The Curse of the Guachimontones

The ‘Los Guachimontones’ (wha-tchi-mon-tones) and I have a bit of a checkered past. I have attempted to visit them on at least a half-dozen occasions before I finally found success. Sometimes while in Guadalajara for business I would simply run out of time to see them. Once I tried to see them only to have the transmission on my relatively new and reliable car breakdown. Then during Semana Santa, bound and determined, I left Puerto Vallarta with more than twelve hours to make the four-hour journey, only to arrive at the gates well past closing and no amount of pleading or offering of “donations” was going to get me past the gatekeepers.  This is more a statement on the craziness of choosing to drive anywhere in Mexico during the holy week then it is of the policies of the UNESCO heritage site, but none the less I felt like my attempts to visit Los Guachimontones were being thwarted by powers beyond my control.

Not to be denied, rising early and rousing my son and amateur archaeologist, we headed north from Ajijic towards Guadalajara, then west to the lakefront town of Teuchitlán, which was in the midst of a fiesta judging by all the streamers and the carnival rides in the plaza. The Los Guachimontones sits about a kilometer outside of the town plaza. As we drove up to the parking lot, we passed by a tour bus struggling to make its way down the curvy, narrow road, and I was concerned about the site being overflowing with visitors but knew there was hope that we would finally see these 3500-year-old pyramids.

We found a few cars in the lot, and after purchasing a bottle of water for the ten-minute hike to the site, we headed out. As we climbed up the paved path, we met a couple from Guadalajara struggling to ride their bicycles while enjoying a can of Estrella while trying to take a photo of themselves. My son offered to snap the picture of them, and they were happy to tell us that this was their tenth visit to Los Guachimontones, and they often come just to have a picnic among the ruins.

Leaving the happy couple, we made our way to the first smaller pyramid which is more of a burial mound, and I could see the kid was a little disappointed, however, that quickly changed when we caught our first glimpse of the 60-foot main pyramid and the rest of the “town.”

Entering into the site, we came across the ball field that at one time was the largest in Mesoamerica at 110 meters long. The game, ullamaliztli, was played with a heavy round stone covered in natural rubber which players could hit with their hips. All the male skeletons found at the Teuchitlán site had broken hips. The game was played from sun up to sun down and often used as a way to settle political disputes. At the end of the day, the captain of the winning team would receive the great honor of losing his life as a sacrificial offering.

Leaving the court with the thought that maybe second best was ok, we caught sight of the main pyramid.

We walked in a clockwise motion around the main pyramid, down the boulevards, until we had circled the entire site. I began to notice the boy pushing and prodding on various rocks, so I asked what he was doing. “Looking for hidden passageways, obviously” was his answer, indicating that I was an idiot for not thinking of it first.

The Los Guachimontones site was only really discovered by the archaeology community recently and the story of how Phil Weigand and his wife, art historian Celia García de Weigand made the ruins of Guachimontones their life work is legendary now. In 1963, Celia and Phil were on vacation in the Tequila Valley near the small town of Teuchitlán. During the trip, she discovered many large obsidian blades at the bottom of a natural swimming hole. (Obsidian was highly valued in pre-metal cultures for its ability to hold razor-sharp edges.) The find intrigued Phil, then an archaeology field assistant in Zacatecas. Together the couple located a vast obsidian workshop, where millions of blades and sharp pieces of rock were piled up to three feet deep across two acres at the foot of the extinct Tequila volcano.

Archaeologists already knew of the region’s ancient shaft tombs. Dating to the first centuries A.D., these tombs had small burial chambers at the bottom of vertical cuts up to 60 feet deep. Many had already been plundered of their valuables, including nearly life-size seated figures, at the beginning of the twentieth century. But despite the sophistication of the tombs and figures, the area was still widely considered a cultural backwater compared to Mexico’s Central Valley and the Yucatán. In archaeological terms, the tombs existed in a vacuum. Virtually nothing was known about the people who made them.

“We planned to spend a summer, or at most two,” Phil says of their initial project in the valley. That changed when they discovered remnants of large, round buildings scattered around the region. Nothing like them had ever been seen before in Mexico–or anywhere else.

During their first field season in 1970, the Weigands examined aerial photos of the valley. “We found hundreds of buildings shaped like concentric circles, mostly around the volcano,” Phil says. “They were everywhere!”

A 217-acre site above the town of Teuchitlán called Los Guachimontones was especially interesting. After struggling up the side of the volcano, Phil recalls, “We finally reached a circular compound whose beauty, symmetry and monumentality far exceeded the expectations we had formed from the aerial photographs.” Impressive circular structures covered with vegetation sat on a natural platform overlooking a vast, lush valley. Though local farmers knew of the site, it was virtually unknown to the outside world, archaeologists included.

The Weigands had discovered a new civilization, one to which they devoted the next 30 years of their lives.

What they had found was a ceremonial center, the heart of what the Weigands named the Teuchitlán tradition. This complex society, responsible for the area’s shaft tombs, reached its peak between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350, when more than 50,000 people may have lived within 15 miles of the Tequila volcano. At its height, the Teuchitlán tradition was the cultural center of West Mexico, with unique, complex architecture and a trade network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona.

The boy and I spent some hours exploring the ruins, and in that time we rarely spoke, only to answer his questions, “What God did they worship here?” “Mainly a god named Ehecatl”  “Was there lots of bloody sacrifice like with the Aztecs?” “Not really, Ehecatl was a peaceful god, mostly they burned corn to him” I could tell that this answer didn’t satiate his video game induced ADD, so I told him about the Voladores and how each one of the round pyramids once had a pole in the center of it and the “birdmen” would tie themselves to these poles and fly around in honor of Ehecatl the god of wind. We had seen the birdmen of Veracruz ceremony before, and the thought of a man flying around the top of the sixty-foot pyramid seemed to appease his need for action and the lack of sacrifices.

On our return to the car, we reflected on the fact that we had enjoyed the site almost exclusively to ourselves and that I had finally made it to Los Guachimontones without incident…. or so I thought.

Returning to the town of Teuchitlán for a much-deserved Tecate (and limonada for the kid) we watched the final of the Euro champions’ league in a packed cantina of mostly Chelsea fans. When it was discovered that I was cheering for Bayern Munich the good-natured teasing began…. of course, the curse wouldn’t have been complete without my team losing heartbreakingly in penalty shots and the entire bar exploding in celebration with many jubilant smirks directed towards me.

By Joel Hansen
Originally published in Mexi-Go! Magazine