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Weekend in Oaxaca

a culturally rich getaway from the beach

article by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya

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Many visitors to Huatulco and Puerto Escondido wish they had an opportunity to visit Oaxaca, the state's capital, especially when their beach holiday is for more than a week. Indeed it's a pity to be only a half hour's flight from a city so rich in pre-hispanic ruins, galleries, museums and culinary delights, as well as surrounding craft villages, market towns and other internationally acclaimed sites.
We've designed the perfect weekend getaway which enables you to have a culturally rich and diverse encounter which most travelers to the City of Oaxaca take a week or ten days to experience--visit 18 - 20 attractions in 12 towns; and we'll have you back on the beach on Monday morning.
Arrive by air from Puerto or Huatulco Friday around 9 am. From the airport we're off to the magestic ruin of Monte Albán where you'll spend a couple of hours with a professional native guide, an appropriate introduction to your weekend, with some foreshadowing of the rest of your surprise sojourn. Then acclimatize yourself to the ambiance of the city, downtown, visiting Santa Domingo church, a couple of art galleries and museums, the zócalo for a relaxing lunch and people watching, more touring of the downtown core depending on your interests, and finally dinner at the best restaurant in the city by a long stretch, Casa Oaxaca.
Saturday at 9 am we're off to a black pottery demonstration at the famed Doña Rosa's in San Bartolo Coyotepec, where you'll be able to shop for a broad range of barro negro to match the décor of your home, whether its contemporary, modern or with a developing Latin influence. In nearby Santa Maria Coyotepec is the ranch, museum and research station for the cochineal: this minute insect which feeds off of the nopal cactus is harvested, dried and used as a brilliant red, orange and purple dye. In the 1700s Oaxaca was the world leader in production of the natural dye, in 1758 exporting more than 1.5 million pounds overseas to Europe, Asia and Africa. Did you know that the cochineal is still used in today's manufacture of makeup, lipstick, Danone yoghurt, Campbell soup and Campari? In its heyday, next to gold and silver it was the world's most valuable commodity.
Next we're off to San Martín Tilcajete, a village where alebrijes (hand-carved and brightly painted wooden fanciful figures) are produced in predominantly small primitive household workshops. A short way down the road is Santo Tomás Jalieza where you'll see women working on a backstrap loom making cotton textiles such as tablecloths and runners, napkins and placemats, bedspreads and more. The open air restaurant, Azucena Zapoteca enables you to indulge in typical regional food including a choice of the seven famous moles, in a relaxed, immaculate and friendly environment. The adjoining gallery has some of the best quality crafts in the country represented.
In Ocotlán you'll visit three or four of the workshops of the Aguilar sisters who make clay painted figures with strong religious, sexual, creationist, and traditional indigenous imagery. The third generation knife and cutlery workshop of their cousin Ángel Aguilar is a short distance down the road. See a fascinating demonstration of the centuries old Spanish technique of making knives and other steel tools and weapons, using only recycled metals, forged in an old stone and clay hearth. Have a piece engraved while you wait, with your surname and perhaps a short limerick. In the town square you'll marvel at the building-long mural, painted in fresco in 1955 by world reknowned artist, Maestro Rodolfo Morales. Conclude this portion of the day with a visit to the large traditional courtyard-style home where he spent the last few years of his life. And if you're still up for it, a final stop before heading back to the city is the magnificent 16th century monastery at Cuilapam, where, although operational, construction was halted as a result of an enduring dispute between the Church and the Cortés family. Back in downtown Oaxaca you'll enjoy a light dinner in a well-known bistro-style restaurant, La Biznaga, and then off to bed for an early rise.
Sunday morning at 9 am we're off to El Tule, purportedly the largest tree in the world. Then to the 16th century Dominican church at Tlacochuhuaya, known for the vast amount of original, in tact painting done by a Zapotec native, and its 17th century spectacular German organ on the second floor, accessible by a narrow winding set of stone stairs. Your trip wouldn't be complete without stopping a few kilometers down the highway at the rug village of Teotitlan del Valle where you'll have an opportunity to witness a family at various stages of rug production--from carding raw wool, to its spinning, then dyingin large vats using the cochineal bug as well as vegetable dyes, and then finally the weaving of intricate designs, from memory, on large wooden looms.
Continuing along the highway we'll stop at a pre-conquest style mezcal factory for tastings and a demonstration of the centuries old methods used for making Oaxaca's state drink, starting with barbequing of the agave plant in an in-ground oven, then its pulverizing using a horse pulling a multi-ton circular stone, followed by natural fermentation in wooden barrels, distillation using copper serpentine and a wood fueled brick oven, and finally aging in oak, or flavoring with the gusano worm or select local herbs and fruits. More fascinating than a California or Niagara wine tour.
The largest and best laid-out marketday town in the region is at Tlacolula on Sunday. No need to attend any other market once you've been here. You'll be fascinated and intrigued. It's frequented by tourists seeking handicrafts, but more importantly the vast majority of attendees are locals from the surrounding towns and villages who shop for all their worldly needs in the marketplace--colors, smells, sounds and above all pageantry. If you're concerned about eating BBQ chicken off the parrilla before heading off, there's a quaint Oaxacan restaurant down the road boasting freshly grilled meats, salads and moles.
Finally, at Mitla we're off to the ruin and craft marketplace, the latter known for the best prices and diversity of products in the area such as dresses, blouses, vests as well as many of the handicrafts you've already seen being made in the villages. The ruin is quite different from Monte Albán, and therefore those with a particular interest in the region's archaeological record should not miss a visit. Time permitting, on the way back to Oaxaca we can take in the ruin at Yagul, known for having the second largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica and its tomb, labyrinth and fortress up on a mountain precipice accessible only by hiking, from which the view of the ruin and valley of Oaxaca below is breathtaking.
Back in the city you'll enjoy dinner at one of a number of recommended restaurants, and finally a stroll along the pedestrian walkway. Monday morning after your flight you'll be back on the beach by 10 am.

Alvin Starkman resides in Oaxaca and owns, together with wife Arlene, Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Regardless of your Oaxacan accommodations, Alvin can assist you with touring. For information from the coast, contact Amy Hardy of Villas Carrizalillo.

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