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.
Oaxaca’s Monte Alban – Mysterious Ancient Zapotec Ruins
Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.
A local school group is on a field trip.
The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.
Elaborate clay urn.
Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the
A vendor shows us his
The vendors are everywhere.
Zapotec ball court.
Monte Alban pyramid.
Looking across the central plaza.
"You are here" in Zapotec.
"Los Danzantes" - Captured
rival leaders castrated &
ready for sacrifice.
School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.
Now they can sit still for a class picture.
Restored pyramid building.
Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.
Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting
them in the walls.
Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo
Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.
Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.
Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.
Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7
Clay sculpted urn.
God of old age and wisdom (note
the wrinkled skin).
Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico
Mid-February, 2012 - Just six miles outside of Oaxaca are the
outstanding and thought provoking ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte
Alban. We took a public bus to get there and found the first museum
room filled with carved stones. The carvings featured crazy looking
animals and people.
We came in right behind a
school group, and I was as
intrigued by this group as
by the carved stones. It
was a Saturday and this
was obviously an exciting
field trip for them. A
museum guide gave them a rousing talk about the Zapotecs, the original builders
of Monte Alban (around 500 BC) and their gods who were depicted in the stone
carvings. All the kids were extremely attentive, taking notes and answering his
He explained what a lot of the carvings represented. Most were gods
of various things, recognizable by certain characteristics like a beaked
nose, a particular arrangement of feathers on the head or wrinkled
eyes. To my amazement, when the guide asked the group which god
a particular image represented, their hands shot up. They knew.
There were lots of little clay sculptures that to
us simply looked other-wordly. But most were
images of Zapotec gods which, like those in
other ancient pantheons, represented war,
old age, wisdom, fertility and other things.
We headed outside and found the Monte
Alban site is about the size of six football
fields and is situated within an overall archaeological zone of about 8
square miles. It sits on a hill at 6,400' elevation, and the Zapotecs
partially leveled the hilltop for its construction. It was the capital city of
the Zapotecs, built away from three other major valley communities of
the time (500 BC). Its population was 17,000 people between 100 BC
and 200 AD, and continued to grow until it reached its zenith between
200 and 500 AD, some 800 or so years after its construction.
Taking the path less traveled, we entered the ruins from a track that went around the back side.
While we were blocked from the sight of other tourists by the back of a large monument, a fellow
stopped us to show us some things he carried in his backpack: little clay copies of some of the
items that have been excavated here
and a few original chips from larger
artifacts. We looked at his stuff
quizzically and he explained that not only had he made the little clay
figures himself, but it was legal for local people to sell any artifacts
they found in their fields while farming. The artifacts in his backpack
were things that had turned up under his hoe in his fields, and he
pointed in the general direction of his
house in the valley.
It all sounded pretty good, until we
rounded a corner into the main plaza of
ruins and discovered that there were
guys like him at every turn. They all
had little clay replicas they had made
themselves, and presumably their
backpacks all held original artifacts they
had dug up in their farm fields. Hmmm.
We asked later at the museum and they
assured us it was definitely not legal to
sell anything original, no matter how
small, and that nothing those guys had
was a real artifact. Oh well, it had made
for an interesting conversation on the
back side of the ruins!!
The first ruin we came across was the
ball court, built in 100 BC. Monte Alban
was the first true Meso-American State
with a government run by the priestly
class. Its economy
was based on tributes
(taxes) paid by the
outlying communities in
the Valley of Oaxaca.
It is thought that the
ball game helped
resolve legal conflicts
and land and tax
disputes and that the
ball was hit with the
elbows, hands and knees.
We were intrigued by the difference between this ball court and
that of Wupatki outside Flagstaff, Arizona, built some 600 years
after Monte Alban. Wupatki's ball court is the northernmost
known ancient ball court, and it is elliptical rather than
rectangular. It is thought that the game there was played with a
curved stick. So it seems the southerners played a soccer-like
game which the northerners transformed, years later, into
The ruins are dramatic.
They squat in quiet
splendor around a central
suite of buildings, all
spaced apart by a large
flat open area.
Some of the
thought to have
Visitors from all over the world ran up and down the stairs of each
building, taking photographs and saying "Wow!" to each other.
Meanwhile the school
group got quite an
education that day. I
asked the teacher if the
kids were of Zaptotec
descent or were from a
nearby. He said no, they
were just from a local
school and the kids
probably had mixed
although of course
some might be
Zapotec. But these ruins are part of the rich legacy of all Oaxacan kids,
whether they trace their routes to the Zapotecs or the Mixtecs who moved into
Monte Alban once the city went into decline, or even the Spanish who came in
later and crushed all things indigenous.
Interestingly, the signs were all in Spanish,
English and Zapotec, including the little
phrase "you are here."
In one area we found the carved stone replicas of the
stones we first saw inside the museum. Created between
350 and 200 BC and now called "Los Danzantes," these
once formed a wall. Today the replicas stand side by side
out in the harsh elements while the originals are inside the
museum. Oddly, the characters are mostly heavyset men
who appear to have been castrated. It is thought that
perhaps they were the leaders of outlying communities who
were captured and then offered up to the gods in sacrifice,
perhaps using the stunning Meso-American method of
carving their still-beating hearts out of their chests and
holding them up to the sky.
Wonderfully gruesome imagery like that will get any kid excited, and the school children were
suddenly let loose and told to run around and get the wiggles out. They ran up and down the
stairs of one of the buildings, shrieking excitedly until they were all tuckered out. Then they
sat obediently for a class picture with their teacher.
Having walked up and down the
very tall stairs of these buildings all
day, we wondered why the small
indigenous people had made
buildings with such tall steps.
Watching the kids line up with their
teacher one possibility became
apparent: they make perfect stadium
seats. The stairs of all the buildings
face the main plaza, so perhaps it was
a good place to watch an event -- or
just eat lunch like the tourists do
As we left Monte Alban we passed one of the buildings that is still in the state in which it was first discovered, before the
archaeological digging and reconstruction began in the 1930's. It made a dramatic contrast to the fully restored buildings that fill
the site today. This suddenly made me realize that what we see at Monte Alban now, like Wupatki and all other restored
archaeological sites, is at best a recreation of its once former glory and is subject to the interpretation and knowledge of its
The center buildings were in the process of being restored, and it was amazing to see the
scaffolding, the pile of carefully numbered stones, and the newly restored wall filled with
numbered stones. It is a painstaking process to bring the site back to its original
magnificence, but you have to wonder at the same time if what we see today is really how it
looked in its heyday. Archaeologists claim the walls were covered with stucco at the time and
were smooth, unlike the raw rock facing we see now. But what else? Was there
landscaping, was the open plaza filled with market stalls and people? The silent stones are
coy with their secrets.
Back in Oaxaca we checked out the
Cultural Center that is located in a
former monastery in back of the
Santo Domingo Cathedral. The
building alone is worth the price of
It not only has a grand courtyard
but has an even grander double
staircase that, together with the
walls and ceiling, is ornamented
with gold leaf.
If you walk through the rooms of
this museum in the correct order,
you are taken through all of
Mexico's history -- from the
Oaxacan perspective --
beginning with the first
indigenous peoples and going
right through to the new
millennium. It is a terrific visual
presentation of the very
convoluted and confusing
history of Mexico, from its
indigenous states, to the
Spanish conquest, to the
revolution, the war of
independence and the world wars. Of course all of this happened
right alongside the technological advances that have brought
humanity to where we are today, and the domestic tools and weaponry of
the last 500 years are all finely displayed.
We managed to go through the
museum in zig-zag order, passing
through most rooms backwards, from
later years to earlier years, thus picking
up tid-bits of history in a rather jumbled
chronology. Oops. It really didn't
matter, though, as the museum is
absolutely fascinating no matter what
order you go through it.
Over at Monte Alban archaeologists
discovered several tombs that were filled with fantastic
Mixtec artwork. The word "Mixtec" comes from the
Nahuatl word for "Cloud People," which gives a
wonderful image of the people that moved into Monte Alban after the
Zapotecs. They remodeled some of the buildings and created lots of
delicate sculptures and jewelry. One tomb in particular, Tomb #7, was the
richest discovery of artifacts in Meso-America to date. The Zapotecs had
used the tomb in their time too, but the Mixtecs buried one of their most
prominent leaders in that tomb and sent him off to the afterlife accompanied
by a boatload of treasure.
From fine filigree gold jewelry to cut crystal glass to endless sculpted clay
urns, this leader met his maker surrounded by worldly wealth. What great
fortune that this one tomb was not robbed and emptied by the conquering
Spanish like so many other tombs in other places.
It was a dizzying day of culture and history and relics from an era and from
peoples we had known nothing about. I came away shaking my head, trying
to get it straight in my mind. "Okay," I said to Mark, "So first it was built by
the Zapotecs. Then they were later replaced by the Mixtecs. And those
guys eventually succumbed to the Aztecs…"
"Yup," he added. "And then came the Discotecs and
last of all the Village People."
So goes our anthropological education in Oaxaca,
which we continued with a trip to the ancient Zapotec
palace ruin, Mitla.
Find Oaxaca (Monte Alban) on Mexico Maps.
Oaxaca – A City of Vibrance, Color & Soul
Cobblestone colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.
A band plays pops tunes.
Balloon vendor outside the
A marching band shows up out of nowhere.
Kids proudly show off brilliant
Not a hair out of place.
A street vendor strikes a deal on her fruit.
Schoolkids play McCartney's "Yesterday."
9-year-old Chiclet vendor
Julia has a priceless grin...
…but she has been taught it's
worth 50 pesos.
Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance.
Bird of Paradise.
"Sunburned Tourist" tree.
Organ Pipe Cactus.
"Marriage" has nasty thorns and poisonous fruit.
Valentine's hearts show up all
A wedding at the Santo Domingo
The gracious bride invited the
onlookers into the church.
This little Chiclet-selling girl was transfixed.
Oaxaca, Mexico (2)
Mid-February, 2012 - Oaxaca enchanted us. We were visiting during the
week that includes my birthday, Valentine's Day and our anniversary, and
it was a special treat to be staying in a delightful little hotel in such a
spirited and radiant city.
The Zócalo is where it's at in this town, and every time we wandered over
there we found something -- or many things -- going on, especially in the
evenings. A little orchestra was playing in the bandstand one night to an
appreciative audience. They weren't the Berlin Philharmonic, and they
sounded much like any small town band, but they played with enthusiasm
and did all the old standard pops favorites that get the little kids around
the bandstand jigging and jumping and running.
A few steps away, the balloon
vendors were lined up, and behind
them the juggling clowns had their
audience in stitches.
Suddenly we heard the loud music of
a marching band in the distance.
They paraded right past, sweeping
us and everyone else up in their
wake. The band in the bandstand
seemed to try to raise their volume a
little, but it was aural pandemonium
as the two bands played their
hearts out just 100 yards
Behind the marching band
came a dizzying array of
young kids in brilliant Mexican
costumes. The girls had
primped for hours, getting
every hair and ribbon in
place, and even the teenage
boys got into it, with brilliant
satin shirts and classic
sombreros on their heads.
Meanwhile the band in the
bandstand kept on going, and the jugglers did their
thing, and the street vendors bumped through the
crowd selling their wares. Fresh fruit snacks are a
popular item to sell, and across from us an old man
bought some munchies for himself and his wife.
A stunning young girl wandered towards us on the arm of her very
proud boyfriend. I couldn't resist snapping a few photos of her,
which she enjoyed, and then I asked her what the parade was all
about. She explained that it was the 50th anniversary of the
founding of her school, Instituto Eulogio Gillow. There was a
stage set up and proud parents filled all the folding chairs and
stood in rows behind and around them.
Suddenly some kids got up on the
stage, the girls with recorders and the
boys with guitars. The announcer said
they would play "Yesterday" by "John
Lennon" (apologies to Paul
McCartney). Mark's ears perked right
up, since he is a Beatles fan from way
back, and we were treated to a
charming rendition of the song.
Just beyond the
circle of school
madness of the Zócalo continued. The
juggling clowns had lost some of their
audience when the parade went by, but they
had won it back with their crazy antics. The
outdoor sidewalk cafes surrounding the
square were filled with happy folks imbibing
and eating, and the band in the bandstand
forged ever onwards, slightly out of tune but
so very charming to watch.
The kids from the school milled around in
animated groups, waiting their turns on stage. Once up there they danced, sang songs and made music, while the parents'
video cameras took it all in. It was amazing to me that a group of young teenagers would be so excited to wear traditional
costumes, strut around, and follow the instructions of their teachers who hustled them into groups and lines and got them up on
stage at the appropriate moments.
The vendors seemed well used to all this action. The Zócalo has stuff like this happening every night. Sure, it was a
Saturday night, but the press of people, the cacophony of music and noise, and the sight of couples ambling hand in
hand, kids smooching under the trees and prim and proper waiters serving patrons at the more elegant restaurants
around the square were all just part of the scene.
Many of the street vendors had their kids in tow -- kind of. The babies were strapped to
the moms' backs, alternately sleeping and looking around. The older kids were on their
own -- but with a job to do selling items out of their baskets. These ultra slick saleskids
are really well trained. They sell boxes of Chiclets, candies, bobble toys and cigarettes.
More than one patron at a restaurant bought a cigarette from an eight-year-old kid, getting
a light from the kid as well. Cigarettes are 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents), and earlier
we had seen the moms buying the cigarette packs at the little convenience stores around
town. No wholesale pricing there, but they mark up their product pretty darn well.
Money is what its all about with these kids. A little brother
and sister stopped by our table as we sipped on a beer.
They were very cheeky and lots of fun. The boy was 9 (I
couldn't quite catch his name) and his little sister Julia was
7. They were absolutely insistent that we buy some of their
very grubby looking candy. How long it had been dragged
around town in their basket and handled by their dirty
fingers I have no idea. We snapped a few photos of them
and they instantly had their hands out. "50
pesos!" ($4). We laughed. I put my camera up to
take another shot and Julia covered here face with
her hands. I clicked anyways and she shoved her
hand at me again. "50 pesos!"
I teased her and said that she had to pay me 100
pesos for talking to me. Her little lopsided missing-toothed grin got even bigger and she
rolled her eyes in exasperation, laughing. I don't know if any other gringo tourist ever had
ever challenged her like that before, and she was stumped to find a response. "50 pesos!"
she said again, seriously, hand out. We went back and forth like that for a while, giggling. I
asked her when she was going to finish working in the Zócalo and go home to bed. She
shrugged. Things wind down around 9 pm, but she was a street urchin and was probably
used to staying out however long mom needed her to be selling Chiclets.
They hung at the edge of our table for a while, refusing to let go of a potential sale. Mark
finally came up with the perfect compromise on the 50 peso issue. He pushed the remains of our little dish of peanuts in Julia's
direction. "Have some peanuts!" he said. Like greased lightning, she leapt into action. She grabbed a napkin, spread it out on
the table, scooped up every last peanut with her sticky fingers, snatched a wedge of lime off another dish and plopped it on the
peanuts, wrapped up the napkin, and shoved it in her basket. In a flash she and her brother vanished into the night.
The Zócalo is the heart of the action at night, but all of Oaxaca's
historic district is wonderful by day too. We wandered through the
Zócalo the next morning and it was perfectly neat and tidy without a
single trace of the mayhem that had gone on the night before. The
stage was gone, the chairs for the audience had disappeared, the
entire square was completely swept, and just a few people milled
around with coffee cups in their hands. But by nightfall the whole
thing came to life once again. The stage was set up for a different
performance by a different group, chairs were set out for the
audience, and street vendors wandered through it all.
The Santo Domingo Cathedral has a beautiful botanical garden
behind it, and we decided to take a tour. Mark loves photographing
flowers, and he got some wonderful shots.
English tours are two hours long and happen just a few
times a week while Spanish tours are an hour long every
hour every day. We opted for a Spanish tour, but
because there was just one other gringo couple and an
Austrian who spoke fluent English (and Spanish and
French), the guide spoke to us all in English. What a
lucky break for us. When our tour finished there were 50
gringos waiting for the next tour which would be officially
in English. I wondered how this huge group would
manage on the tiny garden paths.
The Oaxaca region is very dry, so most of the
gardens were desert types of plants. The
botanists at the garden work hard to propagate the species, and
many of the plants they have are endangered. Those plants have
their flowers and seed pods wrapped in gauze so they don't
accidentally get cross-pollinated and hybridize with something else.
The best part of the tour for us was the funny nicknames of some of
the plants. The "Sunburned Gringo" tree has an outer layer of bark
that peels incessantly.
The "Monkey's Desperation" tree
looks like it would be a wonderful
tree for a monkey to climb. It is tall with long limbs
spreading wide. But the base is covered with hard
little thorns that would prevent even the hardiest
monkey from shimmying up.
The "Air cactus" is a "guest plant" (not a parasite or a
symbiotic plant). It arrives in the air and settles on a
tree, getting all its nutrients from the air without ever
bothering its host except for sitting in its lap.
The "Organ Pipe Cactus" is familiar
to us from Arizona, and in this
garden it had been planted as
fencing along two paths.
The "Marriage Tree" is a nasty
looking thorny thing. The needles
are razor sharp and plentiful, and it
produces poisonous fruit.
Everyone in our group got a good
chuckle out of that tree...
Speaking of love and marriage, we were in Oaxaca for
Valentine's Day, which is also our anniversary. Heart decorations
were everywhere, and love was definitely in the air.
As we came around the side of the cathedral we noticed a group
had gathered in front of the church. They were very well dressed
-- and there was a bride in the middle. "Wow!" I yelled, running
to get a good angle with my camera. A wedding in the cathedral!!
OMG. What a place to get married. For all you future brides and
past brides, this was the wedding many of us dreamed of at one
time or another, complete with a frothy, frilly white dress and the
grandest, most gold-filled, most magnificent cathedral imaginable as a backdrop.
I ran around like a madwoman taking photos. All the tourists on the plaza started
closing in on the church too. Most of us were enthralled little girls, seeing our princess
dreams unfold in front of us. Chiclet-selling girls, white haired heavyset women visiting
from foreign countries, and young girls on the eve of such an event themselves all
pressed towards the cathedral.
This was clearly a very wealthy family, and the father was the
image of pride as he shook hands with his guests around him.
The bride welcomed everyone warmly. Her friends, all of them
hot babes in stiletto heels and tight, short, brightly colored
dresses, emerged from fancy cars and exchanged kisses with
her. More than one was a young mom, walking up pushing a
stroller just to hand it off to an older lady waiting outside the
church, giving her instructions for how to keep the baby
entertained during the coming hours of celebration.
The music began and the group dwindled to just the wedding
party as the guests entered the cathedral. The throng of
enchanted women tourists and vendors hung back just enough
to give them a little space. All of a sudden the bride glanced
over her shoulder at all of us and waved us in. She looked
straight at me and motioned for me to come into the cathedral.
"Me?" I pointed to myself incredulously. She nodded
vigorously. I stepped over the threshold and received a strong
handshake from her dad. Holy Mackerel, I was in the middle of
a wedding at this cathedral, wearing shorts and a tourist hat.
The other tourists all filed in, many genuflecting as they entered,
and we filled the back half of the church. How totally cool. The
bride and her father made their way down this most splendid of
aisles and the service began. I didn't feel right about staying too
long, so I snuck back out once the priest got going in earnest.
As I left I noticed one of the Chiclet-selling girls outside the
entrance of the cathedral looking in. The invitation had been for
all of us to enter, but she had stayed back. The longing in her
face was touching -- and heartbreaking.
I found Mark at the
far end of the plaza
sitting on a wall. I
started talking a
mile a minute,
thrilled and amazed
by the whole scene.
He smiled and
He just didn't get
into weddings like I
did. The princess
thing is a little beyond him, although I tried my best to explain it. He hadn't
really known how when you're a little girl wearing a full skirt you have to
spin around and watch it flare out. He hadn't ever dreamed of being
Cinderella, parading across a grand room in an elegant dress, nor of being
Prince Charming for that matter. But then, I've seen him ooh and aah over
muscle cars from the 1960's like they were the sexiest of pinup models.
How many old cars can you look at and get excited about? Apparently, all
of them. How many princess weddings can make a girl's heart soar?
Definitely all of them.
Oaxaca held us tightly in its clutches and we still had more to see, espeically the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.
Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.
Oaxaca – Quirky, Fun, and lots of Gold Leaf
Our bus to Oaxaca.
Snacks for sale at a bus stop.
Mountains on the way to Oaxaca.
Poinsettias and tall trees in
Outdoor eateries surround the Zócalo.
Santo Domingo Cathedral.
We walk down towards the historic district.
Oaxaca is loaded with charm.
One long cobbled street is set aside for pedestrians only.
Flowers adorn many
There are great places for a snack and a view
all over town.
Many buildings have a door-within-a-door out front.
This church has two doors in its
The front of the public library.
The courtyard inside the public library.
Fancy stairs from the courtyard to
the second story balcony in the
Self-explanatory in every
Clusters of strange sculptures of
people spill all over the sidewalks.
Sculptures of "migratorios" congregate by the cathedral.
Inside the cathedral - gold, gold and more gold!!
The overriding theme is gold.
A portion of the ceiling.
Street performers abound.
Uniformed schoolkids hang out by the cathedral after school.
Paintings for sale on the sidewalks of the art district.
Home of former president Benito Juarez.
Protesters cruise past us carrying signs.
Two tourists make a video of
themselves in front of the
Oaxaca, Mexico (1)
Mid-February, 2012 - We left the seaside life of Huatulco behind for a
few days to get a glimpse of the colonial mountain city of Oaxaca
(pronounced "Wahaka"). There are two ranges of mountains to cross,
and there are several ways to make the trek. A $12 ride in a small van
will take you on sickness-inducing switchbacks up treacherous single lane
mountain roads, but gets you there in six hours. A daytime $23 bus goes
around the worst mountain passes but makes a lot of stops, getting you
there in 10 hours. A $28 overnight bus makes the trip in 8 hours with just
one stop. Or you can fly for $100.
Preferring comfortable budget travel and
sleeping in a bed, we opted for the day
bus. This was a fun way to go with lots of
action. At one stop a lady with a basket of snacks on her head showed up at the bus and
started calling out her wares in a shrill voice. At another stop a security guard boarded the bus
and video-taped everyone's faces. At a military checkpoint the men were all herded off the bus
while the womenfolk were left on board. This seemed a little odd until we found out it was just
so the brawny guys could lift the heavy luggage out of the baggage compartment for inspection.
In the end they all re-boarded the bus carrying chips and drinks they'd gotten at a little roadside
stand. The womenfolk were happy about that! But the bus company didn't leave us hungry for
long. At lunch time the bus stopped for half an hour at a cute little roadside restaurant.
It was a long drive, but the views in
the mountains approaching Oaxaca
were quite nice. These mountains
are a major Mescal manufacturing
region, and many mountainsides
were a patchwork of agave cactus
We arrived in the early evening and,
after dropping off our bags at the
hotel, we dashed out to the Zócalo,
the main town square which is the
heart of the city. Huge trees
dominate this city park, and
poinsettias were planted thickly
The square is actually made up of two
squares adjoined at the corners, and all
the edges of these squares are lined with
outdoor eateries. As darkness fell the
place came alive.
eating, selling stuff,
buying stuff, talking
on the phone and necking.
You name it, it was
happening at the Zócalo.
Towering above it all, the
Santo Domingo Cathedral
lit up the night.
We stayed at the Hotel Casa del Sótano, a
charming little hotel built around a courtyard with a
pretty outdoor breakfast terrace. We drank our
morning coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice
looking out over the city as it woke up, and we
were utterly enchanted. This is a walking town if
there ever was one, and right after breakfast we
hoofed it straight down to the old town district.
Oaxaca oozes charm from every ornate balcony, wrought iron
gate and rooftop terrace. It is a city with a past and a soul.
Built in 1521 by the Spanish on an Aztec miitary site, the flavor
is both historic and hip at the same time.
We couldn't stop the cameras from clicking. Everywhere
we turned there was something begging to be framed
The streets are cobbled (one main artery is pedestrian
only) and the buildings are heavily embellished with
Flowers hung from the
balconies, and Mark was
fascinated by the crazy door
knockers on many of the
And there are a zillion places to get a bite to eat
with a view onto the city streets.
Many buildings have a very
large front door with a
smaller utility door cut into it.
The little door is the one you
use to get inside.
One of the churches has two utility doors cut
into its main front gate.
All kinds of things can reside behind these
imposing doors. Usually it is a courtyard. In
the public buildings we found the doors were
often open, and we wandered in and out of
quite a few. The city library has a lovely
One of the universities -- Universidad
Autónomo "Benito Juárez" de Oaxaca --
has a plain courtyard but a grand, curvy
staircase going to the second floor.
There are several universities in this city, so there are young people everywhere. It
is also a favorite international tourist destination, and we met folks from Austria,
Denmark and England during our stay. To satisfy these groups of people there are
enchanting little restaurants, coffee shops and bars everywhere. Just in case the
tourists visiting Cafe Brújulu don't speak Spanish, their bathroom signs need no
As we made our way over to the Santo Domingo Cathedral, we found little groups
of odd statues standing around in front of many of the shops. Hundreds of them
filled a huge area in front of the church and spilled over into the sidewalks all
We later learned that Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago
created these sculptures called "2501 Migrants" to
represent the 2500 people (plus himself) from his
hometown of Teoculcuilco that have left town to seek a
better fortune elsewhere. He first placed the sculptures in
his hometown as a spiritual replacement of the people who
had left. Then he lined them up in the desert between
Mexico and the USA along the most common migration route.
Now they stand around the Oaxaca's beautiful cathedral plaza.
intriguing statues for
a while we went
inside the cathedral.
Wow! Every inch of
the interior is
trimmed in fancy
gold leaf designs.
Some 60,000 sheets
of 23.5 carat gold
leaf were used in its
construction, and the
walls and ceilings
sparkle with gold.
I couldn't help but wonder, as the sunlight
glinted off the baroque patterns, whether this
gold had once been the artwork of the
Zapotecs or Aztecs or other indigenous people,
melted down by the Spanish to
decorate the church. Or had it
been mined by the Spanish
I asked several guides and the
consensus was that it came from
the local gold mines that had
originally perked Spain's interest
in Oaxaca and wasn't the result
of melted ancient treasures.
As it turns out, the Oaxaca area mountains are still rich with
gold, and the Canadian-owned mine Natividad is
busy extracting it today.
But the real treasure in Oaxaca is not the gold or
even the architecture but the funky spirit that
makes this city a fun place to be. Street
performers and artists strut their stuff on the
streets, and school kids hang out under the trees
by the cathedral.
There is an artisans district
where art of all kinds is for sale
on the sidewalks, along with
literary books in many languages
and hard-to-find music CD's.
These aren't the usual cheap
bootleg hawkers found in other
towns, but university types
selling off parts of their
collections for pocket change.
Wandering down a side street we bumped into the
boyhood home of Benito Juárez, Mexico's only
indigenous president (1858-1864). A pure Zapotec, he
is revered for education reforms that are still in effect
today and for spearheading the separation of church
and state in Mexico.
Being the capital of the state of Oaxaca
as well as a university town, politics play
an important role here. Strolling down
the street we suddenly saw a parade of
scarlet clad women marching towards us
They were the Triqui indigenous people, and they were staging a sit-in in front
of the governor's building in an effort to gain support from the recently elected
governor for their cause, which, from what we could gather, involved land
disputes and violence in their hometown.
There was a vibrance and an energy
here in Oaxaca that made the Triqui
protests, the migrant statues and the
brutal history of the Spanish conquests all blend together as brilliant facets of humanity's
unstoppable ambition and its dramatic quest for happiness and prosperity.
This town is so photogenic that we saw tourists everywhere whipping out cameras to
capture snapshots to take home. One couple got particularly creative and set up a tripod
with a video camera in front of the cathedral. They pointed the camera at themselves with
the church in the background and talked for quite some time about how much their travels
meant to them and what great experiences they had had so far in Mexico, ending their
conversation with a "hello" to friends and family back home.
We sure were loving Oaxaca's action and color, and there was no need for us to leave
Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.