Huatulco’s Hagia Sofia (2) – Hammocks, hills, waterfalls and a Oaxacan feast

Hagia Sofia Huatulco has wonderful riverside hammocks

Mark gets a little hammock time

Thanksgiving, 2012 – Our walk through the exotic tropical flowers at Hagia Sofia had been exciting, but when our host Armando led us to a group of hammocks hung from trees by the riverside, they looked so inviting we just had to lie down awhile.  What a spot!

Armando has rigged these hammocks up with pull-strings, so as you lie on your back you can lightly tug on the string to get yourself rocking a little.  Such bliss.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco leaf in river




The river lazily trickled by us as we rocked in the hammocks.  One day there will be cabins near this part of the property where guests can overnight on these lush grounds.  I can imagine many a happy afternoon spent lolling in those hammocks by the river.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco dragonfly

Armando even had a little table set out with fresh, chilled juice-water ready and waiting for us. This water is lightly spritzed with juices from mangos and limes and sweetened with honey, all from his orchard. It was so refreshing in the heat of the day.

Mark spotted a leaf catching a ride downriver, and a dragonfly alighted nearby on a twig.  There was a peacefulness here that warmed our souls.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco orchard views

We stroll among the fruit trees on the hills

Refreshed from our rest in the hammocks, Armando led us out onto the crest of a hill where many of the fruit trees grow.  Groups of papayas, avocados, and other fruit trees we’d never heard of before studded the hillside.  Similar fruits were being grown together, but rather than being lined up in GPS-perfect rows, as we’ve seen so often on large commercial farms, the trees were scattered about.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco orchards

Views from the orchard

Of course, different fruits grow at different times of the year, but a bunch of pineapples that looked ready for picking caught our eyes.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco potted plants sailing blog

Potted plants waiting for transplanting

Hagia Sofia Huatulco pineapple

A pineapple ready for picking

Hagia Sofia Huatulco tunnel of tress sailing blog

A tunnel of trees

Off to one side there were rows of potted baby plants.  Over the years Armando brought bags of seeds back to Mexico with him from his many trips to Asia, and he carefully planted and nurtured them.  As we walked along he would proudly point out, “I grew that tree from seed, and that one and that one too.”  We said he must have a green thumb, a phrase that didn’t seem to have an equivalent in Spanish, but when he caught our meaning he gave all the credit to the men who work his land.

He has often consulted a Zapotec farmer (from the local indigenous culture) for his wisdom about the natural world and his great skill with plants.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco waterfall (sailing blog)

The waterfall was cool and inviting

At one point we passed a group of bee huts where he keeps his own bees for pollination.

Hagia Sofia waterfall

The rushing water gives a great massage

Hopping into his truck once again, he drove us to a spot in the river where there is a beautiful waterfall.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco outdoor kitchen in the woods

The outdoor kitchen in the woods is a delight

The water was cooler than the ocean water we’d been swimming in lately, but it felt really good on our hot feet.  There are changing rooms for visitors to change into swimsuits, but we had forgotten to bring ours (darn!).

Armando dove in with gusto and got a massage on his back from the rushing water.

As we drove back towards the flower trail we stopped at the plateau where the cabins will one day welcome guests.  What a beautiful view they will have, overlooking the orchard and the distant mountains beyond.

Back at the beginning of the flower trail, Armando’s chef Blanca had been busy all morning preparing a Oaxacan feast for us.  Working in a fabulous outdoor kitchen under a palapa in the cool shade of the woods, she made tortillas, fried up prickly pear cactus leaves and made some wonderful hot sauces.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco fruits for breakfast

The fruits and fruit-waters were delicious


To one side a spread of exotic fruits lay waiting, each labeled in Spanish and English so we’d know what we were eating.  Some of these things, like kumquats, we recognized but had never tried.  But the plate of bananas — tiny ones just the length of a ballpoint pen — really surprised us.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco bananas

We’ve never tasted such sweet, tangy bananas

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Oaxacan feast

Blanca prepares a feast for us on an outdoor wood-fired stove


There were three different varieties, one quite red, but the bright yellow “apple bananas” had a sweetness and tanginess that was intoxicating.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco (sailing blog) Oaxacan meal preparation

Our plates are filled with exotic, yummy goodies

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Oaxacan brunch at darling outdoor tables

We sit at a log table under the trees

We sat down for our meal in the outdoor dining room, a charming group of tables and chairs hewn from tree trunks and shaded by tall trees.  It was the day before Thanksgiving, and what a feast we had.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco ceiba tree

Tree Hugger

At the end of this magical day we made one final stop with Armando as we were leaving.  The biggest tree on the property is a Ceiba tree, an ancient wonder that is covered with spikes.  Armando gave it a big hug, showing us just how big around the trunk was.  The branches soared into the sky.

Hagia Sofia ceiba tree

The branches seem to reach the sky





Hagia Sofia Huatulco (sailing blog) ceiba tree thorns

Young ceiba trees have thorns

When these trees are young they are covered with thorns, making them extremely difficult to climb.  But as they age they have fewer and fewer thorns, and this big old guy was very huggable.

We left Hagia Sofia in high spirits after an inspiring day close to nature.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Oaxacan Kiss Ice Cream (sailing blog)

We stop for a Oaxacan kiss snow cone

We weren’t sure if the better part of the day was the scenery and our wanderings among the tropical plants or our time spent with such a fascinating entrepreneur whose a beautiful vision for profitable farming and eco-tourism in the hills of Oaxaca resonated so deeply within us.

On our drive back to the marina, Armando made a quick stop in the small town of Santa María de Huatulco for an “ice cream” sold from a cart in the street.  This tasty treat is called a nieve (snow) and is something like a snow cone but made with natural flavors.  The one I got was very milky and was topped with shavings of carrots and nuts. It was called Beso Oaxaqueño or Oaxacan Kiss.

Our few days of land-based living in the marina had come to an end, and we soon sailed out into the Bays of Huatulco once again, this time anchoring alongside the little village of Santa Cruz.

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Huatulco’s Hagia Sofia (1) – Exotic fruits and tropical flowers in a lush garden oasis

Armando Canavati Nader host and creator of Hagia Sofia in Huatulco Mexico

Armando Canavati Nader, host and creator of Hagia Sofia

Late November, 2012 – While staying at Marina Chahué in Huatulco, we took a day trip to nearby Hagia Sofia, a 350 acre fruit orchard and tropical flower garden.  Every so often in this life we are blessed with a day that is an utter delight from start to finish, and that was the kind of day we had at Hagia Sofia.

Tagamia Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery


Armando Canavati Nader, the owner and visionary behind this orchard, picked us up at the marina and drove us an hour and a half out to his stunning property.  It turned out that we were the sole visitors that day, and he gave us a tour we will never forget.

Armando is a man who is living his dream to the fullest.  There is something enchanting and greatly inspiring about those fortunate folks whose passion has become their life.  Armando radiates enthusiasm for his orchard and his vision for Oaxaca’s ranchers.

She Kong Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“She Kong” – hangs down about six feet!

He has been fascinated by agriculture since he was very young, and he has a deep love of plant life and the earth.  His dream is to develop his orchard and flower garden to be self-sustaining and to become a model for other Oaxaca farmers.

Cuna de Moises - Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

“Moses’ Cradle”

Armando’s life wasn’t always about encouraging beautiful plants to thrive, however.  His grandfathers came from Lebanon and Bethlehem, respectively, at the turn of the last century.  One was just sixteen at the time — with a fourteen year old wife — and they worked their way across the ocean aboard ship.

As his grandfather later told him, he left his war-ravaged country only to arrive in Mexico on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.  Sometimes the grass isn’t really greener on the other side!

Anturio Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery


Armando’s granddad started a shirt factory in his new homeland, but it was Armando’s father, a truly gifted entrepreneur, who grew the enterprise, Grupo Manchester, to where it stands at the heights of international business today.

Regina Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery


Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Everywhere we turned something lovely was in bloom




Despite being a Mexican corporation, it was so named because Manchester (England) was the very heart of the world’s textile industry at the time.  The company now employs 1,000 workers in Monterrey, Mexico.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Some flowers almost didn’t seem real

Bridesmaids Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

The little flowers at the base are the “bridesmaids”











Beautiful flower - Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Each flower we saw seemed more exotic than the last

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Bridge

Walk two steps, take ten photos!

Specializing in men’s clothing, they manufacture some of the world’s biggest designer brands and export their products to Central and South America.

Although he wanted to study agriculture in college, Armando grew up supporting his father’s dream instead, becoming Manchester’s lead fashion designer.  He traveled internationally for decades in search of the best fabrics and to find inspiration for new fashion designs.

For twenty years he spent several months a year traveling in Thailand and the Pacific Rim.  One day, after admiring the basket of exotic fruits in his hotel room, he asked the owner of a Thai fabric factory to drive him out to a local orchard where he spoke at length with the orchard’s proprietor, learning about the climate, fruits and flowers.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Rooster Tails

“Rooster Tails”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Cat Tails cola de gato

“Cat tails”

This encounter initiated his personal study of tropical agriculture, which burgeoned as the years went by.  Although his work kept him based in Monterrey, Mexico, his favorite state was Oaxaca, and he began to study which of the wonderful, exotic plants he saw in his world travels would do best in Oaxaca’s low hills.

Dreaming of a way to give back some of the good fortune he had enjoyed in the apparel industry, he began developing the idea of creating an orchard and flower garden — a Garden of Eden — where visitors could find respite from the workaday world in its lovely cabins and the harvest would support operations.

After visiting many, many properties in Oaxaca, he came across a former German coffee plantation that had long been in decline, and set about reworking the land in the early 2000’s to support as many varieties of fruits and flowers as possible.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Many flowers had this type of overall shape

Germans had flocked to this area 100 years ago to develop coffee plantations, but when the coffee market crashed in the late 1950’s, many of them closed, among them this ranch.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

The flowers were big with sturdy petals

Armando named his new property “Hagia Sofia,” which means, roughly, “Holy Wisdom,” and is also the name of the eastern Christian mother church that was built in Constantinople (Instanbul, Turkey) in 537 AD (it was converted to a mosque in 1453, is now a museum).  Armando has a daughter Sofia, as well, which also inspired the name.

“Oaxaca is naturally a very rich state,” he said to us as we drove onto the gorgeous, hilly, verdant property.  “But its people are so poor.  I want to teach them how to use this beautiful land in the most productive way possible.”

He went on to explain that most local ranchers grow corn, only because their fathers grew corn.  Two acres of corn can produce $500 per year in profits for these farmers.

Butterfly Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Thousands of butterflies flutter between the flowers

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Hooked Leaf

A flower catches a falling leaf…

In startling contrast, they could be growing mangosteen fruit trees instead.  Two acres of land will support 200 trees which can produce 150-300 kg of fruit per year.  “That’s $40,000 in profits!” he said excitedly.

Mangosteen is a fruit native to Central America that is far richer in anti-oxidants and other healthful properties than just about any other fruit available.  An ounce or two a day of mangosteen juice is said to give radiant health and to fix all manner of ills.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Often sold in the US in multi-level marketing schemes structured like Amway, I remember seeing mangosteen juice for sale for $60 a liter at the fitness studio where I worked.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery Indonesian Button

“Indonesian Button”

Armando’s not kidding that mangosteen fruit is far more valuable than corn!

“But changing the way people farm takes time,” he went on.  “They have their corn fields in place already.  A mangosteen tree won’t produce fruit for 8 years after it’s planted and doesn’t reach maturity until 20 years of age.”  That is a long wait in a region where most people live from hand to mouth.

“This is a business that a rancher sets up for his children and grandchildren.  That’s why I am doing it.  I will have something beautiful and productive for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inherit.  If a rancher plants his land with the right trees and flowers now, his grandchildren will be very wealthy from the harvest.”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

Armando’s orchard is getting noticed, and the town leaders all around Oaxaca are recognizing his wisdom.  When I asked him if the farmers hear him when he tells them to consider farming differently, he laughed.  “The town leaders all say ‘We need more Armandos!'”

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery



The 500 mangosteen trees Armando planted 6 years ago aren’t the only exotic fruit he is cultivating in his orchard.  He has reforested his property with 15,000 trees, among them teak trees, bamboo and molina trees (which produce a medicinally valuable bark).  He has 20,000 plants in the flower nursery, raises 9 kinds of mangos, has 7 different types of bananas and 6 varieties of avocados.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

These leaves were two feet long

But the 500 meter long flower trail (signed in the local Zaptoec language, “Nesa Sti Guie,” in recognition of their culture and agricultural knowledge) was our first introduction to the property.

As we started on the path, surrounded on all sides by thick greenery and unique, brilliantly colored flowers, Armando joked that he is often asked how long a walk on the flower trail takes.  “I tell them, ‘For me, two months!  But for most people, a few hours.'”

We ended up spending the better part of a day wandering down this trail, marveling at the flowers.  “They look like they’re plastic, don’t they?” Armando said.  It was true, many of them were sturdy, thick and shiny, and we felt tempted to touch each one to verify it was real.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

The insects buzzed all around us and a river accompanied us on most of our walk.  Lots of trees had symbiotic vines that wound around their trunks, and we strolled under a shaded canopy of greenery the whole way.  At one point we came across a stand of cactus (“So people can see what the desert is like”) and at another stop we saw a hillside of coffee plants.

Hagia Sofia Huatulco Mexico Flower Nursery

As we walked among at the immense variety of trees, ferns, shrubs and flowers that grew so harmoniously with each other, it was impossible to imagine that the entire property was once filled with coffee plants and nothing else.  We were enveloped in a thick blanket of green, dotted with vibrant red, pink and yellow flowers.

When we finally emerged from this beautiful trail of flowers, Armando took us to the wide open crests of the hills where the views reached far into the distance. Hagia Sofia’s fruit trees were sprinkled across the hillsides, eagerly soaking up the sun on their way to maturity.

Next up on our tour’s agenda was a walk among the fruit trees, a drive to the locations where the visitors’ cabins will soon stand, and a memorable day-before-Thanksgiving feast.

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Oaxaca’s “Mitla Tour” – Ancient Zapotec Ruins & More!

Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Santa María del Tule

Town center Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Home of the "Tule Tree"

Church in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico The Tule Tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

The "Tule Tree," 190' around!

Baby Tule tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

The baby Tule Tree, just 1,000 years old.

Gnarled trunk of the Tule tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

What fantastic creatures lurk here?.

Tuk-tuk taxis in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Tuk-tuk" taxis zipped everywhere.

Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zapotec weavings in Teotitlan

del Valle.

Natural wools are dyed with flower or bug based dyes in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

All these colors were obtained from flowers or bugs.

Sea turtle rug made by Zapotec weaver in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Our sea turtle rug.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico is a unique, mystical place.

Hierve el Agua is a unique,

mystical place.

Manmade pool in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

A manmade pool to control the water flow a bit.

Swimming pools in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Kids play in the water.

Up close shot of mineral deposits, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

A thin film of water leaves a

microscopic layer of minerals behind.

Waterfall frozen in time, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Waterfall frozen in time.

Petrified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua.

Petrified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico Pools in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Reminded us of Yellowstone but the water was cool..

Travel companions on our Mitla tour in Oaxaca, Mexico

Our charming tour companions.

Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mitla is square and ornate, very different than Monte Alban.

Intricate stonework, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Intricate patterns like this adorn every wall inside and out.

Perfect stone joinery, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Precise mortarless stonework from 2,000 years ago.

Huge lintel over short doorway, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Massive lintel over a short doorway.

Interior room, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the interior rooms.

Stone dovetail corner wall joinery in Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Impressive dovetail corner joinery made

of precisely cut decorative stone.

Fine stonework, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

No two patterns on the buildings are alike.

Underground tomb, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the underground tombs.

Mezcal makers!

Mezcal makers!!  The king of Matatlan.

There are hundreds of varieties of Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico.

There are hundreds of varieties of mezcal.

Young blue agave plants at mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Young blue agave plants.

Blue agave plants ready for processing, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Pineapple-like core used to make mezcal.

Agave is burnt over a fire, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

First they are cooked over a fire.

Grinding up burnt agave plants to make mezcal in a distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Then they are crushed under a rotating wheel.

Mezcal fermentation barrels, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

The duration of the fermentation makes all the

difference in the taste.

Sampling mezcal, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

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

very gnarled

and people

see all kinds

of shapes

and creatures

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

the way.

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

their wool.

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

rectangular rooms

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

without mortar.

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

Mescal making

wasn't such a

bad trade-off

after all.

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

Sail blog post - Heading inland to Oaxaca, Mexico, from the marina in Huatulco, we were awe-struck by the evocative Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban

Carved stone figures at Monte Alban's museum.

Museum at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

A local school group is on a field trip.

Museum at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

The teacher asks which god he is pointing to.

Elaborate clay urn at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Elaborate clay urn.

Clay figure at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Hillsides at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban sits high on a hill overlooking the

Oaxaca Valley.

Clay figurine vendor at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

A vendor shows us his


Vendor at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

The vendors are everywhere.

Ballcourt at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zapotec ball court.

Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monte Alban pyramid.

Stone pyramid buildings at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Looking across the central plaza.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Archaeological site at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Layout of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

"You are here" in Zapotec.

Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Archaeological site at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Central plaza at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico Los Danzantes, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Los Danzantes" - Captured

rival leaders castrated &

ready for sacrifice.

Tall stairs at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

School kids burn off energy out on the stairs.

Schoolkids at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Now they can sit still for a class picture.

Restored pyramid at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Restored pyramid building.


Pyramid building unchanged since "discovery" in the early 1800's.

Painstaking restoration at Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Painstaking work numbering all the stones and resetting

them in the walls.

Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Courtyard of the Oaxaca Cultural Center in the Santo

Domingo Cathedral.

Ceiling decoration at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Ceiling art in the Cultural Center.

Gold leaf decoration at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Grand double staircase in the Cultural Center.

Gold Mixtec artwork from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Fine gold Mixtec handiwork.

Crystal urn from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Crystal urn.

Ornate necklace from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Mixtec jewelry from Tomb #7

Sculpted clay urn from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Clay sculpted urn.

Clay figurine from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral Sculpture from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

God of old age and wisdom (note

the wrinkled skin).

Bear sculpture from Tomb #7 at Monte Alban on display at Oaxaca Cultural Center in Santo Domingo Cathedral

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

buildings are

thought to have

been either

religious or


buildings and

others may

have been


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

Zapotec community

nearby.  He said no, they

were just from a local

school and the kids

probably had mixed

Mexican heritage,

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

Colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.

Cobblestone colonial walking streets of Oaxaca.

A band plays pops tunes in the Zocalo bandstand.

A band plays pops tunes.

Balloon vendor outside the Santo Domingo Cathedral.

Balloon vendor outside the


Instituto Eulogio Gillow 50th anniversary marching band.

A marching band shows up out of nowhere.

Oaxaca, Mexico Bright costumes on the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Kids proudly show off brilliant

Mexican costumes.

Bright costumes on the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Not a hair out of place.

Bright costumes on the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico Street vendor sells fruit at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

A street vendor strikes a deal on her fruit.

Pretty girl in a pretty dress at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico Instituto Eulogio Gillow schoolkids play

Schoolkids play McCartney's "Yesterday."

Schoolkids in the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Happy teenagers.

Street vendor sells roses at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico. Chiclet kid at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

9-year-old Chiclet vendor

8-year-old Chiclet vendor Julia at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Julia has a priceless grin...

Little street vending kid at the Zocalo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

…but she has been taught it's

worth 50 pesos.

Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance, Santo Domingo Cathedral, Oaxaca., Mexico.

Etno-Bontanical Garden entrance.

Bird of Paradise flower, Etno-Bontanical Garden

Bird of Paradise.

Etno-Bontanical Garden, Oaxaca, Mexico Etno-Bontanical Garden, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Sunburned Tourist" tree.

"Monkey's Desperation"


"Air cactus."

Organ Pipe Cactus, Etno-Botanical Garden, Oaxaca, Mexico

Organ Pipe Cactus.

"Marriage Tree"

"Marriage" has nasty thorns and poisonous fruit.

Valentine's hearts in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Valentine's hearts show up all

over town.

Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico.

A wedding at the Santo Domingo


Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico. Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico. Santo Domingo Cathedral wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The gracious bride invited the

onlookers into the church.

Young Chiclet seller gazes longingly at the wedding in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico.

This little Chiclet-selling girl was transfixed.

Valentine's Day, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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


celebrations the

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

listened patiently.

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

Sail blog post - We left the boat in Huatulco and took a bus inland to the magical city of Oaxaca, a community that is vibrant, quirky, lively and fun.

Our bus to Oaxaca.

Street vendor sells snacks to bus passengers in Salina Cruz.

Snacks for sale at a bus stop.

Mountains on the way to Oaxaca, Mexico

Mountains on the way to Oaxaca.

Poinsettias and trees in the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico

Poinsettias and tall trees in

Oaxaca's Zócalo.

Outdoor eateries on the Zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico

Outdoor eateries surround the Zócalo.

The Santo Domingo Cathedral lights up the night sky in Oaxaca, Mexico

Santo Domingo Cathedral.

We hoof it down to the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

We walk down towards the historic district.

Ornate cornices in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca is loaded with charm.

Cute window balconies in Oaxaca, Mexico Cobble stone pedestrial street in Oaxaca, Mexico

One long cobbled street is set aside for pedestrians only.

Charming historic buildings on the cobbled pedestrian street in Oaxaca, Mexico Flowers grace many windows in Oaxaca, Mexico

Flowers adorn many


Unusual door knockers are the norm in Oaxaca, Mexico

Door knocker.

A window balcony offers a bistro table with a private view.

There are great places for a snack and a view

all over town.

Door-within-a-door is a major theme in the architecture of Oaxaca, Mexico

Many buildings have a door-within-a-door out front.

This church has two doors-within-a-door at their front gate.

This church has two doors in its


City library, Oaxaca, Mexico

The front of the public library.

City library courtyard in Oaxaca, Mexico

The courtyard inside the public library.

Grand staircase inside the Benito Juarez University courtyard in Oaxaca, Mexico

Fancy stairs from the courtyard to

the second story balcony in the

university courtyard.

No words needed to explain this bathroom sign.

Self-explanatory in every


Odd sculptures fill the sidewalks around the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Clusters of strange sculptures of

people spill all over the sidewalks.

Odd sculptures in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Sculptures of "migratorios" congregate by the cathedral.

Migrant sculptures. Inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

Inside the cathedral - gold, gold and more gold!!

Fantastic gold decorations inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

The overriding theme is gold.

Ornate gold trimmed pulpit inside the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico


Gold decorated altar in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico Fanciful gold decorations on the ceiling of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

A portion of the ceiling.

Baroque gold designs in the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico Street performers in Oaxaca, Mexico

Street performers abound.

Kids hang around the Oaxaca, Mexico cathedral after school

Uniformed schoolkids hang out by the cathedral after school.

Schoolkids, Oaxaca, Mexico. Paintings in the artisan district of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Paintings for sale on the sidewalks of the art district.

Home of former Mexican president Benito Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Home of former president Benito Juarez.

Protesters in Oaxaca Mexico.

Protesters cruise past us carrying signs.

Red clad protesters in Oaxaca, Mexico

Triqui protesters.

Tourists make a home video in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca Mexico.

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

around them.

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.

Hundreds of

people were


walking, sitting,

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

and remembered.

The streets are cobbled (one main artery is pedestrian

only) and the buildings are heavily embellished with

elaborate trim.

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

courtyard inside.

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.

After wandering

among these

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

carrying signs.

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

just yet.

Find Oaxaca on Mexico Maps.