“As usual, I was quick to imagine life on this tiny island and concluded it would be a great place for a weekend home; one of many weekend homes I have imagined across this country”
By Madeline Milne
As the story goes; Aztlan, the birthplace of the Aztecs was a small island in the middle of a lagoon in northern Nayarit, and from this place they were instructed by their gods to go in search of a new homeland. They would recognize this place when they found an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus – hence today’s emblem on the Mexican flag. In the process they were further instructed to change their names from Aztec to Mexica. In 1091 they set out on pilgrimage and found Tenochtitlan which is now known as Mexico City.
All this happened just a few hours from our doorstep! Always up for a road trip, I have wanted to explore this little anthropological hotspot since I first heard of it.
With my boyfriend’s mother’s birthday an excellent excuse to travel to Tepic we made arrangements for the whole family to head to Mexcaltitan on the weekend. Leaving Friday afternoon we headed north passing the yoga mecca of Sayulita and the world’s best quesadillas in Rincon de Guayabitos. Holding true we passed through the charming town of Compostela, driving through mist covered rolling countryside with eight-foot tall sugar cane fields and walls of wildflowers that host a hundred butterfly nectar sipping parties. We spent the night in Tepic before leaving late the next morning for the island.
The trip is about 100kms from Tepic continuing north on Highway 15 like you’re going to Mazatlan. Follow the signs for Santiago Ixcuintla, the largest town in the north western side of Nayarit, 40 kms from the boat launch for Mexcaltitan and one of the most important agricultural centres in Mexico for tobacco. The drive is natur-ific.
Deep-cut valleys with soaring waterfalls, orchard upon orchard of mango and citrus, forests of palms used for building palapas, and fields of sugar cane in the most brilliant neon greens. Hundreds of lagoons, internationally acclaimed for their bio-diversity make up the majority of the costal area where two important rivers, the Río Grande de Santiago and the Río San Pedro, enter the sea.
When you get to La Batanza, the boat launch, it doesn’t look like much. While in need of a fresh coat of paint, the boats are all floating and for 90 pesos they will transport you and up to four others (additional passengers are 20 pesos each), safely to Mexcaltitan. 300 pesos gets you a guided tour through the mangroves. The boat ride is about 15 minutes long and passes through a number of waterways. A little like Deliverance, you wouldn’t want to navigate these waters alone. Designated Marismas Nacionales, this protected area consists of a vast network of brackish coastal lagoons, mangrove swamps, mudflats, and marshes.
I counted five Great Blue herons, a handful of Garza Blancas (egrets) and dozens of little black ducks with yellow beaks (a birder I’m not). Captain Juan told us there are plenty of crocodiles in the water but we didn’t see any – thankfully. The people who call this area home are predominately fishers, catching chiguil and shrimp using a unique netting system.
The town of Mexcaltitan is about 1000m around with the longest ‘road’ stretching 400m across. A friendly population of about 800, residents sit on plastic chairs in their open doorways selling various items. There are no cars on this island. No Oxxo’s. No wifi but plenty of shrimp. Laid out on the sidewalks to dry, bright pink shrimps block your path everywhere you turn. Interestingly, the town’s dog population seems to ignore these tasty treats. Perhaps they’re as tired of shrimp as the locals must be.
You can comfortably circumnavigate the entire town in about 30 minutes. The adobe homes all look similar. Most likely brightly painted when the town was applying for Pueblo Magico status, these homes are now worse for wear with crumbling walls and chipped paint creating interesting colours and textures. There are a couple larger, new homes that cause speculation. The houses on the outer edge of the island all open out onto the lake, many with their small fishing pangas moored alongside their back doors.
The centre of the island is the hub with the plaza, church and a small but interesting museum that has artefacts from ancient Meso-American cultures. Five pesos will get you in the door. Here you will see copies of the original codices (pictograms) that depict the gods mandate to search for a new land. Considering that during rainy season the town’s roads floods and the only way around is by boat, this seems like sound advice. One display shows the map of Mexcaltitan beside Tenochtitlan with obvious similarities in layout. It is here that the original stone carving of the eagle with snake in its mouth was uncovered, now residing in the history museum in Tepic.
From the museum we headed over to Restaurante Alberca where we proceeded to consume a lifetime of shrimp. Not unlike Forest’s friend Bubba, there were a million ways to eat shrimp including; sun-dried and tossed in ketchup, salsa, lime and salt, deep fried and tossed with chilli, fried balls with a mayo dipping sauce, as a pate on Ritz crackers, stuffed into empanadas, served a la Diablo, in butter and garlic and encased in masa, rolled in corn husks and steamed, and the classic ensalada, soup and cocktail. We also ordered a Pescado Saraneado – fresh from the waters grilled fish, served with veggies and tortillas. Stuffed, we settled back with a couple cubetas of cervesa and a juke-box full of Banda that everyone else knew all the words to.
The peaceful swaying of the waters lapping the restaurant was interrupted only by the occasionally passing fishing boat and the ducks bobbing for fish. Rush hour was a boat of women returning home with their children and some shopping crossing paths with a fishing boat. What is particularly striking is how different the lives of the people are here from our own. As usual, I was quick to imagine life on this tiny island and concluded it would be a great place for a weekend home; one of many weekend homes I have imagined across this country.
An excellent day trip for amateur anthropologists, eating shrimp, and those interested in birding. It is one of the most prolific places on the planet for bird watching with over 350 species crossing these waters on their annual migration. While San Blas is the more popular jumping off point for birders, the pristine seclusion of the estuary/lagoon definitely appeals. There is no hotel on the island, though apparently there are some rooms available. Those interested in staying overnight would do better finding a comfortable bed in Santiago.
Looking at a map of the area, it would be an interesting weekend of camping (!) to explore the outer edges of the lagoons that meet with Pacific Ocean. Our captain hinted at beautiful secluded beaches and hidden coves perfect for exploring. There are a couple small towns that dot the shore and I imagine the freshness of the shrimp would be bar none.
Don’t forget your camera, bug spray and depending on the purpose of your trip, a cooler with cold beer purchased on the mainland will save you plenty of pesos.