Yelapa lies on the southern shore of the Bay of Banderas, on the west
coast of Mexico in the state of Jalisco. It is part of a much larger
indigenous community (comunidad indigena, in Spanish), made up of about
25,000 square hectares, including several other coastal and mountain
villages. It is a unique community—one of the few remaining on
Earth where the original inhabitants still reside on, own and control
their own lands. This brief summary gives a general overview of the
area and recounts what we know of the earliest beginnings of Yelapa.
This area is in what is geologically known as the Southern Escarpment,
one of Mexico’s several immense mountain ranges dividing and defining
the country’s regions. The land is densely foliated from the sea
to the peaks, boasting a wide range of tropical flowering plants and
trees, truly a nature lover’s delight. This is a tropical dry
broadleaf forest, where the wet or rainy season lasts to nearly half
the year, leaving the land gradually drying in the winter and the spring.
This particular region of Mexico was cited by the magazine Cultural
Survival as one of the richest and most valuable bioregions in the world:
“The aggregate ecoregion unit encompassed by Mexican dry forests
is particularly noteworthy …This ‘ecosystem’ not only
supports a relatively high indigenous cultural diversity (about 30 distinct
groups) … it also represents one of the world’s oldest important
repositories of genetic resources. Its forest tree genetic resources
rival that of any topical moist forest region. Even more significantly,
its crop plant genetic resources, which include wild relatives of maize,
cotton, peppers, and squash, are the basis of some of the world’s
most valuable commercial crops.” (1) Indeed, according to this
source, this area of Mexico is second only to the Amazon rain basin
in terms of biodiversity and numbers of indigenous communities.
Yelapa lies on the bay about 15 miles southwest of Puerto Vallarta.
The El Tuito River empties into the sea here, as well as another small
mountain tributary. Yelapa’s name is said to be an old Indian
one meaning “where two rivers meet the sea.” About 1,400
Mexicans live here, spreading back from the seaside village into the
Tuito river valley. The elders say that Yelapa was initially settled
by four families, who came down the mountain from the parent village
of Chacala, in the mountains above Yelapa. Today these close ties still
hold: almost everyone is multiply related and has family in Chacala.
In addition to these indigenous residents, about 30 persons from other
places, mostly the USA and Canada, have settled full-time in Yelapa.
Another hundred or so foreigners come back every year for extended stays,
and anywhere from a handful to several hundred tourists may also be
on hand, depending on the time of year.
As a comunidad indigena, this area shares, with a handful of others
in Mexico, a unique status: it is a land grant or reservation, which
is legally set aside and protected for the indigenous people who are
recognized as having always lived there. The land is held collectively,
by the community as a whole. There is no private ownership of land by
anyone, even its indigenous residents, though it is possible for families
to occupy and claim land by using or cultivating it, and then by buying
and selling it. Outsiders, however, may not buy or claim any land here
at all. This unique place, therefore, is one to support and enjoy rather
than to claim and own.
The formal governing council for the community is in Chacala, the original
township. Chacala is reachable by car or bus on the steeply climbing
inland highway, leaving Puerto Vallarta from the mouth of the Tomatlan
River, which marks the end-point of the area’s highly developed
tourist industry. The road continues inland to El Tuito, the center
of the municipio or the county seat, and finally on a smaller, rougher
road off the highway to Chacala. Yelapa residents more typically travel
to Chacala up a dirt road from above the Yelapa cemetary, which is passable
by vehicle only in the dry season, or by trail, on foot or on horseback
at other times. The comunidad includes the villages and settlements
of Yelapa, Las Animas, Quimixto, Pizota, Playa de Caballo, Majahuitas,
Caletas, Caletitas, Colimiya, Chacala, Moscotita. El Algodon, and Tecuani.
The high mountains behind Yelapa have not been crossed by roads, so
the only ways to get here are to come by boat from a nearby town, such
as Puerto Vallarta, to walk or ride a horse or mule on the long, rocky
coastal route, or to come down on the trail or dirt road from Chacala.
There are no roads per se in Yelapa. Some trails are now paved with
cobblestones, but most remain as natural paths.
Modern conveniences are very recent. Electricity and phones arrived
at the pueblo in 2001. Water is carried to the village from the nearby
waterways through pipes or plastic tubing for inside plumbing. There
is no water delivery system, though vigorous planning for such a system
typically happens every dry season. This means that water is not continuously
available to all households. In the dry season, in May and June in particular,
some areas can be dry for extensive periods. There is no sewer system
either, with sanitation being supplied by septic tanks.
All of this means that the most basic tasks of living - walking, cleaning,
carrying and building, and certainly bringing needed items in - can
quickly acquire a new meaning and importance here in Yelapa. For outsiders
it’s a unique opportunity to live more simply and holistically.
Yelapa can often seem to visitors like an island outside of time and
space. Living more simply contributes to the experience.
It has been said the whole of Mexico is one vast archaeological dig.
This is certainly apparent to the visitor of the Aztec pyramids, the
ancient sites of Monte Alban and Mitla, and the Mayan ruins in Yucatan.
Yelapa’s region has had, by comparison, only a small amount of
excavation. Isabel Kelley (1945), however, has documented a rich pre-conquest
civilization in the Autlan area, just south and east of the comunidad.
Kelley stated, “Both archaeological and historical data indicate
that the Autlan area was a zone of high culture. At the time of the
conquest, the population was about as dense as it is today; sedentary
village life was based upon agriculture; irrigation was practiced; there
were markets; well water was drunk in areas where springs or perennial
streams were wanting; clothing was of cotton and maguey; ceramic and
presumably other arts were well developed.” (2)
The first recorded contact with outsiders was a military party led by
Francisco Cortes, cousin to Hernan Cortes, the famous conqueror of Mexico.
In 1524 Cortes led a party from Colima north through Autlan as far as
Tepic, returning the next year down the coast to the Bay of Banderas,
home of the communidad and present day Puerto Vallarta. We have diary
accounts by the party’s cleric, Father Tello, of this hot and
weary army bludgeoning their way through the valley, finally capturing
about 100 Indians for guides on their climb into what Tello, called
“La Provincia de Los Frailes,” the coastal and mountain
lands culminating in Cabo Corrientes. (3)
As they made their weary way into the mountains near what today is El
Tuito, their journey took on another tone. They were met by a large
welcoming group of friendly natives. Tello describes them as dressed
in elaborate feathered headdresses and bearing large crosses made of
white wood and cane, all of which he writes, “… was truly
much to see.” (This vision of the feathered headdresses lent the
group the name Los Coronados, or the crowned ones, a name that often
appears in the historical literature afterwards and which was passed
down and is still remembered by some of the elders in the community.)
The natives pleaded with Cortes to remove his army from their lands,
stating that they were a peace loving people wishing only friendly relations.
Cortes was apparently taken aback by this overture of friendship. He
subsequently laid down his arms and took advantage of their hospitality.
The historical accounts speak of feasting and dancing and the Spaniard’s
praise of this tranquil and happy place. He then left the area untouched
and free, thus sparing this group of Indians the fate of enslavement
that fell to their compatriots all over Mexico. (4)
In 1527, Cortes returned to El Tuito and called the inhabitants together
at the newly built church of El Torito (Santa Cruz de Los Ramos) to
celebrate its first mass. He then established initial contact with two
other villages some distance from the church, Tomatlan and Piloto. (5)
These early contacts were very important for the comunidad, as they
helped to provide the legal basis later for the natives’ obtaining
official recognition from the King of Spain of their right to their
In 1581, King Philip II of Spain did indeed formally grant the property
rights of this territory to the people of Yelapa and their community.
This remarkable early history is described by elder and former President
of the community, Espiridion Ramos:
The document is dated in 1581. The Crown concedes the land to the
indigenous community of Chacala. This document defines the land as reaching
from one mountain to another mountain with a river passing in the middle.
This document was accompanied by another document that referred to the
city of Amula, today the city of Guzman. The indigenous people later
bought the land from the Crown with money believed to have come from
the mining that supported the 12,000 inhabitants of Chacala, and the
document was safeguarded with a family in Chacala … The document
defined the 25,000 hectares of the community and, starting in 1729,
the community, little by little, acquired additional land in which is
now found Chacala, the headquarters of the community, Yelapa, Quimixto,
Las Animas, and, to the south, Pizota, Mascota, and El Algodon.…
It is this document that grants to this community the special status
of communidad indigena, protected in the Mexican Constitution of 1910.
It stipulates that this land has always belonged collectively to these
people and that they have the right to continue to independently own
and occupy it.
Less is documented about the comunidad for the next 200 years, perhaps
providentially, as this is the time of the bloody enslavement of native
Mexicans and theft of their lands. This shameful and violent activity
continued throughout the Colonial period, in Maximillian’s brief
reign in the mid 1800’s, in the more supportive administration
of Indian leader Benito Juarez, and certainly and perhaps at its worst,
in the land-grabbing decades of Mexican Independence from the time Diaz
up until the great revolution of 1910. (7) Throughout this period, happily,
the Communidad de Chacala remained independent.
The historical geographer Peter Gerhard has tracked this area as a part
of the larger region of Purificacion in Cabo Corrientes. According to
Gerhard, much of this land was briefly granted to a Spaniard, Ortiz
de Zuniga, in the late 1500’s. This status generally meant for
the native people that though they could remain on indigenous lands,
they were subjects of and owed regular tributes in grain or other resources
to their landlord. After 1608 he describes it as subject only to the
Spanish Crown. (8) Old timers in the community recall this temporary
change of status. They speak of a time in which their lands were granted
to someone else, and they were supposed to pay tribute. They say, however,
that their forebearers largely ignored this obligation. Later, as elder
Ramos described above, precious metals from mines in their own lands
were used to buy back some of the lands that had been claimed earlier
by outsiders. (9)
Peter Gerhard’s study of the fate of these villages shows that
whatever their legal status, they remained free and largely ignored
during the colonial period. He has speculated that pirate raids of trading
routes off the Pacific Coast of Mexico may have partially accounted
for the fact that the Spaniards left this extensive area virtually undisturbed
for the next two centuries. Another reason might be its natives’
reputation for resistance and rebellions. Indeed, it became a safe haven
for many, such as African slaves escaping from their cruel fates in
the low-land fields. (10)
The comunidad indigena of Yelapa today enjoys the protection of the
Mexican Constitution in Article 27. The fight for land continues, however
as Mexico struggles to enter the modern technological marketplace. It’s
an uphill path, moreover, in this faltering, debt ridden economy, where
about two thirds of the people still live in small rural villages, where
at least that number feed themselves through subsistence agriculture,
and where you are as likely to see a wooden plow behind a mule as any
kind of mechanized farming device.
Here in Yelapa this past and present merge. Residents live as they have
for centuries on lands they hold in common. Yet just a short boat ride
away is Puerto Vallarta, nearly totally claimed and developed by foreign,
corporate interests. Can Yelapa remain a true collective trust, or will
its own inhabitants choose rather to sell or lease their lands to foreign
developers, as did some of their indigenous neighbors in Puerto Vallarta
just a few short decades ago? Will the beleaguered Mexican government
appropriate this land for development without even giving its people
a say? These struggles are those of indigenous peoples the world over,
and the outcomes bear great import for us all.
As visitors here, we can simply enjoy as honored guests this precious
land. We need, however, to appreciate its unique context, for the tranquility
and sense of community arise out of the whole cloth. Yelapa remains
a testament to a long, proud struggle of a native people who have, at
least till now, been able to hold their land.
1) Wilcox, Bruce A. and Duin, Kristin N., “Indigenous Cultural
and Biological Diversity,” in Cultural Survival Quarterly, Winter,
1995, p. 53.
2) Kelley, Isabel. Ibero-Americana: 26. The Archeology of the Autlan
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1945, p. 79.
3) A good summary of the historical and archival first-hand accounts
of these contacts appears in English in Peter Gerhard’s The Northern
Frontier of New Spain, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
My contextual understanding of the entire colonial epoch in Yelapa is
based on his work here. By means of Gerhard’s citations and references,
and because of the excellent resources in the Bancroft Library at UC
Berkeley, I was also able to read first-hand accounts of this journey
in Cronica Miscelanea de la Sancta Provincia de Xalisco por Fray-Antonio
Tello. Vol. 1, Guadalajara: September 16, 1730. This is supposedly taken
from an original clerical diary, dating from 1653. The observations
in this diary are confirmed in a documentary of the history of the Catholic
Church in El Tuito, in C. Brambila’s Opispado de Autlan, October
4) Ibid., p. 67; Brambila, op.cit., pp. 205-206.
5) Tello, op.cit., p. 67; Brambila, op.cit., pp. 206-207.
6) Interview by Charlie Chicharra with Espiridion Joya Ramos, in Hola
Amigo, a locally published newspaper of the ex-patriot community, Yelapa.
7) Good histories of Mexico from the perspectives of its native peoples
and their lands are: Helen Phipps, Some Aspects of the Agrarian Question
in Mexico, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Bulletin, No. 2515, April
15, 1925; George McCutchen McBride, The Land Systems of Mexico, New
York: American Georgraphical Society, Research Series No. 12, 1923;
Eyler Simpson, The Ejido, Mexico’s Way Out, Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1037; Nathan L. Whetten, Rural Mexico, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1948.
8) Gerhard, Peter, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain,
Cambridge: University Press, 1972, p. 119.
9) Ramos interview, op.cit.
10) Gerhard, Peter, Pirates of the West Coast of New Spain: 1575-1741,
Glendale, CA: The Arthur A. Clark Co., 1960, pp. 48-49 and pp. 117-121.