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August 21st, 2008 · No Comments

Part II of the Haimsohn family roadtrip was to Oaxaca. This beautiful city is a destination in itself – but the handicraft villages and ruins in the mountains nearby make it a must-see spot in Mexico.


For photos, click here: Oaxaca, Villages

Oaxaca Villages around Oaxaca

After a six hour drive from Puebla, we finally reached the city of Oaxaca. This region of the country is well known for its strong indigenous culture, authentic handicrafts, and incredible ruins. It’s a land of mountains and valleys checkered with cornfields, just stunning in August, which is during the rainy season and when the corn is green. We stayed in the city of Oaxaca, but split our time between exploring its museums, churches, and pedestrian streets and the nearby towns and ruins.

Oaxaca City

In Oaxaca city, we visited the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Started in the 1550s by Dominican friars and finished a century later, it contains the work of all the best artists of that period. Ornate plaster statues and flowers cover the extravagantly gilded walls and ceiling. On the ceiling above the entrance there is an elaborate genealogical tree of the Dominican order, which starts with don Domingo de Guzmán, Saint Dominic himself.

Next to the church is the Museo Regional de Oaxaca, occupying what used to be one of the greatest Dominican convents of colonial Mexico. The museum is an ambitious project that displays the course of human development in the Oaxaca valley from earliest times to the 20th century.

A number of the museum’s rooms are dedicated to the nearby ruins of Monte Alban (which we visited during our trip), with the most famous display being the artifacts from Monte Albán’s Tomb 7, which were discovered in 1932. The tomb contained 12 to 14 corpses and some 500 pieces of jewelry and art, making use of almost 8 pounds of gold and turquoise, conch shell, amber, and obsidian. The museum also had several other interesting exhibits, including much from the colonial times all the way through the present day.

The other highlight of Oaxaca city was definitely the market. Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate. (Remember that the Mexicans introduced the rest of the world to chocolate…through hot chocolate.) We enjoyed some tasty cups of hot chocolate here. Dan was tempted by the chapulines (those would be grasshoppers), but he decided to hold out for the restaurant version. As with all markets in developing countries, this was a fascinating place to spend the morning.

Monte Alban

The spectacular ruins of Monte Albán sits on a mountain that rises from the middle of the valley floor — or, rather, divides two valleys. From here you can see all that lies between you and the distant mountains. Around 500 B.C., the Zapotec people began the monumental exercise of leveling the top of a mountain, where they would build their city.

The ruins are centered on the Great Plaza, a man-made area created by flattening the mountaintop. Of the many interesting ruins here, our favorites were the I-shaped ball court (which differs slightly from Maya and Toltec ball courts in that there are no goal rings), the “observatory” (shaped like a ship), and the famous Loz Danzantes. Los Danzantes (which translates to the dancers) is covered with large stone slabs that have distorted naked figures carved into them. The people were originally thought to be dancers – but more careful research pointed out the distorted bodies and pained expressions likely connoted disease. Then, some researchers pointed out that many of the figures had mutilated genitals – so now the theory rests that these are actually depictions of prisoners of war…a far cry from the original happy thought of dancers!

South of Monte Alban: Handicraft villages of San Bartolo Coyotepec and San Martin Tilcajete

San Bartolo is the home of the famous black pottery sold all over Oaxaca. In 1953, a native woman named Doña Rosa invented the technique of smoking the pottery during firing to make it black and rubbing the fired pieces with a piece of quartz to produce a sheen. Although Doña Rosa died in 1979, her son, Valente Nieto Real, carries on the tradition. We were lucky to watch Valente demonstrate his mother’s techniques using only two crude plates (as a potter’s wheel). We picked up a beautiful vase for only $10 – such a steal!

San Martín Tilcajete, another 15km (10 miles) south of San Bartolo, is home to woodcarvers who produce alebrijes — fantastical, brightly painted animals and imaginary beasts. The town is incredibly small, with only a few streets – but many little houses and workshops to visit. We stopped in a few places and watched the process of turning tree stumps into hot-pink cows, fantastical dragons and colorful turtles.

East of Oaxaca: Puzzle-like ruins of Mitla, weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, and tree of El Tule

We headed out the next day straight east from Oaxaca on a hunt for more authentic village experiences. Our first stop were the geometric ruins of Mitla. The Zapotec settled Mitla around 600 B.C., but it became a Mixtec bastion in the late 10th century. The stone buildings here are inlaid with small cut stones to form geometric patterns. The most common motif is the zigzag pattern, the same one seen repeatedly on Mitla blankets.

Our next stop was Teotitlán, famous for weaving, and now an obviously prosperous town, to judge by all the current development. This is where you’ll want to go for rugs, and you’ll find no shortage of weavers and stores. We made a short visit to the museum, but refrained from purchasing any rugs. We did, however, enjoy a tasty traditional lunch at Restaurant Tlamanalli, cooked by three Zapotec sisters in very authentic style.

On our way back to Oaxaca, we stopped at Santa María del Tule, famous for the immense El Tule Tree, an ahuehuete (Montezuma cypress, akin to the bald cypress) standing in a churchyard just off the main road. It is now over 2,000 years old and is said to have the broadest trunk of any tree in the world.

Casa Cid de Leon
Av. Morelos 602 – Oaxaca
+52 (951) 514-1893
-One of the premier hotels in the city, the Cid de Leon was a nice choice for our stay. Honestly, we were just thrilled that they would take Zookie – and he certainly won over the entire staff (including the maid who was initially terrified of him and was taking him for walks by the end of our stay). The décor was a little much for our tastes (our room had a lot of dolls and stuffed animals in it) – but it was a very comfortable place to stay. We actually rented the El Mio Cid suite, a two bedroom, two story suite – Zookie had a ball running up and down the stairs between our room and my parents’.

Restaurante Los Danzantes
Acala 403 – Oaxaca
+52 (951) 501-1184
-A colonial patio transformed into a gourmet, contemporary dining experience. To be honest, we had only an OK meal here. The food was pretty good – but the service was terrible. Perhaps we just came on an off night? We had expected it to be the highlight of our dining experiences in Oaxaca

Casa Oaxaca
Constitucion 104A – Oaxaca
+52 (951) 516-8889
-Often referred to as Oaxacan fusion, this restaurant is a place for a special occasion. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner here. (Dan got his chapulines!) The hotel in town by the same name is connected (and where we would have loved to have stayed, if only Zookie had been welcome). Strangely, the restaurant is not located in the hotel, but a few blocks away.

Calle Garcia Vigil 409A
+52 (951) 516-8676
-When you’ve had enough Mexican food and need a break, head to dinner at this place. We enjoyed an incredibly tasty meal here of pasta, gourmet sandwiches, and beautiful salads. Highly recommended!

Restaurant Tlamanalli
Av. Juárez 39 – Teotitlan de Valle
+52 (951) 524-4006
-Run by three Zapotec sisters who serve authentic Oaxacan cuisine. It is considered the most authentic food in the country by some. We enjoyed a tasty lunch – but the ambiance and watching the sisters cook was truly the highlight. Note that it’s open only for lunch: Monday through Friday from 1 to 4pm.

Restaurante Tipico La Capilla
Carretera Oaxaca-Zaachila, Km 14 – Zaachila
+52 (951) 528-6115
-This place looks like a tour group tourist trap, but don’t be put off. It was our best lunch in the Oaxaca region! The antojitos (appetizers) were really tasty – and the Oaxacan mole negro chicken was wonderful. If you happen to be traveling with children, this is the place to go! There are animals (birds and monkeys!) and lots of room for the kids to run around and play (even swings)!

Tags: Mexico

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