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The Magic of Oaxaca

A Guide to Touring 17 Villages and Meeting Local Craftspeople and Artisans

Oaxaca City Cathedral, Mexico
Oaxaca City Cathedral. Photo © Ron Mader.

While colonial churches, galleries, museums, and famed cuisine have contributed to Oaxaca’s status as an important travel destination, the city’s accessibility to outlying market towns, ruins, craft villages, and other fascinating sites make visiting a rich cultural experience.

By hiring a taxi or local guide for 150-200 pesos ($14-$18) an hour, in two days you can take in the valley’s most important sites. You decide how much time to spend at which attraction, a luxury not offered on a tour bus. When visiting for only 10 days or so, unless you’re willing to forego much of what the city proper has to offer, using public transit restricts you to visiting less than half of the area’s offerings…you have to find the depot; schedules are often not as advertised; you’re often dropped off a mile or so from the particular site requiring walking in from the highway; then find exactly where you’re going; and finally get back to the highway to catch your next bus.

With your personal driver, start at 9 a.m. and return to your hotel by about 6:30 p.m. In two days you’ll have visited 17 sites in 10 towns, with time to stop for lunch at reliable local eateries en route.

The Ocotlán Route

Friday is market day in Ocotlán. A town on its market day is a must when visiting Oaxaca. However, there’s no need to visit more than one, so if you elect to do this route on the Friday, travel the second route (Tlacolula) not on its Sunday market day or vice versa. The route sites will be touristed on the market days, so better to experience only one day bumping into other vacationers rather than two.

Start with the massive 16th century church and monastery complex at Cuilapan. The Cortés family halted construction in the midst of a dispute with the Dominicans over land ownership, so you’ll witness how the facility appeared in the late 1500s, with minimal subsequent restoration.

Then traverse the valley via Zaachila, arriving at Santa Maria Coyotepec to tour the museum and research station for conchineal, the minute insect that feeds off the nopal cactus. The bug is harvested and used as a brilliant red dye. In 1758, Oaxaca, then world leader in production of the pigment, exported 1.5 million pounds overseas. Cochineal is still used in manufacturing makeup, lipstick, yogurt, Campbell soup, and Campari. In its heyday it was the world’s most valuable commodity after gold and silver.

Stop a kilometer down the road for a black pottery demonstration in San Bartolo Coyotepec at the famed Doña Rosa’s, where her son Don Valente will explain his mother’s innovation to the centuries-old tradition of producing clay pottery without a wheel, using locally produced rudimentary tools. On the same Calle Juarez visit the jewelry workshop of Armando Lozano, who for 30 years has been hand-crafting original brass pieces with spectacular acid finishes.

Pottery museum at San Bartolo Coyotepec. Photo © Ron Mader.

Next visit San Martín Tilcajete where hand-carved, brilliantly painted wooden fanciful figures are produced in household workshops. If traveling with children, some craftspeople will accommodate by teaching the kids the art of painting their favorite animal.

The open-air roadside restaurant Azucena Zapoteca at the entranceway to San Martín Tilcajete serves the best, safe food along the route, and a stop here should time nicely with a mid-afternoon comida. Owners Jacobo and María Ängeles have combined the eatery with a gallery of folk art pieces by select artisans, as well as their own fine carvings.

Continue to the cotton textile village of Santo Tomás Jalieza, where you’ll see women from 15 to 75 years of age weaving table runners, purses, and belts, using a back-strap loom. You’ll also find bedspreads, draperies, tablecloths, placemats, and napkins at great prices. The co-op marketplace is fixed price, but the adjacent workshops have a little leeway.

Jalieza Bags
Jalieza Bags at the Santo Tomás Jalieza market. Photo © Ron Mader.

Ten minutes further along the road, upon entering Ocotlán visit the four workshops of the Aguilar sisters who make clay painted figures with strong religious, sexual, creationist, and traditional indigenous imagery. Then stop by the knife and cutlery shop of their cousin, Ängel Aguilar, to see a fascinating demonstration of the centuries-old Spanish technique of hand-forging using only recycled metals with aid of a stone and clay oven. Two blocks away is the town square, where you’ll marvel at the building-long mural, a fresco by renowned artist Rodolfo Morales. Wander through the church and adjoining museum featuring period art, furniture and tools, as well as a selection of Morales’ works. On a Friday you’ll want to meander through the market. Conclude your visit at the Rodolfo Morales Foundation where the maestro lived his final years in this courtyard-style home. His sister-in-law, who still lives there, will invite you into the quaint, richly decorated traditional kitchen. Walk upstairs to the gallery and view some of Morales’ final collage works.

The Tlacolula Route

Santa María El Tule, home to the world’s largest tree — a 2,000-year-old cypress — is 10 minutes outside the city. Ask one of the children dressed in Robin Hood green outfits to point out images in the trunk and branches.

Santa María El Tule
The 2,000 cypress tree in Santa María El Tule. Photo © Ron Mader.

Drive another 15 minutes to Teotitlan del Valle where wool rugs have been produced since 1501. Proceeding toward the center of town you’ll encounter several outlets. On your right, as you approach the main drag, you’ll see the home and workshop of Porfirio Santiago, who together with wife Gloria and other family members explain the manufacturing process starting with carding of raw wool, spinning, coloring using natural dyes from fruits, pecan shell, mosses, the añil plant (brilliant indigo), and cochineal, and finally weaving intricate Zapotec designs from memory, as well as modern pieces, on locally produced looms. The family is very welcoming.

Weaving woman at Teotitlan del Valle, Mexico
Teotitlan del Valle. Photo © Ron Mader.

The state’s alcoholic drink, mescal, is produced in small operations peppering the highway departing the rug village. On Sundays you can sample it in the Tlacolula marketplace. However, you’ll enjoy the experience and learn more if you stop by one of the palenques to witness the age-old production methods. Visit Casa Chagoya just before Tlacolula. The heart or piña of the agave plant is baked over firewood and river rocks in an air-tight in-ground pit, then pulverized using a horse pulling a multi-ton stone, fermented in pine vats, and finally double distilled in wood–fueled ovens. Try it as it drips from the still. At the tasting bar sample products aged for different lengths of time in oak barrels; flavored with the gusano worm; and blended with herb and fruit.

On Sunday at the Tlacolula market you’ll be tempted to sit down with locals for grilled chicken or barbecued goat. However, if your stomach is a concern and you can hold out until after you leave the market, about 15 minutes beyond Tlacolula as you enter Mitla is a recently expanded and spruced up restaurant, Doña Chica. Husband and wife are manager and chef respectively, and deliver up great traditional dishes.

Tlacolula Market Mexico
Tlacolula Market. Photo © Ron Mader.

Continue to the ruin at the end of town. Hiring a guide at the site is an option, although most travel books explain the ruin, and there’s English signage throughout. The huge stone lintels and detailed grecas and fretwork built without the use of mortar, still stand despite centuries of earthquakes. One of the tombs is impressive, although those at Yagul are more interesting. Be sure to stop by the “free” section of the ruin behind the church where you’ll see original painted codices telling pictorial stories of genealogies. The sprawling craft marketplace is known for its diversity of hand-embroidered shirts and blouses, vests, skirts, and dresses, as well as other items, priced less than in Oaxaca.

On your way back to Oaxaca stop by the Yagul ruin, known for the second largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica, its tombs, and the mountain precipice labyrinth and fortress from which the view is breathtaking. If you arrive around 5 p.m. closing time, 50 pesos should convince authorities to keep the ruin open a bit longer.

Continuing along the highway, conclude your day at the 16th century Dominican church at Tlacochuhuaya, open until 6 p.m. It’s known for the vast amount of Zapotec artists’ original painting, and the restored 17th century German organ on the second floor, accessed by a narrow winding staircase. Ask the knowledgeable keepers for details about the construction, paintings, and current uses.

On a final note, in many cases shoppers can order custom wooden and clay figures, pottery, and textiles, and artisans will accommodate by delivering to your city accommodations. If you have something special in mind, it’s best to do your village touring early in your vacation to afford sufficient time to have purchases crafted and delivered.

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