TAMPUMACCHAY, a most unusual "*balneario"

by Susan Dearing


Walkways lined with coconut
palms are like a nature trail
One of the most interesting archeological sites in the state, Tampumacchay (tahm-poo-mah-chahy) is a rather unique "Outdoor Museum," where the idea is to leave centuries-old artifacts in the outdoors, where they belong.

The gorgeous, perfectly groomed, tree-shaded grounds are graced with a myriad of walkways lined with large and small stone sculptures, hundreds of mortar and pestles, a ceremonial bed or two, and covers from the 200-plus tombs that were excavated at Tampu by American archeologists in the early 60s.

There's a display case for more delicate items, such as jewelry, copper money rings, clay idols, incense burners, clay sculptures and mammoth teeth, all found on the property.

Obviously, the archeological value of the pottery is priceless, but on the auction block, this valuable earthenware, believed to be Olmec, is priced at anywhere from $1,000-10,000 for a single piece.

Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking and beautiful, and among the world's masterpieces.

Jerry Long, of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
contemplates the meaning of the mysterious
carved-stone head

A carved creature of stone
just off the sidewalk

Display case
Overlooking a deep gorge, Tampu is a perfect place for photos. Most of the stone stelae you see on the premises are believed to be more than 2,000 years old.

It is thought that the earliest civilization in Central America—and possibly the earliest civilization in the Americas—was the Olmec culture, which arose sometime between 1200 and 1000 BCE. They originally lived in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mexico, but soon expanded into other areas, going as far south as Guatemala.

Deep valley cut by the
Los Ortizes River

Stone monument
La Venta

The most dramatic achievement of the Olmec was the creation of massive stone heads. Archaeologists believe that they may represent Olmec kings. Around 300 BCE, the Olmec vanished for reasons that vanished with them, though much of their culture and social structure was absorbed by other peoples. The Olmec, as far as researchers can tell, are the first chain in the development of Mesoamerican culture.

La Venta's heyday was between 900 and 600 BCE, but it is known to have been still inhabited at the beginning of the Christian era.

Stone rabbit
La Venta

Though the carved-stone sculptures at Tampu aren't as massive as the 9 foot-tall monuments found at La Venta, in the state of Tabasco, they are impressive nonetheless--partly because of the artists' creativity, and partly because most glyphs in Mexico are carved on rocks, not carved from an entire rock itself. The mystery surrounding the five massive rock monoliths at La Venta stem from the basalt quarry being more than 50 miles away to the massive stone monuments' final location: How did the Olmec get the five 20-ton statues to La Venta more than 2,000 years ago??
The stone carvings of Tampu were found in various locations on the private land of Ricardo Larios, now deceased. Some were in groupings with other figures; some were standing alone as if guarding a tomb, or gazing out over the canyon. All were brought unceremoniously by pick-up truck to their present location on the grounds of the restaurant/bar/*balneareo.

According to researchers and archeologists, what little information is available on the Olmec, is based on studying the ancient ruins and artifacts. Olmec society was very simple, they believe. It was essentially divided into two groups: the elite group lived in small urban centers, and the common people lived in the rural areas.

The Olmec were overwhelmingly an agricultural people. The elite lived off of the agriculture of the common people, but they probably didn't rule over the agricultural populations. Instead, they carried out religious ceremonies centered in the towns and carried out commercial trade in luxury and artistic items.

Although archeologists don't know any of the Olmec king names, they do know that the rituals associated with a king included an emphasis on the sun, and references to solar equinoxes were built into platform and plaza configurations. Sun glyph iconography is seen on many locations, and there is an undeniable importance of sunflower in dietary and ritual contexts.

Shaft tomb of King

Shaft tomb of Queen
At Tampu, where all of the 230+ shaft tombs were excavated, two were much larger and contained more pottery, jewelry, food, and other items.

It was surmised by the professionals in their field that these two tombs were of a king and queen.

They are open to the public (for a small fee), though to the unqualified, the tombs just look like a hole in the ground.

Though archeologists unearthed a great number of shaft tombs (and removed the artifacts), most tombs have caved in or have filled back in because of the summer rains. (A shaft-tomb is a vertical hole, about 3 feet in diameter, dug into the rocky ground to a depth of approximately 6-10 feet.) At the bottom of each vertical shaft are 1-5 horizontal shallow rooms , each containing between 1-6 bodies. The tombs were sealed with square, hand-cut stone covers. You can find them decorating walls around Tampu.
Tomb covers built into wall and Mortars & pestles leaning up against the wall

Overview of length of wall constructed with rare artifacts cemented in

Looking down into the
deep-cut gorge

Tour group poses with giant cactus in the background

The Olmec farms and hamlets and centers at Tampu were situated on and next to a diverse set of landforms, including floodplain lowlands, plains, plateau uplands, and volcanic highlands. But the large Olmec capitals were based on high places in the floodplains of big rivers.

At Tampu, the Los Ortizes river is at the bottom of the canyon and is a major water source for the area. Most likely 2,000 years ago, the level was much higher.

Upon first visiting Tampumacchay about 15 years ago, you could see the outline of a pyramid, which looked more like a hill than a man-made monument. It was explained to me by the guide at the time that the Spaniards, at the time of the conquest, used the smooth river rocks of the pyramid to continue the road they were building from Mexico City to the coast. Today, it looks like just another lazily-sloping hill, but in your mind, while staring out and over the king's tomb, you can imagine the great structure looming in the distance.

Hill which is believed
to have been a pyramid

Mortar & pestles

Manioc or cassava root, still
grown as a major staple
today throughout Mexico and Latin America
The Olmec relied on domestic maize, sunflower, and *manioc, later domesticating beans. They also gathered squash, and chili peppers. There is some possibility that the Olmec were the first to use chocolate. The maize was ground up with a *mortar & pestle, and as you explore Tampu, you'll see many that have survived for more than 20 centuries.

The main source of animal protein was domesticated dog, but that was supplemented with deer, wild boar, birds, fish, turtles, and coastal shellfish. Deer in particular was specifically associated with ritual feasting.

Tampumacchay has a restaurant and bar with excellent *chamorro, and other items reasonably priced, a swimming pool ($35 pesos to use/$30 for children), a suspension bridge (with a few slats missing), regional archeological exhibition (the windows need cleaning bad!), a 2-room hotel (not fancy, just functional, $350 pesos) and camping areas ($50 pesos/night). It is an ideal place for those who like limestone regions (not the ugly sand, rock and gravel operation on the far bank), and out at the site of the tombs, will see giant cactus. If you go on a weekend, you will have more selection on the restaurant menu, especially during the summer.

Shady picnic area


Lounging poolside

Stone head at pool

A great way to spend a day and have a Mexican-style lunch. If you wish to use the pool bring along your suit. There are changing rooms poolside. Susana, the caretaker/cook/waitress has been there for years, and will take good care of you.

Suspension bridge, missing some boards, but still usable if you're careful

Suspension bridge
entrance--enter at your
own risk

Ricardo Larios, Jr. now runs his father's legacy. Unfortunately, at this time, there is much deferred maintenance that needs to be done.

It doesn't spoil the atmosphere of this amazing place much, but the care and pride that his father gave Tampu is gone.

This stone possibly shows the locations of the tombs of the royal family

An example of a ceremonial bed, the posts of which found in one of the tombs

More tree-lined walkways,
and stone carvings all along
|the way

GPS coordinates:
Longitude: 1034350
Latitude: 190636

Phone: (312) 330-3904
Cellular: 045-312-317-2381 (from Manzanillo) English not spoken

Altitude: 322 mt./1,056 ft.

Clay idol

Mammoth molar

DIRECTIONS: (Tampu is 17 km./10 mi. south of Colima.) From Manzanillo, drive toward Colima on highway 54 (either the toll road (cuota) or free road (libre). Immediately after you pass the Cactus Exoticos (Exotic Cactus) nursery (worth a stop to see some amazing plants), turn right, and drive about four kilometers toward the town of Los Ortices. Turn right onto an unmarked road. In a few minutes you'll see a sign to Tampumacchay. Turn right again and after only 85 meters you'll see a Tampumacchay Restaurant sign pointing toward an opening through a fence on the left. Drive through this gate/fence and through a second one (the road has many potholes--avoid using a vehicle that is really low), and finally the road will turn to cobblestone, and go downhill. It will dead end at the pool, where there used to be a huge, elegant tree, but the termites finally had their last meal, and the beautiful tree now only is a dead trunk.


*Balneario: A balneario (bahl-knee-ahr-rhee-oh) used to be a spot in the river where people would go to bathe, wash clothes, etc. Today, the term is used for a place to swim and picnic. It can be a spot in the river that is dammed off to form a pool, or an actual swimming pool. You can bring your own food for a picnic and rent a table and chairs, or buy your food from a restaurant.

*Chamorro is a slow-roasted pork shank (usually wrapped in a banana leaf to keep in juices), with a spicy gravy. Yummy!

*Manioc: Also known as cassava or farina: a starch made by leaching and drying the root of the cassava plant; the source of tapioca; a staple food in the tropics. The manioc plant has long tuberous edible roots and soft brittle stems; used especially to make cassiri (an intoxicating drink) and tapioca. The leaves are also edible cooked and served like spinach.

A China-based company has recently invested in a new biofuel facility to produce 33 million gallons a year of bioethanol from cassava plants. The plans follow recent moves from the Beijing government to ban the use of grain-based energy crops in bioethanol, amid concerns demand had led to a decline in food supplies. Cassava avoids the ban as it is a root vegetable that represents China's fifth-largest crop yield after rice, sweet potato, sugarcane and maize.

*A mortar and pestle is a tool used to crush, grind, and mix solid substances. The pestle is a heavy bat-shaped object, the end of which is used for crushing and grinding. The mortar is a typically a bowl, but in the instance of the indigenous people who used it, the mortar was square in shape, carved out of stone with 1-2 in. sides. A substance is placed in the mortar and ground, crushed or mixed with the pestle.

Tours to Tampumacchay can be arranged by e-mailing: info@gomanzanillo.com, or by calling (Manzanillo) 314-333-3678.

For more information about Manzanillo and the state of Colima, get Susan Dearing's guidebook, "Manzanillo and the state of Colima, Facts, Tips & Day Trips." The author of this article is a 20-year resident of Manznaillo, and has written more than 90 articles for the internet.