We decided to join a local tour to see some of the nearby highlights of Oaxaca city so our tour promised 5 places in one – El Tule (the world’s widest tree), Mitla (Oaxaca’s 2nd greatest archaeological treasure after Monte Alban), Hierve El Agua (a bizarre geological landscape with a petrified waterfall), a mescal factory (mescal is a popular spirit made from the agave plant, not dissimilar to Tequila) and a weavers in the famous weaving village of Teotitlan. We squeezed into the back of a small minivan - we were the only non-Mexicans for this tour – and were on our way. The first stop was at El Tule and the tree, a Montezuma Cypress, really is quite something to behold – 11.6m in diameter with estimates of its age ranging from 1500 to 3000 years old, rivalling even the ancient Monte Alban. Some very famous naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt made a special visit to Oaxaca to visit this tree.
Nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it towers over the 17th Century church in whose courtyard it stands. Alberto, our guide for the day, provides us with some illuminating stats: the volume of the tree is about that of three large planes, and consumes some 1300 gallons of water every day. This has led to a serious drop in the surrounding water table (of up to 6m) casting doubts on the future of El Tule. The entrance fee to visit the church (and tree) is used to combat this issue.
All around the hedges of the church’s yard are skilfully shaped into animal forms and a neat park stands around that. As we pass out of the yard a brass band passes through the pretty park and birds flock overhead. We would like to take some time to explore this little village that has sprung up around the tree but we are on a tight schedule to reach our 5 destinations and it was time to hit the road. As we headed further east Alberto explained that due to the poor road towards Hierve El Agua and the fact that rain was likely in the afternoon that could well exacerbate the road condition we decided to go there next and to stop in Mitla on our return instead. The road was indeed in pretty poor condition and the heavy rains of the previous days hadn’t helped. However the views were spectacular as we climbed up high above the valley and its fields of agave, and down the other side. I chatted with a family from Oaxaca who now lived in neighbouring Veracruz but were back for a visit, after more than twenty years.
Hierve Al Agua means “the Water Boils” but it is a misnomer as the mineral-rich water is in fact cold. The name is a result of the steam rising from where the water springs forth creating the illusion of a hot spring. Beautiful natural stone ponds make for stunning outdoor swimming pools and the constant run of the mineral-heavy water has created what look like frozen waterfalls (or “petrified waterfalls”). The beautiful landscape here is totally unique and I have to admit I have never seen anything quite like it. Fortunately we were given a little more time to wander around here as it really was something quite surreal.
After Hierve we trudged back up the hill and down the other side and stopped off at Mitla, one of Oaxaca’s most important and most revered historical sites. The ruins at Mitla date predominantly from the 13th and 14th Centuries when Mitla would have been the dominant religious centre where human sacrifice would have been a central part of their worship. Of the original fifty two flat pyramids, only one remains. This ornate pyramid was spared Spanish wrath for one simple reason – it was carved with stone crosses. These crosses had no connection with a Christian crucifixion but the superstitious Spanish were afraid of destroying it. The 52 pyramids was related to a passage of time (as were most of their archeological and mathematical creations here but it does not refer to the 52 weeks in a year but rather to do with the alignments of planets where every 52 years, three planets were said to be aligned (I didn’t catch which ones). Within the various panels carving were made up of 365 tiles or on smaller ones of 264 tiles.
These were not arbitrary numbers, the first of course representing the number of days in a year, the second represented the number of days a child would spend in the womb and formed an important unit of time in early Zapotec calendars. The intricate carvings and their internal symmetry reveal evidence of a very advanced civilisation with a strong understanding of mathematics, astronomy and architecture. “Where is it today?” Alberto wondered aloud, gently needling the architects in our group with a good humoured smile. He explained that though less extensive than Monte Alban today that was only because of the almost complete destruction of the site by the Spaniards. What remains however is more intricately designed, and the reason for this is that it was meant as a place for their ancestors and therefore doubly revered. In life one never knew the same reverence amongst Zapotecs as one did in death.
From here we drove a short distance to a large restaurant with an excellent buffet of Oaxacan food, the ideal place to try out the lovely moles (pronounced “molays”, a rich dark sauce served with meat usually), meats, tortillas, veg dishes and desserts.
After stuffing ourselves we drove to a mescal factory where we were explained the process of collecting agave, cooking it, fermenting it and finally producing mescal from it. After the short tour we were invited to try a variety of mescals – 8 year old, 5 year old and a new one to start with. The 8 year was so smooth you could hardly taste it though it was pleasant. The five year had a bit more bite but was tasty whereas the new one was rough, and required the Tequila treatment (well a variant - a slice of lime and a salt and chilli mix – to make the bad taste go away…). Next was a whole range of creams that were actually very good in general. These combined mescal with various ingredients to create a cream liquor – passion fruit (my favourite), cappuccino (tastes like Baileys), and a 13 herb concoction our host described as “Oaxacan Viagra”! There were plenty more, which I happily sampled which possibly explains why I don’t remember more of the flavours!
Merrily we moved on a weaving store and one of the most famous in Mexico, located in Teotitlan, a village where everyone (or so it seems) is involved in weaving. After a demonstration of how all wools are dyed using a combination of only 5 natural colourings (which alongside two shades of wool can create about 126 colours in their carpets) we were explained the labour involved. Some carpets took 45 days of work, and a day would usually yield just 3-4cm of carpet. Some of the carpets were truly beautiful and each one is unique, many incorporating ancient Zapotec designs and symbols.
After a long but very enjoyable day we were dropped back to Oaxaca for dinner and an early night. Tomorrow we will go back to Teotitlan but in a very different context to which I am very much looking forward. More about that tomorrow!
Labels: Flavours of Oaxaca, Mexico Research Trip, The Day of the Dead, Treasures of Oaxaca