Meet the Guachimontones Pyramids
The excavated ruins of Guachimontones rival many of the best in Mexico in terms of the overall effect: the setting, on a hillside over a lake, makes a dramatic link to a mysterious past. Occupied from roughly 350 BC to 350 AD, the ruins predate the Aztecs and don’t seem to have any Olmec influence.
The structures are unique in that they are often called pyramids, but they are based on concentric circles. So they look nothing like the more famous Mesoamerican ruins such as Teotihuacán, Chichen Itza, or Palenque. Excavation began in 1999, under the supervision of Dr. Phil C. Weigand, whom I got the chance to look around the place with when I visited years ago.
Weigand says that obsidian mines and ample fresh water were the principal attractions of the area, then explained the setup of the site. Artifacts show us that the concentric circles were used in a physical ceremony at key times. “After a long day of dancing, men would swing from a pole mounted at the top, going around the circles holding onto a rope.” – much like the continued volador tradition you can see throughout Mexico.
RUINS HIDDEN FOR CENTURIES
The earliest records of these mounds in English were by Victorian artist Adela Breton in the late 1800s. She was traveling through the area and documented the destruction of a nearby mound that was most likely connected with the site. She went on to document Guachimontones with a few sketches and three photographs, as well as taking a few of the site’s artifacts with her back to the UK. The site was then virtually forgotten about by archeologists until Weigand and another archeologist Joseph Mountjoy published some of their findings about it in 1974. The site was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco in 2014.
There are 10 circular structures in all, but only two of the larger ones have been fully excavated. Some would be tough to access anyway since they’re on private land now. The largest, pictured at the top, is El Gran Guachi, with 12 levels of circles, an altar area, then four more levels. There are a couple of ball courts as well.
There are blue agave fields adjoining the property, but it also turns out that the site has more than a geographical connection to nearby Tequila. “They used to drink a type of pulque here,” explains Weigand. “It was made from the bulb of a type of cactus. The problem with this stuff is, it keeps fermenting inside your stomach. So if you’re not keeping tabs on how much you have ingested, it can really knock you out long after you have stopped drinking.”
That’s not all they ingested apparently. Weigand ran down all the fermented beverages and intoxicants sampled by the people who walked these grounds before us, some of them sounding more fun than others. “There is evidence that they used peyote here,” he explains, “but one of the strangest drugs is a form of Texas mountain laurel. It produces bright hallucinations that are the color red only.” I pondered why that could possibly be a good thing when he added, after a pause, “The problem is, if you take too much of it the stuff will kill you.”
What’s a little talk about drinking and drugs without some sex? The mystery residents of Guachimontones had plenty going on in that department too. Figurines excavated from the site over the centuries are not for the shy and repressed. The best places to see them on display are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Los Angeles and the Museum of Natural History in New York.
An interesting theory about the site’s design came from anthropologist Christopher Beekman who posits that the eight platforms of Guachimonton might represent eight-row maize, endemic to the area. When a corn cob is cut in half the eight kernels and the center cob look similar to the layout of the ruins. There is a similar circular pyramid site in the south of Mexico City in a site called Cuicilco.
Despite the impressive effect of these ruins and a location only 60 kilometers from Guadalajara, you might be the only one around if you come to visit. There is a well-done visitors center on-site now though, with an explanation about the area (Spanish only), photos of the excavation process, and a rendering of how Guachimontones would have looked in its heyday, with no grass on the temples and houses around it. The place is solar-powered even. There are restrooms available, but it’s best to bring your own water, hat, and sunscreen. There’s very little shade here.
The easiest way to arrive at the site is to drive, either on your own or by hiring a private driver, either from Teuchitlán or wherever you are staying in Jalisco. (In theory, this is a one-day road trip here and back from Puerto Vallarta, but you’ll spend most of the day in the car.) According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the site is open Thursday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Other sources say it’s open every day but Monday. If you book a tour you’ll be sure it’s open. That will cost you from $55 to $150 each from Guadalajara depending on whether it includes a stop in Tequila and whether it’s a group trip or private one.
If you come independently, admission to the site is only 30 pesos (around $1.50). A guide will usually start at 200 pesos ($10).
The cheapest option to get there is by regular bus. From the central bus station in Guadalajara or Zapopan you can buy a ticket to Teuchitlán for about 80 pesos ($4). You will have to take a cab from there and that will drop you nearby but you must walk to the entrance.
You could cover the whole area in 15 minutes, but that would be a shame. Linger for a while and soak in the view, pondering the effort it took to put together these impressive structures with just simple tools.
Bring good walking shoes when you come: you need to walk up a cobblestone road to get to the site from the parking area, plus to get that view from above you see in the first photo here, you need to hike up and down a dirt path.