La Cañada de la Virgen Archaeological Site
On a recent visit to this newly discovered and excavated archaeological site, we were the first guests to arrive at the visitor center, about 20 minutes outside San Miguel de Allende. The morning air was fresh, even cool, and my friends shivered in their shorts. The first rains of the season had washed the high desert landscape, and busty white clouds promised more rain later in the day.
Thinking the site opened at 9:30, we arrived at 9:10. But in actuality the first guided tour leaves at 10. All visitors must go to the site in small groups accompanied by a guide. We looked at the pictures in the visitor center, labeled in Spanish only, and hung out until the tour began. No other guests had showed up, so we had the place to ourselves.
After a seven-kilometer bus ride, we walked to see the ancient structures along the same ceremonial road used by the original visitors more than a thousand years ago. According to our local guide, Roberto, some 90 communities from the region made regular pilgrimages here for religious ceremonies. The one-kilometer road---paved in flat stones---was originally lined with stone statues which have been lost to time.
Walking in is a satisfying way to arrive. At the major archaeological sites like Chichén Itzá, the visitor’s first impression is a hectic, modern one of hawkers selling T-shirts and souvenirs. But at Cañada de la Virgen, we approached on foot through rolling hills where stony-eyed bulls, doe-eyed calves, and healthy looking horses roamed free among the prickly pear cactus and tenacious huizache trees.
This ceremonial site in the Laja River Basin flourished between about AD540 and 1050. Although scholars have more questions than answers about its builders, iconographic, linguistic, architectural, and forensic evidence suggest that it was the ancestors of the Otomí, who presently live in the area, who built it. Anthropologists believe that this site was linked to more than 50 others throughout central Mexico; there’s evidence to support the theory that it was strongly influenced by both Teotihuacan and later the Toltec empire.
Only the priestly caste is thought to have lived on site. They studied the heavens to determine appropriate dates for planting, harvesting, and for celebrating religious ceremonies. Both the access road and the temple bases were built in a precise, east-west orientation to align with the movement of the sun, moon, and the stars: especially Venus, the morning star.
The inhabitants also engineered a drainage system, siphoning water from the higher part of the site to fill a natural pond, or estanque. The pond was filled with rainwater via stone canals to store water during the dry season. In addition to water, the plateau provided building materials, and native plants were harvested. Today the Jardín de Arbustivas Nativas is an attractive botanical garden displaying regional plants. The names are given in Spanish and Latin, however neither the English names nor an explanation of their uses are provided. The plants are grouped according to use: ceremonial or medicinal plants, for example, or those used in construction or as domestic utensils. The sun shape of the garden was taken from the design on a ceramic piece found in Complex A.
Complex A, called Casa de los 13 Cielos (House of the Thirteen Skies) is the most extensive group of buildings. An interesting burial site was found inside The Red Temple (el Templo Rojo) at the top of the main structure. Carbon dating indicates that this individual died in the 8th century BC and was transferred and buried in this tomb at least 1,000 years later. Most likely a warrior, the man showed evidence of broken and healed ribs as well as the wound which most likely killed him. The body was buried in Toltec style, with the bottom portion of the legs severed and a red stripe painted on the head. Faded colors of the tomb represent the four cardinal points and the associated gods. The only one of the structures that you can climb, it affords an excellent view of the botanical garden and the other structures on site.
Complex D, called La Casa del Viento (House of the Wind), is a circular structure most likely dedicated to the God of the Wind, Ehecatl. Evidence of ritual burial is seen in the grave of a young woman whose grave included ceremonially broken pots. Our guide stressed, however, that while these dead were ritually consecrated and buried, they were not sacrificed. Unlike victims that the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures offered as sacrifices to appease the gods, these folks died of natural causes and were later buried with ritual items and religious ceremony.
Casa de la Noche Más Larga (House of the Longest Night, Complex B) is surrounded on all four sides by platforms. Like other parts of the old city, it shows three distinct eras of construction. Evidence suggests that one adjacent structure was used as a steam room, while another was used to store grain. On the south side of the complex, a ritual burial of a young girl has been dubbed La Niña de la Lluvia (Young Girl of the Rain) because of its location in a canal channeling rainwater. Buried with the youngster was a spindle as well as a small coyote, the latter most likely as a companion for the dead child into the afterlife as well as a symbol of ancestor veneration.
Guards are stationed at their respective structures, most of which can be viewed from a short distance but cannot be climbed. Dirt paths wind between pepper trees, mesquite, and nopal cacti. Note the colors of the locally quarried stone, which vary in color among red, yellow, orange and green.
This intriguing new site hosts just a few dozen visitors on a typical day mid-week and up to 300 visitors a day on weekends.
CANADA DE LA VIRGEN TRAVEL GUIDE
Cost to enter is 30 pesos, which includes the bus to the entrance site and the guide; no discounts for the over-60 crowd. Closed Mondays. Guided tours depart from the visitor center at one-hour intervals between 10AM and 4PM; visitors then walk a one-kilometer road of flat paving stones. It is always wise to call ahead to check times if possible. The off-site phone number for La Canada info is 473/102-2700, extensions 104 and105.
From San Miguel de Allende, take the highway south towards Celaya from the La Alhóndiga Traffic Circle, across from the Mega supermarket at the outskirts of San Miguel. After about six miles, just past Presa Allende (Allende Lake), head west toward Guanajuato. Follow the signs; it’s about 23 miles from Mega to the site. If you don’t have wheels, expect to pay approximately 300 pesos from San Miguel de Allende for a round-trip ride from local taxi, including wait time.
The museum presently shows photographs of the dig and some informational posters, all in Spanish only. Bring water and a hat and sunscreen, as there is at present no shop onsite.
English speakers may enjoy more in-depth information provided by Albert Coffee, who worked with the site archaeological team in 2004. For an additional charge Mr. Coffee takes visitors afterwards for a typical ranch meal in nearby Xotolar, the closest village, or on horseback rides of the area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his cell phone: 415/102-5583.