A new essay by Ron Canter on the Soconusco trails (water and land) between present-day Chiapas and the Guatemalan Highlands. These were major trade routes in Classic Maya times. Click below for the full essay.
Soconusco Road - The “Low Road”
The Soconusco Road is a major trade route that needs notice even
though outside the highlands themselves. It was actually two parallel
routes, one by land and one by water. The coastal plain, averaging 16 to
20 km wide, slopes gently from the foot of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas
[Siera de Soconusco] to the Pacific Ocean. A series of swamps and coastal
lagoons lie behind barrier islands.
A very ancient trail followed the littoral from the Ismuth of
Tehuantepec to the Guatemalan Highlands. In the dry season the way was
easy (Diaz, 1568). The route stayed on dry, level ground between swamp and
mountain. At large rivers the path swerved inland to cross above the
deeper channels near the coast. Smaller rivers were frequent, so travelers
could satisfy their thirst. In the wet season rivers large and small
swelled and became difficult (Navarrete, 1978). The way became a series of
soggy paths and risky fords. But there was an alternative.
Canoe travel offshore is too dangerous anywhere near the Ismuth of
Tehuantepec, where the Trade Winds funnel through a wide gap in the ranges.
The Pacific is scoured by violent offshore windstorms. Today the coastal
lagoons are not continuous, and offer no protected passage behind the
barrier islands. But it was not always so.
As late as the beginning of the 20th century, a series of canals
linked all the coastal lagoons to form a sheltered waterway running behind
the coast from Juchitan to Guatemala. “The natives of the towns
communicate with one another by means of drains and canals that they open
in the marshes to make such a network that one could get lost in it if he
should attempt to navigate them without a knowledgeable native” as Fray
Tomas Torres described them (Navarrete, 1978). Dana and Ginger Lamb
followed ingrown segments of it on their canoe trip along the Pacific Coast
(Lamb 1938). They too completely avoided the open sea, but were forced to
make several portages where canals had closed up.
In the past each town had its port on the nearest lagoon or channel.
Torres also noted that, for some products, canoe transport through
Sosonusco had a great advantage. “Another important product was Guatemalan
and Oaxacan pottery, whose transport by animals was very risky due to the
fragile nature” (Navarrete, 1978). When the canal system was completed is
not clear, but it was already well established when the Spanish arrived.
Its vestiges are still there in the swamps, waiting to be mapped.
Though longer than several routes to Guatemala via the highlands, the
Soconusco Road was fast, avoided mountain crossings, and was overall very
competitive with other routes. Once the lagoons were linked by canals, the
canoe trail became arguably the most efficient route in Mesoamerica. Not
one portage or rapid interrupted it. New ideas appear to have leapt along
it from the Olmec Gulf Coast region to Izapa, Takalik Abaj, and Kaminalyuju
in the Guatemalan highlands. In addition, the coastal plain was a major
cacao growing region. The Soconusco Road is still heavily used today by
legitimate traffic, and by transmigrantes, because it is a level route
appealing to truckers, walkers, or cyclists.
Bernal Diaz de Castillo
1568 The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, translated by Maurice
Keating, Esq., 1800 London, reprinted 1938, Robert M. McBride & Co.
1938 Enchanted Vagabonds, Harper & Brown
1978 Prehispanic System of Communication between Chiapas and Tabasco.
Mesoamerican Routes and Contacts, Paper #34 NWAF, Brigham Young Univ,