Suggested Tour Routes

Guillermina Águilar, artist

NOTE: The following are only suggested routes, and are subject to revision, additions and deletions depending on the specific interests of the client. They have been designed to maximize the diversity of your cultural experience while economizing your time, with virtually no traversing of highways we’ve already been on to get to another site. Certainly we can change any route, but often this entails some backtracking. Tours are private in nature, meaning that you, your partner, family members and / or own small group decide which sites to visit and for how long. Under no circumstances will you be paired with other tourists. Transportation is by car, truck or large van depending on the number in the group and the route selected.

ROUTE ONE:

> 1) Black pottery village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, with demonstration of the technique and its history by (usually) Don Valente Nieto, son of the late Doña Rosa who developed the method subsequently followed by other villagers. At your option, for those interested in gallery quality black pottery pieces with strong provocative imagery, a stop by the showroom of Carlomagno Pedro Martínez director of the town museum, is a must. For those who yearn for unique hand-crafted jewelry pieces, for 30 years town resident Armando Lozano has been making one-of-a-kind bronze pieces using attractive acid-induced accent shades in green and aquamarine…his workshop is close to Doña Rosa’s, and therefore well worth a brief stop.

> 2) San Martín Tilcajete, a village known for its wooden hand-carved and brilliantly painted animals often generically referred to as alebrijes. Visits to a number of workshops illustrating differences in qualities and subject matter. For those interested in collector-quality pieces, arrangements can be made to visit the workshop of arguably the best in the state, Jacobo and María Angeles, for a most fascinating demonstration of the utility of natural pigments for paints, the different uses of the male and female copal tree including trunk, bark and sap, the importance of Zapotec designs for symbolism, etc. If traveling with children, arrangements can be made to visit another workshop where the youngsters can select their favorite animal and paint a carving of it for a nominal fee…just provide details in advance (and yes, we have a car-seat for the infants and toddlers).

> 3) Cotton textile pueblito of Santo Tomás Jalieza, where women weave table runners, placements, purses and much more using a back strap loom, and are quite adept at their clothing embroidering skills as well. There’s also a factory which supplies higher end hotels and restaurants throughout the country with tablecloths, bedspreads, draperies, etc, where you can place special orders…your choice of color and pattern, 100% cotton or a 90/10 blend for greater ease of washing, size, and so on…or choose from a broad range of product on hand. You’ll have a fascinating demonstration of the steps in the production process. Just off the main highway approaching Ocotlán is a workshop in San Antonino which sells cotton hand embroidered (and hand stitched using other techniques) shirts, blouses and dresses, with quality of workmanship a bit above the rest you’ll find in the city and villages.

> 4) The homes and workshops of the Aguilar sisters whose mother first began making brightly painted clay figures at age 11, in the 1940s…now a fourth generation is continuing the tradition. With the passage of time the diversity of figurines and imagery has expanded to include representations of Day of the Dead, Catholic religious themes, whimsical figures with strong sexual images, and townspeople at market and in traditional regional dress…fired in the most “primitive” of clay brick hearths.

> 5) The combined home and gallery of the late Maestro of contemporary Oaxacan art, Rodolfo Morales, and his large fresco mural in the central square (zócalo) of the town of Ocotlán…there’s also a museum which includes original art from the Conquest period and by the Maestro.

> 6) The knifemaking workshop of Angel Aguilar, who learned his craft brought to the New World from Toledo, Spain, from his ancestors. Only recycled metals are used to produce the knives and other weapons, cutlery, and more. His oven is made of stone and clay. Enjoy a fascinating demonstration of the techniques and materials used in making both blades and handles. Awe-inspiring even for those with little or no interest in the subject matter. Watch Angel engrave a piece with a name, rhyme or limerick of your choosing.

> 7) On Fridays, the marketplace of Ocotlán where locals from the hinterland come to buy virtually all of their worldly needs…includes a handicraft market.

OPTIONAL (while none of the foregoing is etched in stone, other sites can be visited as well subject to time and particular interests such as):

**16th Century church and monastery complex at Cuilapam noted for its expansiveness, and the fact that construction ceased with escalation of a dispute between The Church and the Cortés family. Apart from some restoration in the 1950s, there has been no important modification since the 1580s.

**Cochineal ranch, museum and research station where you’ll learn the history and importance of this tiny bug which attaches itself to its host, the nopal cactus, and when harvested and dried produces the strongest and most brilliant natural red dye known to mankind…used today in dying rugs from the region and in a diversity of products such as yoghurt, Campbell soup, campari, as well as makeup and lipsticks. The tour includes watching a short video explaining the historical importance of this Oaxacan industry from Conquest times through the mid 19th century, for North America, Europe and the Far East).


ROUTE TWO:

> 1) Santa María el Tule, home of the famous 2,000 year old Tule or ahuehuete tree, the largest tree in the world…beautifully kept grounds, with a lovely church alongside the tree. We can try to “hire” a local child to take you on a tour around the tree, using a mirror to point out images in the trunk and branches.

> 2) The 16th century Dominican church at Tlacochuhuaya noted for its original fresco painting on the ceiling and walls by Zapotec artists, the surrounding courtyard chapels, its exterior carved figures including the sculpture of Saint Jerome, and the 17th century German organ on the second floor. A sundial still stands outside the church;

> 3) The rug village of Teotitlán del Valle – visit one or more of the multitude of rug workshops where you can select any of a vast number of sizes, designs and colors (if you are so inclined) and see how the rugs are produced from the carding of wool of different colors, followed by its spinning, then the use of purely natural dyes of plant, fruit and vegetable sources as well as the cochineal, and finally the hand weaving on traditional large looms. Learn how to detect rugs which are made using synthetic dyes for coloration.

> 4) If you’ve every been on a California or Niagara wine tour, or traveled to Scotland to sample the finest of single malt whiskies, you’ll be struck by the contrast in production techniques used in making Oaxaca’s state drink, mezcal. This lesser known cousin to tequila is made from a much purer and ancient technique using only the agave plant without any fermenting agents whatsoever, a deep in-ground pit for baking over firewood, crushing by a multi-ton stone pulled by horse, pine fermentation barrels and brick oven with a copper serpentine still…all natural and aged in oak barrels up to 8 years, with or without “the worm.” Perhaps more your style and taste are the sweet mezcal liqueurs mixed with local exotic fruits. Taste all varieties. (NOTE: Full day tours high up into the mountains to see and sample from a selection of the smallest mom and pop production facilities are also available, with lunch at a quaint roadside eatery.)

> 5) On Sundays, the marketplace at Tlacolula, the largest of the regional markets apart from the Abastos (downtown Oaxaca) market.

> 6) The ruin at Mitla known for the Spanish destruction of pre-conquest edifices and the conquerors’ use of the stone in the construction of the church, the existing original painted codices on parts of what remains, the intricate stone designs forming the walls of the ruin buildings with no mortar used in construction, and the tombs. Also a large open handicraft marketplace known for diversity of product and great prices.

OPTIONAL:

**Hierve el Agua, the natural bubbling springs, with two large poolings of water on the precipice of a cliff with spectacular vistas, suitable for swimming. Hike to the large “waterfall” of accumulated mineral deposits.

**The ruins at Lambityeco, Dainzú and / or Yagul. Yagul is noted for four things: the largest ballcourt in the region and second largest in Mesoamerica, its tombs, the labyrinth structure, and the fortress high up the mountain from which one cannot help but be impressed by the gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and valley.

**For those with a bit more agility and daring, there are pictographs (paintings on rock walls inside shallow caves) at XAAGA, outside of Mitla en route to Hierve el Agua, dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 10,000 years ago … hike cross-country to the site, from where you can see and photograph the cave paintings, and then consider climbing right up to them.

IMPORTANT NOTE: From the perspective of trying to impart a broad range of knowledge in terms of Oaxacan society past and present, and the diversity of craft and other cultural traditions, while at the same time providing an opportunity for making purchases, the foregoing are the two most important routes. However, there is much more to see if your visit to the city is long enough, as is exemplified by the following additional routes:


ROUTE THREE:

Reference was made above to the availability of a full day’s activity touring the tiny mountain villages where the quaintest and most simple of mezcal “factories” exist. This experience can be combined with a trip to Hierve el Agua and a couple of the other sites of your choice along ROUTE TWO, including the cave paintings site. This day makes for probably the most “real” Oaxacan experience of your trip…quaint, panoramic and what rural southern Mexico is all about.


ROUTE FOUR:

> 1) Beginning with a trip up the mountain just outside of Oaxaca proper to Monte Albán, I connect you with a government authorized English speaking Oaxacan guide who specializes in only Monte Albán. The total cost of the guide is deducted from your total price for the day… that’s only fair. The tour of the ruin usually takes a couple of hours. There’s also a small museum and gift shop in the main welcome center. Before noon you would be ready to carry on with me for the balance of the day’s touring, after having regained your energy by relaxing and having a drink in the open air cafeteria at the site.

> 2) The green glazed pottery village of Atzompa is a fairly short drive from Monte Albán. The marketplace has an incredible diversity of kitchen items and utensils, sculptures, flower pots, hanging ornaments and lamps, complete sets of dishes, etc. A lot of the work is in fact not the green glazed, but rather pottery in attractive pastel colors and terra cotta. You can also visit some of the actual workshops, have a demonstration, etc. For those interested in “high end” collector pieces, somewhat different from the work of most of the local craftspeople in the village, a visit to the workshop of renowned artist Angélica Vásquez Cruz is a must. Angélica is featured in most of the books about the country’s popular folk art. Her home and workshop is at the end of an ascending rocky road which during the rainy season is often best negotiated on foot, but either way, the challenging climb is worth the effort. She’s an extraordinary raconteur who will vividly relate her complex and moving history to those interested, and proudly explain her intricate highest of quality ceramic pieces heavily influenced by indigenous legends and Mexican history. She regularly wins national folk art competitions and is honored by being asked to give workshops in the US.

> 3) The ruin of San José el Mogote is one of the least touristed ruins in the region, and has a serene feel to it. There’s a wonderful small museum alongside the ruin housed in a 16th century hacienda…the key to the museum must be tracked down from the townsperson then in charge of the museum. Actual artifacts are sometimes available to be seen, as found by members of families which lives at the base of the ruin. However, note that there is a prohibition against their purchase or sale and removal from the country…but they do exist.

> 4) On Wednesdays the Etla marketplace is held, smaller than those enumerated in the previous routes, but nevertheless interesting, quaint and at the same time bustling. There is also a traditional chocolate factory where you can have your own chocolate made on the spot from the raw ingredients, usually cacao, sugar, cinnamon and sometimes almonds…tasting Oaxacan chocolate is a must, whether here, in one of the other towns hosting markets, or in one of the downtown facilities…if you prefer less sugar, more cinnamon, etc, the option is yours.

> 5) For those interested in sculpture, about 10 minutes up the road from the town of Etla is the village of Magdalena Etla known for its cantera stone quarries and the sculptors who work with the stone in pink, yellow and green hues. Maestro Adolfo Cruz will show you his facility used in making both stone and bronze pieces, and in fact he’s the only one in the state, he boasts, with a foundry. His daughter Nely, following in her father’s footsteps, teaches at the College of Fine Arts at the Benito Juarez University, and is a respected multi-media artist in her own right. She usually has delicate pendants and earrings available for sale made out of the same cantera stone.

OPTION 1: Instead of visiting the foregoing after Monte Albán we can head in a different direction to visit:

**The carved wooden animal village at Arrazola (similar to San Martín Tilcajete described in ROUTE ONE).

**The church and monastery complex at Cuilapam as described in ROUTE ONE.

**On Thursdays the marketplace at Zaachila, where there is also a ruin close to the middle of town, with a tomb. The government employee at the ruin will show you photos of treasures which were removed from the tomb and taken to Mexico City where all but one piece remains locked up in storage…because of the conflict between the archaeologists and the townspeople about what to do with the tomb’s contents, excavation stopped and was never completed.

OPTION 2: Instead of visiting Monte Albán as part of a full day organized tour, arrive there on your own by bus or taxi, and spend the rest of the day back in Oaxaca. You can then spend an entire day on this route, omitting Monte Albán, and add the following, perhaps for those with particular fine arts and/or architectural interests:

**The combined Oaxaca Paper Factory and Center for the Arts housed in a restored 19th century textile mill makes for a fascinating stop out in the country at the end of a tiny mountaintop town, San Agustín Etla. Regarding the former, founded in 1998 by Finnish paper makers and Oaxacan artists, it was conceived as an integrated space to produce hand-made paper with natural fibers from the region, and promote cultural activities in the community. It also involves a reforestation program and nursery. The former is a magnificent multi-level stone building incorporating natural waterfalls and poolings of water both outside and in the interior of the structure. There is a gallery with installations changing periodically, printmaking workshop and residences for visiting professors.

**Artistic hand blown glass has been a tradition in Mexico for generations. A visit to Vidrio Artesanal Xa-quixe, located only a couple of minutes from the workshop of sculptor Adolfo Cruz, truly turns this route, with Option 2, into a day in the country exploring fine art. The glass workshop produces fine decorative pieces, lamps, bottles and more, using 80% recycled glass. Tour the facility and brouse the offerings.

IF TRAVELLING WITH CHILDREN:
While each child and his particular interests, attention span and level of patience is different, as a rule we have been extremely successful in designing and recommending routes which address the needs youngsters while at the same time ensuring that parents are able to maximize their cultural experiences. Aside from arranging special sessions in the carved animal village to which reference is made above, we have made arrangements with other village craftspeople along a couple of the routes which include enabling children to work with and paint clay figures, touch and learn about raw wool and how it’s transformed into rugs and other products, and so on. At Hierve el Agua kids can swim in an environment that’s breathtaking for parents. At one select restaurant along a popular route the kids can even play on a swing set while mom and dad have a relaxing meal.

 

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The Starkman’s Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) combines the best of bed & breakfast Oaxaca (quaintness and personal touch) with the comfort and service found in the best downtown Oaxaca hotels. The Casa Machaya Oaxaca accommodations have the added advantage of co-owner, Alvin, a Oaxaca destinations expert for a major international travel website, who provides Oaxaca tours to both house guests and those lodging elsewhere, both in downtown Oaxaca and in the surburbs.

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