Chapala. The photo above was shot from the 8000 foot crest of the main ridge which runs west from Chapala about 20 miles to Jocotopec, the far end of the Lake. In the foreground you can see the rugged, heavily-wooded arroyos that drain into the lake. In the middle-ground is Ajijic, then San Antonio Tlaycapan, Mirasol, Riberas, and finally the small volcanic knobs which conceal Chapala, just beyond. The Lake itself, steel gray and shimmering, stretches off 30 miles into the east, beyond the powers of the naked eye. For a map of this area, click here.

The hiking crew. We were a mixed bunch, with more women than is usually the case for the Tuesday morning group with whom I normally hike. All the men were regular hikers and had taken this trail at least once before. Although all the women were physically strong, none of them had previously done any significant hiking in these mountains. We would all need our strength because this trail is not only long, but is rugged and sometimes very steep. I had hiked the trail once before, in August of 2007. The altitude and heat nearly did me in. However, it was much cooler in the Fall of '08, and by then I was a much stronger hiker. Shown above (L. to R.) are Allie, Chris, Norm, Tom, Emma, Lil, Deb, and Bob (seated).

The ridge looked deceptively close from the trailhead. You can see the 8000 foot ridge in the background. The trail to it rises steadily up the slope through pastures and past stock ponds. Although the climb from this side is not particularly steep, you start from a much higher elevation than on the Lake side, so the effort required can be deceiving. In order to reach the trailhead, we had to take two buses, one to Jocotopec at the west end of the Lake, and a second from there around behind the main ridge and up a high valley to the tiny hamlet of Las Trojes. The first bus was comfortable, clean and well-maintained. The second was one of Mexico's famous "chicken buses". The rule, apparently, is that you can bring on any livestock that is small enough to sit on your lap. As I recall, we weren't accompanied by any squawkers, cluckers, or squealers this time, but the bus showed evidence of their previous passage.

A lush mountain valley. About 1000 feet higher than Ajijic, the valley we traversed to Las Trojes was lush with ripening crops and dappled everywhere with wildflowers. Looming in the distance to the north is Cerro Viejo, a peak that tops another even higher ridge than the one we will climb. Cerro Viejo rises to 9711 feet (2960 meters).  The only peak in the area that is higher is Nevado de Colima volcano, which we climbed later that Fall.

Kapok tree blooms beside the trail. Kapok can be found through out the mountains around Lake Chapala. The bloom on this one had been munched on a bit by critters but was still strikingly beautiful against the deep green of the Kapok's leaves. Kapok is a truly extraordinary plant. The leaves are often gone long before the flowers, leaving a perfectly bare tree with large flowers at the ends of the branches in full bloom. The ancient Mayas considered the tree holy, calling it Yaaxche. They believed it to be the World Tree; the only tree capable of reaching the heavens. Kapok produces balsa wood, used by model makers, aircraft manufacturers, and builders of supertankers. The cotton-like substance surrounding the seeds was used in WWII for life jackets because the Kapok could support 30 times its weight in water. The Kapok cotton has also been used to stuff baseballs, while the oil from the seeds is not only edible, but is used for soap and cattle feed. 

The "McDonald's  flower". Marigold or Tagetes we  found growing wild along the trail. My friend Tom calls them the McDonald's flower because of the distinctive "M" on each petal. Marigolds are native to Mexico and are considered a symbol of death. They are used extensively in the Day of the Dead altars and ceremonies. I was able to find the formal identity of the flower with the help of my Spanish teacher Joel Gomez. In addition I got the help of Ron Parsons who has an excellent website with beautiful pictures of Mexican wildflowers

Millipede crawls across the rocky trail. This little millipede was lucky he didn't get tromped by all the gringo hikers going by. I have often been puzzled by the apparent lack of animals any larger than squirrels in Lake Chapala's mountains. The mountains certainly seem to be ideal habitat for deer. When I mentioned this to a Mexican friend, he said "when a population of game animals exists side-by-side with a low-income population of humans for whom meat is a luxury, the game doesn't last long." Given the ruggedness of the mountains, I thought surely the game could find places to hide. Then I remembered that water sources are extremely limited in these mountains. You wouldn't really have to hunt. Just hang out by the waterholes and the game will come to you.

Chris prepares to enter the oak forest. An interesting feature of these mountains is the fringe of oak forests topping the ridges. After fighting our way up through the heavy undergrowth on the lower slopes, we suddenly emerged into a shady oak forest with very little underbrush. The area almost has a park-like feel to it. The lack of undergrowth may have something to do with  the acidity of the oak leaves and acorns which cover the ground. The oaks don't seem to thrive at lower altitudes than the 7500-8000 foot level. On a hot day, the cool, open, airy shade of the oaks is a welcome change.

Paintbrush or Castilleja. These wildflowers are widespread throughout the western North America (for the benefit of my Canadian and US viewers, Mexico is part of North America, not Central or South). The genus Castilleja is very large, and neither Ron nor Joel was sure which kind this was. Thanks anyway, guys! The genus was named after a Spanish botonist named Domingo Castilleja in the 1700's. 

Huge mushrooms dotted the forest floor. Nestled in the oak leaves we found large mushrooms, including this very striking orange one. None of us were mushroom experts, so we were not tempted to try a taste.

Agave exists side-by-side with oaks and pines. This large, wild agave is a relative of the plant from which tequila is produced. I found it on the trail that runs  along the very crest of the ridge. This trail stretches all the way from Chapala to Jocotopec, although some areas are pretty overgrown during the rainy season.

Chris and Lil look east along the ridge crest. The ridge is fairly narrow in some places, creating a knife-edge effect with steep drops on both sides. You can see the oaks which line the very crest. Chris and Lil are sitting on an outcrop of rock that is part of a dramatic overlook facing the Lake. The slope of the ridge facing the Lake is blanketed with thick, jungly vegetation.

San Juan Cosala from the ridge overlook. The ground dropped off precipitously below us. Rugged fingers of the ridge, separated by deep arroyos, extend down to the town of San Juan Cosala. Immediately below the ridge lies the Racquet Club, a wealthy suburb of the small Mexican village which lines the water's edge. San Juan Cosala is a very old village, mentioned in reports by Franciscan friars who visited the area about 1530*. Presumably the Coco indians had been dwelling there from a far earlier date. One of the attractions to the early indians was a system of hot springs. The springs are still utilized by locals and tourists. According to the Franciscans, when the population of San Juan grew too large, the Cocos resettled themselves in what became the Lakeside towns of Jocotopec and Ajijic. 

*Tony Burton, "Lake Chapala through the ages", Sombrero Books, 2008

Salvia, also known as sage. Once again Joel and Ron came to my rescue. I was  concerned at first because one of them called it Salvia and the other Sage, but when I googled it,  I found that both were names for the same plant. Salvia is extremely widespread, with species found not only in Mexico, but in China and Africa. Salvias are members  of the mint family and some kinds are used in tea. The plant has been mentioned as early as the 1st Century AD by the Roman Pliny the Elder.

The Four Musketeers. (L. to R.) Lil, Allie, Emma, and Deb. The men on the hike dubbed our less-experienced but still game hiking partners "The Four Musketeers".  They more than held their own throughout the hike, and their good spirits and energy raised ours. Deb has returned to the US, and Emma was in New Zealand the last I heard, but Allie and Lil still live in Ajijic. 

Shrines with tall white crosses dot the ridges of the mountains. These shrines form an important part of the local Mexican religious traditions. On various days important to Catholics, they climb the long steep trails to decorate the crosses with flowers and streamers and leave burning candles and other offerings at the  base. This shrine marked the intersection of the ridge trail with the main trail down into San Juan Cosala. It was time to begin the long descent.

Lil and Bob pick their way along the rocky trail. The trail was very rocky, and sometimes tangled with vines or other obstructions. A good hiking stick to maintain balance and close attention were vital for safety on the trail down. In many places, the edge of the narrow trail dropped off into 30 feet or more of empty space. A missed step could create a serious problem.

The "who knows?" flower. Neither Joel nor Ron was able to identify this beauty. It grew in clumps on a large shrub beside the trail and its deep glowing yellow was striking. I would appreciate anyone who can enlighten me (and Ron and Joel) as to the name. You can leave your entry for the "who knows?" contest in the comments section below.

Taking a breather. Norm and Allie stopped part way down to rest and enjoy the spectacular view. I later kidded Norm about his vaguely Napoleonic stance. Regular stops are important for safety because more people get hurt coming down from a mountain than going up. When one is tired and thinking about the cold beer at the bottom, it is easy to make a mistake.

The way down. This  shot gives a good  example of the narrow and very rocky trails one finds in these mountains. In the summer months, when the rains have spurred an explosion of vegetation, the trail can virtually disappear. This requires a great deal of "bushwhacking" and even greater care in walking because the lack of visibility sometimes hides sudden drops.

Making a new friend. Finally, we emerged from the last arroyo onto a broad grassy plateau. Almost at once, we encountered a couple of very friendly burros. Actually they responded to us much more like lost puppies, immediately approaching us when we spoke to them. Allie found she had a few goodies left from the hike and the burros were delighted to try them out. They seemed very happy to be petted and stroked, and even attempted to follow us when we turned to leave. I guess things had been a little slow lately in the burro world. 

Agave, the  tequila type. Agave fields are ubiquitous in Jalisco. They are even planted on remote ridges and mountainsides reachable only by foot or horseback. Planting this crop is a leap of faith because it can take several years for the plant to mature. The price and supply of tequila may have altered drastically from when the field was planted. Fortunately, Mexicans seem to have an inexhaustible thirst for tequila, and there is an unbelievable variety.

The reward of the trek. This small tienda sold just what the doctor ordered: a large supply of ice-cold beer. The overhead sign for Chinese beer is evidence that globalization has reached even this small shop in an ancient indian village. 

This completes my posting on the hike from Las Trojes to San Juan Cosala. Feel free to comment in the section below, or drop me an email.