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Monday, May 28, 2018

Exploring Little-Known Petroglyphs Off the Beaten Path in Nayarit, Mexico

"On this long volcanic rock, they would lay down the person selected for sacrifice. She would extend her legs toward the temple, and hold her head back here where the rock dips down. That's when they would cut her throat.  Take off the entire head."  The Huichol shaman was telling us about the past. We were an hour and a half from Puerto Vallarta, an hour from formerly sleepy surfer town of Sayulita, but we might as well have been on another planet. 

A breeze rattled the dry leaves along the dry creekbed in this isolated corner of the coastal state of Nayarit, Mexico. It sounded like rain. That's exactly what the gods who controlled the rains wanted. They wanted the blood to turn that sound, that suggestion of rain, into a reality.

I wondered if this was true and how they knew. I also wondered why there were so many "decapitator gods" in the Americas.  What was described reminded me of the Moche civilization of Peru.

If you were a part of the ceremony, how did you go from a calm quotidian existence to being  a part of a decapitation ceremony?  Just how much pulque, peyote, or whatever else they used would you have to imbibe?

In my mind thumped the joyous hooks and beats of the Swedish artist known as Avicii, of "Levels" and many others, and I could certainly understand the mass energy and euphoria of crowds.

Was the spraying of the victim's blood a cause for euphoric ululations? Of a faster pace of dancing and euphoric drumming and piping?  Or, was the ceremony dark and horror-tinged?

I shivered.  How did we get here in this unknown tributary flowing into the Pacific Ocean in a part of Mexico where Canadian and American tourists flocked to be a part of a so-far safe stretch of coastline, quickly converting itself into a tourist bubble?

Near Las Varas, where the new highway will shave an hour off the journey from Guadalajara, along with the dangerous curves and mountain passes of the Sierra Madre del Occidente, is the little mountain village of Alta Vista (high view), which lies around 10 km from the two-lane highway that takes people from La Peñita to Las Varas.

And, tucked away along the banks of a rocky little stream, and a more or less dry riverbed (in the dry season) are petroglyphs - carvings from the Huichol Indians, or from their preHispanic forebears.  Or, based on the way they have eroded in the last 10 years, it's possible that they were carved by some industrious stoneworkers who thought it might be a great way to attract government support.  I am not an expert, but Miguel did say that they look a lot more faint than they did just 10 years ago. Were they worn away by visits from tourists?  Have they become so popular with the shaman "soi-disant" the self-styled but well-meaning purveyor of emotional, psychological, and for the really self-actualizing (or at perhaps absolutely shameless), physical healing.

We tried Google Maps. It showed the town and a ceremonial center and museum. We went there. Nothing.

We tried Googling Alta Vista petroglyphs. There were many blog posts, Wordpress postings, websites that featured photos of the petroglyphs, and many with a blow-by-blow description of the hike. But, there were no maps and no details about how to actually find the petroglyphs except to assure the reader that there was absolutely no way to find the petroglyphs without the services of a guide.

We were not convinced. We went down one little cowpath and dirt road after another. No luck.

Finally, we asked someone in the town of Alta Vista how to find the petroglyphs. They said to go back down to the place where the road split into two directions and to inquire at the snack stand located there. It's weird to describe it this way, but that's the only way I know how to describe the little commercial center at the fork in the road.  It was an impromptu food stand that sold the kind of food people love to buy on the street -- tacos al pastor and such -- with the basics of water, soft drinks, etc.

We asked directions and immediately a young man offered to be a guide for 80 pesos, which was about 5 dollars -- and for all day.  I thought it was a sad commentary on income inequality - a young man was willing to work all day for 5 dollars (but in reality it only took 2 hours) when a toll road that took 30 minute to cross cost 200 pesos (around 11 dollars).  There is something wrong with that. But, I am not really in a position to comment about that.

We drove down the same highway we had gone down before, and just across the road from a field with a herd of "vacas flacas" (skinny cows), there was a small path with a gate fashioned of wood and barbed wire. Christopher hopped out and opened the gate.  It was not locked and presumably open to the public but there were no signs at all and presumably the public would need to know about this. Plus, the public would need to know that there were no cartels, drug trafficking or other kinds of trafficking to happen upon. It would not be good to stumble upon marijuana or opium poppy cultivation. Presumably Christopher would only take us places where he (and his clients) would be safe.

We headed down the path. To our left was a large guanábana orchard. Christopher entered and plucked a rather large and still quite green guanábana. "It will be ripe and ready to eat in 3 or 4 days," he said.

We drove farther down the path, past a mango orchard. We parked under a large, spreading mango tree (un mangal). We found ourselves at another fence, this time without a gate. Christopher lifted the wires so we could enter, and we did so without any problem at all.

Once past the wire, there was a small path into a clearing. This was the so-called "Ceremonial Center" of the "Pilar del Rey." There were hand-painted signs with neat lettering - white paint on black metal, in Spanish and then in English. The signs explained the function of the petroglyphs, the presence of a ceremonial center, and the culture of the people who lived here, who were antecedents of the Huichol.  The clearing was rather large, and so I supposed it must be a favorite location for small events or gatherings, although it was hard to imagine that it would be very easy to access.

The signs led us toward a creek bed where there were more signs and large rocks. The first sign described the meaning of the carvings, which were the petroglyphs. It indicated that the glyphs referred to the sun, the moon, directions, some sort of god figure, and human sacrifice.  It seemed highly interpretive to me.  We made our way through the leafy underbrush and I was quite glad we were in the dry season. It was warm, but not hot, and while it was a bit humid, it was very bearable.  I imagined that it would be more or less pure torture during the rainy season.  The leaves slapped my legs, but fortunately they were not thorny or wet. I was wearing khaki colored capris and they stayed unblemished.

We passed by more petroglyphs, some indicating the god of corn, others indicating a cross. The theory was that somehow some sort of Christian saint had visited before the arrival of Spaniards.

"Ockham's Razor," I thought to myself.  I could think of at least five more likely explanations for the appearance of what seemed to be a Cross of Malta on the rocks (and for the petroglyphs themselves).  It seemed much more likely to have carvings by Spaniards and settlers, even if simply to amuse themselves. But, I'm no anthropologist.

The rocks they claimed were part of a pyramid looked like the normal joints you'd see in volcanic rocks, but again, if you asked me what the mounds near Saint Louis were or what the hillocks were in Chiapas and the Yucatán, chances are, I would have attributed all to geological and geomorphological processes.

We arrived at a small pool fed by springs where a clutch of gaudily tattooed Mexicans and Canadians were smoking marijuana and stretched out on the rocks. On a ledge where people offered "ofrendas" (feathers, stacked rocks, yarn "eye of god" crafts, a dreamcatcher or two) a young man wearing a Huichol priest outfit with gorgeous embroidery was talking about the spiritual beliefs of the Huichol. He said that he often participated in dances in Sayulita and wore a deer skull. I asked if the Huichol believed in the animal spirits and visions of animal spirit guides. He said, "yes."

I thought of the Navajo sand painters who combined the painting with spiritual healing and thought he could go far if he combined some of the petroglyph shapes here with a kind of sand painting ceremony for healing.

I did not share my idea, though.  I had already asked him too many questions and I think I seemed a bit weird.

We made our way back and I laid out some coins that amounted to probably $1.50 at best. My ofrenda looked nice and shiny on the rock, and it was nice to think that it was Earth Day as well.

As we made our way back through the creek bed, past the ceremonial area and then squeezed through the barbed wire and opened up the car, I took a long drink of bottled water and reflected on the experience.

There was no doubt that it was totally inaccessible to someone who did not know precisely where it was. GoogleMaps had the ceremonial center far to the north of the town of Alta Vista.

The road to Alta Vista continued up into the mountains where they grew coffee that was supposedly some of the best in Mexico. I wondered if there were also poppies, as a bit farther along the coast in Sinaloa or Guerrero.

What would your garden grow?  I'd rather have a crop of petroglyphs.

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