copalita
Arqueological site at Copalita

Copalita: an archaeological treasure near Huatulco

A recent addition to Mexico’s rich archaeological treasures is the Bocana del Rio Copalita Eco-Archaeological Park, located some ten miles from central Huatulco.

While Copalita might lack the grandeur and majesty of such Oaxacan landmarks as Monte Alban, it is impressive in its own right, thanks to its setting on 87 hectares of Huatulco’s Ecological Reserve. It stretches from the mouth of the Copalito River, after which the park is named, through a zone of wetlands, gently rolling deciduous forests, steep cliffs and lookout points offering magnificent views of the ocean.

In 1996 researchers found signs of a significant settlement with several pre-Hispanic monuments beneath the dense forest vegetation. More than a decade of excavation and research indicates that the site was settled around 500 BC by groups from the Mexican Gulf, but it is uncertain who the original settler-builders were, because so many groups left their mark through the centuries. Mixes-zoques and chontales were certainly among the first.

Chichimecas, náhuatls, mixtecs and zapotecs all played a role until the site was finally abandoned at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 1520s.

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Fifteen hundred years ago, when Monte Albán was consolidating its status as the most important urban center in Oaxaca’s central valleys, Bocana del Río Copalita had developed into a town that possessed a writing system, a calendar and the ability to track astronomical activity and a complex political, socioeconomic and religious organization.

This town covered an area of about 30 hectares, and sustained a population of more than 2,000 people.

The people of Copalita lived off the generous environment, hunting, gathering and fishing for products to both consume and to trade. Other daily activities included basket weaving and making nets, weights and floats for fishing.

Because of the high acidity of the local soil, agriculture was limited and for purely local consumption, which probably explains why the population was limited in size.

The engineering and architecture of the excavated structures show an advanced knowledge of construction techniques. The builders, engravers and painters borrowed architectural styles and patterns from other regions, including Teotihuacan, but they also employed methods unique to Copalita, employing ingenious systems adapted to the site’s flat areas, as well as the surrounding hills and swampy marshes, creating enduring structures that survived frequent floodings and severe storms.

The 35 hectares open to the public include a civic-ceremonial center, consisting of plazas, temples and a ball court.

The park includes a site museum which gives an excellent perspective on the cultures which inhabited the various regions of what is now the state of Oaxaca throughout the millenia and how Copalita and the other important centers on the coast similarly developed.

There is a network of trails where visitors can observe the great diversity of flora and fauna that the park embraces. There are incredible vistas over the ocean and you can view the terraced hillsides which served as the residential area for the common folk; only the priests and the elite were allowed to live in and around the ceremonial center.

Around 1100 AD the coast was dominated by Mixteca lord 8 Venado, Jaguar Claw, the powerful Mixtec ruler of Tututepec who was the only Mixtec king to ever unite the upper and lower Mixtec regions with the coastal Mixtec. His empire extended all the way down to here.

Scholars are still deciphering the 15th-century Mixtec codices in which he appears, but the story so far is of a great but ruthless leader who fell victim to the same tactics he used against his enemies.

8 Venado was the son of a priest and named for the date of his birth. He had four brothers who also helped in his military campaigns. They and their allies conquered 94 cities which had never before been unified into one state.

Copalita represented the cultural frontier between the mixtec and zapotec peoples.

The town remained part of Copalitlan, place of copal, as Mexicans renamed it when they conquered the region between 1436 and 1464.

Bocana del Río Copalita

The Copalita River runs down from the Southern Sierra Madre and its waters flow through deep canyons with lush jungle vegetation and high cliff walls. The Copalita River offers some of the best white-water rafting and kayaking tours in the region, with three different sections of the river ranging from Class I-V.

“The Copalita Waterfalls” are also known as “Las Cascadas Magicas de Copalitilla” located an hour and half from Huatulco along the Copalita River, just above the village of Santa Maria Xadani. The majestic waterfalls vary in size and offer swimming, hiking and relaxation in an all natural setting. The larger waterfalls have a swing that you can swing and rapel from. Some tours to the falls also take in one of the area’s coffee plantations.

—Warren Sharpe