Huatulco: Tales of a feathered serpent, a giant cross and a peeved pirate

By Bob Schulman

Some of the nine bays of Huatulco. Photo courtesy of the Mexico Tourism Board.

Imagine a 20-mile-long strip of nine gorgeous bays dotted by 75 hotels – everything from luxury villas to small economy inns – along Mexico’s southwestern coast. It’s called Huatulco (wha-TOOL-koh), and it was built from scratch by the Mexican government 30 years ago. But chances are you never heard of it.

Unlike the feds’ other projects at booming spots like Cancun, Huatulco (about 250 miles down the coast from Acapulco) caters to a laid-back clientele. True, it has its share of nightclubs, restaurants and discos, but tourists mainly go there for rest and relaxation. It also has some nearby old-world villages worth exploring. And for history buffs, lots of legends.

One tale goes back thousands of years, when Mexico's top god was a feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl. He was a good god, the story says, and was beloved by his people. But he was too good (for instance, he hardly ever required human sacrifices), so his less liberal priests conspired to get rid of him. One day, they tricked him into doing something that today would be described as, er, inappropriate.

.Tile rendering of Quetzalcoatl at a resort hotel. Photo by Bob Schulman.

After that, he left town and traveled far away across the eastern sea to repent. According to the legend, he told his people he'd eventually come back, and to look for a bearded stranger with fair skin.

Years later, around the time of Christ – and here's where another legen kicks in – Quetzalcoatl showed up on a beach near what’s now Huatulco. The story goes on to say he appeared in the form of “an elderly white man with long hair and a beard” and carried an immense wooden cross.

He planted the cross in the sand (another version of the legend says it was the Apostle Thomas who showed up and planted the cross), prayed for a few days and then left.

Could this be the spot where the great cross once stood? Photo by Dawna Robertson.

Since it was brought by a god, the local folks figured the cross must be a holy object and prayed to it for good fortune. Over time, the site became known as Quauhtolco, roughly meaning “the place where wood is worshipped.” When the conquistadores arrived there in the 1520s, the site's name became Huatulco in Spanish.

By the 1540s, Huatulco had been turned into a port for Spanish shipments of silver coming up the coast from the rich veins of Peru. And where there's loot, there's pirates – and still another legend.

As the story goes, when he wasn't off pillaging, the notorious buccaneer Thomas Cavendish had a very religious side. And he was irked by the still-standing cross on the beach because it was said to have been planted there by a pagan god.

Visitors to Huatulco enjoy uncrowded beaches. Photo by Dawna Robertson.

He tried to burn it, but it wouldn't burn. So his men tried to chop it up with knives and saws, but they barely made a dent. He tried to dig it up, but it was planted too deep. Then he lashed it to his ship with long ropes, raised the sails and tried to pull it loose. That didn't work either. Defeated, Cavendish settled for burning down a nearby town, then sailed away.

Concerned that others might try to destroy the cross, the regional bishop later moved it (perhaps with a little divine help, since the story doesn't explain how he managed to dig it up) 140 miles inland to his cathedral in Oaxaca, the state capital. The story goes on to say the bishop chipped off pieces of the wood to make some small crosses, one of which was sent to a cathedral in Mexico City, another to Rome, another to the Mexican city of Puebla and one to a village close to the spot where the large cross had stood.

Mexico historian Jaime Capulli notes that many of the cities edging the resort have cross-related names, such as La Crucecita (the small cross) and Santa Cruz (holy cross).

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