Why do people rave so much about Oaxaca? Sure, it’s a nice colonial city with some beautiful buildings and a shady zocolo central square. You can say this about a whole slew of cities in Mexico though. What makes this one special, besides all the great food, is what’s around outside the city when you go exploring. We rented a car for two days of our trip and struck out in several directions.
We were lucky enough to be in Oaxaca during the Guelaguetza festival. In this case, high season was definitely the right season. Normally there’s a decent selection of handicrafts from the state in the shops, but in late July many of those villagers come to the city and set up a booth in an artisan market to sell direct to the crowds. We wanted to strike out on our own anyway though, hitting some sites and strolling some real village markets.
The city of Oaxaca sits where three valleys converge and each of those valleys has long been populated by indigenous people who farmed the land (there’s evidence that the first corn crops started here) and created beautiful handicrafts. They also built some amazing structures, the most famous being dramatic Monte Alban. The Zapotec people flattened a mountaintop by hand and built a series of grand temples. The city is older and thrived for much longer than most Mayan headquarters, active from around 500 BC to 700 AD. This may have been the first place in what is now Mexico with written records and a calendar.
The panoramic views from the site give it some extra drama and it’s easy to see why this location was a tough one for rivals to attack—especially by surprise. You get the usual Mayan temples, a ball court and a grand plaza with good acoustics. There are a few oddities here though, like tunnels leading from one platform to another, probably so the priests could give the illusion they had the ability to magically disappear from one and reappear on another. There are also large flat stones carved with pictures of deformities and births gone wrong, with the baby coming out feet first. There was a hospital here and these were probably used as teaching materials.
The second major site in the area is Mitla, which is a very different kind of place. The setting is also beautiful here, with mountains rising up in the distance, but what makes Mitla notable is the series of 14 geometric designs made from individually cut stones fitted together. Well, that and the fact that was a place for human sacrifices.
The market towns around Oaxaca are a lot of fun, especially Ocotlan on Fridays and Tlacolula on Sundays. People come from all the nearby villages to sell their homemade mezcal, their vegetables, and items that are a big hit locally but are not very popular with foreigners. Fried crickets coated in spices are sold by the bucketful and you see people munching on them and putting them in tacos. You can also get some worms served up too, or buy worm salt like you see here. We passed on both, but I did buy a glass of pulque (fermented maguey juice) as you don’t see that very often anymore in a lot of places in Mexico.
We also had a great mole lunch in the market at Ocotlan. If Frida Kahlo had made it to old age, she probably would have looked like this woman running the stall.
Different villages in the valleys around Oaxaca are known for producing specific things. If you visit them on a tour or with a guide, you’ll probably hit one of the workshops and maybe a local market if you come on the right day. If you take a bus or come by rental car, you can just wander around on your own on foot as none of them are all that large and you’ll find workshops on nearly every block.
San Bartolo Coyotepec is the place that cranks out all the black pottery from Oaxaca you see for sale all over Mexico. If you get it here at the source, it’s amazingly inexpensive.
San Martin Tilcajete produces many of the fantastical alebrijes that are brightly painted wood figures. The two at the top of this post are now sitting on a shelf in my house. Very cool. The wood carvers in this area are quite talented. Look at the custom order this guy at the Jacabo & Maria Ángeles center has been working on for months:
I didn’t feel flush enough to buy any carpets, though maybe I will next time I visit because they’re really beautiful and well-made. If you visit the Isaac Vásquez Gutiérrez workshop in the weaving center of Teotitlán del Valle, you can see the looms in action and see what kinds of plants and minerals are used to make the natural dyes.
If you want to try a variety of mezcal, you’ll find the biggest concentration of distilleries in Matatlan, where the surrounding land is filled with spiky maguey plants. Mezcal is not nearly as popular as tequila, so most of the distilleries are quite small. The owner or master distiller might be the one pouring you a sample. You can find plenty of others all around the state in different villages though, some sold off a guy’s front porch in recycled bottles with a hand-scribbled label.
About That Big Tree…
There are a lot of trees that are older and taller than the Arbol del Tule in Oaxaca: if you want to see them all you can check them out at ILiketoWasteMyTime.com (seriously, that’s a real site). This giant cypress tree is the largest by girth though. It is 11 meters thick at its base and is believed to be 1,500 years old. It’s a pretty impressive thing to walk around and there’s a smaller one nearby that is on deck to take over I guess if this one croaks in 500 years. The town of Tule is only about 15 minutes from Oaxaca City.
See more on the region at the Oaxaca Tourism site.