La Chole, May 2014
One day we happened to stop by to introduce
ourselves to a cruising family anchored near Akka in
Zihuatanejo Bay, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The other
cruisers told us they had just taken a great trip to some ancient
ruins nearby, in a place called Zihuacán. They had
hired a local English-speaking taxi driver/guide to take them
to the ruins and give them a tour. After the tour, they
went to a beach-front restaurant for "authentic"
Mexican food. The trip, they said, took most of the day
and cost $145 US for their family of 5, not including the meal
they bought for themselves and the taxista.
gave us his telephone number, so we called and asked about the
trip. He described more or less what our friends had
experienced. So we dinghied over to talk to our friends
Sam and David on Isleña and propose a joint
expedition. They, as we, were enthusiastic about the
experience but not about the $145 US. We looked up the
archeological site in Lonely Planet and on the internet
and discovered that it was only about 40 km. from Zihuatanejo.
According to Lonely Planet you could get there by taking
a bus bound for Petatlán and getting off at the dirt
road to La Chole. From there, you could take a camioneta
to the site.
This looked very doable and adventurous.
So, the next morning the four of us took our dinghies to the
beach and set off to find the bus to Petatlán.
There are no fewer than three different long-distance bus
stations in Zihautanejo, and our Lonely Planet was
generally unclear as to which one was for which destination.
But fortunately, one of them was exclusively for buses to the
cities to the east, Acapulco and Petatlán, so that's
where we headed, stopping on the way at street stands for
breakfast -- a kind of pork-stew sandwich, instant coffee and
fresh-squeezed orange juice. Two of these three were
The bus turned out to be a large minibus,
fairly new and quite pleasant. There were only two other
passengers, though we picked up a couple more on the way.
True to his word, the driver dropped us off at the road to La
Chole. So, now what? "Camion"
means "truck", so "camioneta" must
mean "small truck", right? Here came a small
pickup truck, so Rob stuck out his thumb and the truck
stopped. The archeological site? we asked. The
driver said, "Get in" and we climbed over the
tailgate into the bed of the truck. Whew! The truck
was apparently used for transporting goats. Once we got
moving, the smell wasn't too bad, and 5 minutes later we pulled
up in front of a modern building that said "Museum".
We hopped out, offered the driver a few pesos, which he turned
down, and went in.
The museum was free and quite
extensive, with lots of stone carvings, steles, etc. on
display. Unfortunately all the signage was in Spanish so
we translated each sign laboriously for Sam and David,
who speak less Spanish than we do. We were able to
get the gist of most of the descriptions, though at least once
we had to say, "Neither of us knows any of the first four
words of this sentence, so even context won't help."
The most intriguing artifact on display is the stone “hoop”
from the ball court, with its intricate carvings that hint at
hoop from ball court
The one object not on display at the museum was the large
stele depicting an ancient king as more or less one with the
sun god. That stele was found by the locals in 1944 and
taken to the church in La Chole, where it still resides.
Incidentally, La Chole's real name is La Soledad de Maciel;
either the name of the king whose stone is at the church or the
name of the stone itself -- we couldn't determine which.
After we had pretty much seen and translated everything
in the museum, we were approached by a guide, whom we hired to
take us around the ruins themselves, about 200 meters away.
On the way, we were passed by a little pickup truck with a
covered-wagon back and bench seats. "¡La
camioneta!" exclaimed the guide. Oh, we thought,
so we didn't have to ride in goat droppings after all!
The site dates from the Olmec civilization, around 1500 BC,
and was occupied until 1580 AD, when a tsunami inundated the
city and temples. That's more than 3000 years of
habitation! The ruins include a ball court and several hills
and pyramid temples laid out to line up with dawn at the summer
solstice, winter equinox, etc. Unlike, say, Chichén
Itza, which was built entirely of stone, the city at La Chole
was made of a mix of adobe and stone. So everything we
saw had been reconstructed by archeologists based on the rocks
and glyphs they found lying around. The main pyramid,
some 15 meters high and covered in a terra-cotta adobe, is
quite striking. Also impressive was the ball-court, especially
the trough upon which the ball-game winners lay in order for
the priests to cut their hearts out, so their sacred blood
could be conserved.
at ball court – note trough for collecting victor's
blood, by Rob's right elbow
Although archaeologists first discovered the site in the
1940s, excavation only began in earnest around 2007. According
to our guide, much of the city/religious site remains to be
uncovered. A big problem is that a lot of the property is
privately owned and the owners, knowing how much the state
wants the land, are asking incredibly high prices. One
hill, which the guide says has a pyramid under it, is owned by
a man with 12 children. He's asking 12 million pesos
($900,000 US) for the property, which covers about half an
acre. A million for each child, he explains.
the tour was over, the guide told us to wait by the museum for
the camioneta to come get us and take us back to the
highway. How long? we asked. Oh, 15 minutes, he
replied. With our knowledge of Mexican culture we guessed
it would be a lot longer than that, so we walked to the little
village of La Chole and found a tienda that sold juice
and beer. There was a dirt-floored area next to the
tienda where we sat and waited for the camioneta.
The young woman who tended the store came and sat with us,
listening in fascination to our discussion in English.
Did she speak any English? we asked. Only a very little,
she told us. It was taught in her school by an
English-speaking teacher, but she had received only one hour a
week of instruction. No wonder she couldn't speak much
By and by the camioneta showed up, and we all piled
in. Just as we arrived at the highway, Rob, who had
consumed two beers while waiting for the camioneta,
discovered he had left his hat at the little tienda.
The driver offered to take him back to La Chole to get it, so
he left Andi and our friends at the intersection and went back
for his hat. This time, Rob sat up front with the driver
and learned something from him about the local area. The
primary economic activity is harvesting coconuts; piles of
coconut shells can be seen lying around, and we had noticed men
with axes and machetes cutting the shells off the coconuts.
"How much are they worth?" Rob asked. "About
6 pesos each," the driver told him. That would be 45
"How much do the workers make?"
"About 250 pesos a week ($19
US)," he replied.
"Are all these
plantations owned by different people?"
by only one man."
“A very rich man.”
Rob picked up his hat, the camioneta continued through
the village to pick up another passenger, passing a little
building with ... the stele of La Chole in front of it!
The village has about 500 inhabitants, and the road through it
is only a lane, with no room to turn around. After he
picked up the other passenger, the driver drove in reverse
through the village until he was able to turn around at the
little tienda where Rob had left his hat.
are you from?" the driver asked Rob.
United States," Rob said. "Virginia."
spent five years in the United States," the driver said.
"Long Beach. It was great!"
it isn't impolite to ask, but were you legal or
cross from Mexico in a truck?"
"No, I walked
across the desert. Five days with no water."
"Why are you back in Mexico? Were you deported?"
I came back to be with my family. I brought back all the money
I had saved up."
So, a lucky man, both in surviving
the desert and not being robbed before he got back to his
home. We imagine his stash bought him the camioneta
he drives now.
"The great thing about
America," he told Rob, "is that the government leaves
Knowing that there's been a big problem
with the drug gangs in Petatlán, Rob asked him whether
life in La Chole was dangerous. "No," he said,
"not at all. There's nothing here for them.
We're protected by our poverty." An interesting
Rob joined up with the rest of us and we
immediately caught a bus back to Zihuatanejo. No lunch at
an authentic Mexican restaurant, but still. The entire
trip cost us something like 75 pesos ($5.65US) apiece, not
including the trip for Rob's hat (30 pesos, with tip) and juice
and beer (40 pesos). Worth every cent!