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Hiking down the lush, pre-Hispanic trail of Ixcatan to the dying Santiago River

“You’re going to love hiking with Don Pepe,” said my friend Susan Street. “He’s a school teacher in Ixcatan, but also one of the most knowledgeable persons I’ve ever met about flora, fauna and the environment.” 

Susan had arranged for Don Jose Casillas to lead a small group along a footpath which, in pre-Hispanic times, connected this settlement to the Pacific Coast.

San Francisco Ixcatan is located 15 kilometers due north of Guadalajara in the Barranca del Rio Santiago. The name Ixcatan, I learned, comes from ixcatl, cotton and tlan, meaning place. We met in the town plaza, in front of a little old church whose foundation, said Don Pepe, had been laid in 1590. “But the path we’ll be walking on is much older. There is very good documentation showing that it was once part of a very long trail leading all the way to Santa Fe, California and right here was a very strategic point because below us is the spot where pre-Hispanic people used to ford the Santiago River.”

Don Pepe added that Tecuexes and four other tribes inhabited this area and for 20 years they had resisted the Spaniards until huge numbers of them were finally massacred during the Mixton War (1540-1542).

As if to demonstrate that the people of Ixcatan never quite got over that defeat, Don Pepe led us to the local school where a very impressive mural is being painted on one of its walls, depicting exactly this battle. 

“We’ll be inaugurating it during our annual Fiesta de los Tastoanes,” announced Pepe, “This begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 24 and goes on until 9 p.m. on Monday, July 27. The fiesta celebrates the victory (even though they actually lost) of the indigenous people over the Spaniards and the intervention of Santo Santiago (St. James the Apostle) who we believe brought an end to the massacre. There will be food, music by our own drummers and a dance re-enacting the battle. Everyone is invited.”

From the school we walked into a lush green field with clouds of steam still rising from high hills in the distance. “That’s a cuachalalate tree,” said Don Pepe, pointing. “It’s bark makes a tea famous for settling upset stomachs, and here is a guaje, whose seeds formed an important part of the pre-Hispanic diet and are still an important food source in our town.”

“And these agave-like plants are called cacuistle. Their spikes give us fiber for making ropes and they produce an edible fruit. Unlike agaves, they enrich the soil instead of depleting it.”

Every few steps, we came upon trees with edible leaves, which we were all soon chewing. For me, the most delicious was the leaf of the ciruelo (Mexican plum tree), which, I was surprised to discover, tastes very much like the fruit itself.

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