Is This Tiny Island Really the Lost Home of the Aztecs?
Many on this island of 800 people hope that the myth of its origins as the lost city of Aztlán will help bring a much needed tourism boost.
With a population of only 800 people, the birds around and above the miniature island of Mexcaltitán may be the majority party.
Man o’ wars, a dark seabird with a long, forked tail, line up along cables strung between pastel-painted buildings. On a strip of land just asea of the village’s main wharf, pelicans assemble. And herons, with their curving necks and stick-thin legs, perch atop wooden fences between the mangroves that surround the island, keeping guard.
Some 1,000 years ago, it was a heron that, according to legend, first drew ancestral Mexicans to this spot of land in a lake by the country’s Pacific coast. Migrating Nahuas, an indigenous people, chose to settle there after seeing the bird in the center of the island with a snake clutched in its beak — a vision they interpreted as a sign from their patron god, Huitzilopochtli.
Today, believers of that story have another name for the island: Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztec people, and from where they departed before founding a second capital in a lake, this one in the center of the country and now known as Mexico City.
While there is no archaeological certainty around the island’s claim to lore — and the land has never been formally excavated — it’s an undisputed point of pride for Mexcaltitán’s inhabitants, who still live by some pre-Hispanic customs. It’s also now at the center of an economic development project that’s fueling a transformation in the town aimed at a more modern set of wayfarer.
Earlier this month, Mexcaltitán was recognized as one of the country's newest Pueblos Mágicos, a twenty-year old federal designation for small towns with cultural distinction that’s getting redoubled governmental interest this year as the coronavirus pandemic craters the tourism industry in Mexico.
Alongside the island, ten other towns across the country were granted the “Magic Town” status, joining a program that’s benefited from more than 7.6 billion pesos ($376 million USD) in recent federal funding towards things like small business loans and infrastructure improvement, in a revamp of the program that the country’s tourism minister says will shift focus to each community’s poorest.
Despite low barriers to entry for foreign travelers — which have given way to a recent revival in some beachside hotspots — the number of foreign tourists visiting Mexico fell by 46 percent this year, according to the latest government statistics. Domestic tourism, which has a wider impact across the entire country, fared even worse, falling by 56 percent through October.
The country’s government is betting now that by targeting the domestic sector for an initial shot in the arm, it could help propel a revitalization in one of Mexico’s most critical industries.
“Internal tourism will be the great motor in this stage of recuperation for the tourism sector, and in this dynamic, the Pueblos Mágicos are, now more than ever, pillars of the regional and national economy,” said Miguel Torruco Marqués, the country’s tourism minister.
On a recent Tuesday, many on the island were preparing.
The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the holiest celebrations for the country’s Catholic faithful, was approaching, and a troupe of girls practiced a traditional line dance down the circular street that rings the town. Just before nightfall, women gathered in plastic chairs around illuminated shrines to the figure, praying and singing in a ritual that’s taken place each evening for weeks ahead of the holiday.
The parish church, lining one side of the island’s central plaza, has also recently been repainted a deep maroon and white, but that has less to do with the religious incoming, and more to do with the lucrative travelers who flock to the town on weekends.
With the help of government funds and in anticipation of the Pueblo Mágico demarcation, the island has been given a facelift. Buildings and structures around the central plaza have been restored and repainted, new lighting has been installed, and streets have been paved for the first time with granite stones. Vendors and artisans have also received government loans to help establish a more tourist-friendly environment.
Mexcaltitán has been a modest destination for tourists from the region and around the world in recent years, but a COVID lockdown earlier this year forced the closure of the mainland boat launch for months, sealing off the island from much of the outside world.
Since the lockdown was lifted, masked tourists have begun to trickle back, and in the few short weeks since the designation, traffic has more than doubled, with nearly 800 visitors arriving on the island each week, according to Antonio Riojas Meléndez, the secretary of tourism in Nayarit, the state where Mexcaltitán is located.
“On the weekends now, our restaurant is filled with the whole island,” said Monica Fabiola Osuna Orozco, the owner of La Camichina, one of the town’s colorful waterside restaurants. “Everything is very beautiful because of the government that God sent.”
From the covered back patio of her house on the town’s western edge, Osuna and her family have been serving residents and tourists for nearly 70 years. When it’s busy, she can work through upwards of 10 kilograms of shrimp a day making the island’s signature dishes.
Shrimp meatballs, about the size of a golf ball, are made from a special shrimp called pulpa that’s cooked and balled then fried until the edges are crunchy. Empanadas, made with a shrimp broth masa, are stuffed with the ground crustacean and fried to a spongy texture.
At Kika, a popular restaurant located on an islet two minutes by boat from the island, a generous serving of tangy shrimp ceviche is served under a pavilion as chickens wander from table to table.
Shrimping is the main driver of the island’s economy, and in the peak fall season, sidewalks are crowded with the critters laid out to dry under the sun.
To catch them, fishermen work overnight using an ancient method, standing above the water on brushwood platforms before a crude dam known as a tapo that traps migrating shrimp attracted to an oil-lit candle. At the height of the season, up to forty fisherman post around the island each night, hauling in the near-pitch black.
Earlier this month, Alfonso Ramos Galindo was one of the few remaining at the tapos. In a boat docked alongside him, two dozen translucent shrimp writhed amid a catch of small fish called constantinos and jaibas, a blue crab.
“It’s peaceful,” Ramos said about his small-hour work, as he smoked a cigarette and passed his long net through the trap.
By day, a boat ride around Mexcaltitán reveals the area’s lively ecosystem and unique situation. A variety of mangroves crowd the pockets of land that speckle the lake’s waterways, and the birds put on a show, diving into the blue to pluck out a fish and running across the surface on webbed feet to escape the path of a motorized canoe.
The main island, a neat oval measuring 400 meters north to south and 300 east to west, is criss-crossed by two pairs of narrow streets, with the plaza lying in the center. A thoroughfare that lines the perimeter of the island is called Venice Street — a nod to another of the town’s monikers, “The Venice of Mexico,” because heavy summer rains render the island seasonally traversable only by boat. (An apt nickname in the dryer months could be “Mexico’s Tour de France,” for the town’s bicycle and rollerblade-racing children.)
The island’s remarkable layout — similar to early descriptions of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec’s later island capital that is now Mexico City — is chief among the evidence presented to tie Mexcaltitán to Aztlán. Mexcaltitán’s location, in the northwest of the country, also aligns with clues that archaeologists have gleaned about the Aztec’s travel from stone codices as well as linguistic studies.
“It’s a very distinctive place. There’s no place else that looks like that,” said Michael Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who studies the Aztec.
Still, marking the legendary homeland of Aztlán on a modern-day map involves a bit of fantastical thinking, and Smith counts himself among the skeptics, comparing it to trying to identify Noah’s Ark.
“Even if Noah’s Ark did exist and even if there were remains of it, we’d never be able to find that out. That’s beyond the limit of what scholarship can do,” he said.
Historians first seriously proposed the link in the 1940s, as scholars in the years after Mexico’s revolution attempted to construct the country’s own mythology, according to Francisco Samaniega, an archaeologist based in Nayarit. In 1968, the hypothesis gained global recognition via a spread in National Geographic that noted the “fascinating similarities between Mexcaltitán and the long-sought, mysterious Aztlán.”
From there, the theory became a tool of politicians, who wielded the story to promote tourism and national distinction. When a stone depicting the scene of the heron and the snake was discovered in the state in the 1970s, it became the subject of enormous publicity: the artifact was featured in a local festival and later illustrated into the state’s official shield.
But there’s little actual evidence to tie the stone, now housed in a museum in Tepic, the state’s capital, to Mexcaltitán, and scant information about its origins. While it has similarities to slabs unearthed in the Amapa pyramids nearby the island, Samaniega said, documents in Mexico’s national anthropological archives record only that the stone was seized from looters who’d been traveling along a highway in Nayarit.
“It’s an ideological construction. It’s not that it is a lie, but it is a relatively recent construction with political use,” Samaniega said.
That the Mexican government is again drawing on the legend to attract tourists is no surprise; the Pueblo Mágico program was made to help develop towns like Mexcaltitán that are emblematic of the country’s history (or in other cases, its culture, gastronomy and environment) said Eduard Barroso, who created the designation in 2001 as an undersecretary in the federal tourism ministry.
The program, inspired by Barroso’s trips by car through Spain, France and Italy, where he was fascinated by cultural outposts just off the highways between more popular cities, has seen some successes. Nearly universal brand recognition in the country has boosted tourism to the locations and, between 2010 and 2015, lowered the population of Pueblo Mágico residents that are considered impoverished from 53.9 to 50.4 percent, the government said this year.
While international tourism in the country mainly revolves around Mexico's beach resorts, “national tourism occurs in all states and localities of the country, so it helps to bring resources and economic gains to many more municipalities and destinations in the country,” Barroso said. “Without a doubt, the most powerful tool that Mexico has for reactivation is national tourism.”
Still, industry analysts like Francisco Madrid, the director of the Centro de Investigación y Competitividad Turística at the Universidad Anáhuac México, caution that the Pueblos Mágico program can fail if there is not enough support from the government and buy-in from the members of the communities that have received the designation.
In fact, Mexcaltitán was one of the first towns granted the distinction back in 2001, but it lost it eight years later for falling short of the program's standards for cleanliness.
This go-around, with the devastation from the pandemic still fresh, it’s evident that the government and the townspeople are taking the project seriously.
“It's time to join forces with all the actors in the tourism industry to generate the best strategies, and we are doing just that with travel agencies and tour operators, who will start taking tourists to this beautiful and cultural destination,” said Riojas, the state tourism secretary.
On an afternoon earlier this month, a council composed of several residents met with representatives from the local and federal government on the steps in front of a new hotel, La Gran Tenochtitlán.
One topic was at the top of the agenda: setting up a system of trash collection. Government officials have promised in the past to deploy a garbage truck to the island, but never followed through, said Benito Flores Estrada, who manages the hotel.
Now, with the Pueblo Mágico designation and the government attention that’s come with it, Flores is hopeful for a solution.
And his hotel, the second in the town and the first with air conditioning, may be the clearest symbol of a new era on the island.
Two stories tall and adorned with frescos of Aztec gods, La Gran Tenochtitlán has filled its rooms with visitors most weekends. From its sprawling roof deck, tourists are treated to wide views of the island and a dawning sun, accompanied by everpresent birdsong.