This article is from the December 1999 - January 2000 and the February
2000 The Mexico File
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Oaxaca, Where a Single Day can Encompass Two
PART ONE: ONE OF THE AMERICAS' LOVELIEST CITIES
After 18 years working
in Mexico, Tony Burton, an author, educator and travel consultant, moved to
Canada in 1997. He returns several times a year to revisit his favorite
places, leading specialized tours to such wonders as the Monarch butterflies,
Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. He contributed an article on
Zacatecas to the April 1998 issue of The
Mexico File, as well as an
article on San Luis Potosi in the February 1999 issue. To see more of his
is the first part of his article on Oaxaca. Look for part two, on day
trips from Oaxaca to Monte Alban and the villages of the Oaxaca Valley in the
February 2000 issue.
The warm afternoon breeze
wafts a gentle mist of dust across the floor of the Oaxaca valley and into
Oaxaca city, softening the colonial patina of the richly carved, 300-year-old
cathedral. The dust is two thousand years old, the dust of Monte Alban, the
first major city in the Americas. Now a ghost city, Monte Alban sits perched
on a promontory overlooking the modern city which sprawls across the valley
floor far below. Two millennia ago, the Zapotec Indians who built Monte Alban
trampled part of the hillside into this dust, as they traded in the city's
thriving market and gathered to witness important ceremonies. While the
commoners went about their daily tasks, Monte Alban's resident priests and
astronomers were discussing how to resolve two of the greatest issues of their
time: where to construct a new, state-of-the-art astronomical observatory, and
how to help civic leaders in central Mexico, three hundred miles away,
construct another major urban center – Teotihuacan, “City of the Gods.”
Given the long and rich
history of the Oaxaca valley, and the balmy afternoon sunshine, is it any
wonder that sitting in the city's main square sipping a cool beer, my thoughts
repeatedly turn to what it must have been like in the past and to ponder on
possible scenarios for the new millennium.
The cities of the Oaxaca
valley have welcomed tourists for over two thousand years. Among the earliest
tourists anywhere in Mexico were those families who accompanied the traders
who came to barter their wares in Monte Alban. In recent times, a flood of
tourists from Europe, the U.S. and Canada has flowed through Oaxaca’s
airport before fanning out across the valley in search of the vestiges of the
ancient Zapotec and Mixtec cities, seeking to find clues to timeless questions
in these long-abandoned sites. A steady stream of modern-day tourists scours
city stores for indigenous handicrafts; some trek to the source of these
colorful ceramics and textiles, to one or other of a score of otherwise drab
Indian villages, each with its own particular specialty and weekly market.
It is sobering to reflect that historians, in a thousand years time, may well depict the period 1000 to 1999 AD as the “age of massive urbanization.” Let’s face it, a thousand years ago, large cities were few and far between. Now, more people live in urban areas than rural ones. Oaxaca is the perfect place to reflect on the ebb and flow of cities. Just a few miles west of the modern city, Monte Alban is now deserted, inhabited only by archaeologists, and visited more by international tourists than descendants of the people who originally lived there. The "modern-day" (post sixteenth century) city of Oaxaca retains its beauty – a jewel displaying all the best facets of colonial art and culture – but is growing rapidly, some would say uncontrollably. East of the city, scattered over the floor of the Oaxaca Valley, are many small villages, some dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Several of these formerly more important settlements have now sunk into ignominious obscurity. How did these changes occur? What prompted them? Archaeologists are still struggling to unravel the clues.
Past and present merge
together during even a brief trip to Oaxaca. In the morning, you can journey
from the creature comforts of your twenty-first-century hotel room to a
nineteenth-century craft studio, where artisans toil from dawn till dusk,
creating imaginative works of art. At mid-day, your lunchtime food can range
from such pre-Columbian menu delights as fried grasshoppers to modern fast
foods like hamburgers. In the afternoon, visit a museum housing
seventeenth-century treasures, before climbing the time-worn steps of an
Once in Oaxaca, don't be
surprised if your planned two- or three-day stay somehow gets lengthened into
four or five days. There is much more to see and do here than a single trip
can possibly encompass. Fortunately, even those on a strict “one night
only” budget can capture the elusive flavor of Oaxaca by combining a
downtown hotel with a visit to one or more of the many interesting shopping
and sightseeing attractions just outside the city.
The city itself is one of
the loveliest in the Americas, an absolute “must-see.” Over the centuries,
Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-cah) has become particularly adept at
preserving the old and the interesting, while simultaneously keeping pace with
the demands of even the most discerning foreign visitor.
Tourists here don't
simply visit – they discover
their own Oaxaca, their own favorite places to eat, sit, shop and sip a
pre-dinner cocktail. And many return, time after time, finding more things to
do with each visit.
therefore, the following suggestions for a “Day in Oaxaca” are nothing
more than a personal anthology of treats and surprises. You will no doubt make
your own discoveries, add your own special delights.
Let’s start in the
heart of downtown, sipping locally-grown, freshly-brewed coffee in one of the
cafés fronting the main plaza. The locals call their tree-shaded plaza the zócalo.
A steady procession of children table-hop with varied wares and sales pitches.
Refusing to take “no” for an answer, they insist that I examine their
jewelry, stroke their onyx animals and admire their brightly-patterned rugs
– even if I don't buy anything.
On my way past the ornate
facade of the cathedral, a short block away, fronting the small Alameda de León
plaza, I am momentarily distracted by a balloon salesman whose multicolored
balloons contrast splendidly with the building’s grayish rock. Somehow, the
cathedral seems more squat and massive than when I was here last time. Perhaps
the numerous seismic shakes in this region, including that which occurred last
year, have forced it to shrink into the ground in self-defense. The city and
its plethora of superb buildings have often suffered minor damage as a result
of the seismic and social upheavals that have punctuated the centuries since
the Spanish first arrived.
Every time I look inside
the cathedral, I hope to find that I was mistaken in dismissing it so casually
the last time I saw it; however, the cool air that greets me as I step through
the doorway perfectly anticipates my sense of disappointment at the relative
lack of interest that the interior holds, at least from my unashamedly
Stepping outside again,
into the bright and welcoming sunlight, I saunter along the rather arty,
pedestrianized promenade, Andador de Macedonia Alcalá, on my way towards the
Santo Domingo church. Attractive shop fronts and enticing doorways, many
marked with commemorative, historical plaques, vie for my attention. Examining
one store-front display of local crafts, I inhale silently at the prices and
mentally calculate probable profit margins. If only the artisans themselves
could charge this much!
On the right is the
Museum of the City of Oaxaca, housed in a building supposedly built by Hernán
Cortés, the famous conquistador. Though intended for his personal use, he
never actually lived here.
And here, also on the
right, across a small garden, is the imposing exterior of Santo Domingo. I
hesitate again, looking above the doorway for St. Hippolytus the Martyr,
wearing his Roman soldier's uniform, with a plumed helmet at his feet. At
several places on this west-facing facade, which for maximum effect deserves
being seen in the late afternoon sun, are Dominican dogs, holding torches. I
prepare to step inside...
Breathtaking! This, in
the words of Richard Perry, the author and renowned expert on colonial
religious architecture, is the “most sumptuous baroque interior in
Mexico.” Aldous Huxley described it as “one of the most extravagantly
gorgeous churches in the world.” The most spectacular single element is
overhead, beneath the choir: an incredibly detailed, colorful, branching Tree
of Life depicting the lineage of Felíx de Guzmán, the founder of the
Dominican Order. But the entire church is alive with color and ornament, which
mere words are woefully inadequate to describe.
Next to Santo Domingo,
occupying part of the magnificent building that was originally the priory, is
the state's Regional Museum. Pay the entrance fee (unless it's Sunday, when
it's free!) and stroll inside to admire the building, with its beautifully
proportioned cloisters. By the time you read this, a partial closure
necessitated by last year's earthquake will hopefully be over. If so, head
straight for the museum’s great highlight –
the kilos of pre-Hispanic Mixtec gold artifacts found in Monte Alban's
fabled Tomb 7.
Across the street from
the museum is a store named El Oro de Monte Alban (The Gold of Monte Alban)
which sells high quality reproductions of the jewelry found in Tomb 7 and
other similarly elegant items.
On my way back to the zócalo,
I pass the house at #609 García Vigil, which was former President Benito
Juarez’s first home when he came to the city in 1818 from his native village
of Guelatao. Four rooms around a simple courtyard give a good idea of what
life was like in the early nineteenth century.
Lunchtime in Oaxaca is
best spent on or near the zócalo. In order to maximize my afternoon's
sight-seeing, I opt for a relatively fast light meal at La Casita, upstairs on
Hidalgo, only a few steps from the Alameda de León. Here, the gastronomically
adventurous can snack on chapulines (grasshoppers) or Sopa de Nada,
which is best translated (literally) as Nothing Soup!
After lunch, I stroll
across the zócalo into the State Government Palace on the south side. A
colorful mural in the stairwell tells the state's history. The right wall is
dominated by women, including one of Mexico's greatest poets, the nun Sor
Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Leaving the Government
Palace, I recross the zócalo, pass the cathedral and head for Avenida
Morelos and the Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)
was one of Mexico's finest modern artists. The museum, however, does not house
twentieth-century art but Tamayo's vast collection of pre-Hispanic art,
carefully arranged in five color-coordinated rooms.
Further west is the
Basilica de la Soledad. In the adjacent small plaza vendors of helados de
garrafa – ice-creams
handmade in wooden barrels – wait
to offer you lime, papaya or rose-flavored ice-cream.
UNESCO has included Oaxaca
on its list of places comprising the “cultural patrimony of mankind” and
it's easy to see why. Quite apart from the marvelous architecture and obvious
history evident at every turn, the city also has a rich cultural life,
culminating in various major festivals. Perhaps the most extraordinary is the
Night of the Radishes on December 23rd. This festival has been well described in
a previous Mexico File.
The single biggest annual
party, in mid-July, has come to be known as La Guelaguetza, the Zapotec for
“offering” or “mutual help.” A massive open-air amphitheater on the side
of Fortín hill (which overlooks the north west quadrant of the city) becomes
the stage for spectacularly colorful regional folkloric dances. The entire city
comes alive with color – from
beautifully hand-embroidered dresses and huipiles, to food, the paper
streamers decorating the streets and the merchandise sold on the sidewalks. Some
central hotels, including the Camino Real, luxuriously housed in an
architecturally-gorgeous former convent, and the Monte Alban opposite the
cathedral, offer a once-a-week, year-round, scaled-down version of La
Guelaguetza for travelers unable to visit in July.
At any time of the year an
enjoyable evening can be had by attending a performance in the Macedonio Alcalá
Theater or by dining on the balcony of El Asador Vasco, overlooking the zócalo.
For quieter surroundings, try the elegant atmosphere of the Del Vitral
restaurant, on Guerrero street.
As usual, as the day draws
to a close, I realize I've failed to see everything I intended to. Somehow, I
never visited any of the many markets. Oh well, there's always mañana...
Oaxaca, Where a Single Day can Encompass Two
Thousand Years, Part II
DAY TRIPS FROM OAXACA CITY
by Tony Burton
After 18 years working in Mexico, Tony Burton, an author, educator and
travel consultant, moved to Canada in 1997. He returns several times a year to
revisit his favorite places, leading specialized tours to such wonders as the
Monarch butterflies, Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. He contributed
an article on Zacatecas to the April 1998 issue of The Mexico File,
as well as an article on San Luis Potosi in the February 1999 issue. To see
more of his work, visit www.mexconnect.com
is the second part of his article on Oaxaca, the first of which
appeared in the December 1999 / January 2000 issue.
Two of the numerous possible day-trips from Oaxaca City are featured in
this article. Both combine archaeological sites and markets with colonial
architecture and local color.
MONTE ALBAN AND THE ZIMATLAN VALLEY
Let’s start by visiting Monte Alban, which is only about seven miles from
downtown. Try to visit this site early in the day, because the morning light
can be very special. Watching the overnight mist dissipate slowly as the sun
lazily filters through to the valley floor nine hundred feet below is a
magical, almost mystical experience. Allow at least three or four hours to
explore the site.
Daily tourist bus and minibus tours leave downtown hotels. If you prefer to
go-it-alone, frequent buses to Monte Alban leave from the bus terminal near
the Abastos market, where Trujano street intersects the Periférico.
Alternatively, consider a taxi – the
fare for a private cab to the site is inexpensive.
Once at Monte Alban, a short uphill walk from the site museum at the
entrance brings you onto the corner of an extensive grassed square or plaza,
with stairways, temples and constructions on every side. In all, the site
covers some eight square miles, spreading over five interconnected hills. At
its peak, the city housed as many as 35,000 inhabitants.
To your right is the North Platform, the site of the Zapotec king’s
residence and the temples of the nobility. To your left are a
distinctively-shaped ballcourt (shaped like a capital I) and The Palace, once
home to an important dignitary. Some 300 yards away are the temples of the
Look for the Building of the Dancers with its bas-reliefs depicting human
figures in various contorted poses. They probably represent captives and lists
of conquered places. The Zapotec hieroglyphic writing system dates back to 600
B.C. Close to the South Platform is the arrow-shaped, Structure J, an
enigmatic structure which was almost certainly an astronomical observatory.
There is an invisible mystery at Monte Alban. Just what caused this city to
collapse in about 800 A.D.? As with the collapse of other pre-Columbian cities
elsewhere in Mexico, theories range from the break-down of the economic system
(which involved the payment of tributes), to political unrest, climatic
change, large-scale epidemics and soil exhaustion. Whatever the cause, Monte
Alban declined and Mixtec Indians displaced the Zapotecs.
From Monte Alban, it is only a short drive through the gently rolling Zimatlan valley to Cuilapan and Zaachila. The huge ex-monastery of Santiago Cuilapan, the largest in the region, is a national treasure and easily visible to the right of the highway.
As you approach the monastery, your eye is drawn not to the massive walls
of the main building but to the extraordinarily evocative unroofed Basilica to
the left. The thick walls of Cuilapan monastery reflect reams of colonial
history, from its beginnings in the sixteenth century. This is where Mexico's
second president, Vicente Guerrero, was held prisoner in 1831 prior to his
execution. By the main stairway is a magnificent mural, “The Tree of
Friars,” depicting rows of saints and martyrs, some clutching their own
From Cuilapan, it is but a few minutes drive to Zaachila. If possible,
visit on a Thursday morning when Zaachila's main square comes to life for the
weekly market. Returning towards Oaxaca city, look for the poorly-signed
side-road to Arrazola. This village will give you a taste of the well hidden
handicraft surprises that intrepid travelers find in many of the small
villages of the region. Arrazola specializes in small, hand-carved, brightly
painted, wooden animal figures. Small children will eagerly guide you through
the dusty streets to their family’s workshops where you can watch the
animals being made.
Bargaining is de rigueur, but don't expect to persuade the artisans
that the marked prices are out of line –
they’ve been surreptitiously watching your eyes dance over their
display and recognize genuine interest when they see it! And don't doubt the
sharpness of their eyesight – it
is clearly and beautifully proven by the exquisitely detailed figures and
animals they so painstakingly carve and color.
THE OAXACA VALLEY - A WEEK'S ADVENTURING PACKED INTO A SINGLE DAY...
The second recommended excursion is one of the most varied, educational,
beautiful, and just plain fun day-trips anywhere in Mexico. Even better, the
furthest point on this route is less than thirty-five miles (fifty kilometers)
drive from the city along a good highway. Numerous tours ply this route but
few do justice to the extraordinary diversity that awaits you in the valley.
Far preferable is to hire a car, or even a car with driver, and
Just 15 minutes out of Oaxaca city is Santa María del Tule, a village
which would probably have been consigned to a very minor role in history, and
guidebooks, were it not for a monster Montezuma Cypress. This tree, the
largest-girthed in the world (117.6 feet at 5 feet above the ground), is
simply humongous. Protected by a wrought-iron railing and with its own
irrigation system, it definitely looks much healthier now than it did ten
years ago. If only it were easier to photograph.... To one side is its
“little” child, big enough to be considered a giant in its own right
anywhere else in the world.
After Tule, look for the sideroad to Tlacochahuaya, with its impressive
former monastery, dedicated to St. Jerome, delightfully decorated in brilliant
colors. Back to the highway, and only a few miles further east, is a roadside
“pyramid” sign for the small, but important, archaeological site of Dainzu.
Dainzu flourished as a smaller settlement, alongside Monte Alban until about
350 A.D. Look for the striking jaguar-bat which decorates a tomb and for the
depictions of the headgear, armgear and ball of the famous Mesoamerican
Still further east is the sideroad to Teotitlan del Valle, a town to which early Dominican missionaries introduced sheep – and wool. Teotitlan is famous today for woolen rugs, with designs ranging from animal motifs and Picassos to the geometrical, this latter style echoing the superb pre-Columbian stonework found at Mitla, the furthest point on this self-guided route.
Back on highway 190, another pyramid sign, on the right, marks Lambityeco. This fascinating site lies very close to the international highway and yet is surprisingly little visited. It features some of the most intriguing stonework in the entire valley. Molded stucco friezes over Tomb 6 suggest its former occupants were Lord 1 Earthquake and Lady 10J. Look, too, for murals and stucco rain-god masks.
A short distance beyond Lambityeco, also to the right of the highway, is
the town of Tlacolula, the site of an enormous street market every Sunday. On
the opposite side of the highway from Tlacolula is a very well-signed mescal
factory but, for several reasons, it is preferable to hold off visiting this
until your return a little later in the afternoon. Tlacolula, whose generally
scruffy character belies the origin of its name (said to derive from an
expression meaning “town of heaven”), had a reputation, for decades, as a
great place to buy good quality leather sandals or huaraches, the
original backpacking kind, made out of discarded Goodyear tires, with a depth
of tread guaranteed to outlast a lifetime of regular use. Today, most visitors
to the town are less interested in trying on huaraches than they are in
seeing the local market and church.
From Tlacolula, a short drive brings you to the lovely setting of Yagul,
where the remains of yet another Oaxaca Valley pre-Hispanic settlement nestle
up against the steep valley side. For some difficult-to-pinpoint reason, Yagul
is many people's favorite Oaxaca area site, preferred even over the majestic
setting of Monte Alban and the unique stonework of Mitla. Yagul is more
intimate, more serene and somehow more compelling. Listen to the neighborhood
birdlife as you stroll between the mounds and walls fashioned out of rounded
volcanic pebbles. A larger-than-lifesize frog effigy stands close to a
beautifully-proportioned ball court. Climbing the hill that forms the backdrop
to Yagul affords an outstanding view across the valley.
Between Yagul and the highway is the strangely-named Centéotl
restaurant-bar-gallery, which offers traditional regional cuisine under the
shade of a large palapa. The restaurant’s name is somewhat incongruous in
this warm, semi-arid homeland of the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, since Centéotl
is the Aztec god of agriculture, who more rightly belongs in central Mexico,
far to the west
The furthest point on our day-trip, Mitla, inspires a strange and wonderful
mixture of feelings. It was one of several city states in the Oaxaca valley
and was in full flow when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. The
Spaniards thought they knew just how to ensure that their God would be seen to
have more importance than the Indians’ gods – they built His church so
that it would tower over Their temples, and used stones pulled from the
pre-Hispanic walls to make their construction task that much easier. The
massive seventeenth century church of San Pablo Mitla still broods over the
remains of “heathen” palaces; its foundations sit atop a platform dating
from centuries before the Conquest.
The lavish stonework of Mitla’s ruins is unequaled elsewhere in Mexico.
From the beautifully sculptured designs in the Hall of Mosaics to the Hall of
the Columns, virtually every wall is decorated in an intricate geometric step
design. The architectural term for these patterns of small mosaic pieces,
which are like an outer skin on a mud and rubble interior, is “grecas,”
often and regrettably misinterpreted as “Grecian,” giving rise to some
unfortunate cultural and historical misunderstandings.
In the depths of one of the palaces is La Columna de la Muerte (the Column
of Death). The legend is that you wrap your arms around this pillar and see
how much distance remains between your outstretched fingertips – the
distance left is said to represent the time you have left on this earth. True
or not, crowds of people used to gather here every New Year’s Day to try out
their arm-size and, presumably, their luck.
Near the entrance to the ruins is a bustling handicraft market, a perfect
place to find inexpensive souvenirs or gifts for family or friends back home.
In the main part of the town, the Frissell museum, run today by the
University of the Americas, has an impressive vast collection of Indian art,
from deities on incense burners to bead jewelry. The building was formerly a
small inn that played host to such famous authors as D.H. Lawrence (“Mornings
in Mexico”) and Malcolm Lowry (“Under the Volcano”)
If you still have plenty of time on your hands, then consider continuing on
through Mitla towards San Lorenzo Albarradas. Near San Lorenzo (only limited
accommodation available) is the absolutely extraordinary landscape of Hierve El
Agua, the remains of an irrigation system built and used by the Zapotecs from as
long ago as 700 B.C..
On your way back to Oaxaca city from Mitla, make a brief stop to savor the mezcal
(mescal), in one of the “factories” on the International Highway, such
as Pensamiento Mezcal at kilometer 32, near Tlacolula. Mescal is an alcoholic
drink derived from agave – but it comes from different species of agave to
those used for tequila. Visitors to the “factories” are shown the basic
processes involved in producing mescal. The traditional version includes a gusano
de maguey (agave worm), long deceased and well sterilized by the alcohol,
floating around in the bottle. Tourists are usually offered a “tasting.”
While a true taste for mescal undoubtedly has to be “acquired,” don’t pass
up the chance to try this increasingly fashionable (“muy de moda”)
and increasingly expensive drink.
Your late afternoon toast in mescal may seem like a fair and just reward for a long day’s sightseeing, but please remember that those doing the mescal sampling should excuse themselves from being responsible for the drive back to the city.