Santa María del Tule
Home of the "Tule Tree"
The "Tule Tree," 190' around!
The baby Tule Tree, just 1,000 years old.
What fantastic creatures lurk here?.
"Tuk-tuk" taxis zipped everywhere.
Zapotec weavings in Teotitlan
All these colors were obtained from flowers or bugs.
Our sea turtle rug.
Hierve el Agua is a unique,
A manmade pool to control the water flow a bit.
Kids play in the water.
A thin film of water leaves a
microscopic layer of minerals behind.
Waterfall frozen in time.
Petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua.
Reminded us of Yellowstone but the water was cool..
Our charming tour companions.
Mitla is square and ornate, very different than Monte Alban.
Intricate patterns like this adorn every wall inside and out.
Precise mortarless stonework from 2,000 years ago.
Massive lintel over a short doorway.
One of the interior rooms.
Impressive dovetail corner joinery made
of precisely cut decorative stone.
No two patterns on the buildings are alike.
One of the underground tombs.
Mezcal makers!! The king of Matatlan.
There are hundreds of varieties of mezcal.
Young blue agave plants.
Pineapple-like core used to make mezcal.
First they are cooked over a fire.
Then they are crushed under a rotating wheel.
The duration of the fermentation makes all the
difference in the taste.
Here, try this one!!
Mitla Tour, Oaxaca, Mexico
Mid-February, 2012 - We enjoyed the Monte Alban ruins and history so
much we decided to take another trek out to the other side of Oaxaca to
see the ruins at Mitla. The easiest way to do this was with a van-based
tour, and our day-trip included several colorful stops in addition to the
tour of the Mitla ruins.
The first stop was in the cute town of Santa María del Tule, home
of the famous "Tule Tree." The funny thing about an organized
tour like this is that you follow the pace of the leader. Our
designated stop here was just a half hour or so. But it was such an
appealing little town that I'm sure if we had been on our own we
would have probably stuck around for a day or two!
The Tule plant is a grassy reed related to cat tails that was used by the
indigenous peoples to make mats, shelters and boats. It grows in
abundance in and around Santa María del Tule. The "Tule Tree" is
actually a Sabino (Montezuma Cypress) tree, totally unrelated to the
Tule plant, but it is affectionately known as the "Tule Tree" because it
was once surrounded by tule reeds.
According to the sign in front of the tree, this monster is
over 2,000 years old, 190' in girth around the trunk, 138'
tall, 28,846 cubic feet in volume and 636,107 tons in
weight. It is considered to be the widest tree (the one with
the largest girth) in the world. Our tour guide suggested
that if we couldn't fit the whole tree in our cameras we
could always buy a souvenir postcard instead!
Just around the corner stands the offspring of this famous tree. It is a
mere 1,000 years old and not quite as large -- and it was all by itself
without a crowd around it elbowing each other to get a photo! Of course
neither of these trees is quite as humongous overall as the giant
sequoia named General Sherman that stands 275' tall and has a
volume of 52,000 cubic feet. Nor is either quite as old as the bristlecone
pine called Methuselah which has had its rings painstakingly counted to
total 4,841 years of age.
The trunk is
see all kinds
in its depths.
Scooting around the streets of town we saw these funny looking three-
wheeled vehicles. These tiny taxis, called "tuk-tuks," buzzed all over the
place, not just in Santa María del Tule but in other towns we passed along
Our next stop was at Teotitlan del
Valle, home of about forty families of Zapotec weavers. We had met the son of one of
these families in the harbor town of Santa Cruz in las Bahías de Huatulco where he had set
up a loom and quietly turned out one brilliant woolen rug after another. Here we were
given a demonstration of the traditional methods used by the Zapotecs to spin and dye
The demonstration started with the
original Zapotec method of spinning
wool which involved a balancing a
spool precariously on one knee.
What luck the Spaniards showed up
way back when and brought the
familiar spinning wheel with them.
Even so, two daring members of our
group tried to spin a little wool using
this more conventional old fashioned
spinning wheel, and neither met with
much success as the wool kept
separating in their fingers.
It was amazing to learn what the Zapotecs used for dyes to create the vibrant colors of
their wool. Starting with either white, grey or brown wool right off the sheep, they get
bright blue from the indigo plant, using ash to fix the color. Green comes from moss,
using salt to fix the dye. Yellow is from marigolds. Most intriguing, however, was that
they squash an insect that makes a cocoon on prickly pear cactus leaves, and the
squished bug produces a vibrant blood red dye. How much trial and error did it take
over the years to perfect these methods?
Again, we could have lingered for a long time in this shop and in the town in general. I
love wools and yarns and weaving, and the intricate designs, both modern and
traditional, were fantastic. We did end up holding up the tour van for a few minutes
while we negotiated to buy a lovely small rug featuring sea turtles. It had been woven
from undyed sheep wool by Rafaela, whom I met (but didn't think to photograph--darn!).
In all the thousands of miles we have sailed our boat in Mexico, the most common
wildlife sighting we have had everywhere has been sea turtles. In places
there are literally hundreds of them. So this seemed a perfect souvenir.
Jumping into the tour van for more adventures, we drove a long way out to
Hierve el Agua ("boiling water"), a phenomenal oasis of pools and petrified
waterfalls out in the mountainous hinterlands.
until the mid-1980's, this grouping of shallow pools and
calcified deposits is reminiscent of parts of Yellowstone
National Park, except the water is cool.
In the distance three large waterfalls stand frozen in time,
suspended forever mid-fall. A thin trickle of water drips over the
edge, leaving behind a microscopic layer of mineral deposits to form
the next cascade. There is a mystical, ethereal quality to this place.
Kids played in the pools and
everyone crawled all over the site, testing the
water with their hands and taking endless
Just as the sun
started to come out,
giving the whole place
a wonderful glow, it
was time to jump back
into the van with our
tour buddies to make
the trek to the
Zapotec ruins of Mitla.
One of the highlights of this tour was meeting the other folks that
were along for the ride with us. Three charming young women
from England filled the back seat and an older Danish couple was
up front, giving our van a decidedly European flair. The English
gals were in their first week of a three month trans-Central America
tour, and we all bubbled with excitement as we talked about the
places we'd been and where we wanted to go.
Mitla's construction was begun by the Zapotecs in more or less
the same era as Monte Alban, a few hundred years BC,
although Mitla's first inhabitants settled there much earlier. And
like Monte Alban, Mitla was built by the Zapotecs but ended up
under Mixtec control. However, in the years between 750 AD
and the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, Mitla was thriving
whereas Monte Alban was already in decline.
Monte Alban is built
on a hilltop while
Mitla is built in a
valley, and Monte
Alban was a city
made up of pyramids
whereas Mitla has
long and narrow
and appears possibly
to have been palatial
housing for the most
noble families as well
as a religious center. Mitla was still functioning when the Spanish arrived (the Zapotec
population in all the outlying areas was some 500,000 people by then), and after
determining that the high priest at Mitla was similar to the pope back home, the
conquistadors promptly took up residence, dismantled and sacked as many of the buildings
as they could, and used the stones to build a church on top of one end of the ruins.
Just as stunning as the massive
pyramids at Monte Alban is the
incredibly fine stonework of the
frescoes at Mitla. Each wall is
trimmed in intricately detailed
stonework patterns, all of which
were made by cutting perfectly
sized stones that fit onto one
another like jigsaw puzzle pieces,
held together without mortar.
Huge lintels lie across very low doorways,
and the corners of each room are made
with a dovetail style stone joinery, again
This construction is so finely and so tightly fitted, and
the walls are so massive, that a 1931 8.0 earthquake 50
miles away that damaged 70% of the buildings in the
city of Oaxaca didn't even make these buildings flinch.
"Mitla" means "Place of the dead" in the Aztec's Nahuatl
language, and the Zapotec name for the area has the
same meaning. The early Spanish conquistadors
interpreted the name as "Hell," and there are several underground tombs -- all
highly decorated with the intricately interwoven stone patterns -- where nobles and
high priests were buried and sent off to the afterlife, wether it was up to the
heavens or down.
I could have easily roamed
these ruins for quite a bit
longer, but the van was on a
mission, and this time it was
headed to a Mezcal tasting.
Actually, in hindsight, giving
up a few more moments with
the ancients for a quick
education in the art of
wasn't such a
Like France's Champagne which is made only in Champagne,
Mexico's Tequila is made only in Tequila, about 40 miles outside of
Guadalajara, and a few other areas designated by Mexican law. All
other identical libations made from the blue agave plant in other parts
of Mexico are called Mezcal instead. And there are hundreds!
We stopped at a little place that still
makes Mezcal the old fashioned way.
After about 7 or 8 years the agave plant
has a pineapple looking core that is
removed, trimmed and cooked over a
It is then crushed using a heavy wheel
going round and round, driven by a
horse who has the fun job of walking in
circles. This creates a stringy material
that looks like hay that gets boiled in a
kiln. Eventually it is strained and placed
in casks to ferment.
The effect of the length of fermentation
was the amazing part to me. Blanco
("white") mezcal -- the common, cheap
transparent stuff -- is aged less than two
months and burns a fiery path down your
throat and tastes terrible. Reposado
("rested") mezcal is aged 2 months to two
years in an oak barrel and is barely
tolerable. Añejo ("aged") mezcal is aged
for one to three years, barely tickles your
throat and has a pleasant flavor.
Extra Añejo ("extra aged") is aged for three
years or more, goes down waaaay too
easy, and tastes terrific. It's a good thing
they were serving this stuff in thimble sized cups.
We tried some "crema" mezcals too, that is, flavored mezcals
made with cream. The mango one was good enough that the
Danes purchased a bottle to take home with them, while we
and the English gals sampled the pineapple and some others I
forget now (we were having fun!). The folks at the counter
would happily have kept on serving, but we needed to be able
to find our way back to the van, so we eventually said
"Enough!" and staggered off.
It was a great day on the outskirts of Oaxaca and the perfect
conclusion to our inland travels. But Groovy was waiting for us back in Huatulco and it
was time for us to face the much feared crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and head
to Puerto Chiapas and then inland to Antigua, Guatemala.
Find Oaxaca (Mitla) on Mexico Maps.