Oaxaca Historic Center
I arrived at my Hotel Trebol in central Oaxaca, during the night. The door faced the street corner and the door was locked and the lobby dark when I arrived. I knocked on the door and someone appeared from within the lobby to let me in. I managed to get the check in done with my broken Spanish. A young man took me to my room. It turned out to be a very nice, authentic Mexican hotel built around a large courtyard. I stayed there for two nights before joining the group. The people at the desk were very nice but spoke no English, which was fine with me so I could try some Spanish. I had a good breakfast of mango and melon slices with yogurt and various grains, which I didn’t recognize, to put on it. I had some scrambled eggs with a black mole sauce.
The downtown historic area of Oaxaca is not large and very easy to walk through. The streets are lined with colonial era buildings which are horizontally monumental although no more than two or three stories tall. Many buildings are painted in bright colors. Scattered throughout are old churches built of stone with varied rooflines composed of domes, towers, and steeples. After my first breakfast in the city, I walked from my hotel to the nearby grand Zocalo plaza, which was surrounded by old buildings with ground floor restaurants and shaded by many old trees. As I walked into the plaza, I was drawn into a restaurant by a woman who offered me a cappuccino, which turned out to be a lovely tall, layered concoction flavored with cinnamon. After coffee, I took pictures of the Catedral de Oaxaca located on the north side of the Zocalo. I went into the Cathedral and admired its spacious colonial sanctuary with the morning light streaming through the stained glass windows.
From the Cathedral, I walked up the Andador Macedonio Alcala, a beautiful pedestrian-only street with brick pavement, lined by large old buildings. I walked to the Templo de Santo Domingo and entered the large church. Inside it seemed to be covered with gold, with golden shapes, figures and bible stories.
Coming back to my hotel from the trip to Mitla, the streets were lined with merchant stalls and good booths. I went into the large indoor Mercado, across the street from my hotel. The Mercado was crowded with booths displaying all types of merchandise including fragrant flowers. I next went into the adjacent food Mercado. I entered through an intensely hot entryway where men were grilling meat. In the rear of the hall, there were butchers and seafood stalls, and the smell was overwhelming.
In the evening, I walked with the group back up to the Andador Macedonio Alcala for dinner. On the way, we crossed a parade which likely was associated with the celebrations leading up to coming Day of the Dead. We went to dinner in a very interesting postmodern space with a rectangular pool of water, stucco brick walls, and a fabric roof. Oaxaca is known for its mole, so I had grilled Mahi-Mahi with a delicious dark mole sauce. At around 9:00 PM, we walked back through the Zocalo which was full of thousands of people, including families and children, watching dancers, musicians and films and eating and drinking outside at the surrounding restaurants. The great plaza was full of lights, noise and music.
The next morning, we ate breakfast in the Mercado. I had queso with salsa and beans. People kept trying to sell us trinkets while we ate and musicians played for donations. After our visit to Monte Alban, we went to the village of San Antonio Arrazola and visited the home and workshop of the late Manuel Jiménez Ramírez , the originator of the Oaxacan alebrijes, wooden carved figurines painted with bright colors and intricate patterns. His son demonstrated the technique they used to carve figurines varying in size from life sized jaguars to fanciful figures that fit on the palm of your hand. After the demonstration, the family served us homemade quesadillas and fajitas, and we shopped for figurines to take with us.
Back in the city, I walked up through the Zocalo to San Domingo Plaza where I explored the museum located in the old convent of the church, the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. There, I explored the ancient sculptures, jewelry and ceramics from Monte Alban and the ancient valley. From the rear of the museum I looked down on the beautiful botanic garden. On the way back, I found a bookstore with many books in English. The owners were a couple, an American man and Mexican women both of whom spoke English. I discussed Monte Alban with them, and the American owner expressed his wonder that the ancient city was occupied for so long. They helped me find books on the ancient valley.
We had another free day in Oaxaca later in the trip. It was a warm, sunny day and I spent it walking around the city. I first walked to La Basilica De Nuestra Senora De La Soledad, another beautiful, large cathedral. After visiting the sanctuary, I went into an adjoining old building which turned out to be a municipal office building. It was full of art and meeting rooms named after local historic dignitaries. I found what appeared to be the combined community development, public works, historic downtown, and zoning office. There were nothing but file cabinets within, which looked rather boring, so I didn’t go in.
From La Soledad, I climbed steep, narrow, residential streets to the Auditorio Guelaguetza, a large outdoor concert venue on a hill high above the city. After appreciating the views of the city below, I walked down the Escalaras de Fortin, a shaded walkway with tall trees overhanging the street, back down into the city. This walking route took me to the San Domingo Plaza.
The highlight of the day was an afternoon visit to the Rufino Tamayo Pre-Columbian art museum which houses the pre-Columbian art collection of the great Mexican artist. This is a museum that treats the ancient pieces as the great works of art that they are. It had a room of pre-classical art from the Olmec period including small, chubby, doll-like, ceramic human figurines, along with modest-size figures of gods. Most were from the Veracruz area.
There was beautiful room of classical era pieces from all over Mexico including tall carvings of Mayan priests with elaborate garments and high headdresses. The seated figure of the goddess of death looked like the modern female figure of La Calavera Catrina commonly seen associated with El Dia Del Muertos.
For dinner, I went with a small group to the Casa Oaxaca restaurant near San Domingo plaza. We ate outdoors on the second floor patio. I ate turkey breast with a wonderful black mole along with an unusual tomato salad and fried plantains. As we walked back, we stopped at the plaza to listen to an orchestra and four opera singers performing for a very appreciative audience. Behind them, the old cathedral was lit with colored lights.
Mitla and Monte Alban
On October 21, my first day in Oaxaca, I was picked up at the hotel by the tour company. The group in the van turned out to be mostly Spanish speakers. Driving out of the city, the driver maintained a narrative on what we were seeing alternating between Spanish and English. Our first stop was at Tule, a village with El Tule, said to be the widest tree in the world. It is a truly impressive Montezuma Cypress.
Next, we stopped in the village of Teotitlan del Valle at the house of the weaver Nelson Perez where he showed us how they wove rugs using wool, natural dyes, and traditional wooden looms. He used herbs, insects, fruit, flowers, minerals and lemon juice to create vibrantly colored rugs, many with traditional Zapotec patterns. Each line of a rug took one half hour to make on the loom.
Finally, we arrived at Mitla, my primary interest on this tour. Mitla was likely a sacred Zapotec site for millennia, but around 900 AD was probably taken over by the Mixtecs who lived there with the Zapotecs. We walked around the main buildings to a large plaza and walked up tall, steep steps through low doors in the walls into a rectangular room with three large columns. From there, we went through another door into a courtyard. Everywhere in the site the walls were decorated with intricate abstract patterns. We went into smaller rooms off the courtyard. One room had a re-creation of the original wooden roof. The Spanish had arrived at Mitla in 1521 and built a church on top of the main temple in order to seal the devil into the site. The buildings were rectangular single-story structures constructed mostly of stone with a plaster covering. Back in the plaza, one of the ancient tombs was open, which because of the low ceilings and doors, I had to crawl into. The walls were covered with the geometric designs.
I left the others, who were doing a longer tour, and with another driver, Christian, who had lived in Las Vegas for nine years and spoke perfect English. We talked about things to see in the Oaxaca Valley and about the traditions surrounding El Dia Del Muertos. He told me how important it was to him to celebrate his deceased family members and how hard it was to celebrate the day in the United States. I told him that the holiday made sense to me, because I missed my parents and would love to celebrate them officially.
The following day, I went with our Colorado group to Monte Alban. We drove up from the city’s west side onto the mountain on which the Monte Alban site is located. We parked below the visitor’s center and climbed up a path. Our guide pointed out various vegetation including the cactus where the cochineal insects grow, which are collected by the rug makers for the bright red and purple colors. We reached the top of the mountain and immediately climbed up steep steps to the top of the large pyramid mound on the north side of the great plaza.
Monte Alban is the site of what is likely the oldest city in Mesoamerica. Construction started on the city around 500 BC, and the city was inhabited for over 1,000 years. The builders constructed large flat terraces on the rugged mountain top including the large, flat central plaza. By mapping all the terraces, by studying their size, shape and orientation, and by inventorying pottery shards on the surface, archaeologists have suggested that there were over 2,000 dwellings on the site with a number of additional civic buildings. It is estimated that the population was between 15,000 and 30,000 people at its peak period. Archeologist Richard Blanton has theorized that city represented the capital of an allegiance of Oaxaca Valley groups, built above the smaller agricultural villages in the valley. There was no water on the mountain and no place to grow food, so food and water were carried up by foot from the valley. There are famous stone carvings of what were called dancers, which actually probably represent the nude corpses of leaders of groups which the people of the city had conquered. Blanton suggests that the city may have been a military center. He also suggests that it may have been a sacred site for the cult of Cocijo, the god of rain and fertility.
From the top of the mound we looked down upon the central Grand Plaza and the many pyramids and structures in and around the plaza. Beyond the site, there were views in all directions of the surrounding mountains and the valley floor far below. On top of the northern pyramid, a Mexican group engaged in a chant that I did not understand. On the northeast side, there was a well-preserved ball court. Our guide suggested that there were three players on each side of the ball game who worked to keep a large rubber ball in the air bouncing it from the east to the west walls of the court, reenacting the movement of the sun. Our guide told us that there may have been human sacrifice at the end of the game, possibly involving the winner. A number of tombs have been found on the site containing valuable possessions which were buried with the dead. We visited the small museum in the visitor’s center which housed some of the stone carvings, figurines, ceramics and jewelry found on the mountain.
The Northern Sierra
On October 23, I was sick, so instead of hiking, I rode in the van from where the others started hiking, up a dirt road through steep canyons to La Neveria where we spent the night. The next day, we hiked through the high forest which were completely in the mountain top clouds. I felt well enough to keep up with the leader, a small Zapotec man who spoke only Spanish. We walked the damp trail which was closely lined with wet grass and other vegetation. We walked through mixed forest of tall deciduous and pine trees. The trail led us to a dirt road where we saw our first large agave plants, some of the leaves of which had been cut. Celestino, our English speaking Zapotec guide, told us that they made barbecue by putting wood coals in a hole and putting meat on the top of the coals and covering it all with Agave leaves. The drippings from the leaves gave the meat a special flavor.
Celestino talked to me about their community organization. The mountains are divided into areas called communes, and under the Mexican constitution, each indigenous commune has complete governmental and political control in their areas. The communes own the land. Instead of taxes, each person is required to spend time, at different points in their lives, giving service to the community. Celestino said that he was currently serving as a policeman. The policeman role was less about enforcement and more about being a first responder to emergencies and helping to solve problems.
Each commune has a commissioner, who is the chief administrator, along with an authority composed of various chief functionaries, such as the Chief of Police. The authority is selected by the people each year in a large community gathering.
The subject of ghosts and spirits was discussed. Our Colorado leader, Chris asked people, Americans and Mexicans, if they believed in ghosts. Our Spanish speaking leader was a devout Catholic and told her that if you believe in God, you don’t believe in ghosts. Celestino told me a story of the enano (dwarf) nature spirit he saw as a child. It appeared to him as a small child who he saw move instantaneously from one place to another. The spirit wanted him to follow it on a trail into the forest, but Celisteno didn’t follow. Celestino’s grandmother told him that the spirit had taken part of his soul. Later in life, Celestina went to see a woman shaman who restored him through ritual. Celestino experienced an awakening and realized he wanted to be someone. He began to read and study about biology and history. He knew all the plants in the mountains, including their Latin names, and could tell us a great deal about his people. He understood the ecology of his place and wanted to write books about that ecology and about the true history of his people. The ecology of the place is unique with tall trees in open, pristine forests. The Zapotec people are working to protect and improve their environment.
We walked into the large village of Benito Juarez named after Mexico’s most notable President from the nineteenth century who was a native Zapotec. The village is comparatively large with one thousand residents. By this time, the rain and wind had increased, and as we walked from the forest into the open village, we grew quite cold. We went in a dining room and had a great lunch of mushroom quesadillas.
From this place, because of the cold, most of our group decided to proceed from Juarez in the van. However, Chris, Wendi and I decided to continue hiking with Celestino and another guide Rafael. We hiked through the wet forest on a trail, a road, and another trail. We passed an interesting open area of pine forest with unusual mounds of grass below. Celestino said that the lichens growing from the trees were not negative but were instead an indication of a healthy forest without air pollution. We descended to a small cabin were there was a farmer who was carving wood. He had boxes of potatoes which are the cash crop at this high altitude.
We descended through a meadow where we passed a bull who was attached to a rope. We climbed steeply down past a stream where we saw a line of agaves with their tall blooms. We then climbed steeply up past a spring with a concrete basin where women washed clothes. We arrived at our destination, the Village of Cuajimolayas and walked through it for almost a mile. As seemed to be the case, it was particularly windy and cold as we walked through the village. We arrived at our cabana and soon found there was no heat nor hot water. I was wet from sweat and from the rain and found I was cold in the cabin. Chris got in her bed to get warm but was becoming hypothermic, so I put as many blankets as I could on her. Eventually, we got the fire in the fire place roaring and managed to warm ourselves and dry our clothes.