Nopala, Land of the Nopales in the Aztec language (which translates to La B’ya in Chatino), is a pretty little place, perched on a hill surrounded by green mountains. You can best appreciate all this by climbing the stairs (as a formality, ask the policeman on the porch if it’s OK) to the top floor of the palacio municipal, just uphill from the main-plaza market. On the south (sunny side) rises Cerro de Atole, with the cross on top, where everyone climbs on February 24, the Día de la Bandera (Day of the Flag), and feasts upon the view, including the blue Pacific.
The name of the mountain, from atole, a nourishing Mexican drink made from corn, comes from the time when every house in town was a jacal, or thatched hut. In those days, building a new house was a community affair, when all the neighbors would climb the Cerro de Atole to gather the pasto (grass) for the new house’s roof. When the work was all done, the owner would reward his friends with a party, which would include plenty of atole.
On the opposite side, toward the northwest, notice the apparent gash below the mountain summit, which rises perhaps three miles (five km) beyond the town limits. That’s the big Cascada de San Juan Lachao (about six miles/10 km, by road), a waterfall that’s a locally popular place for cooling off on a hot day. To the right of that, approximately due north, rises Cerro La Iglesia (a steep, one-hour hike), named for the ruined fortified city, an important archaeological site, halfway down its flank. A bit farther to the right (east) of that, also halfway down yet another jungle-clad mountain, you can just make out some of the buildings of Finca Costoche (half-hour hike), a locally prominent coffee farm named for the jaguarundi, a wildcat and ferocious chicken-eater common in these parts.
In the northeast foreground, to the right behind the plaza-front buildings, you may be able to make out the mossy, colonial-style facade of the venerable Templo de Los Reyes Santo Magos (Church of the Holy Magi Kings), now replaced by the new church on its left. From here, townsfolk hold their yearly patronal festival for three days centering on El Día de Los Reyes, January 6. Invariably, townsfolk will enjoy a big party, including fireworks, a calenda (procession) carrying the images of their patron kings, and the town’s favorite dances. These include the Guajalote (offering of the turkey) and Las Chilenas, a courtship dance not unlike the renowned Jarabe Tapatía, the so-called Mexican Hat Dance of Guadalajara.
Also in the foreground, to the east, you can see the redbrick decor of the one-of-a-kind Hotel Palacio Chatino, the town’s most prominent hotel, labor of love of Dr. Elfego Zurita.
As you make your way down from atop the palacio municipal, be sure to take a close look at the several stelae embedded into the upper-floor and stairwell walls. Archaeologists, who dug them up at Cerro La Iglesia, believe them to represent Chatino high priests or kings, dating from about 500 B.C. If you look carefully around the bases, you’ll see some yet-to-be deciphered name-dates, presumably of the personages represented. Notice that the upstairs figures have their arms folded over their chests, as in a burial, while the one in the middle of the stairwell is a priest in the act of human sacrifice, holding an obsidian knife in his right hand and a (gulp!) human heart in his left. (Note: Plans are afoot in Nopala to open a new museum to display their artifacts; there’s a chance that the aforementioned stelae may move to the new museum, on the north side of the plaza.)
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition