Day 6 (Wednesday, 10th Sept 2008): Oaxaca City, Monte Alban, Mercado 20 de Noviembre
The bus that started at 10:15 from Pochutla on the previous night, reached Oaxaca city at wee hours in the morning. During the journey, at around 5:15 AM, I was awakened by a cop and was asked to show my identification. I realized immediately that he was an immigration official, I had to get down from bus and present my passport and work permit for his scrutiny. He asked me where was I from and what was I doing there in Oaxaca and let me go since the work permit was valid. Moral of the story: No matter which part of Mexico you're travelling in, carry your passport and visa.
We found a city bus outside the first class bus terminal, that took us upto calle Periferico. It took us 20 minutes from there to find our hostel "El Quijote" on calle Francisco Mina. Señor Emilio welcomed us with nice breakfast of bread toast and coffee; after shower we set out to the ruins of Monte Alban under his guidance. Just at the corner of streets Mier y Teran and Mina, we boarded the bus (costs 4.5 pesos per person) which drove us straight to the foothills of Monte Alban, from which we had to walk another 30 minutes to ruins. There is another option, but it's mostly for tourists and not for travellers. It costs 38 pesos per person and takes you all the way till the entrance of ruins.
We started walking towards the ruins, we got lucky, we were hitchhiked by some señor in his truck. The great pre-Columbian Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban are located atop the mountain overlooking Oaxaca city. It's hard to describe the magnificence of Monte Alban in words, it would be an injustice to do so...I wouldn't mind doing a bit of injustice. The entrance costs 48 pesos per person, which includes entrance to both ruins as well as the museum. Monte Alban starts with a site index and introductory board, leading to the famed ball court. Ball court, shaped in capital letter I, enclosed with ramps on either sides that leads to ceremonial platforms, was a place where the ritual ball game was played. It's a ritual which was present across all Mesoamerican civilizations, starting from Zapotecs all the way till Mayans. Here is an interesting article about the Metaphysical meaning of the Ball Game. Wikipedia says this, "The players hit the ball with their hips. They had to pass the ball through a stone ring. The fortunate player who could do this had the right to take the blankets of the public, so his victory was followed by general running of the public, with screams and laughter."
From the ball court we head to North Platform, followed by Sunken Patio, Buildings A and B, Bertice Geodesico and others. System IV, a pyramid sort of a thing which is actually a ceremonial complex consisting of temple, patio and an altar was an interesting structure on the western side. Splendid Danzantes (dancers) stone carvings were at the southwest corner, depicting the figurines of ritual dancers. The South Platform was higher than the north one and has a steep staircase leading to the top. Located in the center of the whole site, is the Astronomical Observatory which is uniquely shaped and is closed for the tourists. Supposedly this was used by the Zapotecs to calculate agricultural cycles and seasonal changes. El Palacio, the great palace is located on the eastern side (next to the ball court) that has a 'blind entrance' signifying the restricted and exclusive character of the building. It took about 3 hours for us to finish Monte Alban including a small museum which contains some of the archeological recoveries like pottery and statues. We were again lucky for having gotten into a truck which dropped us back to the center of the town for absolutely free of cost.
We wandered around centro in an attempt to find Mercado 20 de Noviembre (read 20 as veinte) and a beautiful Oaxacan damsel ushered us to the market, upon asking her for directions. It's located between streets 20 de Noviembre and Miguel Cabrera, and is best place to try out local Oaxaqueñan dishes like pollo en mole (chicken is chocolate sauce) or tlayudas (tortillas coated with bean paste and topped with cheese, chicken and avocados). The market has two parts, one consisting of innumerable comedores (tiny eatouts) serving aforementioned dishes and the other part with grills all over, serving the most delicious carne asadas (beef barbecue). The place is cacophonous with vendors inviting you to buy the beef from their store, which gets grilled then and there. When eaten with handmade tortillas, topped with guacamole, roasted onions and salsa...all you can do is helplessly yearn for more.
After relaxing for a while in hostel we started rambling aimlessly exploring the city. The centro has countless colourful colonial buildings that set a perfect stage for street photography. Picture people of different cultures and countries forming your subjects against a saturated red, green or yellow colours of these imposing ancient edifices. Andador Macedonio Alcala is a pedestrian street which deserves special mention, one can freely walk around this street without being molested by the vehicles. It has Museo de Ante Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (Contemporary art museum of Oaxaca), Cafeteria Alcala coffee shop (they served one of the most delicious cappuccino I had ever tasted, we had coffee in this place almost everyday of our stay in Oaxaca) and the famed Santo Domingo de Guzmán cathedral.
It started raining and we took shelter in El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The majestic Santo Domingo de Guzmán is the most magnificent cathedral that my eyes have ever witnessed. I had seen opulent cathedrals during my visit to Queretaro and San Luis Potosi, but they were nothing when compared to this one. It has exuberant baroque interior decorations in the narthex with mind-blowing lavish Renaissance artwork along the ceilings and the walls. It includes the genealogical tree of Santo Domingo de Guzmán and paintings which illustrate old testament and life of Christ and Virgin Mary. Along the nave one could observe fine carpentry, sculptures, paintings and reliefs.
After the rain subdued, we head to centro and had dinner in one of the Chinese restaurants, Nihao. I repent terribly for having made that decision for that meal was one of the worst meal of our entire trip. I not only repented but felt awfully stupid for having chosen a Chinese restaurant in a land of good food.
Day 7 (Thursday, 11th Sept 2008): Arrazola, Cuilapam, Zaachila and Atzompa
We started our day with the same breakfast as previous day - bread toast and coffee, just that we paid unlike previous day. We took a collectivo to Arrazola (12 pesos per person).
Arrazola is a neighbouring artisan village known for Los Alebrijes (ale-bri-hes). Alebrijes are handmade wood figurines resembling fantastical animals like armadilo, antelope, frog, tortoise etc., painted with deeply saturated colours. Arrazola has many such artists whose bread is earned by these little animal figurines. Manuel Jiménez, the founder of this folk art hails from Arrazola. One of the artist told me that it may take about 4-6 days for completion depending on the complexity of the figurines, which involves softening of the wood, carving, painting and drying. We were a bit too early in Arrazola, most artists' shops were not yet open. We decided to continue our journey ahead, after seeing just one shop.
We had to take a collectivo back to the highway from which we deviated towards Arrazola and change to another one to reach Cuilapam (Cuilapan de Guerrero) which was about 10 minutes ahead. Cuilapam has just one attraction, but it's absolutely worth visiting just that one. It's called Ex-Convento de Santiago Apóstol, located at stones throw away from the main road. As the name says it was a convent in earlier days, where Christianity was being preached, now it's a tourist attraction and houses many Archeological researchers.
The building is an ancient one yet very elegant. The courtyard is very artistically constructed with arches and columns which are very photogenic. In earlier days probably the courtyard acted as a nave, we saw an opening leading to altar that was closed by cement. The patterned shadows cast by the arches were a treat to eyes. After satiating our photography desire, we entered the convent by paying 29 pesos/person. It took us back in time to the colonial period with it's brilliant Gothic architecture presenting arches, heavy large windows and artistic ribbed vaults. It had central square, four sides of which had a veranda enclosed by halls on one side and arches on the other. Most of the halls had prohibited the tourists for they were occupied by the Archeological department for storage and research. We happened to talk to a couple of archeologists about their work. They were awestruck to know that we were from India, they said we were the first Indians whom they've met.
We came back to the highway and continued our journey to Zaachila which was another 15 minutes ahead. Zaachila is a town with few archeological ruins and Thursday market. It was all crowded when we alighted from the collectivo, we head straight to archeological remains located right across the street next to cathedral. Keep your expectations low about Zaachila ruins, for it's absolutely nothing when compared to Monte Alban. There is just a small mound which is still not excavated and there are two tombs. The entrance costs 29 pesos per person. The tombs are underground which are covered with metal gates below which there are stairs leading to the tomb. The tombs contained a chamber made of stones and were lit minimally, the walls contained Zapotec carvings of God of death and other patterns.
We entered the market which resembled pretty much like the Indian village fairs (sante in Kannada). There were villagers selling what not - vegetables, fruits, meat, turkeys, food, beverages, artwork, made-in-China stuff...the list is endless. It was heavily crowded and the place smelt of meat. Outside there were some small eat-outs dishing out empanadas de flor de calavaza (big tortillas stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and zucchini flower) and pollo en mole (chicken in different flavoured sauce) and we didn't think twice to have our lunch there. Empanadas were the most delicious ones I had ever eaten, normally I'm not a big fan of cheese but Oaxacan cheese made me change my opinion.
After lunch we head back to Oaxaca city by bus (15 pesos/person) and relaxed for a while in hostel, before we left for Atzompa. Atzompa is a nearby village, about 20 minutes from Oaxaca city (by collectivo, costs 5 pesos/person), known for it's clay artists. There is a cathedral at the center of the village. Most artists live on the main road that connects to Oaxaca city and work at their homes. You can find boards at the entrance of their workplaces, welcoming tourists to see a demonstration, which is usually free. We saw one such demonstration, I was impressed by the way an old lady kneaded and modeled a piece of clay into a funny faced caterpillar with such deftness and quickness. We then head to 'Mercado de Artesanias', the artist market where the artists' works are on sale.
We came back to Oaxaca city, roamed around centro and had dinner at Restaurant Alex. It's not worth mentioning of what we had or how much we paid, though I would like to mention that I don't recommend this restaurant. We decided to head to one of "Las Cantinas" to have a drink. Cantina is roughly of the likes of Indian bar, where men go, get drunk for cheap, talk non-sense and get out. We did the same but didn't get drunk...we just drank. We tried Mezcal which was served neat accompanied by lemon and salt. Like they say for tequila...One shot-two shot-three shot-floor...for mezcal it's one shot-two shot-heaven!!!
Day 8 (Friday, 12th Sept 2008): Hierve El Agua, Mitla, Yagul
We decided to change our breakfast plans, we had the nice and hot Tamales (chicken or capsicum chillies cooked with salsa and corn dough, wrapped in plantain leaves) and yummy hot chocolate.
Hierve el Agua (The Water Boils), is located 14Km off Mitla among the mountains. We took a collectivo to Mitla and had to await for about an hour till we found a means of transportation to head to Hierve el Agua. A 4WD is needed to reach this picturesque place which needs about 50 minutes of journey from Mitla along the winding mountainous roads. It costs about 60-100 pesos per person depending on the occupancy of the vehicle. Expect delays in journey in case of landslides, we faced a minor one.
In Hierve el Agua the natural springs (cold water) spurt out from the ground as though the water is boiling. It's got pools where this water is stored before it flows down the rocks. Due to the inherent minerals, the flow has created colourful patterns on it's course and the pool looks deep green in colour. The landscape is gorgeous with mountains all around with such colourful ponds in the center. There is a gigantic white stone (corroded by water) which sort of resembles a waterfall from far. The entrance to the place is 11 pesos per person. Though the water looked pristine, I refrained from bathing for it was a bit smelly due to stagnation since the flow was minimal. We spent about an hour there and started our journey back.
We reached Mitla at lunch time and we had delicious yet inexpensive lunch of empanadas at one of the comedores in the central market. We took mototaxi (the likes of Indian autorikshaw) to the ruins which was about 5 minutes drive and cost 5 pesos/person. The ruins of Mitla are of Mixtec nature, which is markedly different from the ones of Monte Alban. Mitla ruins contain areas with names Church group, Patio of Mosaics, Column group, Adobe group, Arroyo group etc.
Church group is where the Spaniards have constructed a majestic cathedral using the bricks of the Mixtec building which they destroyed for the same purpose...damn those Spaniards!!! I thought when I saw the site. The remains and the cathedral are sort of juxtaposed which is contrasting, definitely the ruins take the cake when it comes to pulling the crowd. The ruins still has patterns on it's wall and effaced red murals. The entrance to the site costs 35 pesos/person (though the Church group is free to see) and the site has Column group. There are certain structures which are greatly embellished with rectangular, triangular and step patterns. The "Hall of Columns" is one of the most artistic artifacts of Mitla. It has 6 huge monolithic columns at the entrance. The dark alley leads to a central hall where the walls are covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone mosaic. This motif is called stepped-fret design which is supposed to be denoting the deity Quetzalcoatl. There are certain tombs adjacent to Hall of Columns, called "Patio of Tombs" which has the Pillar of Death. Legend has that when you embrace the pillar, the gap between the two hands indicates your remaining life span, but it's now prohibited for tourists to touch. We also saw Adobe group, an unexacavted mound on which a trashy old church stood proudly. The Arroyo group was amidst the houses in the middle of the town of Mitla which was not that well preserved.
A mototaxi dropped us to the busstation and we alighted at Yagul paying 6 pesos/person. The Yagul ruins were about a kilometer inside the highway and they told us that no buses or collectivos ply there. We started walking but thanks to someone who returned from Yagul and informed us that the ruins were closed. Yagul opens from 8AM to 5PM. We hit Oaxaca city by bus and relaxed over a cup of coffee.
As we wandered on the streets we got lucky to watch a procession of very tall dolls on the street and a group of people in grand traditional attire following the dolls with noisy fireworks. We then watched a concert of La Estudiantina (Tunas), a musical group of university students. It was an impressive concert with synchronized sounds emanating out of the guitars, mandolins, violins, cello and tambourines. It was an exhausting day, we had dinner at one of the roadside hamburger vendors. Again I'm hater of hamburgers, but this guy made me change my opinion. He made the most delicious hamburger with loads of ingredients - soft beef patty, thin layer of ham, cheese, pineapple, onions, jalapeños and tomatoes...topped with mustard and tomato ketchup - it made my mouth water while writing this part.
Day 9 (Saturday, 13th Sept 2008): Ixtlan, Capulalpam de Mendez, Centro
We wanted to goto Yagul, but Señor Emiliano of our hostel suggested us to take an ecotour in the mountains of Sierra Norte and postpone our Yagul plans to Sunday for there was going to be market at Tlacolula on Sunday; we nodded in agreement. After a quick tamales and hot chocolate breakfast, we took bus which dropped us till El Monumento on the outskirts of Oaxaca city from which we took a collectivo costing 35 pesos/person to Ixtlan, the birth place of Benito Juárez.
The journey, lasting for about an hour, was among the mountains of Sierra Norte range. Fresh air, green mountains, winding roads, rustic villages...describe our journey to Ixtlan. The actual place where we alighted from collectivo is Capulalpam de Mendez, 15 minutes ahead of Ixtlan. The driver dropped us right in front of eco-tourism office, we were given choice of rappelling across the river, forest trek, cave exploration...we chose the last one which cost us 70 pesos/person. A 4WD truck hitch-hiked us close to one of the caves, accompanied by guide we started our so called cave exploration. We wore our head torches and entered the cave which had three levels and had to be climbed with a ladder. The cave, for once, was different from the others we've seen - it was neither lit nor it contained anyone else. It has small stalactites and stalagmites and there were numerous formations which resembled fox, giraffe, old lady, face of a man etc. Probably for newbies that cave would have been a marvelous experience, but for us it was first of all, a cakewalk and secondly nothing so great. We were done in about 40 minutes, the lady at ecotourism office told us that we need around 90 minutes.
We walked back to the ecotourism office, enroute we found a lonely house adored all around by flower pots. We entered the house, a middle aged lady welcomed us. She had a very sweet daughter of around 8 years who reminded me of my sweet cousins back in India. She told us that she sells those flowers for living and I was glad to hear that the girl was being sent to school. We clicked few photographs of the child and the house and took leave. They gave us the juiciest pear and we gave chocolate to the child in return. We returned to ecotourism office, paid and head to a small home which served food. A simple lunch of small mamelitas (small tortillas topped with bean paste and cheese) , pollo tinga (chicken in chipotle sauce) and scrambled eggs. After a long wait for collectivos, we found one that rode us to Oaxaca city in drizzling rain.
We got refreshed at hostel and head out for dinner. It was raining outside and the having dinner was the best option for us, we walked to zocalo and settled down in one of the restaurants and had couple of beers, tortas cubana (baguette sandwich with chicken) and tostadas con pollo tinga (chicken marinated in chipotle on hard toast tortillas).
Day 10 (Sunday, 14th Sept 2008): Yagul, Teotitlan del Valle, Mezcal distillery, El Tule, Museo de las Culturales, El Cerro del Fortin
As usual our 10th day started with Tamales and hot chocolate. A collectivo to Yagul remains cost us 25 pesos/person, the taxi driver dropped us all the way till ruins for 5 extra bucks. We were the very first visitors of the ruins, nobody charged us anything to enter the ruins - early bird gets it's prey!!!
Yagul ruins are located alongside a beautiful mountain which also has some remains. The view from the mountain top wass breathtaking but it was disappointing for my camera, it was an overcast day. The ruins look splendid from the mountain top; so does the surrounding farms and mountains. Yagul ruins pretty much resemble the ruins of Monte Alban, but one could wander among the walls that form a sort of maze. Some walls have still retained the colourful plaster and the pillars stand proudly among these walls which formed residence complex back then. Yagul has got the biggest ball-court in the whole of Oaxacan valley and has some tombs which were closed.
Somehow we got lucky with hitch-hiking, a truck dropped us all the way till Tlacolula from Yagul. Only difference was we were not the only ones on the trailer, but also a goat accompanied us. From Tlacolula we took a bus to the entrance of Teotitlan del Valle (TDV), again we were thumbed by a white Ford truck to the town of TDV. TDV is a culture filled town thronged mainly by weavers that weave the world famous TDV carpets, it's believed that TDV was the first ever Zapotec settlement in Oaxaca.
Weaving, fortunately, is still continued by present generation, both as tradition and family buisness. We entered a couple of weaver's house and they explained us how they earn their breads...it was indeed the most tedious job...each and every line of the carpet needs the threads to be chosen meticulously and it takes much effort to move the weft bobbin among the warp yarn. The carpets range from simple and plain to colourful ones to Zapotec glyphs to contemporary motifs, each of them varying in size and price. Ponchos, rugs, dresses, wallhangings, bags and mats some of the other woven produce of this town. We also saw the Gandhiji's 'Charaka', the spinning wheel to make the yarn out of wool. The weavers told us that the dyes used are one hundred percent natural, from the roots and vegetables. For art photography such weavers' house is truly a heaven...colourful yarns spun onto bobbins, bunches of such yarns stacked in a corner, an old Zapotec granny in her traditional attire busy weaving or spinning wheels containg half spun yarn.
We then took a mototaxi to centro which has a TDV community museum (Balla Xtee Guedchi Gulal), el mercado de artesanias (the artists' market), some ruins and the cathedral (Preciosa Sangre de Cristo). The community museum features some of the archeological artwork like pottery, handicrafts of TDV, wedding ritual and Danza de la Pluma (the feather dance). The entrance to this community museum is 10 pesos and photography is prohibited inside.
We then head to ruins which was just a Zapotec motif on the wall, behind the cathedral. We went around the cathedral in search of food and someone suggested us the restaurant El Descanso. No doubt it's a cozy place, but it's not something for us budget travellers...we had a beer and left in search of cheaper food. On calle Juarez, we found an open door leading to a dimly lit hall with just 2 tables, as we entered an old lady told us that it was a restaurant with only one dish, Pollo en mole colorado. We settled down and had the MOST delicious mole we had ever eaten in Oaxaca for as low as 30 pesos/person. We liked it for many reasons: it was not sweet, the spicy green salsa made it more tasty, tender chicken breast was deliciously cooked and it was made by an experienced Zapotec granny with love. She told us that she didn't want to put up a board for she had to pay more taxes. You need to ask for the house of Señora Juana Perez, the house number is 123 on Calle Juarez.
We took a bus to the highway and went straight to Mezcal distillery right at the place where road to TDV meets the highway. As mentioned in my earlier blog, mezcal is a close cousing of Tequila and is a traditional drink of Oaxaca. A guide explained us how mezcal is made from matured agave plants, let me summarize it here. Once the agaves mature, it's uprooted, it's leaves are cut off leaving only the trunk (called piñas) that are baked in an underground furnace during which they absorb the flavours from earth and burning wood. After it's baked it's allowed to naturally ferment for about a week and is then crushed using a heavy, gigantic grinding stone moved by a mule. The crushed agaves are then distilled in a chamber which is cooled inside a water tank. There is a small tap in the distillation chamber which is used for collecting mezcal. It's collected, bottled and aged after distillation. A variety of mezcal called mezcal con gusano contain a worm (typically a larvae) in it. Other types are reposado (contains a piece of cooked agave which gives a brown tinge), añejo (aged atleast for an year) and blanco (young and colourless mezcal). We tipped the guide, clicked few shots and started our jouney back to Oaxaca for the weather looked stormy.
We visited El Tule en route. El Tule is famous for it's 2000+ years old tree, (and also the tree with the largest girth in the world) probably the only living thing which has witnessed different epochs of Mexican history. It's located just 15 minutes away from Oaxaca downtown and there are plenty of buses and collectivos plying to El Tule. The tree is located in the courtyard of a cathedral and the entrance costs 3 pesos. It's indeed a gigantic tree which is fenced off to prevent tourists from touching it.
It started pouring, we took a collectivo to Museo de las Culturales (Museum of Cultures) which located in the annexe of El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. It was almost 5 and we just had one hour to spend there. The entrance to the museum is free, foreginers need to present their passport at the security. This is the biggest museum in Oaxaca and it has precious things from the past...Zapotec/Mixtec ruins, machineries and weapons used by Spaniards during and after their conquest, Aztec murals, maps and globes used by neo-classical navigators, ancient Christian library and other historical treasures. Before we could enter the ruins part, we were all asked to quit for it was their closing time. After spending some time in the museum store, we head to our usuaul coffee place and relaxed over an extra strong cappuccino. We had the same delicious roadside hamburger for dinner and reached hostel.
Without wasting much time grabbed the tripod and set out, in taxi, to El Cerro del Fortin, the mountain in the center of Oaxaca city with panoramic view of the city. Drizzle changed to rain when we reached there, I had to cover the camera with my jacket and photograph in the cold. The view was not that great as I had imagined...probably because of cold and rain. We spent less than 15 minutes, took taxi back to hostel.
Day 11 (Monday, 15th Sept 2008): Lambityeco, Museo de las Culturales, Return
Started off to the ruins of Lambityeco after our usual breakfast at 8 in the morning. The collectivo dropped us right in front of the ruins at Lambityeco which is small archeological site around 15 minutes from Oaxaca, unfortunately it was closed. We waited, we slammed the gate, we shouted and whistled hoping for someone inside who could open...but all our efforts were in vain. We came back to Oaxaca city with the thought of seeing the remaining part of Museo de las Culturales...but the bogey of bad luck followed us everywhere...Museo de las Culturales remains closed on all Mondays. We had our one final Oaxacan coffee.
We hurriedly did our shopping of mezcal, chocolates and some soviners on the way back to hostel. Packed our bags, bid farewell to señora and took a collectivo to airport just beside the hostel which costs about 12 pesos/person.
Oaxacan Odyssey is one of my most memorable travels. It was like a recipe with perfectly balanced ingredients - beaches, lagoons, archeological ruins, artisan villages, sumptuous food and whole lot of rustic warm-hearted human beings of the countryside.
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