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December 2001

(For information on traveling to Oaxaca, go to our Oaxaca Travel Info page.)

Hernan Cortés, the same conquistador dude who gave Montezuma his comeuppance, founded Oaxaca (pronounced “wah-HAH-kah”) in 1529, a century before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth. The whole sordid history of Spanish conquest was repeated here, with ruthless suppression of Zapotec and Mixtec Indian revolts. But the population of Oaxaca state is still dominantly indigenous, speaking sixteen different languages (not dialects) and only learning Spanish when and if they attend school. (See the comments below by Eloy, our guide.)

Oaxaca City

The city prospered because of the rich valley land and the abundance of the cochineal beetle. Cochineal, the essential source of deep red dye before the invention of aniline dyes in the 1800s, was for centuries exported by the millions of tons to all of Europe and the world. For example, the beautiful red of antique Navaho rugs derives from the yarn the weavers pulled from British trade blankets, woven and dyed in England with cochineal from the Oaxaca Valley. Thus the wealth that built the gorgeous colonial architecture in this city of 400,000 people, and the magnificent churches and convents was derived from bugs! The city was the largest in Nueva España by 1800, but was destroyed twice by earthquakes.

Some of the churches and convents have been beautifully restored, especially the ex-convent of Santo Domingo that has become the regional museum of pre-Columbian art and archeology. All the labels were in Spanish, but we could piece most of it together and it gave a wonderful overview of the civilizations that succeeded each other in the Oaxaca Valley for thousands of years before Cortés arrived and changed everything. The most famous was Tomb Seven from Monte Albán (about 900 A.D.), with its magnificent jade and gold filigree jewelry. But it was not until we ventured out of the city that we discovered the Spanish influence is really just a thick veneer on an indigenous population that is dominant in numbers, if not in wealth.

Crafts: Oaxacan Specialty

For me (Signe), the best part of the region was all the different kinds of crafts that are made in the area, some that probably date back to the earlier civilizations. The first day we visited shops recommended by guidebooks and friends, buying some wonderful alebrijes (whimsically painted carved animals). There is so much talent here that it is hard to focus on one area. We were greatly limited by: a) living on a boat; and b) traveling carry-on. But I gave it my best effort. The hardest to pass up were the old ladies selling things in the tree-shaded central square, the zócalo. One patient lady finally wore me down enough to buy some of her wool rebozos (shawls), because the colors were brilliant and the prices so low. And that’s without bargaining! Many people have so little that we just can’t bring ourselves bargain over a dollar’s price difference. Small children were selling carved wood letter openers and bookmarks with colorful figures of birds or animals on top. We couldn’t resist them either.

Mercado in Ocotlán

On Friday we hired a car and driver to take us to a weekly open market (vegetables, not stocks!) in one of the many pueblos around Oaxaca city. We are real market connoisseurs and have enjoyed visiting them in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the market in Ocotlán was probably the best we’ve ever seen. It is not only a way for the people to stock up on essentials and make some pesos, but a social occasion as well. It was full of magnificent fruits and vegetables, breads, flowers and herbs, chocolate in the raw (cacao beans; and you thought chocolate only came in boxes and wrappers), animals on the hoof, meats, dried fish, and much more. There were fruits we had never seen or heard of before. The farmers come from about ninety miles around to sell their wares. Eloy, our guide, was mostly of Zapotec Indian heritage (that’s his first language), and he dove right in and had us tasting everything. The moment of truth came when he handed samples of the local protein snack, chapulines, grasshoppers fried in oil, with garlic, chili, and salt. They come in three standard sizes (no, really) and only Jan was brave enough to try one as Eloy wolfed down several.

Jan and I especially enjoyed watching the ladies with live turkeys flapping in each hand, bargaining with buyers. The going rate for a big turkey? Ten dollars, which is a lot of money in these parts, but then you get feathers, feet, beak, gizzard, the works! It’s not exactly your familiar frozen Butterball. The ladies were dressed in their gold filigree earrings (much like the ones found in the Monte Albán tombs), embroidered aprons and finest (probably only) rebozos, which they used as headdresses, shawls, baby carriers, turkey carriers, shopping bags, etc. One lady trotted her three goats through the middle of this children’s clothing stalls. When one of them was being obstinate, she gave him a swift kick in the butt, right into Jan. Life as a turisto can be dangerous!

Don’t Argue with the Zapotec Ladies!

There were so many people that some of the alleys were in gridlock. These tiny Zapotec ladies were mighty, less than five feet tall, but solidly built. Even Jan, the rugby player, was no match for the market ladies in a hurry and had to wait it out. Then someone would try to get through with a handcart full of boxes of oranges. Chaos! The other danger zone was the hibachis set up near the butcher stalls, where people cooked the meat they had just purchased for lunch. It was entirely too easy to get bumped into one of the hot hibachis. Then in mid-afternoon, they could go to the ice cream makers who had their cream and fruit in tin cans that sat in wooden barrels of ice. Instead of a crank they spun the cans by hand for 20 minutes to freeze the ice cream. What a country!

Each category of merchandise has its own area of the market. All the bread sellers were together, all the cacao bean sellers were next to the chocolate mills, all the turkey sellers were together, all the onion ladies seated next to each other on the ground. I guess that makes it easy to shop for the best bargain. In the midst of all of this, the barbers had haircuts going full tilt out in the street. Three chairs, no waiting. Dogs, kids, chickens, handcarts, two large gringo tourists – all the Ocotlán world passed by, admiring their work.

Sorry to overwhelm you with so many photos on this page, but we just couldn’t resist the colors and the faces we saw in these wonderful markets. Especially the faces.

After the market we went to visit the peaceful oasis of the home of artist Rodolfo Morales. He was born in Ocotlán and donated most of his wealth to a foundation that has built a hospital and a school, planted jacaranda trees all the way from Oaxaca to Ocotlán, and set up computer labs and an art program with free instruction for the children of the pueblo. Besides all this, he restored the church and convent in the town, doing much of the work himself. There were many examples of his paintings in the church and in his home. Quite an interesting man who left a huge legacy when he died in January.

Pueblos and Their Crafts

Next on the itinerary was the pueblo of Santo Tomas de Jalieza, a town of 850 people, known for weaving with traditional backstrap looms. The women tie one end of the loom threads to a tree. The other end goes around their backs as they sit on the ground weaving very colorful fabrics, which they make up into placemats, vests, purses, backpacks, belts, hatbands, etc. The tiny market, where each woman sold her wares, was also open that day so I felt obligated to buy from each lady. I had to be fair! The pieces were beautiful and they took hours to make, so I had to support them all. Well, I did, didn’t I?

There are about ten other pueblos around Oaxaca that have their own traditional specialties: rug weaving, black pottery, green pottery, carved animal figures, embroideries, etc. You could visit a different town each day and just revel in all the talent. We will just have to go back with larger duffle bags!

Monte Albán

After all that shopping we spent a few hours at a huge archeological site called Monte Albán. This was our second visit to a Mexican pyramid site and the contrast between Chichén Itzá – lost in the overwhelming Yucatan jungle – and the open site of Monte Albán could not be greater. The Zapotecans built Monte Albán on a big hill overlooking the valley and the modern day city of Oaxaca, and it has a dozen or more impressive pyramids of various sizes. The shocking thing is that this site’s heyday was ended by 600 A.D., while Chichen Itza’s was almost thousand years later. The sheer size and age of the place makes you stand there in silence, impressed by the achievements of these people two millennia ago.

Our guide, Eloy, is mostly Zapotecan and has the darkly handsome features to prove it. He told us at one point: “My people built this Monte Alban over two thousand years ago. The Aztecs came and went, and we are still here. The Spanish came and went, and we are still here. Now, the tourists . . . we are very happy to have you visit us, but . . .” We caught his drift.

Saturday we went to the big market in Oaxaca, which is supposed to be the best of all. Had we not been to Ocotlán, this would have been true. It was certainly huge, many acres with at the very least a couple thousand stalls and individual vendors. We instantly got lost and Jan started wishing he’d brought a GPS, just so we could find the way out. I was sure that there were people who just live in their stalls. There are parts of Mexico that are very Third World and not for the faint of heart, or nose; this was one of them. As usual, we enjoyed wandering through the chaos and observing the people who had brought their wares in from the countryside, but it was very hot and the shady arches of the zócalo with a cool limonada in hand sounded tempting.

Hotel El Camino Real has a weekly dinner and Oaxacan regional dance fiesta, one of those touristy things that are still worth doing. We loved it. The dances came from all the seven major regions of Oaxaca state, with amazingly colorful native costumes and steps. If you go to Oaxaca, don’t miss it. The oddest part was sitting at a table with four Midwestern couples traveling together, and trying to answer their simple questions like “Where are you from?” and “How long are you traveling?” We must have seemed like Martians to them.

The last treat was a woman-in-the-calle interview of Signe by a smiling Oaxacan/Mixtec girl who was studying English. Her questions were hilariously incoherent (“Oaxaca you like?”) but the two of them had a great time laughing at themselves. Signe made it quite clear that “Yes, Oaxaca she like.”

Now all our lovely purchases are packed in a duffle bag waiting to go home on December 18th. We have persuaded a few of our friends here to try a visit to Oaxaca, and we hope we have tempted you to visit some part of Mexico too.

Love, Signe

PS: Our Oaxaca Travel Info page has travel details.


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