I recently spent a night at the beautiful crater lake of Santa María del Oro. Along the way, I convinced my fellow travelers that we should stop at the archaeological site of Ixtlán del Río, which is located 100 kilometers northwest of Guadalajara in the state of Nayarit, and is conveniently situated just off Highway 15, the toll road to Puerto Vallarta and Tepic.
When I first laid eyes on this site in the 1980s, I could see it must have been important in its day. There seemed to be building foundations and ruins everywhere, but, unfortunately, there were no signs, no maps, no brochures and no guide on hand to explain a thing.
The most curious ruin at Ixtlán was an impressive construction I now understand is called The Quetzalcoatl Temple: a big, beautifully designed, round building surrounded by a parapet perforated with what looked to me like giant-sized arrow slits in the shape of Greek crosses. If this building had a roof, perhaps these openings were simply windows – curious ones, to be sure – to let in light.
Most pre-Hispanic monuments in Mexico are rectangular, with the exception of the Guachimontones or circular pyramids of the Teuchitlán Tradition. This building at Ixtlán, however, looked nothing like a Guachimontón. So what was it?
We tourists who visit Ixtlán are only allowed into a space covering eight hectares, which to me seemed crowded with ruins. The full size of this site is much bigger, covering 50 hectares and filled with more than 90 structures, most of them arranged around plazas. These dusty walls cry out: “We have a story to tell!”
It seems that story begins with a few references by 17th century writers but only attracted attention in the late 1800s when Ixtlán’s parish priest, Juan Navarro, dug a trench right through the middle of the round structure. This was reported by one León Diguet in a Guadalajara newspaper in 1899, “concluding that the mound was a temple or shrine destroyed during the Spanish Conquest.” Carl Lumholtz also refers to Navarro’s excavations in his famous book “Unknown Mexico.”
In 1946, the round structure is “discovered” again by anthropologist José Corona Núñez, a most interesting man who started his career first as a hermit, then as an Augustinian friar and who, having been unfrocked, finally went on to become the head of the Anthropology Department of the University of Michoacán.
Having read about these past studies, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on in Ixtlán before the Spaniards came along, so I called up archaeologist Peter Jiménez, who has spent years working on the now famous ruins of La Quemada and Teúl in Zacatecas.
“This is a fascinating place, a vital site,” Jiménez told me. “Ceramics that were found in Ixtlán in the 1940s by Núñez show that it was a major hub tying into networks linking the Pacific Coast to the Chapala Basin and all the way from Chapala to Michoacán and on into Tula. They’ve done numerous excavations to open the site up, so now we can see a lot of buildings, but what we archaeologists need are ceramic descriptions and chronology in a great amount, so we can get more juice out of the site. Itxlán is the key for understanding the ties between west Mexico and central Mexico.”
The word Ixtlán means “place where you find plenty of obsidian.” This is not surprising considering that Ixtlán is located only a few kilometers away from the massive Ceboruco Volcano.
Jiménez continued: “In the year 920, Ceboruco underwent a Plinian explosion (named after the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii in 79, as recorded by Roman author Pliny the Younger). There was a town only four kilometers from the mouth of the volcano and it was destroyed. The people living in Ixtlán witnessed the whole thing. They were seeing their neighbors being blown apart by the strongest explosion in Mexico within the last 12,000 years and at the end, the whole area was covered in white ash, which is now called the Jala Formation. The town, Ahuacatlán, was huge and it was completely destroyed.”
During my recent visit to the Ixtlán archaeological site –called Los Toriles by locals – I was happy to see great improvements of all kinds. Big signs have been put up explaining everything in Spanish, English and Náhuatl. A well-made replica of an ancient shaft tomb has been built and a fine selection of truly curious figurines are on display along a walkway that could be described as an “outdoor museum.” The site now has a parking lot and restrooms, and you can even get a guide to explain things (in Spanish). Just call Rubén Aguiar Burciaga at 324-120- 2978 (cel.).
The archaeological site’s winter schedule is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Mondays. The entry fee for adults is 55 pesos. They will waive this fee if you show them an INAPAM card. I don’t have this card, but despite all my attempts to convince them I was 29, they finally decided to consider me a senior citizen.
How to get there
The “libre” Highway 15 passes right in front of the archaeological site. To get there from the toll road, just take the Ixtlán exit and then ask Google Maps to take you to “Los Toriles, Nayarit.” Driving time from either Guadalajara or Ajijic is about two hours.
Atequiza to recreate Hidalgo’s visit
Barely two months into the popular revolt that led to Mexico’s Independence, Padre Miguel Hidalgo was en route to Guadalajara with a band of 7,000 rebel fighters.
On November 24, 1810, he halted the insurgent troops at the village church in Atotonilquillo for rest and spiritual revival before proceeding a short distance to the prosperous Hacienda de Atequiza where they resupplied provisions and camped out overnight. Inhabitants of the two towns will reenact this historical interlude with the Caminata de la Ruta de Hidalgo Saturday, November 24. Participants dressed in period outfits will meet at the ruined Templo de San Gaspar in Atotonilquillo, 7 p.m., before marching to nearby Atequiza. Once there, they will recreate the atmosphere of Hidalgo’s visit, lighting up bonfires at 9 p.m. to brew vats of coffee and cinnamon tea and toast handmade tortillas that will be given out to visitors as long as the supply lasts. A choral group will round out the commemorative festivity.