Day tours out of Oaxaca are must-dos and plan to add another 4-5 days to your stay to discover magnificent ruins, unspoilt villages, breathtaking vistas, quaint ethnic markets, handicrafts, cascading pools and mescal producers within a few twenty minutes’ to two hours’ drive away. Transportation options include tour vans, shared taxis, local buses or city taxis booked by the hour (about 120 Pesos/hour) for the day. You can head further afield to hike the Pueblo Mancomunados (eight hilltribe villages) or take regional bus lines or shared shuttle vans to western or southern coast and beaches.
Monte Albán-Arrazola-San Bartolo Cayotopec (6-7 hour day tour)
Most tour packages to Monte Alban Tours usually have similar itinerary of these three destinations (some add monastery Cuilpam de Guerrerro) as they are to the west and south of Oaxaca. I was very happy with cheap (tours can get pretty pricey but I’m not sure how much better those are) Touristo Santours, tel +52 951 514 1617; website – https://www.oaxaca-mio.com/turismosantours.htm Cost – 250 Pesos for tour. Bring extra cash for Monte Alban (about 60 Pesos) entry fee and an Oaxacan buffet lunch (about 120-150 Pesos); so bring a snack if you want to skip the buffet.
Monte Albán is a must see. One of the most significant archaeological sites in Mexico, its only 6 miles (about 15 minutes) from Oaxaca city. You can skip the tour and just pay USD $25 taxi ride to visit the site. For cheaper shared rides, try the Mercado Abastos Collectivo (shared) Taxi Stand.
Originally the ancient capital of the Zapotecs, it dates back to 500 B.C. and was inhabited for 1,500 years. It flourished from 500 B.C to 850 A.D. before being abandoned. As a ceremonial center, Monte Albán, was built to impress and thousands of years later it still inspires awe. Terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and mounds were literally hewn out of the mountain. Its plazas and a 300 meter north-south espalanade are so level they could be used for runways and landing pads. Most of the angled edges and flat sides of the pyramids are so precise they seem made with modern tools. The topography of the site of over 375 hectares (an estimated 80% remains to be excavated!) is laden with sacred symbolism. Visitors will need to spend at least two hours to view the remains of temples, ball court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Our guide pointed out friezes at the heart of speculation that nearby ruins was a medical rather than a dance school. The agonized features and grotesque torso of the etched figures on a dozen five foot tall standing stone tablets are now believed to represent people with medical conditions or women in childbirth, rather than dancers as previously thought.
Ancient urban planning is evident here – the impressive espalanade and its bookending platforms at the north and southern ends were built along with hillside terraces, dams and conduits to accomodate a growing population. The site is also studied as a window into the ebb and flow, rise and fall of successive pre-Classic and Classic civilizations as secession of Olmecs and Mistecas then occupied the region.
There’s a small museum at near the entry exhibiting human remains and other archaeological finds. What you will NOT see here is the treasure trove of artifacts of gold, jade and other precious stones excavated from Tomb 7 now residing at the Santo Domingo’s Museo de Culturas in Oaxaca city.
Practicalities – The area is huge and unsheltered. In summer it’s crucial to pack water and an umbrella or hat and sunblock; in winter the elevation rmeans cooler temperatures than the city so pack an extra jacket.
Cuilpam de Guerrerro – This was a yawn for me – the ruins of a 1550s monastery (dedicated to St James but more to tame the local Mixtec and Zapotec populations).
The tour continues onto Arrazola. It seems the entire populace of this village is involved in producing or ferrying tourists to see alebrijes – fantastical painted animals made of soft copal wood. Witness stunning craftsmanship in action with the male woodcarvers swiftly and surely bringing to life creatures only they seem to see within blocks of wood. Even impressively, they use primitive-looking tools – ranging from machetes and what looks like steak knives.
Then the pieces are handed off to a legion of women painters who exhibit their own special brand of lightning speed and jaw-dropping artisanship. Using tiny paintbrushes made by hand, the wood is coated in a base paint then filled with pointillist dots along complicated contours. All done on the fly without any drafting beforehand.
Last stop on the tour – the village of San Bartolo Cayotopec. This entire area is famed for its Barro Negro, a light but durable and glossy obsidian pottery. Pottery making here goes a long way back – the area produced clay pots and was a crucial point in trading routes for over a thousand years. Potter Doña Rosa elevated the craft of Barro Negro, which originally sported a dull surface by pioneering a glossy veneer in the 1950s. She discovered the technique of rubbing a shard of clear quartz over the wet clay, then firing the pot between eight to nine hours. Most tours visit the Doña Rosa Workshop-Factory run by her descendants. Her daughter in law Rosita’s live demonstration creating a handled, spouted jug with cutout designs from a shapeless lump of gray clay is jaw dropping in the speed, skill and stunning result given the extremely low tech traditional tools (two bowls balanced end to end instead of a potter’s wheel and bamboo for cutting out and stamping patterns). While the display was cool, I didn’t think much of what’s sold at the gift shop.
CAPTION — Daughter in law Rosita keeps the family tradition of hand making pottery alive with amazing skill using two bowls upended against each other as pottery wheel!
Touristo Santours’ vans are clean and in good shape, fits about 10, seats comfy. But, they’re not overly roomy and often fill up. Guides had to present in Spanish and English so it takes extra long. And a little too much time is scheduled at the gift shop.
Santa María del Tule (El Tule tree)- Mitla- Teotitlan del Valle-Hierve el Agua (9 hour trip) with options for Dainzu and Lambityeco
Another popular and full day group tour within 30 km of Oaxaca city, incorporating deified (and Guiness record holding) cypress tree El Tule, the MUST-SEE ancient Zapotec burial site Mitla, gorgeous mineral pool cascades plus rug weaving and mezcal making centers. I suggest you hire a car or taxi for the day as this particular route is most rewarding for those able to get off the beaten path. (I’ve added two lesser known but fascinating archaelogical sites, Dainzu and Lambityeco that are not on group tour itineraries but are must-see if you’ve a car)
Dating back to the time of Christ, Arbol del Tule, or El Tule, has the widest trunk in world at 46 feet in diameter. It’s the main attraction in Santa María del Tule – there’s a small entry fee to the grounds. El Tule is the name of this Montezuma Cypress. Its so large DNA tests were needed to prove it’s a single entity (ay no attention to the sign at the base that makes claims the tree is double the size). The tree is beloved, almost revered, and in native Mixe belief, it sprouted from the walking stick of the Gods. Unfortunately this hasn’t prevented the environmental threat of diversion of water to farms and depleted acquifiers. The tree is fenced off but you’ll see plenty with freelance local guides who use reflecting mirrors to point out knots in the trunk resembling from celebrities or animals, totally fanciful of course. For those planning a trip just to El Tule, scroll to bottom for public transport options.
Options only if you’ve a car:- Twelve miles east of Oaxaca city, and six of El Tule, the Zapotec village Dainzú dates back to 700 BC. and its fortunes rose and fell with Monte Alban’s. The most fascinating aspect of the site are bas-reliefs of ball players and four ballplaying deities (sadly Ronaldo is not one of them) decorating the structure called “Building A” . This site is both stadium and temple to the game containing religious structures and a large ball court. Bas-reliefs show priests making offerings with calendrical dates indicate the ceremonial aspects of ball-playing; while representations of skulls led to speculation of human sacrifice. Lambityeco, six miles east of Dainzu, meaning “still mound” in Zapotec, was a salt production center where saline groundwater ws distilled. It flourished during the fall of Monte Alban, becoming a crucial point along the pre-hispanic trade route. Over 200 mounds have been excavate, revealing stucco unique for the period, depicting Cocijo, the Zapotec rain god and rulers. You can visit palaces, temples, patios and a temazcal steam bath. The Palacio de los Caciques (Palace of the Political Leaders) and Palacio de los Sacerdotes (Palace of the Priests) are the oldest discovered here. An altar in the center of a patios at the Palace of the Caciques bear murals of the rulers that lived here. A reclining man holding a human femur and an adorned woman with her hair styled in Zapotec fashion are quaintly dubbed Sir 4 Human Face and Lady 10 Monkey. The Palace of the Priests holds two massive busts of the rain god, Cocijo, gripping the forces of lightening and wind, and adorned with two large plumes.
If you’re on a tour van, the next stop is further east to Mitla, the second most important archaelogical site in Oaxaca. Mitla is an ancient Zapotec and Mixteca burial site with dazzlingly intricate stone mosaic fretwork. The base of the restored structures are painted to the original dramatic red color. The name is derived Mitclan, “the underworld” in Nahuatl. It’s original Zapotec name Lyobaa is a bit more romantic meaning “place of rest”. Mitla contains some of the most beautiful Mesoamerican workmanship discovered. Its sprawling exterior and interior walls filled with stone mosaic pieces in stunning geomatric patterns. The finely craved small mosaics are an amazingly display of ancient stonework.
The complex pieces are so close fitting, without a lick of mortar holding them in place, they’ve stayed in place despite earthquakes and erosion. “You can’t fit a credit card in the spaces between,” claimed our tour guide. Fourteen fretwork and mural designs are repeated throughout the buildings, depicting sky, feathers, earth, other elements and religious symbols. Mitla was inhabited as early as 900 BC, initially as a fortified village on the outer edge of the valley and developing into the main religious center. The Mixtecs too over from 1000 AD, coexisting with the Zapotecs. Mitla was still thriving as a religious center during the Spanish arrival in the 1520s, led by the Uija-tào, high priest. Nobles buried here were believed to transform into “cloud people” interceding with the dead on behalf of the living.
Compared to Monte Alban’s far-flung pyramids on a manmade plateau, Mitla feels intimate, built on a valley floor. Its structures fall into two groupings – the one closest to the entry is dubbed the “Church” which were built to prevent the lord of the underworld from entering earth. This group contains the main temple Yohopàe, “house of the vital force.” The temple faces a large courtyard, and has both an antechamber and main chamber where priests performed rites and human sacrifices. The Sala de La Columnas (Hall of the Columns) also called the Palacio (Palace), part of the Column Group, is the main attraction at Mitla. Easily acessible, it has some of the best mosaic work on the site.
You can recognize it by a massive red-painted platform and a low set of wide steps leading to a patio. Head up the steps, under the unusual single-piece lintel and into the now-roofless hall of with its six massive lava rock columns. A short passageway set into the north wall of the hall, symbolizing the crossing into the afterlife, leads to a small courtyard intricately decorated in mosaic fretwork and geometric designs. Amazingly, remnants of the original red painted plaster is still visible in the passageway. Two small portals set on opposite sides of the courtyard lead to inner chambers where you can view the fretwork, set by a stonemason’s hand perhaps before the time of Christ, close up at eye level.
Upon exiting and returning to the courtyard, you can explore two underground tombs, via stairs set into the ground. Cramped, damp and airless, they’re definitely not for the claustrophobic. The more interesting of the two ends in a thick column of life, Columna de la Vida. Local superstition has it that the space between your hands, as you hug it, indicates how many years of life is left to you. The column had to be fenced off due to too much love from visitors. As you leave the site, the red domes of San Pedro Church, one of the two local Catholic churches built by the Spanish atop destroyed temples, peeks over the fence cacti. I found it ironic that after destroying the local religion, the church was deserted compared to the crowded Zapotec burial grounds.
Next up – the nearby town Teotitlán del Valle, for engrossing demos of native rug making at one of the many village workshops. My particular tour brought us to Casa el Encanto where artist Carlos David Ruiz Gutierrez’s 60 year old mother, adorable with long braids, demonstrated how wool is combed and spun into thread using – yes! a real spindle like Sleeping Beauty’s. The most amazing part of the demonstration was how the bug cochineal (yes the same stuff that goes into your cough syrup) crushed separately or combined with dried flowers, fruit, bark, walnut shells creates a range of natural dyes to surpass the vibrancy and depth of chemical ones. The dried gray-green bug, the size of a fat pinhead, is crushed and amazingly bursts into little maroon-colored flecks.
These are placed onto your palm, then a drop of and acid (from fruit) or alkaline (from pomegranate seeds) to create anything from vermillion to purple. The same stuff was placed on the palms of the 18 people in our tour group, but the resulting hues on on our palms varied wildly depending on the pH of our natural sweat – AWESOME! I’d have begged for some of the bugs if hadn’t been terrified of US customs.
The next demo was how local artisans like Daniel and his family weave the wool threads on rustic-looking yarns into anything from stunning Mitla mosaic designs to Van Gogh’s sunflowers. He explained that anything with rounded edges are much more complicated to weave and cost much more. Both front and back of the tapestries or rugs are equally finished, with no discontinuities nor knots to be seen. I recommend buying a piece from this amazingly talented family ( I got a stunning bedspread).
Casa del Encanto – Entrada a Teotitlan Km.2; office tel – 951-1666174, cell – 044-951-131-1562, email – email@example.com
Half an hour’s drive away lies Hierve el Agua. The dramatic mineral springs, pools and formations resemble frozen waterfalls from afar and sits atop a dramatic 50-meter tall cliff. The more crowded of the two waterfalls is the Ampitheater. Bring swimsuits, towel hat and lots of sunblock as visitors are allowed to plunge into two large pools here.
The milky jade pools are fed by little springs that bubble from acquifiers under high pressure underground. Our guide told us that the drowsy-looking villagers who still collect a toll from visitors today used to carry machetes to intimidate them into forking over the money. Note – Buses and other vehicles must park at the top of the incline, so wear sensible shoes for the 10 minute walk on a moderately steep path. Lockers are available for a small fee at the entrance along with a few stalls selling coconut juice and other drinks.
Oaxaca is Mescal country and a visit to a local maker is unavoidable. El Ray de Matatlan Mezcal Distillery still makes mescal using techniques dating back over 350 years.
You won’t get to see actual mescal-making, as tours are allowed only after working hour at most distilleries so dumb tourists don’t fall into the roasting pit or get trampled by the donkey. All you’ll get to observe are the giant pineapple- like agave hearts (after the spiky paddles have been removed), roasting pits lines with rock and coal, the tahoma – the massive agave crushing wheel made of stone, wood fermenting vats and surprisingly small and low tech distilling copper kettles.
A 20-foot long bar awaits for free tastings and buy bottles of 80 proof mescal at the three levels of aging – the 2 month Blanco, half to a year old Reposado and year and more old Anejo. With a dish of limes and sal de gusano (worm, yes, its made from creepy crawlies, and salt).Whatever you do, avoid the neon-colored, sweetened and flavored cremas de mezcal . My tastebuds were the losers in the tug of war between curiosity and common sense – the passionfruit and strawberry cremas are bleeeagh-yuck. Not a culinary term but the sound one makes at the flavor.
More on Mescal production HERE.