“All Mexicans love Oaxaca.” “I came for a week, and stayed a year!” “An extraordinary place.” These are some of the comments we hear from other visitors and expats as we mill around the city of Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-HAH-kah).
It’s a week before Christmas when we arrive, and the main city square Zócalo is ablaze with activity. Villagers from near and far have come in droves to sell their handmade crafts. My eyes feast on stunning embroidered blouses, wooden bowls, dazzling clay ornaments, beadwork jewelry and more. Helium balloon sellers grip such humongous bunches, it’s a wonder they are not lifted off the ground.
Kids are drawn to the balloons shaped like cylinders in various sizes which they launch into the air like rockets then gleefully race off to retrieve, repeating the process again and again. Sidewalk restaurants are filled to capacity. Talented street performers draw crowds. As we sip yet another iced cappuccino, the melody of a pan flute floats through the air adding to the magic of this joyous atmosphere.
A gigantic Christmas Tree and Nativity Scene dominate Alameda de León square that fronts Oaxaca Cathedral.
Construction of this church dedicated to Our Lady of Assumption commenced in 1535 and was consecrated in 1733. The grand façade of this massive architectural wonder is just one of many made from green volcanic stone in this Colonial city with a population of 4 million.
The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is a Baroque stunner! The Dominican Order began its construction in the late 1500’s, taking over 200 years to complete. It’s highly decorative interior is said to have more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf. The botanical garden grounds display natural plants of the Oaxaca state.
The Oaxaca Cultural Centre adjoins Santo Domingo Church. This former convent once served as home to Dominican friars and novices, then during the revolution it became a military barracks, followed by today’s museum which takes us on a walk through history from pre-Hispanic times, to Colonialism and independence. The centre also includes a library with over 30,000 volumes published between 1484 and 1940. Rick becomes absorbed in a huge volume on display.
We are always on alert to take in an event that happens nowhere else in the world. Night of the Radishes (La Noche de Rábanos) fits the bill! Annually on December 23rd a tradition unfolds, as it has for over 100 years. A day or so prior artisans from near and far furiously carve sculptures out of radishes – but not your ordinary radishes. These ones are chemically treated and fertilized to be mega-sized (some as heavy as 3kg and as long as 50cm) and are not meant to be eaten. During the day of the 23rd their carvings come to life in display units on three sides of the main square. The event opens to the public in the late afternoon, and around 4pm we join the line-up (now six blocks long and growing by the minute). Within three hours we are shuffling along raised platforms to see the amazing works of art – radish people/animals/colonial buildings/fantasy creatures and more! The creators wield water bottles to spray their works to prevent wilting as thousands of viewers pass by until midnight – and this fleeting event is over for another year.
“Have you eaten grasshoppers?” (chapulines in Spanish) our friends back home ask. We see this as a challenge and zero in on one of the many street vendors selling this popular snack. These dried critters come in three sizes – small, medium and large, and in each category some are tan coloured and some are reddish. Hmmm? I ask one of the ladies purchasing bags full about the colour difference, and learn the reddish are spiked with mucho spices.
I pick up a large tan one, and munch away – crunchy and nut-like tasty! I don’t notice which one Rick picks up, and the ladies say nothing when it’s a reddish one. His eyes water from the fiery blast to his taste buds, but he persists and crunches away! The ladies and I burst into laughter, and Rick also when he can catch his breath. We pay the seller 10 pesos for our sampling of this local “treat” and walk on with this bit of cultural flavour (literally) under our belts.
After the heavy flow of visitors for the Yuletide Season is over, our thinking is the tours will not be as busy – and a good time for us to venture outside the capital to some sites.
Our first excursion is a bus tour that lands us at the Tule Tree in the town of Mitla. This 2000-year-old Montezuma Cypress has the stoutest trunk in the world at 14m (46ft). Standing to the left of its girth the people on the right look miniature, and know from their perspective we must look the same. Peering upward we cannot see the sky beyond its lofty leafy canopy; its majesty leaves us humbled.
We move on to Mitla’s pre-Colombian ruins of the Zapotec civilization. It reached its peak between 950AD and 1521AD as a major ceremonial centre, residence and burial place for the Zapotec priestly class. Although much of the building stones were removed from this ancient complex and used to build the nearby Church, the intricate mosaics and elaborate wall carvings that remain are captivating.
Before leaving the area we are taken to a rug factory where we see the process from spinning, dying wool with natural products, folks working the looms, to finished product. By the way, the crimson dyes are produced from crushed cochineal insects, which is also exported and used in many of our lipsticks/blushes.
Before leaving Mitla we file into a buffet restaurant to appease our rumbling stomachs and taste a variety of Oaxacan dishes and desserts – YUM!
It is next to Hierve el Agua (the water boils) named for the natural spring water that spurts from the rocky surface and ends in turquoise pools of water, where taking a refreshing dip is a must!
Mother Nature’s awesome spectacle is beyond the pools. Known as the Petrified Waterfalls, we gape at two nearly-white waterfall-like rock formations that formed from the calcium-rich waters that flowed down these cliffs for thousands of years. The smaller falls is approximately 12m and the larger is 30m in height. Our guide tells us that in the rainy season water once again cascades over this stonework.
Lastly we are taken to a small distillery for Mezcal. We learn that Mezcal can be made from 28 varieties of agave plants, whereas the more widely known Tequila is made only from Blue Agave. Mezcal is said to be moving up in popularity with the hip and chic – could it be the smoky taste or the worm in the bottle?
After a few more days of absorbing the delights of Zócalo Square, we are ready to do some serious walking around the sizable archeological ruins of Monte Alban, located a mere 10km from Oaxaca City.
Hiring a taxi seems best, so we can wander the site at our leisure. Our driver, Diego, drives us to the entrance, with an arranged time to pick us up.
This ancient metropolis was founded by the Zapotec peoples who once ruled these central valleys. It looms 400m (1300ft) above Oaxaca Valley, atop a sheared off mountain – a mindboggling feat in itself without any modern rock-cutting and earth-moving machinery! Functioning as their capital for more than 13 centuries between 500BC and 850AD, it holds the remains of their temples, palaces, tombs, stepped platforms, observatory, ball court and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. Sometime during the 9th century for unknown reasons the Zapotec abandoned the site.
About 200 years later the Mixtec peoples took over Monte Alban to bury their dead, which they continued to do until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. One of the most prominent leavings by the Mixtec was Tomb 7, uncovered in 1932 by Mexican archeologist Alfonso Caso, which held a plethora of treasures – gold, silver, jade, pearl, turquoise. The Spanish knew about Monte Alban, but since they didn’t bother to dig here they must have gauged it loot-less. Most of these treasures are in the Oaxaca Regional Museum.
At one point we have a tremendous view of the Great Plaza, which measures approximately 300m x 200m and is regally flanked by ceremonial platforms reached by broad flights of steps. It is thought to have been the religious and administrative centre of the city, which inclusive of the neighborhoods in the surrounding hills may have covered 25sq-mi with a total population of 30,000 citizens. Crops of corn, beans, squash and other rain-fed crops were produced by these hillside residents.
We come upon one of two ball courts known to have existed at the time, the rules of their ancient game are not known, but I envision the stone bleachers filled with raucous fans cheering their team of athletes who may have used hips, shoulders, knees and elbows to hit a wooden ball.
The oddly arrow-shaped “Building J” is thought to have been an observatory pointing towards the southwest for alignment with stars, rather than the usual north-south construction of most of the city’s buildings. The near invisible carvings have succumbed to ravishing of time.
Behind this building is stone seating overlooking the plaza, which we now use as giant steps to get to a platform at the top, where our effort awards us with a panoramic view of the valley.
Carved stone monuments are left standing throughout the plaza. Originally called Danzatnes (dancers), which the figures were once thought to be, but experts now believe the naked men in contorted poses or missing parts represent sacrificial victims and tortured war prisoners. Some identified by name were possibly leaders of other villages captured by the Zapotec.
We enter a small museum on the site where a number of the better preserved carved stone slabs can be seen, along with skulls bored with holes, and a skeleton discovered during excavations.
Intriguing Monte Alban is one of those rare archeological sites that fill us with sensations of being in the midst of citizens going about their daily business during the city’s heyday.
The day before flying home, Elizabeth, the lovely young lady who books tours at our hotel invites us to her home for a grandma-made lunch of a traditional dish, Tlayuda! We cannot refuse this kindness and away we go in a taxi up to a neighbourhood high on the hillside.
Grandma and Elizabeth are soon crisping plate size tortilla spread with refried beans, pork fat, dried meat and cheese over the flame of their gas stove burner. When the crunch is perfect, diced tomatoes, avocado, and slivered onion are added, ready to be folded into a large half-moon sandwich.
We are soon munching along with the family between sips of Agua de Avena (a blend of oat water/vanilla/cinnamon/sugar) Delicious! All the while we chat with Elizabeth’s grandma, mom, dad, aunt, two sisters, and brother in our un poco Spanish and their minimal English, with Elizabeth doing a lot of translating…and the universal language of smiles!
Our experiences over the past two months whirl through our minds, and how no matter where our daily activities took us, we felt encased in a strong sense of community for such a large city which radiates outward to the towns and sites we visited. Rick and I shared pangs of not wanting to say good-bye to Oaxaca, but appeased ourselves with a resolve to return someday to this truly extraordinary place.
Suggested Accommodation: Holiday Inn Express – great location, amenities and service. English speaking reception staff. Highly recommended!