Ixtepete: Guadalajara's Forgotten Pyramids

Updated: Mar 11

I'm a sucker for archeology. Living for so long in the UK, and being able to travel easily around Europe and the Mediterranean, my main experience of ancient culture is with the Greeks and (especially) Romans.


I've visited Hadrian's Wall in England, and the Antonine Wall in Scotland; the incredible ancient city at Ephesus in Turkey, and the masterpiece that is the Acropolis in Athens. The colossal, intact amphitheatre at Pula, in Croatia; and that's before we even close in on the Italian heartlands. Pompeii is astonishing, and rightly famous; Herculaneum less so, but even more rewarding; Villa Poppaea, a little-visited site with incredibly preserved frescos, and a 100m long swimming pool, is believed to be the summer house of Nero's second wife.


All of these fall within the ambit of our collective European cultural heritage. But one of the many reasons I wanted to come to Mexico, and explore the rest of Latin America, is to discover historical cultures of an entirely different - and to me, alien - character.



Archeology In Jalisco


Enough of the Old World. We've already been to the incredible Tenochtitlán in Mexico City, and the world-famous Teotihuacán a few miles away, with its mighty Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. What is there to see in Guadalajara, Jalisco?


Remarkably, Mexico's second city is fairly barren ground for prehispanic archeology. There's evidence of nomadic tribes existing in what is now Jalisco state from 12 - 10,000 years ago, believed to be hunting mammoth and other megafauna. (See my article on the Museum of Paleontology Guadalajara for more information). Evidence for agriculture and ceramic development in Jalisco can be traced to 7,000 and 3,500 years ago respectively.


In fact, although there were other settlements around the modern city, the first evidence of settlement in the city proper comes from Ixtepete.



History Of Ixtepete


Ixtépete (pronounced "ees-TEH-peh-teh") was founded sometime around 300 - 400 AD, and flourished from about 600 - 900 AD. Long forgotten, it was "rediscovered" by modern archeologists in the 1950s. The locals told them the name, and the scientists had to figure out how to interpret and transliterate it.


The two competing suggestions were that it derived from the old word "ixtle", referring to a fibre made from the leaves of the maguey plant, or "iztépete" meaning hill of obsidian. They decided that "Iztépete" was the more likely explanation, and therefore spelling. However, "Ixtépete" is still the most commonly-used spelling. Locals 1: Scientists 0.


Both are probably acceptable. In English, the accent will often be dropped - Ixtepete / Iztepete - although in Spanish you would always show the stressed "é" on the second syllable: Ixtépete / Iztépete. I double-checked with a street seller to make sure I had the right pronunciation!



Visiting Ixtépete


I decided this would be a good place to head out to for an afternoon, and Mrs Wench happily agreed.

Oranges or limes? Do oranges start out green?

Public transport in Guadalajara will be the subject of a future post - for now, let's just state that we got the 258D bus from a stop about 10 minutes from our Airbnb. It was about 25 minutes late compared to its advertised time. Luckily, there are worse ways to pass the time waiting for a bus than under the shade of a free-growing citrus tree.


The journey took about 50 mins to travel the 5 miles or so to the site.


Or close to the site... the bus drivers don't seem to worry too much about sticking to the exact route plan, or stopping at every bus stop 😀We were disgorged into a crowd of screaming schoolkids about 5 minutes walk from Ixtépete.


The bus ride had taken its toll, however: several hours after breakfast, La Wench was in need of refuelling.



Time Out For Tacos


Luckily, this being Mexico, finding a fresh food outlet took us approximately 3 seconds.

Q Ksabrosas: OMGlicious

Q Ksabrosas was on the corner where we were dropped off. After browsing the menu and talking to the owner for a few minutes, Mrs Wench decided to order a quesadilla with chilli con carne, melted cheese, and trimmings.


Her professional verdict: 5/5.


She actually went as far as to tell the owner that it was the best food she's tasted in Guadalajara; no mean feat, considering it wasn't a taco!

Actually... why not let her explain?

"After our fairly long bus journey from near the city centre, I was no longer just a bit peckish, but ravenous. I vowed to eat whatever i could get my hands on once we got off the bus, and so we wandered in to literally the first place we saw and asked the ubiquitous “¿Que hay?”
What they had was quesadillas gigantas, which sounded more than fine to me. They also did tacos and other items, but my stomach took over from my brain at that point, so I’m afraid I can’t remember the full menu.
There were two rows of stone pots on the counter. A woman there, who I’m sure is also the chef, opened the lids of each one to show me about 12 different fillings; they included pork, chicken, chorizo, potatoes, beef, and something I’ve not had since the UK: chilli con carne.
When the quesadilla came, it was indeed gigantic. We had seen the chef shaping the dough while we waited, and the crust was freshly baked, warm, and crispy. Inside - gooey melted cheese and delicious, rich, though not particularly spicy chilli, not made with mince, but hearty small chunks of lean beef. It was covered in lettuce, yet more cheese, and salsa verde (green sauce), with actually hot red chilli sauce on the side. It was glorious."


A coffee, Coke and La Giganta came to MX$70/US$3.60.


Suitably fed and watered, we crossed the main road and walked down to the site.



Exploring Ixtepete


The site is a reasonable size, and most of it has not been excavated:


The only parts which appear to have been extensively investigated are at the eastern end of the protected area. Other than what appear to be a few 2m x 2m test pits, the main interest to the centre and western end is an array of earthworks, which clearly hint at the buildings and features yet to be uncovered.

The entire site at Ixtepete is covered in unexcavated earthworks

In fact, only the three buildings directly north of the entrance are still extant in any state of preservation:

Plan view of Ixtepete. Courtesy Wiki Commons/Erick G. Rizo

The first building, a former "pyramid" (E III on the plan) is in fairly poor repair. As can be seen from the satellite photograph, much of the western and northern ends have been destroyed:

E III is clearly visible on the ground, albeit largely destroyed to the west

The eastern and southern sides, however, are still largely intact to a height of 1 - 2 metres:


I say "pyramids", because that's what these and similar buildings are usually called. But it should be made clear that they weren't geometrically pyramidal (at best, they were truncated pyramids). They had flat tops, with altars or temples set on the prow.


The off-centre, multiple monumental stairways up to the top are considered by some to be evidence of multiple temples, with different sets of steps leading to different places of worship.

Signage is limited and in poor condition,

It's worth noting that for such an important site, overall it's not close to being fully exploited for either scientific or tourism purposes. On a personal level, the latter is great - it means you can spend an hour or two wandering around in splendid isolation.


There was a plan ahead of the Pan-American Games in 2007 to invest MX$52m/US$2.5m in the site. This would have added paved paths, instructional signage, tourist facilities and the rest. Sadly, these plans never materialised, and the site remains in a fairly poor condition. Part of the return on investment, surely, would have been providing additional funds for the archeologists in order to further investigate the site.



Small Temple


Walk on up to the primary pyramid to the north. Just before it is the small building marked E II on the plan:


Although small. this section of Ixtepete is still in reasonably good condition. The section to the left in the satellite image is hidden under foliage - it's hard to see whether it's been properly excavated or not. The extant sections to the right, though, look good:



Ixtepete Main Pyramid


From this area (indicated as "Conjunto II" on the sign) it's a short step to the main Pyramid. We actually chose to walk round the building before climbing to the top.

Ixtepete Main Pyramid (E I) with E II to bottom left

Only the eastern side has been fully excavated and restored; however, most of the rest of the building is still in good condition, other than the overgrown grass and scrub. There are lots of areas showing evidence of burning, so it's likely that a degree of weeding is still going on!

View looking to the east, of the ancillary building attached to the north of the primary. Note the burnt patches on the ground

To the extreme north, at the boundary of the protected area, is what looks like a bank and ditch. In fact, there's a river delineating the site. I've no idea where the river would have been in antiquity - but probably not where it is now.


It's hard to see in the photo - again, the site is too overgrown - but the river backs right on to the adjacent industrial estate. I think it's obvious that the buildings have been constructed over some areas of the site, likely losing much of the archeology forever.

Behind the "bank" is a ditch dropping off to the river. On the other side the site probably runs off under the industrial park

As we couldn't get round the north side, we walked back round the south past the "Conjunto" sign and on to the eastern edge. This section has been excavated, partly rebuilt, and appears to be kept in good repair.


The eastern staircase has been rebuilt


Although it's clearly a modern concrete construction, and the grey paint somewhat garish, it does furnish an idea of the grandeur and solidity of how this impressive monument must once have looked. Climbing to the top not only affords a great view - it also lets you see how the place was built.

Examples of talud-tablero construction from a range of Mesoamerican sites. Image PD from Wikipedia

Many pyramid buildings in prehispanic mesoamerica are constructed using the so-called "talud-tablero" technique. The English alternative, "slope and panel", makes it clearer.


The style essentially involves building a "step" slope inwards to a certain height, followed by levelling it off with a "panel" layer on top for stability. This process can be repeated a number of times. It's stable and rigid solution; the earliest examples date to around 200 BC, and it was in use in Tenochtitlán up until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.



The other distinctive feature, common in other pre Columbian buildings, is the layering, or nesting, of different phases.


The temple is initially built, likely at the command of the first ruler of the newly-founded town or city.


The city grows in power and influence. Some years later, a new ruler comes to power, and wants to boast of it; in typically ostentatious style, he demands the building of a bigger, better temple.


But rather than demolish the original, or clear land for a new one, they simply build the new temple around the existing one. The gaps between the walls are infilled, and the temple slowly rises to the same profile - only larger and taller.

Model of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, showing detailed cutaway of the phasing over time

This is exactly the technique which is shown so well at Tenochtitlán, where the Templo Mayor shows 7 distinct phases of development.


Ixtepete is a much more modest site; however, excavation and sampling indicates that at least 5 phases of development took place here in Guadalajara over the course of the city's settlement.


Interestingly, the parallels in construction should not be used to infer any link between the people living here and the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán. Construction of the two temples, despite their similarities, were almost a thousand years apart.


Both techniques - talud-tablero and the "Russian Doll" style of expansion - seem to have been applied widely around central/north America for a long period.


This may imply common cause, or simply communication between different tribes and peoples; the true answer is likely to remain unknown.


Showing the gap between the outer (5th) and inner (4th) phases of expansion

Here's a video tour around the whole site, including views from the top of the pyramid. It's a special place, in a lovely location.






Summary


Anyone with an interest in pre-Columbian archeology and culture should make Ixtepete a priority during a visit to Guadalajara. There is little information provided at the site proper, and frankly I couldn't find a great deal of reference material online when researching this post.


Given its relatively recent rediscovery, I like to consider it almost a "forgotten" site. The complete lack of tourists when we visited is an indication of the potential of the location. It's likely to be developed at some point in future, funding permitting; do yourself a favour and get out to see it now before it changes too much.


Hours are nominally 9am - 5pm, Tue - Sun, but there's no fencing to the west side of the site and it's easy to gain access even if "closed". Admission is free.


[Note: as I say, I found it difficult to find information on the site in either Spanish or English. Much of it was contradictory or confusing! Any and all errors are, of course, my own. If you have any corrections or suggestions, please contact me using the comments below or chat!]



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Mexico Travel Blog | marco@jocksaway.com