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

They 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 excellent.

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 lost splendors.

Target 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; “Chole” is 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.

Rob 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.

When 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 English!

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 cents US. 

"How much do the workers make?" Rob asked. 

"About 250 pesos a week ($19 US)," he replied. 

"Are all these plantations owned by different people?"

"No, by only one man."

“A very rich man.”


After 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.

"Where are you from?" the driver asked Rob.

"The United States," Rob said.  "Virginia."

"I spent five years in the United States," the driver said.  "Long Beach.  It was great!"

"I hope it isn't impolite to ask, but were you legal or illegal?"


"Did you 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?"

"No, 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 you alone."

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 view.

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!