travelog 83


After an adventurous trip through the Sierra de los Huicholes we treat ourselves and our Swiss visitors to a tranquil day at the sea. Not far from Santiago Ixcuintla, Nayarit, lies the small island of Mexcaltitan with its Pueblo Magico of the same name. Past sugar cane fields, banana and papaya plantations, fields with young tobacco plants, and through sleepy villages where one can buy everything for a day at the beach, we drive to the turn-off to the embarcadero La Batanga. Soon the road leads along canals and waterways with fishing boats and thousands of water birds until we reach the jetty for Mexcaltitan. The parking lot is still empty early this Sunday morning. The air is wonderfully clear and the temperature pleasantly cool. An older, efficient Mexican directs us to a parking space close to his hut where he will keep an eye on our car - for a small contribution, of course, as we know from experience. We pack our bits and pieces and lock the car. A small fleet of narrow boats awaits us at the pier. The boatsmen doze in hammocks in the shade or talk about everything under the sun, waiting patiently for the first customers.

The 20 minute boat ride is simply beautiful. On broad waterways, the boat glides through thick mangrove swamps. Groups of small white egrets bask in the sun atop huge tree skeletons. Motionless, large gray herons stand waiting for swimming prey in the murky water. There are colorful ducks, black and white grebes, cormorants, pink ibis, white and gray pelicans, to mention only a few of the many birds we can identify. From time to time another boat passes, transporting people and all kinds of goods to and from the island. Fishermen control their nets. Soon the canals widen and we can spot the round outline of Mexcaltitan on the horizon. Our skipper lands safely at the jetty and we're off on our own. We stroll along the main street, which more closely resembles a narrow alley between colorful houses, to the main square.

Mexcaltitan, also called the Venice of Mexico, is commonly believed to be the cradle of Mexico. It's assumed that the small island is the mythical Aztlan, the place from which the Mexicas (or Aztecs) left around 1091 AD for their epic journey to Tenochtitlan. Some aspects seem to support this theory, but scientists and archaeologists are still in disagreement. Moctezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs, told Hernan Cortes that his ancestors came from a place very far away somewhere to the northwest of Tenochtitlan. The spelling common to Mexcaltitan and Mexica doesn't seem to be pure coincidence. The name Aztlan, others argue, probably has its origin in Aztatlan which means "Place of the Herons". Various species of these birds can be seen in large numbers around Mexcaltitan. Moreover, a map of New Spain from 1579 shows an "Aztlan" exactly where Mexcaltitan is today. There are more arguments, but the most compelling is perhaps the shape of Mexcaltitan. It looks like a miniature Tenochtitlan where the streets leave the main square north-south and east-west, dividing the island into four neighborhoods.

Mexcaltitan is quickly explored on foot. In fact, there's no other way to view the island since it's car free. The island only measures 1000m (0.62 miles) in circumference. 400m (0.25 miles) from north to south and 350m (0.22 miles) from east to west. The streets along the colorfully painted houses are always lined by raised sidewalks because the island easily floods during the rainy season. When we arrive at the main square the first souvenir stalls are being set up. Lotti and Maggie purchase some cute necklaces made from shells. Whatever else is sold here is the usual kitsch a la Mexcaltitan. A crucified Christ made from shells, pens adorned with feathers, painted plates for the collection on the living room wall, the Virgin of Guadalupe watching over the island, little dolls in bright dresses, colorfully embroidered napkins, coffee mugs in the shape of a full breast are available; everything quite tasteless. Leisurely we stroll through the streets and catch glimpses into dark rooms and green courtyards. The houses are pretty small and obviously inhabited by large families. Clean and folded clothes are stored on top of chairs for lack of a wardrobe, or the space for one. Flopped into the chair and on top of the clothes is a young man, because there are not many other possibilities to sit. Often, the walls are over-ornate with collections of brightly painted plates, pictures of saints and family photos. Knick-knacks have accumulated on the only china cupboard in the living room. Almost every household is selling something; included are cold soft drinks, sweets, tamales with shrimp stuffing, fried fish, ice cold beer, and much more.

Soon we reach the other side of the island and touch water again. Herons, egrets, cormorants and pelicans bask in the sun on sandbanks. A pile of garbage burns in a yard. A boat approaches from the opposite shore, punted with an oar by a fishermen with skin tanned by wind and sun. Small silvery fish drying on wooden frames sparkle in front of some houses. Outside a restaurant these very fish are being grilled over a fire, then wrapped in brown paper by the dozen, and sold to hungry tourists. We can do without buying some of these because we know that this species searches for food on the bottom of the shallow lagoon and in doing so becomes a predestined 'garbage can' of civilization. We're pretty sure that the sewage of this small community is disposed of directly into the lagoon. At this corner of the island is the only hotel, an airy and clean looking place with a beautiful terrace and a view over the lagoon. In front of a house with a small garden a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe is almost grown over by a prickly opuntia. Bright pink bougainvilleas climb up into purple flowering jacaranda trees. The little houses are painted in pleasant pastel colors. The entire island explodes with colors and smells.

In a restaurant on the main square where only the loud pop music from a stereo disturbs the quiet, we refresh ourselves with a cinnamony coffee. After mass, the locals meet outside the church under the shady trees to exchange the latest gossip and the newest news. Many things can't have happened since yesterday though. Life flows unhurriedly and certainly stress rarely comes up. Slowly, the first tourists appear on the scene. All the souvenir stalls are now set up. Outside of restaurants the waitresses recite the menu. We walk a second round through the last quarter of the island and, amazingly, discover two little streets we haven't seen before.

After a few hours on Mexcaltitan island, we have had enough of playing tourists. The same skipper who shipped us to the island is waiting at the jetty. Again, the boat ride through the mangrove swamps with its many water birds is an experience on its own, alone worth the visit to Mexcaltitan.

To round off our visit to the Pacific, we drive back to Santiago Ixcuintla. At the entrance to the city we stop at the "Centro Cultural Huichol" where a little girl finally opens the door after an eternity of knocking. Huichol arts and crafts are displayed in various rooms. The famous yarn paintings hang on the walls. A huge number of carved wooden animals adorned with bright beads makes the choice difficult. Ceremonial hats, purses, masks, and dresses are also sold. Other favorite presents are the pretty necklaces, bracelets and earrings, all made from colorful glass beads. The shape of the peyote (Lophophora williamsii) and corn plants with cobs is very obvious in the Huichol art and can be recognized in jewelry, yarn paintings and dresses. After a great deal of discussion we have the vendor and caretaker convinced that we would like to see the Xoloitzcuintli, a species of hairless dog. The Aztecs raised this breed for their tasty meat. First, the woman sends her two little sons up to the roof but they have little success. Finally we are allowed to climb up a spiral staircase to the rooftop terrace. The dark skinned dog tries to hide. It is obviously not very nicely treated by its owners, particularly their kids. Only after a great deal of patient persuasion we can approach the frightened dog and pet her. In the end she has so much trust in us that she would love to come home with us.

Now we drive along the coast to San Blas and on to Playa Platanitos. We find accommodation for a couple of days in the only hotel, one that surely has seen better days but has a beautiful terrace with views of the ocean and the sunset. On foot it's not far to the small bay with its many beach restaurants with their palm frond thatched roofs. The water is pleasantly warm. We make ourselves at home at one of the restaurants, observe the pelicans flying in single line just above the surface of the water, fend off jewelry and hammock vendors, and laze about to our heart's content. When a feeling of hunger arises, one orders a cold beer and empanadas de camaron or a couple of tostadas de ceviche. If one is really hungry, one can choose a fish and the BBQ chef who will prepare it for you. Pescado zarandeado is the specialty. The best fish for this delicacy is a huachinango, a Red Snapper. The chef skillfully cuts the fish and folds it open like a butterfly. He marinates the fish and grills it over the fire. Then the delicacy is arranged and served on a large tray with salad, beans, rice, lime wedges and hot salsa. With fork and hands one picks the best and most tender pieces from the bones. With a little luck the only background music is the sound of the sea and not the loud bum-bum music from the jukebox. Then we climb up to our hotel, sit on the terrace and drink tequila, toasting another magnificent day.

March 2008

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen