Saturday, June 5, 2010

Oaxaca III - El Tule, Mitla, and Teotitlan

On Sunday we rented a car and drove out of town to the nearby ruins of Monte Alban (next post) and Mitla. We did some other things along the way (Teotitlan and El Tule) and returned starving, hot, tired, and happy for a nice dinner of mole coloradito (delicious!) and white wine at a restaurant on the Zocalo.

The Zocalo (central square) in Oaxaca city is beautiful and busy. It is lined on three sides by buildings with deep arcades and on the fourth by the cathedral yard. People buy their children torpedo balloons and play with them, tossing the balloons into the air and racing to catch them.

Arcades and a market line the Zocalo. Balloon vendors are so far ubiquitous in non-Mexico City central squares.

The Virgin is in the trees of the Zocalo!

All of the oldest Oaxaca buildings seem to have a pinkish glow. The cathedral dome is tiled and simple and beautiful. It's a very different experience from the Santo Domingo church.

The little church at Santa Maria del Tule. It's a very well maintained church, probably because they charge 20 pesos ($1.50) per head to see the tree. The tree is immediately to the left in this photo; its branches are what you see in the photo.

This man is manually ringing bells for church purposes on Sunday.

Stats on the tree. It's estimated to be more than 2000 years old. It's a cypress, wider than it is tall, and one of the earth's oldest living creatures. The water table has changed underneath it, and now it is tended by a local group.

Ian obligingly spreads his arms by the tree. The fence prevents a real sense of scale.

Looking up in the branches of the massive tree at El Tule.

Mitla is lesser-known than Monte Alban and much smaller The town of Mitla grew around the ruins and the church, and the site is limited in size. Mitla is a very late settlement (1300s CE) and shows its lateness is the total difference in decoration. The walls are covered with intricate geometric patterns instead of animals and figures. These are walls of the largest construction still standing. The panels are varied, and there is some repetition but not in a discernible pattern.

This is the church that the Spanish turned the Mitla complex into. It's lovely, simple, and clean. Note again the multi-domed roof in red.

The decor of Mitla changes in the chambers inside the walls. The geometric patterns are more contiguous but still intricate. They also mostly repeat what is visible from the outside.

Note that all the stones that form the patterns are individually worked.

The entrance (and exit!) to a funerary tunnel in the walls of Mitla. Ian, having braved one on his knees, opted to wait for me outside. The inside was unspectacular except for the smell and the bizarre humidity and heat, but the passage was three levels of three-foot doors followed by much higher-cielinged cambers.

We stopped to buy sal de gusano (similar to the salt you lick with tequila but blended with ground up maguey worm) for a colleague and were tempted into a brief tour of a mezcal moonshine distillery. Ian did all the tasting, and I did all the driving. Ian, Abel (the proprietor), and Jesus (hay-SUS) the horse pose at the beginning of the tour. Jesus is hitched to a grinding stone and spends his days walking counter-clockwise in a very tight circle mashing the maguey (mah-GWAY) cactus into pulp. Note the photo banner behind them showing the harvest and preparation of the maguey.

This is the sweet mash, produced by the horse and the grinding stone, that is fermented and heated to eventually produce the mezcal. Note the bees hovering over it; it's nearly pure maguey sugar.

Pure mezcal running out of the fermenter.

Abel serving mezcal from a container for Ian to taste it. I was prepared for a grimace, but Ian said it was really quite good.

The wares of La Costumbre, all available for a reasonable price. Ian bought three bottles of moonshine mezcal, but they all leaked so badly in the trunk that we had to leave them in Oaxaca to save our suitcases.

Despite their cautious optimism, we did our shopping at the market.

These rugs are woven by traditional artisans in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, about 30 km east of Oaxaca. The rugs are wool, dyed with natural dyes developed in the area over centuries of work. The red rug is a traditional pattern with shades of Mitla in its designs. The yellow rug is more modern, and the blue fish rug is between them. The rugs are almost all immensely beautiful, and the variety of patterns and colors is stunning.

At the Teotitlan market (off-day), a lady was driving burros with firewood to a client.

And mama burro took her baby with her to learn the ropes!

Oaxaca II - Ruins at Monte Alban

This is the model of Monte Alban, a Zapotec religious and administrative center from around 800 BCE through 300 CE. As the Zapotec people began to wane, the Mixtec arrived; the Mixtec were, in turn, overrun by the Mexica/Aztec. The model is viewed here from the south to the north. I've tried to put those directions in the notes. It's best to visit for yourselves - pre-Columbian ruins are fascinating! We arrived at about 8.45 AM, and the sun was already blazing hot.

Sun hat and sting ray shirt, check!

Sun hat, check, but no sting ray shirt. Alas.

The famous I-shaped ball court. There were apparently five at Monte Alban, and the note said that, far from being a purely ceremonial exercise, the Zapotec used the ball game to settle all sorts of disputes.

Looking down from the southern pyramids at the "M system," the southwestern corner of the complex. There were only 42 steps to the top of the southern pyramid, but they were Ian-scale steps and steep to boot.

A tourbus group on the top of the northern pyramid complex like crows on a ridgepole!

Looking north towards the pyramids the below photos were taken from. The northern end was likely the ceremonial end for the absolute elite. The southern end is much less established and much more damaged. The building with the slanted side in the foreground is related to the astronomy that governed the calendar of the Zapotec. It related to other points in the complex that helped residents track seasons and events.

From the big pyramid looking south towards the other end of Monte Alban.

Looking south from behind the sunken plaza. This photo is from a higher platform than the previous one.

Cool carving of what is probably a jaguar with its head unfortunately chipped away.

The perfect photo of Mexico: the tree, the ruins, and the man in the big, round hat under the tree.

The Monte Alban lizard! I gave it hell, chasing it with the camera. This is the only focused photo. Sigh.


Arrival at the city of Oaxaca (wah-HA-kah) for Memorial Day weekend! The city is about a 50 minute flight from Mexico City towards the southeast. It is at much lower elevation and so feels much more tropical. Oaxaca is one of Mexico's poorest states and has a strong indigenous presence. Twenty of the 56 languages spoken in Mexico originate in Oaxaca, and there is a large population that speaks little or no Spanish. Oaxaca is renowned for its food, and Ian and I were not disappointed!

Meat in the San Juan Market (Mercado San Juan)! Unfortunately we didn't get the photo of the old lady idly waving a fly swatter over a pile of chickens. In spite of everything that shocks US sensibilities, this is probably among the safest ways to get meat in Mexico. The Mercado is a full city block of narrow rows between shops selling everything from raw meat to lunch to ice cream to fine leather to linen embroidered items.

Ian's all-time favorite - chapulines! For the non-initiated, that means crickets. They are fried and make a popular snack in Oaxaca.

Chiles and birdcages, one-stop shopping in the Mercado San Juan!

Dried chiles looking hot and painful even through the camera lens....

Our B&B had a great selection of local kitsch/ artesania. I think the expression on the rabbit's face is priceless.

The Templo and Convento de Santo Domingo. This is one of the most impressive structures I've ever seen. The church is still functional, and gold figures heavily in the interior decoration. The convent is defunct and has been since the 1870s (or so) when Oaxaca's favorite son, Benito Juarez, aka the Reformer, closed all of Mexico's convents. The building is still architecturally stunning, and its space is used for a cultures of Oaxaca museum from pre-historic to modern times.

A close-up of the flower of the red and green tree.

The roof of one wing of the convent. The multiple smaller domes is typical of construction in this area/ era. It makes for very pretty churches!

Some of the ceilings - at important intersections in the corridors and on the patios - are beautifully painted. Along with the doors (see below) they are a decided contrast to the elegant plainness of the rest of the structure.

More ceiling painting: this is the Dominican cross with its eight spiky points in black and white.

The corridors of the convent all open to great big windows, some of them with exterior but covered patios. The back of the convent looks over the ethno-botanic garden that is only accessible with tours at the most impossibly inconvenient times. You can see a bit of the scale of the place from the photos of the doors below.

The shrinking door frame. Ironically, it leads into a big room with a two-story domed ceiling.

The convent was very plain except for its doors. The doors were almost all framed with frescoes, and some of the big intersection doors are covered in gilt and extravagant decoration. The scale of the convent is also quite interesting; see below for a contrast in this door and the room doors.

Definitely a Molly-sized door!

This is the cloister of the ex-convent. It is one of three quads in the structure of the building and very simple and lovely.

In spite of the amazing finesse of most of the details, there were lots of these little cherubs "holding up" this side altar. I think they detract from the overall effect, but that's just one person's opinion!

The interior of the church was heavily gilt and very ornate. This is the family tree of a very important and historical Oaxaca family.

This is the side door to the church attached to the convent. Note the scalloped doorframe. It seemed standard in Oaxaca City that church doors were not straight across the top of the frame.

The world's cutest tourist!

There was a wedding with a traditional procession from the church to the reception. The procession is accompanied by fireworks (meaningful at around noon in the tropics, but it sounded like the city was under attack), a noisy happy band, and traditional dancers. The bride, groom, and wedding party follow them all.

The band, with more energy and oomph than finesse leads the dancers. Note the "apprentice" to the trumpet player!

The traditional dancers are leading the bride and groom to the reception.

Some dancers were more engaged than others....