Driving through Los Piccachos, a mountain range that is home to the volcano Palo Huerfano, I found myself pondering the pyramids I was about to see and reminding myself how they were built without beasts of burden, machines, or even metal tools. Cañada de la Virgen is a recently-discovered archeological site outside San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My tour leader Albert Coffee, an expert in Mesoamerican archaeology who helped excavate the ruins, prefers to say the site was "rediscovered" by outsiders. Locals never forgot it existed.
Due to the volcano looming over the valley, ancient people had fertile soil, sharp obsidian to make tools, plus basalt and cantera stone for building pyramids. Yet, natural resources weren't the only thing these sophisticated people had going for them. For millenia, they understood the symbiotic relationship between corn, beans and squash, which provide just the right combination for growing conditions and human diet when cultivated together. Moreover, their knowledge of astronomy and architecture is astounding.
Señor Coffee explained their horizon clock, which aligned with the sunrise on two crucial days a year: planting and harvest. The sunken patio structure of the pyramids allows for natural reflection-pool observatories to chart the movements of planets and stars. Ancient people mirrored the terrain and cosmos in their architecture, lining up landmarks as well as equinoxes with points on a pyramid's structure. “I consider myself an interpreter for people who can no longer speak for themselves,” Coffee said.
Side-stepping up the temple stairs, we had a perfect view from the top of landmarks and their alignment with the pre-Columbian constructions, including the house of the wind, the house of the rain and botanical gardens scattered with fragments of earth-tone pottery. While there are theories on who built these pyramids, Coffee isn't convinced that the evidence gives a definitive answer. So, who does he believe built the structures? Only more research can say.
Albert Coffee guides as a part of Coyote Canyon Adventure Tours. It was undoubtedly the best experience I've had visiting archeological ruins, rivaling Phaestos in Crete, Larabanga in Ghana and Macchu Picchu in Peru. Coffee shared with us a vast knowledge of details from ancient practices to the site's modern context. Had I paid the fee and walked around the grounds reading signs (as I had originally planned), I'd have received only a fraction of the informational wealth he had to offer. Next on the agenda? His tour that ends in a tequila tasting!
Mittie Babette Roger is from Louisiana but lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Naropa University and authored the book It's Better to Visit the Shaman Without Questions to Ask. She travels the world volunteering to help disadvantaged children and promoting Blue Iguana Tequila to empower serious drinkers.