With the help and advice of Alvin Starkman, noted Oaxaca guide and mezcal aficionado, we found a couple of interesting places and people during our day trips from the city. So, here are more top things to do in Oaxaca.
We didn’t need his help or encouragement to find or enjoy Mitla, an interesting Zapotec site in the valley east of town. With Mitla, it’s not the size of the structures that is impressive, but the decorative work on the facades and on the interior of the Palacio that is unforgettable. We haven’t seen anything like it at any of the Mayan sites. The designs are called, “greca”, since the geometric patterns resemble designs found in ancient Greece.
On the way to Mitla, you could stop in Teotitlan del Valle and visit one of the many families known for weaving rugs on large looms. Of course, the carpets are made using natural dyes and home spun wool and will make a spectacular addition to your floor or wall.
Since we had been to Teotitlan for lunch at Tlamanalli and I had already purchased a rug a few years ago (and wool rugs really aren’t necessary on our floor in Cozumel), we stopped in Santa Maria de Tule. There, in the churchyard by the zocalo, sits El Tule, the largest tree in Latin America. More than 2,000 years old, 42 meters high and 14 meters in circumference, the tree is magnificent, a source of pride for the town, and surrounded by one of the nicest small town gardens we have seen in Mexico.
A couple of days later we chose to visit two villages south of the city, Ocotlán and San Martin Tilcajete on Friday, the market day in Ocotlán. We really don’t photograph markets much, since I always feel intrusive sticking a camera in a persons face when they are merely trying to sell produce to earn some money. But, we do enjoy visiting them and definitely try street food when we do.
Ocotlán is special for the amazingly restored church a block away from the zocalo and the fantastic mural in the Palacio.
One of Alvin’s tips for Octolán was the knife and sword artesan, Angel Aguilar. We weren’t lucky enough to watch him create one of his pieces of art when we visited, but we did get to see many of his knives and swords, especially the sword he made for Arnold to use in the first “Conan” movie. He creates beautiful, handmade pieces at reasonable prices and his shop is worth a visit. Unfortunately, he does not have a web site, but you might find him at Renaissance Fairs in the U.S.
The second stop was in San Martin Tilcajete, a village known for the fanciful Oaxacan wood carvings called alebrijes. Nearly every house in town seems to have a little or large shop out front featuring the carvings of dragons, birds, rabbits, and more.
One of the more famous shops is presided over by a husband and wife team, Jacobo and Mariá Ángeles, their families and their apprentices. Instead of guarding their secrets, designs and traditions, they have chosen to share them with young, promising artists.
Arriving guests enter an open courtyard with several people at work, carving and painting. One of the apprentices conducts a brief tour, explaining the process of choosing the wood for the carvings (copal), demonstrating how the paints are made from natural sources, and pointing out the symbolism behind the designs used by the artists.
The work is beautiful, with many pieces taking weeks to complete. These are not the cute little animals you see in many shops in Mexico, costing $3 – $30 usd. These are pieces of art and command some serious prices, but the prices are justified by the quality of the work.
You won’t stumble upon either of these shops by wandering around either town. You can visit them by taking one of Alvin’s personal tours, or you could stay at Alvin’s house and hope that he will give you the directions. If you were on your own it would help to have a car and speak a bit of Spanish.
But, one of our new favorite things in Oaxaca is not in the city. It is the coast of Oaxaca. More specifically, it is Villas Carrizalillo in Puerto Escondido.
Watch for our next post, when we’ll show and tell why this place is one of the best places we have visited in the past couple of years.