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A Visit to one of Mexico's Oldest Continuously Governed Cities

For lovers of off-the-beaten-path, historic places

When I first visited San Pedro, Villa de Tututepec about 15 years ago, it seemed strange to me why people would have settled in such a place. Even more puzzling to me back then was why for centuries their descendants remained. There is no oceanfront, nor lake nor river in this town of about 10,000 people, which include Mixtecs, Amuzgos, Chatinos and Afromexicans. You won't find a hotel, major restaurant or bank. However, it IS a historically important, unique and charming destination.

On a recent visit with my friend, Marc, to this village, which is only 100 kilometers from Puerto Escondido, I learned more about its political history and amazing geographical features. Commonly called just Tututepec or simply Tutu, the town has existed since 357 AD when Prince Mazatzin arrived from Tilantongo. After climbing a mountain, which overlooks the town, and where he saw flocks of seabirds, he named it Yucu Saa (bird mountain in the Mixtec language). At the entrance to the village today there is a sign “Bienvenidos A Yucu Saa.”

Agencia of San Pedro Tututepec

Sitting majestically above the town square is the modernized Palacio Municipal, painted in a soft beige with happy orange accents. Here two floors of hand painted murals, including 750 meters of codices of the life and work of King Eight Deer Jaguar. If you're into, codices (I'm not but still fascinated by this pictorial history), you'll no doubt spend hours gazing at these murals, and also the detailed scenes of more recent history and local life today.

Under the leadership of King Eight Deer Jaguar and numerous marital alliances, Tututepec's borders spread to the Juquila—Nopala area and at one time its boundaries reached all the way from the Guerrero border to Huatulco. Even today the Municipio of Tututepec encompasses a vast area, including the ecological zones of Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahua, La Laguna de Manialtepec and Playa Roca Blanca, to name a few. However, these lush, watery places near sea level are located several miles from Tutu. Nonetheless, you can see Lake Chacahua from the top of Bird Mountain--so they say.

The quiet calm of Tutu belies its tumultuous history. Between 1483 and 1519, the town withstood attacks from the Aztecs. Then in 1522 the Spanish arrived with an army 15,000 soldiers. They set out from Zaachila, conquered the Tutu Mixtecs and forced them to pay daily tributes. Also, they seized 36,000 Castellanos (gold pieces about the size of a U.S. quarter), but was unable to get the Mixtec King, (the venerable Lord Serpent) to reveal where more gold was hidden. Today, gold digging hopefuls are still traipsing through the hills and valleys of Tututepec in search of the shiny yellow coins. Through it all the hardy Mixtecs endured slavery and torture at the hands of their conquerors, yet their independent community survived.

Yucu Saa

One of the must-see sites is the ancient cemetery, from which you will get a direct view of Bird Mountain. Due to limited space, bodies are buried on top of each other and tombstones squeeze tightly together. Many gravestones show signs of earthquake action, making them look as if inhabitants are pushing their way out. Some list to the left or right and will most certainly topple one day.

Tututepec cemetery

Walking through this cemetery is like walking back in history, with centuries-old dates, some unreadable due to ages of weathering. During a visit to the cemetery be prepared to tread carefully among the damaged tombs, weave through fallen trees and sometimes come to a dead end. There are no clearly marked, smooth paths here. After bushwhacking among the tombstones, we wished we had taken a taxi up the hill to the cemetery and then walked back to town.

San Pedro Tututepec Pila

Taxis zip around everywhere from their sitios in the town square. The cemetery trek prompted us to take a taxi to several of the public laundry areas (pilas de agua), equipped with concrete wash basins and scrub boards. On a map in the Palacio Municipal we had noted the location of at least six of these public watering holes. Even late in the afternoon, women were pulling water up from the wells in buckets, and washing clothes.

At one site, a white horse stood patiently under a shade tree, waiting no doubt to carry its owner's clean, wet clothes back home. At another, clothes were drying on lines strung between trees while women rested on nearby rocks.

Like most towns in Mexico, social life centers around the church. The Templo de San Pedro dates to the 16th century, making it the oldest church on the coast of Oaxaca. The church has been renovated through the years, so it doesn't appear that ancient, but if you look closely at the exterior stonework, you'll notice patches of different stones and colors.

Church of San Pedro Tututepec

Many churches in Mexico are built on top of a pre-hispanic pyramid. And so was this one. It sits above the village, providing 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.

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.

Perhaps our first stop should have been The Museo Comunitario Yuca Saa. It's 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, with perseverance word spread that a couple of touristos wanted to visit the museum, which contains more than 2,000 pieces of shards, beads and small pottery items, many with legs in the shape of animals and birds. The exhibits offer an, under-glass-peek into life during the post-classic period.

Getting There

In most of my ventures out of Oaxaca City, the journey is as much fun as the destination. The 100-kilometer trip from Puerto Escondido to Tutu was no exception. The colectivo van took about 1.5 hours 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, slowed down by topes, 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 Tutu. If after a day of exploring, or perhaps at another time, should 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. We returned to Santa Rosa de Lima in a pickup truck outfitted with wooden benches with a tarp for shelter--sort of a modern-day covered wagon, where we transferred into a five-passenger taxi. Back to Puerto Escondido.

Recommended Links

If you are interested in learning more about San Pedro Tututepec, you might want to visit San Pedro Tututepec and San Pedro Tututepec's Graveyard.