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A Frieda Kahlo look-alike greets Jeanette Valentine in Oaxaca



by Jeanette Valentine of SoulOfAmerica


   Mexican vacations usually conjure images of jet setters reclining on hot sands by day and burning up salsa dance floors by night. But a more culturally significant travel experience awaits in the City of Oaxaca (pronounced wa - HAW - ka). Lovers of folk art, crafts and history will find an embarrassment of riches in this sprawling city laid at the feet of the Sierra Madre Mountains in southern Mexico.

    Oaxaca’s charms are many, not the least among them the architectural marvels of its churches and convents. Perhaps the most visually alluring of the former is La Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman. From a distance, its baroque façade appears to rise from an expansive bed of agave plants, the sword-leafed cactus from which tequila is made. It’s a fanciful first glimpse of the 16th-century church, whose interior walls feature intricate carvings and metal work in a dazzling display that seemingly soars to the sky. Not to be missed is the jaw-dropping splendor of the gold-leaf covered alter.

    The church sits adjacent to the Santo Domingo de Guzman Cultural Center, a beautiful former convent that houses artifacts culled from the ruins of Monte Alban, one of the world’s oldest stone cities and a World Heritage Site (More on Monte Alban later). Sweeping arches, grand cloisters, roman columns and pristine patios evoke an air of refinement that carries into an interior brimming with history. The Center includes the Oaxaca Cultures Museum and The Friar Francisco de Burgoa Library, which contains books and documents dating back to 1484.

La Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman

   Visitors peering through the Culture Center’s windows are treated to the lush, verdant Oaxaca Historical Ethnobotanical Garden. The grounds hold more than 1,300 varieties of plants, all indigenous to the region.

    Yet another example of baroque architecture is the Cathedral of Oaxaca, a grand church that anchors the town’s Zocalo, or main square. The entire area bristles with activity no matter the time of day or night. The cobble-stoned plaza comes alive with children chasing one another, vendors hawking souvenirs for tourists, musicians blaring band music and couples strolling hand in hand.

    Also a former convent, Santiago Apóstol, can be found in the town of Cuilapam de Guerrero, about six miles south of Oaxaca. On a crystal clear day, the sand-colored stones from which the complex is built contrasts sharply with the reddish hue of two large domes and the brilliant blue of the sky, making for post-card perfect photos. Built in the 16th century, Santiago Apostol’s open-air nave reflects the local preference for outdoor religious services; people considered traditional in-door churches claustrophobic, a fact that explains the roofless buildings found in archeological ruins such as in Mitla.

    The vast site at Mitla is comprised of five main structures, buildings and courtyards constructed of stone largely for ceremonial purposes. At one entrance, six massive columns, labeled the “House of Columns,” leads to a main sanctuary, sans roof, where sacrifices were made to the gods. Located in another area are ancient tombs, the likely final resting place of the much revered priests. Most impressive about Mitla are seemingly miles and miles of sharply carved stone murals, geographical shapes that wrap around the structures and represent important symbols depicting Mitla’s storied history.

Ancient buildings of Monte Alban

    Far grander than Mitla is Monte Alban, an ancient hilltop city that provides a landscape of stone structures resembling the pyramids of Egypt. Erected as early as 500 BC, the site gives a glimpse of life in a gigantic ceremonial enclave built around a Grand Plaza.Spread throughout an expansive field surrounding the plaza are buildings that served as residences and civic edifices, each decorated with intricate carvings. Giant monuments honor the gods, and an athletic stadium shows where the winning teams of ball games became human sacrifices. The city is breath-taking in its complexity and sheer size.

    For a different visual treat that must be viewed first-hand, head to Santa Maria de Tule, about five miles east of Oaxaca. A photo of the Arbol del Tule (the Tulle tree) scarcely does justice to its massive size. Gawking tourists look like ants next to the majestic Cypress, billed as one of the longest living trees in the world. Its age and dimensions vary depending upon the source: Some put its age at between 1,500 and 4,000 years old, its height at well over 100 feet and the circumference of its trunk at about 119 feet. The latter means at least 15 people, hand-to-hand and arms outstretched, are required for the ultimate group tree hug.

El Arbol de Tule

    In the shadow of the great Cypress is a white confection of a church, trimmed in blue and rust and sitting before a meticulously maintained garden. Playful topiaries - including a squirrel and a sombrero-wearing, troubadour – stand like leafy statues amid the roses. Like most large churches in Mexico, El Templo de Santa María de la Asunción boasts an elaborate, golden alter worth viewing.

    For those who appreciate the liveliness of Mexican mercado, Tiacolula de Matamoros near Oaxaca does not disappoint. Under tarps seeming to stretch for miles, vendor stalls crowd shoulder to shoulder hawking everything from food to artwork to clothes to live animals destined for slaughter.

    Pyramids of bread loaves, buckets of grains and spices, displays of leather belts and purses, hats, pots and pans, t-shirts, turkeys and ubiquitous baskets of ruddy-colored fried grasshoppers. It’s all there, along with an array of aromas and sounds that alternately delight and shock the senses:  the perfume of flowers, the musty smell of livestock, the hum of a radio blaring Mexican ballads, the loud yelps from sellers to entice prospective customers.

Butcher's stall at the market

    The smoky aroma of barbecuing wafts through the air near the carnerciera, the butcher section where razor-thin flank steaks sizzle over stand-up grills lining the middle aisle. Carcasses of cows and pigs hang in the back of some stalls, with choice cuts of meat displayed on the counters in front of them. One entire row contains nothing but sellers of fried pig skins, the crunchy snack eaten like potato chips. Looking like crispy, golden sheets hung on clothes lines, each skin comes from the hide of one pig and measure yards and yards across.

    Frenzied activity in the surrounding market contrasts sharply with the somber interior of the Church of the Martyrs, which sits in its midst. Etched on the wall of the church are vivid and chilling depictions of the death scene of each disciple of Jesus. It’s a place of worship not for the faint of heart.

Giant skeleton wood carving at Zeny Fuentes Studio

    More light-hearted adventures can be found in the villages outside of the city limits, where folk arts and crafts are lovingly created. Each locality claims a particular skill that generations of artisans have past down to their progeny. As a result, individual towns are known for producing a singular art form or craft, including pottery and textiles. Villages worth a visit include:

San Bartolo de Coyotepec
    In the 1950s, the late Rosa Real de Nieto, a local potter, developed a method of making pottery that produced a unique black, satiny sheen. Today, her Black Pottery business displays row upon row of the glistening earthenware and ceramics – including bowls, pots, animal sculptures, crucifixes and skeletons. Sitting on a low stool in a room near the rear of the establishment, Real de Nieto’s 70-something-year old son, Valente, demonstrates his mother’s techniques by molding clay into pottery before your eyes.

Rows of black pottery at Dona Rosa Studio

Teotitlan del Valle

    Skeins of yarns in every hue of the rainbow sit in the opening patio of the weaving business operated by the family of Master Weaver Demetrio Bautista Lazo. Next to the yarn are a dozen bowls of the powdered tints used for color; they are created from myriad raw materials, including plants, seeds and bugs. Stop in for a visit, and you may get to see a member of the family station herself before a piano-sized loom and begin the rhythmic process of lacing yarn through taut strings to create rugs that are more work of art than floor covering.

    Some of the region’s most colorful folk art is created in San Martin Tilcajete, home of the whimsical wood carvings known as alebrijes. Painted in bold, bright hues, accented with dots of more color, these imaginative animal-like creatures make wonderful gifts for folks back home. Zeny Fuentes is world renown for his carvings, and a visit to his studios reveals the painstaking attention to detail required to produce his work. From carving to drying to painting, the process for a 12” long wooden figure can take as long as three months.

Whimsical wood carvings known as alebrijes

    In addition to arts, crafts and history, Oaxaca is known for a hearty cuisine that blends fresh, local ingredients into distinctive regional fare. For example, many call Oaxaca the mole capital of the world. And why not? A key ingredient in mole - the thick, slightly sweet sauce that brings a uniquely Oaxacan flavor to fish, fowl and meats – is chocolate. For a taste of the best from one of the top producers in the region, head to Mayordomo’s.

   Whiffs of the confection hang heavy in the air of the store a few blocks from the Zocalo in Oaxaca. Jars of Mayordomo’s Mole Rojo (red mole) and Mole Negro (black mole) and plastic-wrapped rectangles of chocolate line the orange and yellow walls of the cozy, brightly lit shop. Plump cocoa beans, sand-colored almonds and large sticks of cinnamon weigh down an old-fashioned scale near the cash register. Nearby, a woman offers samples of a chocolate shake-like drink, and in the rear of the store, an aproned young man scoops cocoa powder out of a bright red grinding machine.

    For authentic Oaxacan fare, several restaurants are sure bets, including Casa de Cantera, Catedral Restaurant and Fonda Santo Domingo, where the fried grasshopper soup is a pleasant surprise. For a more upscale meal, Casa Oaxaca just a few blocks from La Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman, is a must-visit restaurant.

Blue tortilla chips and salsa at Casa Oaxaca

How to get there and where to stay

   Mexicana Airlines is the transportation of choice to Oaxaca; it conveniently offers five daily flights from Mexico City. In 2009, Mexicana garnered the title of “Leading Airline in Mexico and Central America” from the World Travel Awards, its 11th time winning the award.

    Far from the bustling activity of downtown, Hacienda Los Laureles in the neighborhood of San Felipe, is a good choice for accommodations. The 23-room hotel offers a quaint atmosphere in serene surroundings; the property’s gardens – immaculately maintained by the owner – bursts with colored blooms and is large enough for evening strolls. Hacienda Los Laureles also offers a full-service spa, ecotours and a golf course nearby.

Immaculate gardens at Hacienda Los Laureles

Possible Side Trip

    The region of Oaxaca closer to the coast has strong afrocentric root, its residents being African progeny of slaves brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. Mexican residents in nearby Coastal Vera Cruz and Gurerro also claim Africa as their Motherland, giving this geographic a rich culture that includes percussive music and rhythmic dance. More information on this ethnically diverse area will be forthcoming.


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