When I visited San Pedro Tututepec about 15 years ago, I thought it strange that people would have settled in such a place. Even more puzzling to me back then was why for centuries their descendants remained, making this the longest continuously inhabited town in Mexico, perhaps in all of North America. It has existed since 357 AD, even though it has no oceanfront, lake or river. This village of about 10,000 also has no hotel, major restaurant or bank. However, it IS an important, unique and charming destination.
On a recent visit with a friend to this village, which is an hour or so by van from Puerto Escondido, I learned more about its political history and amazing geographical features.
San Pedro Tututepec, called by most people simply Tututepec or Tutu, owes its existence to Prince Mazatzan from Tilantongo. He arrived with 2,000 settlers, and after climbing the mountain overlooking the town, he spotted flocks of seabirds, and so he named it Yucu Saa (bird mountain in the Mixtec language). At the entrance to Tutu there’s a sign “Bienvenidos A Yucu Saa.”
Anchoring the main square is a modernized Palacio Municipio, painted a soft beige with happy orange accents. Here two floors of hand-painted scenes, including images from codices, tell the pictorial history of this settlement. A magnificent mural wraps around three sides of the second floor, and if you don’t pace yourself you could spend the entire day absorbing life in Tutu as it is and was. I had to tug Marcus away because we had other sites to visit in the village.
Tutu is the governing center of the Municipio of Villa de Tututepec de Melchor Ocampo, Juquila, Oaxaca. Through political alliances and marriages, the lands of the Mixtec empire extended from the state of Guerrero to Huatulco. Today, San Pedro de Tututepec’s borders include the Juquila-Nopala area and encompass the ecological zones of Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua, La Laguna de Manialtepec and Playa Roca Blanca, to name a few. These lush, watery places near sea level, however, are located several miles from Tutu. Nonetheless, you can see Lake Chacahua from the top of Bird Mountain—so they say.
One of the must-see sites is the ancient cemetery where, due to limited space, bodies are buried on top of each other and tombstones are squeezed tightly together. Many show signs of earthquake action, making them look as if inhabitants are pushing their way out. It is necessary to tread carefully among the damaged tombs. Weaving your way through this cemetery is like walking back in history, with centuries-old dates covered by layers of moss and mold. There are no clearly marked lanes or walkways. You might climb over fallen trees and damaged tombs, only to arrive at a dead end and then must retrace your steps back to an easier path. After our challenging traipse among the tombstones and ruins, we wished we had taken a taxi up the hill to the cemetery and walked backed down.
Having learned our lesson on the cemetery trek, we took a taxi to several of the six wells scattered throughout Tutu. We learned of them from the map in the Palacio Municipal. These water sources solved my earlier puzzlement about how people could live here for centuries. Water flows out of sight, underground. Even late in the afternoon, women were pulling buckets up from the wells, washing clothes in cement basins with built-in scrubbing boards. At one of these outdoor laundry centers, a white horse stood patiently under a shade tree, waiting no doubt to carry its owner and clean, wet clothes, back home. At another, the family’s clothes hung neatly from a rope strung between trees.
There is, of course, an Iglesia, and it, of course, sits high above the village. Like so many churches in Mexico, it was built on top of a pre-Hispanic pyramid, an ancient ceremonial center. From the rear of the church there’s an expansive view of the surrounding countryside.
The Templo del San Pedro dates to the 16th century, making it the oldest church on the coast of Oaxaca. Since it has undergone renovations through the years, it doesn’t appear that old, but if you look closely at the exterior stonework, you’ll notice patches of different stones and colors. Also, the surrounding grounds, landscaped with well-groomed flowers and shrubs, have replaced the rough dirt terrain that existed during my first visit. And an outdoor kitchen has been added, where food is cooked over an open fire for the many community festivals held in Tututepec.
For more glimpses into the past, head to the Museo Comunitario Yuca Saa. It is officially open from 10:00 to 4:00 Monday through Saturday, but we had a devil of a time finding the keeper of the keys. However, our perseverance paid off because word spread that a couple of turistas wanted to visit the museum. The exhibits offer an under-glass peek into the life of Tutu’s ancients. There are more than 2,000 pieces of shards, beads and small pottery items—many with legs in the shape of animals and birds. Fascinating to me were the shiny castellanos of gold, about the size of a 10-peso coin, central to Tutu’s history. In 1522, the Spanish arrived with an army of 15,000 soldiers led by Pedro de Alvarado, who conquered the Tutu Mixtecs and seized enough gold to make 36,000 castellanos. He shipped gold to Cortez, but was unable to get the Mixtec king (the venerable Lord Serpent) to reveal where more gold was hidden. Gold-digging hopefuls are still searching the hills and valleys of San Pedro Tututepec for the suspected cache.
Through it all, the hardy Mixtecs endured slavery and torture at the hands of their conquerors, yet their independent community survived. Today, Tutu is truly a multi-cultural village. A mix of Chatinos, Mixtecs, Amuzgos and Afro-Mexicans make up the population of about 10,000. In addition to Catholic saints, they still hold traditional celebrations to honor three ancient deities—the moon goddess, the god of rain and the god of wind. The main festivals are in April, October and July – a week after La Guelguetza in Oaxaca City and, some say, Tutu’s is an equally impressive extravaganza.
In most of my ventures out of Oaxaca City, the journey is as much fun as the destination. The 20-kilometer trip from Puerto Escondido to Tutu was no exception. The colectivo van took about an hour and a half along Route 200, passing fields of papaya, banana and pineapple plantations. Skinny cows nibbled on patches of green in fenced fields along the highway. The van passed through roadside villages where burros trotted from house to house with milk jugs dangling from their saddles. In the largest town, Rio Grande, taxis and trucks vied for space in this busy commercial center. Horns honked as if swearing at the congestion and demanding their turn into the traffic flow.
Upon arriving at Santa Rosa de Lima, a busy roadside terminal where you’ll find cold drinks and snacks, it was necessary to transfer into another colectivo, a five-passenger taxi, for the last 15-minute ride up the hill to San Pedro Tututepec. If after a day of exploring or perhaps at another time, you want to visit several nearby villages, all sorts of vehicles stand at-the-ready in Tutu’s town square to transport you to San Jose del Progreso, La Luz, San Francisco de Arriba and many other villages.
For more historical details, references and photographs, go to http://www.mexicancorrido.com
This website, created by Marcus Wilkinson, contains bits of well-researched information about everything Mexican, including many articles about coastal Oaxaca.