[Part 6] This travel diary explores what are now many destinations in three of our tours – Flavour of Oaxaca, Day of the Dead and Treasures of Oaxaca and gives a taste of what that part of Mexico is like.
Today after a leisurely start we headed to the Ethno-botanic gardens only to find that they can be visited only at set times and only on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays from 11am to 1pm for English tours. We added it to our schedule for next Saturday as we had missed today’s tour and would be in the mountains for Tueday’s and Thursday’s tours. Instead we walked to the far side of the block right next to the stunning Santo Domingo church, Oaxaca’s most impressive church dating from the late 16th Century to the museum of Oaxacan cultures, a museum with ubiquitously good reviews. We entered the building which used to serve as a monastery. The museum starts with a history of the building itself, with its beautiful inner courtyards and shady, breezy alcoves which act as a buffer against the heat. From the alcoves and the large bay windows you could see the Ethno-botanic gardens below and the vast array of plants, flowers, tress and ferns that are endemic to Oaxaca.
Back inside the museum there are four rooms devoted to pre-Hispanic Oaxaca, tracing the origins and the history of places such as Monte Alban and Mitla amongst others. One of the rooms contained the contents of tomb 7 at Monte Alban, one of the site’s most important discoveries – made thanks to Alphonso Caso in 1932 and dating back to the 14th Century. I had heard about the contents of this tomb in Monte Alban and it did not fail to impress with articles made from a myriad materials from gold and silver to human and feline bones revealing the extent of trade practiced by the Zapotec at this time. Amongst the treasures were various trinkets – gold and silver jewellery, crystal goblets, masks of various materials as well as some intricately woven clothing. The most interesting and perhaps shocking was the human skull encrusted with turquoise and jade with shell filling some of the eye sockets. It would appear to have been used in some form of worship and given the history of human sacrifice you have to wonder whether the donor would have donated it willingly or not…
The next rooms take you through the grim history of life under Spanish rule and through the independence battles of Oaxaca, and finishes by looking at the multiplicity and diversity of indigenous cultures in Oaxaca, examining briefly and cataloguing each of its 15 languages spoken by just over one million of Oaxaca’s inhabitants. 30% of Oaxaca’s population is made up of indigenous people, significantly higher than any other state in Mexico. The adjoining library had a special exhibition on writing which started with a replica of a cuneiform tablet from Ebla in Syria (of which I myself a copy on my bedroom wall from my visit to Ebla in 2007) and ends with an iPad! No one can accuse the exhibition of not being up-to-date.
Sunday is the day to go to Tlacolula. Everyone had been telling us this since we arrived. So it was Sunday and to Tlacolula we headed. The rain had been heavy again the night before (we are in the tail end of the rainy season and while we have only had light and occasional rain during the day the nights seen plenty of heavy rain since we’ve been here) and the bus moved slowly through rain-filed pot holes and on Westwards towards the small village of Tlacolula which is transformed from a sleepy backwater on the rest of the week to the hub of the regions commerce on a Sunday. Buyers and sellers from throughout Oaxaca state descend on Tlacolula transforming the streets into an enormous marketplace where you can buy almost anything you can think of from rain covers for your straw hats to industrial sized cooking pots and everything in between. There’s of course a huge food section selling fruit, veg and meat but also a restaurant area where you can but your meat from one vendor and have another cook it for you and serve you at your table.
The real highlight for me was the authenticity of the market. This is no tourist show, and the locals in traditional dress are wearing traditional dress because they have always worn traditional dress, not because they think tourists like it. That said there were a few other tourists around but they were quickly swallowed up by the bustling crowds.. An old woman snoozes on her desk while another walks past with a live turkey under he arm. A weaver tucks into some corn, half-hidden behind her carpets. We stopped for a coffee and a chance to take it all in leisurely as the bustle continued all around. I could have stayed there people-watching forever. Before leaving Tlacolula we stopped in at the 16th Century Capilla del Santo Christo with its beautiful dome and ornate alcove. The square outside the church as well as the church itself are also excellent places to observe life.
We made our way back to the bus station and caught a bus for the short duration to Santa Ana del Valle, a beautiful village with what seemed a lovely church, what is said to be an interesting museum and a big empty plaza with only the two village drunks for decoration. Sunday it seems is not the day to visit Santa Ana as everything is closed, the restaurants are shut (the emergency Snickers had to be hunted out to fend of starvation), and after a short walk through the desolate ghost village (which in fairness was quite pretty) we decided it was time to go back to Oaxaca and get ourselves sorted for the next 5 days of hiking in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, one of the world’s 17 places of utmost importance in terms of biodiversity. It is also part of a community eco-tourism project which is bringing community level benefits in each of the villages visited, with all funds raised shared out at community level. I haven’t gone hiking in a long while and I am really looking forward to the next few days.