by Cornelius Myers
Mexico is country that offers a vast array of travel experiences. You can find everything from silver in Taxco, pyramids in the Yucatan to massive monuments and museums in Mexico City. Oaxaca, however, brings a taste of everything – art, music, cuisine, culture, handicrafts, architecture, jewelry, museums and monumental history – to the table; and the result is a feast of all things Mexican – all in one delightful place.
Oaxaca, located southeast of Mexico City and south of Vera Cruz, is set in a fertile valley, 1,500 meters up in the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur. It is regarded as the most charming and best preserved of all Mexico’s colonial cities. The strong influences of the Mixtec and Zapotec cultures that once dominated the region are still strongly felt, seen and tasted throughout the city.
While Mexico City has been resting on it’s laurels as the artistic capital of Mexico, Oaxaca has garnered it’s own acclaim, and now can be accurately described as the country’s richest state for arts and crafts. Artists from around the country have been drawn to Oaxaca by the dynamic creative atmosphere that prevails. The Centro Historico has galleries everywhere, exhibiting striking and vibrantly colorful abstract and expressionist works. The more you see, the more evident it becomes that there is a very strong Oaxacan school of art.
The internationally renowned artist Rodolfo Morales – who painted surreal scenes of rural Mexico – is credited with helping to make Oaxaca a contemporary art center. His home, a cool, stone-walled alcove, shaded by a canopy of trees, has been converted into a museum – Arte de Oaxaca – displaying his work and providing young, aspiring artists with a space to develop their talents. The painter and sculptor Francisco Toledo is exhibited at Galeria Quetzalli. He too played an important role in focusing the art world’s attention on Oaxaca.
The range of indigenous folk art and handicrafts is amazing; with a huge spectrum of shapes, colors and materials shown in textiles, pottery, basketry, gold and silver work, wood carving, toys, metalwork and leather articles – all created in and around Oaxaca.
The art of weaving in Mexico dates from between 900 and 500 B.C. The locally grown Coyuchi cotton – in natural colors ranging from beige to red – has bolls too small for industrial spinning and must be spun by hand. The results are fine woven products in a wide range of vibrant colors and patterns, with dyes coming from flowers, fruit and even from the cactus dwelling red cochineal insect, resulting in a red so deep it must be seen first hand to be truly appreciated.
Oaxaca’s culture is deeply mestizo and naturally indigenous. Sixteen pre-Hispanic tongues are spoken in musical, joyous voices heard throughout the city. The variety is reflected most strongly in the handicrafts sold on the streets and in the markets that you see as you stroll though the town. The Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca has everything on display in one location, from hand-dyed and woven carpets to the brightly colored wood figures from San Martin Tilcajete.
You will also find intricate hand woven baskets there from Ocotlan; polychrome wood carvings in phantasmagoric figures, creatures and shapes from San Antonio Arrazola; green glazed pottery from the Village of Atzompa; the finest qualiity embroidery from San Antonio; jewelry from Mitla and San Blas, delicately filigreed in gold and silver – and still created by the lost wax technique.
Two visits outside of the city to see the handicrafts created first hand are well worth the time. The village of San Bartolo Coyotepec is the home of black clay pottery, made internationally famous by Doña Rosa Real. Her son and grandchildren demonstrate the making of the pottery, still using her techniques.
A trip to the “Bug in the Rug” studio in Teotitlan Del Valle to see the award-winning patriarch Isaac Vasquez demonstrate dying and weaving techniques is an opportunity to watch a master carpet craftsman work his magic.
Oaxaca is a walking city. With each step you will discover wonders every sort: excellently preserved examples of baroque architecture everywhere; ancient aquaducts built by the Zapotecs; the Oaxaca Cathedral, a colonial gem, with a splendid bronze altar crafted in Italy; the noise, heat, smells and colors in the enormous labyrinth of the Mercado de Abastos – one of the most vibrant markets in Mexico – where, amidst products from all over the region, you can find the secret herbs, natural cures and talismans still used by the powerful local Shaman’s.
The Basilica de la Soledad, is a masterpiece of 17th-century architecture, noted for it’s heavily gilded interior and the image of the Virgin of Solitude, Oaxaca’s patron saint, encrusted with 600 diamonds and crowned in 2-kgs of solid gold.
The Plaza de Armas, or zocalo is the geographical and social center of the city. You will find it filled with the sounds and colors of villagers from outside the city, tourists, vendors, music from the 19th century bandstand and strolling Mariachis; and the delicious scents of the cafes that line the square. Nearby is the Alameda de Leøn, a charming square with market stalls displaying arts and crafts
The Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, one of the jewels of the city’s colonial architecture, is housed in a former monastery. It is attached to the Iglesia de Domingo a breathtaking church that took 200 years to complete at a cost of more than 12 million pesos in gold. The simple façade of the church is deceptive. Once you have entered, the interior is dazzling, with gilded plaster and colored stucco; culminating in the main altar – a soaring blend of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Moorish styles.
The real treasures are to be found in the Centro’s museum that is dedicated to pre-Columbian artifacts from the ancient cities of Oaxaca state. The incredible precious objects discovered in Tomb 7 of the Monte Alban temple complex are on display. The gold collection alone is regarded as the finest in the Americas. The Centro also has a botanical garden, and an astounding collection of ancient books and manuscripts; one of which pre-dates the Gutenberg Bible. Scholars from around the world come to the library to study and discover it’s contents.
Museums spring-up everywhere as you walk through the City. the Museo de Arte Contemporåneo, featuring the works of Oaxacan artists, Francisco Toledo and Roberto Morales; the Oaxacan Institute of Graphic Arts. The beautiful, 19th-century Macedonio Alcalå theater; the Museo Rufino Tamayo, housing the artist’s vast personal collection of pre-Columbian art; collected by him to prevent it from falling into the hands of illicit artifact traders.
Casa de Juårez, the house where President Benito Juårez lived, is now a museum, devoted to tracing his life and times; from his Zapotec Indian parentage, to his birth in the mountain village of Guelatao, to his Presidency of Mexico.
To understand the energy levels in Oaxaca, it is important to know the life and philosophy of Benito Juarez. He was a reformer all of his life. He raged against what he perceived to be unfair practices and acted on his convictions. The much discussed violent teacher’s strike of 2006 is evidence of the fact that his reformist spirit still permeates the thoughts and actions of the people of Oaxaca. In many ways, it sets them apart from the less energetic areas of the country.
The range of hotel accommodations and restaurants is as wide as the Oaxaca valley itself. From colonial chic courtyards with inexpensive rooms, to the sun dappled patios of medium priced bed-and-breakfast inns, to the opulent former 16th century Dominican convent that deserves it’s five star rating. In the mid-price range, the centrally located Casa Conzatti is recommended for it’s charm and hospitality.
You would be hard pressed to find a less than good restaurant in Oaxaca. Just check the menus for price, and be sure to sample to famous 7 mole sauces, and the native chocolate in any form. Fans of Laura Esquivel’s novel, “Like Water for Chocolate,” will want to dine at it’s name sake, Como Agua Pa’ Chocolate. Throughout the city you will find cuisine unique to the region and extremely creative dishes, expertly prepared at reasonable prices.
Oaxaca is regarded as one of the most important colonial cities in Mexico, but it’s roots and cultural identity reach much deeper. It can said that today’s Oaxaca stands tall on the shoulders of the city of Monte Alban and their ancestors that created it in 500 B.C.
Spectacularly situated on a mountain 500 m above the Oaxaca Vally, Monte Alban is the greatest of the Zapotec cities. It’s sheer existence is a triumph of engineering. The Jaguar Hill mountain top was literally leveled to create a ceremonial site almost as large as the present capital of Oaxaca, with a population that reached 30,000.
With it’s stepped pyramids, huge platforms, highly decorated, magnificent palaces, enormous patios, treasure packed tombs, ballcourt, observatory and temples, it stands today as a tribute to the Olmec’s and Zapotec’s engineering genius. This city, the first urban complex in Mesoamerica, was of enormous importance as an economic, political and religious focal point. It was in this context that the Zapotec culture developed, and was passed down to today’s indigenous people.
By 850 A.D. the city that took a thousand years to build had become almost deserted. The Mixtec culture was on the rise, and for the Mixtecs, Monte Alban became a sacred site where their dead joined the gods in tombs filled with objects that epitomize the beauty of Mixtec art. The passage of time has not prevented the majesty, beauty and the mystery of the place from reaching us today.
The City of Oaxaca is more than a living museum, it is a daily celebration of the past, both ancient and colonial, mixed with the joy of living each day; with senses heightened by the beauty of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that surround you. It fills you with it’s art, history, music, religion, architecture, cuisine and culture – and wraps you in the colors of the sunrise, walls, costumes and handicrafts. It is truly the whole enchilada.
If You Go:
Continental, Aeroméxico and Mexicana airlines all fly to Oaxaca.
To tour: Turismo Panoråmico travel agency. firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information: www.oaxaca.travel
About the author:
Cornelius Myers is a Travel Journalist, Broadcaster, Feature Writer, and award winning member of the National Association of Travel Journalists of America (NATJA), Monaco Press, American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and The American Recording Academy (GRAMMY). He’s been published in The New York Times, New Riviera Magazine, Monaco Madame, Connection Magazine, Tendance, LRM Magazine (Miami), The Miami Art Guide, Boomer Times & The Riviera Times. Mr. Myers is based in Miami and Monaco. Contact: email@example.com.