canada de la virgen

When Cañada de la Virgen pyramid in the Mexican state of Guanajuato was excavated, it caused the whole map of Meso-America to change shape. Also, once the archeologists started discovering how the structures lined up with the moon and planets, it became obvious that the Maya were not the only ones really clued in to astronomy.

When most people think of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, the images are postcard-perfect Spanish colonial streets, the famous church on the square, and lots of retirees from the USA and Canada navigating the cobblestones and narrow sidewalks without falling.

That’s pretty much all I saw of it the first few times I visited except this Day of the Crazies parade. Even though my adopted home of Guanajuato is just an hour and a half from there, I never seemed to manage to get outside the confines of the city. That all changed in mid-December when I was researching an article and got into the countryside with Coyote Canyon Adventures. I was lucky enough to go out with expert archeologist Albert T. Coffee to explore the strange Canada de la Virgin pyramid just 30 kms from the city.

Coyote Canyon pyramid

This pyramid and a few others in the region are not Mayan nor Aztec, rather they were built by various tribes tied to the Toltecs. The site’s period of activity was from 540 to around 1050 AD, until a time when it got much drier in the area for a while and warring tribes created conflict.

There are a lot of strange aspects to this site, some amazingly advanced for the time. A circular structure here faces the celestial north, where the stars spin around in a circle throughout the year. The moon moves up the stairs of the pyramid during its cycle. It rises and falls perfectly in pyramid notches at key times in the lunar calendar and during solstice periods some of the planets are lined up as well. As with the other Meso-American pyramids, all this was built without any wheels or beasts of burden. Depending on who you ask, by Toltecs, Chichimec, Otomi, or some combination of these and other tribes. Professor Albert Coffee

One of the strangest things about this site is that it’s a public site that’s like an island on private land. A German expat bought the 18,000-acre ex-hacienda in the 1990s and it took several years of negotiation to work out public access to “her” pyramid. So the way it works is, you take a shuttle bus from a visitors’ center to a spot near the site, you walk uphill to it along a road, then through a gate in you’re there. Inside, you’re on government land. Outside, on hers. Because of this odd situation, and her not really wanting people around, the place is seldom crowded. The downside is you can’t come at night when the real magic happens.  Also, if you don’t book a tour with the right people, you’ll get a Spanish-speaking guide who doesn’t really have a lot of knowledge.

Astronomia Prehispanica MuseoA small museum nearby, the Astronomia Prehispanica Museo, was established by archeologist Rossana Quiroz Ennis. It has some great photos of the moon’s relationship with the structures here, taken at various times of the year, by people who did have night access. Quite intriguing and it’s run by donations.

There’s not all that much to do in San Miguel de Allende itself once you’ve had your fill of strolling the (nicely) gentrified streets, shopping, and eating at good restaurants. Hook up with Coyote Canyon Adventures for some fun activities outside of town, including a Cañada de la Virgen pyramid visit with a real expert.

 

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Tim Leffel is author of five travel books, including Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price, on living abroad. He is editor of Perceptive Travel webzine and this blog. He splits his time between Guanajuato, Mexico and Tampa Bay. See his writing portfolio, awards, and links to his books at TimLeffel.com.