Oaxaca's Tourist Guide
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Black&White photos courtesy of Vittorio D'Onofri

The Ixcatecos


Historical Background
The inhabitants of Santa Maria Ixtacatlan are the only survivors of the Ixcateco nation.

Through documents of these people (Head of Ixcatln domains since Pre-Hispanic times), that date to the beginning the colonies (1578), there is evidence that another seven communities were located to the west of Santa Maria Ixcatln, in the Rio Seco (Dry river) zone, as evidenced by ruins found there. These towns were San Juan Viejo, Santiago, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, San Antonio Nopala, San Miguel Nopala and San Jeronimo, all of which are now unpopulated. They were probably abandoned because of the lack of water and agricultural failure.

Before the Spanish conquest, Ixcateco territory was also inhabited by the Mixteca culture, as suggested by ceramic artefacts found there. Archaeological data calculates that some 10,000 people were subject to Ixcatln (who also spoke the Ixcatec dialect), mainly from the communities mentioned above.

Due to the inaccessibility of the territory, the Ixcatecos remained an independent nation, until the time of Moctezuma II, toward the end of the fifteenth century. He invaded the Mixteca lands and was vanquished by them, as the main means of access were through Tecomavaca and Cuicatlan, neighbouring areas of the Ixcateca lands.

It is known that this nation was at war with the Mixtecos, possibly as allies of the Mazatecos.

Some linguists believe that Ixcatln means "Land of Cotton", which is no longer cultivated in this zone, but that probably was in the past, as it is seen that tributes of cotton were offered to the Mexicas in Huautla (with the same climate as Ixcatln).

Location and Environment
Ixcateco people inhabit only the town of Santa Maria de Ixcatln, in the municipality of same name, to the north of the State of Oaxaca. It is one of the most arid, eroded and poorest regions in the country.

The town is 13 miles north-east of Coixtlahuaca and 14 miles north-west of Cuicatlan, in the centre of a triangular-shaped valley, 1.24 to 1.9 miles wide. The Ixcatln Valley is bordered by mountains, meeting the Grande River to the west, and to the west is the Xiquila River. To the south, it borders on the Valleys of Coixtlahuaca and Nochixtlan. This dense mountainous area, also triangular, is approximately 24.8 miles in length and 270 square miles in area. Altitudes are between 1,300 and 1640 feet above the level of the valley, closing it off and leaving only one entrance, to the east. Only during the rainy season does the Ixcatln stream flow through a canyon at this point.

The town is the only community in the valley. It communicates with the outside world through a dusty road that runs in the south-west to Coixtlahuaca and Tamazulapan, where it meets the Pan-American highway. There is another road leading to Tecomovaca, where the Oaxaca-Mexico railroad passes.

The climate in Ixcatln is drier than in the rest of the Upper Mixteca. There is an annual precipitation of 12 inches, and relative humidity of 40-50 per cent. The average temperature is 59 to 62 F. The lack of rain, its bad annual distribution, and lack of intensity, make agriculture extremely risky. There is some rain during spring and summer, occasionally in the form of a storm, provoking soil erosion.

The soil is rocky, meaning that the fertile layer is very thin and easily eroded. The rock is soft, allowing caves to be dug. They are needed for the elaboration of hats because of their humidity and temperature, and provide construction materials, as well.

The soil's alkalinity allows palm trees to grow, which has contributed to making this region the centre of production for palm products in the Upper Mixteca.

Among the flora of the mountainous regions are, palm, pine, ocote, arbutus, juniper, evergreen oak, willow, ash, sabino, cedar, casahuate, acacia, oak and copal, but these forests are old trees, full of parasites and dying.

There is a deforesting process in zones near the town, which makes the erosion of the soil and lack of rain more acute.

Among the fauna are coyotes, deer, badgers, wild boars, opossum, weasels, armadillos, zenzontle, goldfinches, canaries, cacomistles, ringdoves, owls, crows, chachalacas, sparrows, hummingbirds, tarantulas, poisonous black spiders, and diverse snakes.