The Valley of Oaxaca


The valley of Oaxaca at 5000 ft. is the largest area (about 700 square kilometers) of flat arable land in the state. The valley is Y-shaped, with the Mitla valley extending east of the city, the Zimatlan valley to the south, and the Etla valley to the north-west. The river Atoyac coming down from Etla is joined in the city by the Salado river from the Mitla valley, and continues down the Zimatlan valley to the Oaxaca coast. At the center of the Y is the city of Oaxaca and the hill of Monte Alban, with its ancient city, which rises 1000 ft above the floor of the valley. The Oaxaca valley itself has been the home of the Zapotec people for more than 4000 years, the high land to the north and west was Mixtec country, whilst to the north and east were the mountain Zapotecs, the 'serranos'.
The modern city of Oaxaca is built on the site of an old Aztec military fort, Huaxyaca, and received the rights of a city, named Antequera, by royal letters patent of Charles V of Spain. The three arms of the valley of Oaxaca, which extend for about 20 miles (30 Km.), are filled with interesting places to visit during your vacation.



What can you see and do in Oaxaca?

The city and the valley of Oaxaca are home to a civilisation that has persisted almost unchanged for over 4000 years. Not surprisingly many old traditions still persist alongside very old archaelogical sites. You will find many interesting sites to visit either by local bus (buses are inexpensive and go everywhere) or by renting a taxi for the day. There are many small restaurants by the roadsides where you can eat traditional Oaxacan food. The Sunday afternoon comida is a traditional Oaxacan outing when you can see families dining out. The children, especially the young girls, are dressed up in their finery. Many restaurants include a play area for children, and the comida will often extend for several hours.

Traditional markets are held on different days in the towns in the valley of Oaxaca, where you can get the flavor of local customs. The two markets in the city, the Benito Juarez market near the Zocolo, and the Abastos near the river are open every day and are very different experiences. Benito Juarez is small and densely packed, while Abastos is huge and would take several days to explore completely. The fountain in the center of the Benito Juarez market recorded by D. H. Lawrence is no longer in existence, but you can still recognize the market from his description. There are many other markets of course: the outdoor market in Colonia Reforma on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Artesanias Market behind the Benito Juarez market are both well worth a visit.

Flowers are a very important aspect of the local culture, and the Benito Juarez market has many flower stalls. Wild flowers grow in abundance on the neighboring mountain sides, and scattered throughout this page are pictures of some of them - scattered at random as they are on the hillsides.

Dancing by children
Traditional dancing performed by children at a roadside restaurant near Teotitlan del Valle on a Sunday afternoon

Guelagueza dancers
Costume, flowers and dancing are an important part of the local Zapotec culture all year round, but the most important festival of the year is the Guelaguetza in July, the two weekends following the anniversary of the death of Benito Juarez, perhaps Mexico's most famous (and consistent) president on July 18th 18XX. The festival ends with a procession through the city starting at Santo Domingo church and proceeding to the Zocolo down Macedonia Alcala.

Guelaguetza Processions start at Santo Domingo Church
photo by Geri Anderson
At about 4:00 pm. on the 3rd. and 4th. Saturdays in July, the Guelaguetza procession starts to form in Macedonia Alcala in front of the church of Santo Domingo.

Two Dancers Prepare for the Procession
photo by Geri Anderson

Not all the Dancers are adults
photo by Geri Anderson
Three children prepare for the procession

Some are even younger
photo by Geri Anderson
The traditions of costumes and dancing are learned at a very early age in the Valley of Oaxaca.

Storms Create Marvellous Skyscapes
photo by Geri Anderson
The Guelagueza takes place early in the rainy season at Oaxaca. But there are still beautiful days in July, with storms approaching in the late afternoon and evening to add to the drama of the procession.

The City of the Dead at Mitla
The archaeological record in the region is unparalleled: at the center there is the ancient city of Monte Alban sculpted out of the mountain itself, with its massive pyramids and temples, in the eastern valley there is the City of the Dead at Mitla, Yagul, Lambityeco and Dainzu, in the Etla Valley the first Zapotec capital at San Jose Mogote, and in the Zimatlan Valley, at Cuilapan, the successor to Monte Alban, and the last Zapotec capital at Zaachila.

Mitla: the Fret Work in Stone
photo by Geri Anderson
The stone work at Mitla is characterized by a complex fretwork of carefully shaped tiny stones covering the massive walls with geometric patterns.

A Decorated Doorway in the Palace at Mitla
photo by Geri Anderson
Low doorways with heavy stone lintels are frequent in the Mitla Palace, and decoration is everywhere. See more pictures of Mitla.
A few miles down the valley, back towards Oaxaca, is the site of Yagul, with its hill-top fortress. From there is an outstanding view of the whole valley.

Yagul: the Palace of the Seven Courtyards
Also in the Mitla valley, are the ancient Zapotec center of the ceremonial ball game, pelota, at Dainzu, the quiet beauty of Yagul with its hill fort and palace of the seven courtyards, and the later site of Lambityeco. They are all easily accessible from the hotel by car or coach. See more pictures of Yagul.

Yagul: Old Cactus
Also at Yagul you can see the many very old giant cactus.

On the way to these sites in the Mitla valley, be sure to stop at the magnificant old tree at El Tule, towering over the nearby church - the biggest tree in Mexico.

The Tule Tree
The Tule tree is more than 2000 years old, it's height is 42 meters (about 136 feet), the diameter of the huge trunk is 14 meters (about 45 feet)

You can further explore the archeological sites of Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla in the Oaxaca valley at the excellent web-site provided by California State University at Los Angeles:    Slide Show (Hint: you can click on the thumbnail pictures to get more detail and enlargements.)

Nuestro Senora del Rosario
Returning to the city of Oaxaca, you must visit the Santo Domingo church and convent complex. In the old convent you can see the gold treasures recovered from the tombs at Monte Alban which are all on display in the Oaxaca Regional Museum situated in the old convent next to the truly magnificent Santo Domingo church. The Dominican foundation of Santo Domingo originated in 1551 when the first Dominican Friars in Oaxaca were given 214 lots of land on the slopes of the Cerro del Fortin. After buying two additional lots, work on the construction of a new priory in the European style commenced and took 50 years in building. A major earthquake on the last day of 1603 was followed three months later by another major quake lasting 15 minutes. the combined effects of these disturbances left much of the city in ruins, but the new Priory, still under construction, was almost undamaged. The monks were moved to Cuilapan, and work on the new Priory was continued. In 1608, the still unfinished Santo Domingo was officially opened and inhabited. In 1623, Santo Domingo became a University with the right to grant degrees in Philosophy and Theology. Finally in 1666 the decoration of the Priory and Church was completed. From 1812 to 1876, during the Mexican struggles for independence from Spain and from the dominance of the church, the complex of Santo Domingo was removed from church control and occupied by a variety of different armed forces, under whose ministrations the priory and church suffered badly. In 1895, the church regained some access to the site and commenced restoration work. In 1902 the church was re-opened for Catholic services, and finally, in 1938, Santo Domingo was formerly returned to the Dominican order, and restoration and construction work commenced on a major basis. When we first came to Oaxaca in December 1993, the convent was still being used as a military barracks, but all military have now left. The convent now houses the Regional Museum, the grounds hold the new Ethnobotanical gardens, and the church of Santo Domingo again a thriving religious center and a major tourist attraction.

Santo Domingo Church at the start of the Guelagetza Parade
photo by Geri Anderson
The assembly of the parade for the Guelaguetza takes place in front of the Church of Santo Domingo on Macedonia Alcala. During the preparations, those taking part are always very happy to explain the symbolism of the costumes and dances, and to pose for photographs. The preparations commence at about 4 pm, and the parade starts round about 6 pm. As the Guelagetza comes at the start of the rainy season in Oaxaca, the preparations and the parade are often to be seen under very dramatic skies. The parade moves off down Macedonia Alcala towards the Zocolo.

Storm clouds over Santo Domingo
photo by Geri Anderson
Adjacent to Santo Domingo are the new ethnobotanical gardens with guided tours in English and Spanish.

Ethnobotanical Gardens
An attempt is being made to preserve the native flora of the Oaxaca valley and the surrounding mountains. Examples of many of them are to be seen in the ethnobotanical gardens located in the grounds of Santo Domingo, in what was for many years used as an army barracks and parade ground.

Don't miss the Cathedral where Manuel de Zumaya was composing first class baroque music in the early 1700s,

Oaxaca Cathedral

or the church of Solidad, the patron saint of Oaxaca, there is a museum inside, and a small street market outside.
Solidad (need a photo of Solidadxs here.)

The North Aisle
Take a trip to the unfinished monastery and church at Cuilapan built on top of the old Zapotec temple (there is still one small portion of the old painted floor visible), and a carved stone in the wall records the date, 1555, in both Zapotec and modern writing, and the date 1568 in Mixtec only. The completion was halted by the Cortes family, the hereditary Marquis of Oaxaca, in 1560. The second President of Mexico (1829-30), Vicente Guerrero was executed in the courtyard to the south of the monastery and church complex at Cuilapan. Two years later his body was exhumed and re-buried with great honor, and the pueblo took the name of Cuilapan de Guerrero. Cuilapan is best followed by a visit to the last Zapotec capital at Zaachila (with a traditional Mexican lunch in between at a beautful old restaurant under the trees.)

You can see Cortes' own house (now a museum) in the city of Oaxaca, but the Cortes house at Cuilapan is now reduced to a single wall.

The Unfinished Nave at Cuilapan
At the far end of the nave is a dedicatory inscription carved in the wall with the date 1555, written in both Latin and Mixtec characters (year 10 Reed, day 11 Serpent on the left, and year 10 Flint, day 11 Death on the right). 1555 is the date (given by Burgoa) that Saayucu moved to Yuchacaa. The name Cuilapan, derived from the Nahuatl name imported by the Aztecs, Coyolapan, actually refers to three settlements, spatially very close and over-lapping, but clearly separated in time. First came the Zapotec settlement existing alongside Monte Alban. A few pyramid remains from this settlement can still be seen on the outskirts of modern Cuilapan. The Zapoteco equivalent of Coyolapan is Quicopecua, meaning Bell River, referring to the small bells fabricated from the fruit of the coyol palm. The next phase was the Mixtec settlement of Saayucu (meaning Below-Hill) at the foot of Monte Alban, which moved to be adjacent to the site where the Dominicans were to build the new monastery, and also adjacent to the abandionned Zapotec site of Quicopecua. This third location was named Yuchacaa (retaining the 'Bell River' name in Mixteco.) Yuchacaa is the same site as modern Cuilapan, with some overlap of the remains of Saayucu to the north, and Quicopecua to the south. The inscription on the monastery wall clearly refers to this last move of the Mixtecs, but contrast the clear and firm carving of the Mixteco dates with the hesitant inscription of the newly learned Latin characters. See if you can find it, on the far wall, to the right of the nave, about 6 ft. above ground level.

A Mural of the Monks who First Inhabited Cuilapan

Inside the monastery building there are the remains of many murals, all have decayed noticably in the last six years. One of the most outstanding is the mural of portraits of the early monks of Cuilapan. get there quickly, it is disappearing fast. The monastery complex of Cuilapan was seriously damaged in the earthquake of September 1999, and approach to some of the ruins is now restricted.

The 'Scribe' of Cuilapan
A Statuette thought to have been found at the ancient Zapotec site, Quicopecua, at Cuilapan has named 'the scribe' after its resemblance to a known Egyptian portrait of a scribe in Ancient Egypt. The writing on the headdress and chest are the dates 13 Water and 13 Flint respectively in Mixteco. The significance of these dates is unknown.

The Church/Monastery Complex at Tlacochahuaya
Turning back to the Mitla valley, there is a well preserved sixteenth century church at Tlacochahuaya, still used for regular services.

Rug Weaving at Teotitlan del Valle
Teotitlan del Valle is the center of Oaxacan rug-weaving, and you can see the old looms in operation.

The Back-strap Loom
With luck you might also see the old 'back-strap loom' in operation.

A mile or two above Teotitlan is a beatiful reservoir, frequented by many birds, and surrounded by high mountains.

The old Sunday market at Tlacolula is well worth a visit, and is easily combined with visits to Mitla, Dainzu, Lambityeco and Teotitlan. (And you can get free tastes of the local mezcal along the way!)

Throwing Pots without a Wheel
photo by Geri Anderson
Dona Rosa's son demonstrates the art of hand-throwing the black pottery, without a potters wheel at San Bartolo Coyotepec. The potter spins the pot with one hand while working the clay with the other.

The Finished Pot
The final product is a beautiful pot.

Don't miss the village folk arts: the world famous black pottery (revived by Dona Rosa and still demonstrated by her son) at Coyotepec, the green pottery at Atzompa, the belt weavers at Santo Tomas Jalieza, and the wood carving at Tilcajete and at Arrazola (on the way to Cuilapan), the tempera sculpures and white slip pottery at Ocotlan, the basket weaving, carizo work and much more.

Basket Weaving

Bird Cages made of Carizo
The craft of making birdcages from carizo (the local bamboo) at San Juan Guelavia is handed down from father to son. The son (now grown up) made ours, the parakeets loved it and soon ate it.

The milagro at Ejutla, and the hand-made paper production using ancient techniques at Etla.

For a longer drive through the Sierra Juarez mountains, visit Guelatao, the birthplace of Mexico's most famous President, Benito Juarez, a close friend and correspondant of Abraham Lincoln. There is a small museum at Guelatao.

D H Lawrence in Oaxaca
See the house on the Avenido Pino Suarez where D H Lawrence lived and wrote "The Plumed Serpent"; the house he immortalized in 'Mornings in Mexico'. It was originally numbered 43, but was later renumbered to 600,`. It still exists as a private residence. The house originally belonged to the English Rickard family who donated the old Mixtec "Codex Rickard" to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Although Lawrence lost his way and failed to find San Felipe del Agua on his Sunday walk, he did reach Huayapan on his "Walk to Huayapan" - and so can you, if you wish.
Frieda Lawrence is on the left, and Father Rickard on the right. The 'small white curly dog' belongs to Father Rickard, and appears under his own name, Corasmin, in the 'Mornings in Mexico' essay.

Flowers of the Dead

At the end of October Oaxaca (and all of Mexico) celebrates the Day of the Dead. This is a time of flowers, and in particular the orange flowers that grow wild throughout the region at this time. It is the time to visit the Panteon and remember those gone in a great celebration.

The Bandstand in the Zocolo
And if all this sounds just too much: visit the Zocolo with its bandstand, in the center of the city and enjoy the leisure of watching people with a drink in front of you at one of the many restaurants lining the square. Aldous Huxley visited here in the late 1920's and for entertainment was driven by his host in one of Oaxaca's first automobiles, round and round the Zocolo for two hours. He found this got a little tedious, but the Zocolo is now closed to traffic, and it is very easy to sit and watch for two hours.

Vendors arrive to set up a stall
If you are very early (around 10 a.m.!), you might see vendors arriving to set up a stall.

Won't you buy a rug?
Or you might just possibly be persuaded to buy a Zapotecan rug to take home with you.

A Fountain in a Small Courtyard
Or stroll around the city and discover for yourself small corners with sights like this.

Just before Christmas, on December 23rd. is the Festival of the Radishes (Rabanos), when local people display sculptures constructed entirely out radishes, and compete for a prize for the best one. The sculptures are on display in the evening in the Zocolo, but the contestants may be seen setting up their work during the whole day prior to judging.

The church in the Zocolo at San Felipe del Agua
If you feel a little more energetic, take a short, quiet walk, up through the old pueblo of San Felipe del Agua, through the local zocolo, with its church,

A Quiet Trail in the Parque Comunal at San Felipe del Agua
to the Parque Comunal on quiet narrow trails to see the wild flowers at the end of the rainy season.

A Trail Junction and Creek Crossing in the Parque Comunal
and into the Benito Juarez National Park for a picnic by one of the beautiful streams (which run all year round.)

La Cascada de San Felipe
and waterfalls. A popular short walk is up the valley of the San Felipe creek - the Rio Grande - to the 'Cascada', a major waterfall at the head of the valley, about 3 miles above the pueblo.

Zopilote in Flight
or watch the huge zopilote birds,

La Pena de San Felipe

or climb La Pena de San Felipe, at over 10,000 ft. towering over the pueblo

Did you ever wonder where Dr Seuss got his ideas from?

The Valley of Oaxaca from the West ridge of the San Felipe Valley
High on the west ridge of the valley is a simple stone memorial to Benito Juarez with the inscription "El respeto al direcho ajeno es la paz" - respect for the rights of others is peace. That the sentiment might well be an echo from St. Augustine, encountered during his early training for the church, does not detract from its value.

The view from the west ridge over the Oaxaca Valley will make you pause for a while. See more pictures of the Parque Communal, the San Felipe Valley, and the Parque Nacional Benito Juarez.

Sixteen living languages are still spoken in the state of Oaxaca, where ancient Indian customs and culture are still alive. On an evening stroll through San Felipe you can still hear the old Zapotec tongue.

Ploughing the Fields for Corn Planting

If you come in summer, you will see the pairs of oxen setting out to plough the fields where the ages-old traditional crop of corn is still grown. And if you really are lucky you will hear the plougman singing old Zapotecan songs to the oxen.

One can feel that Oaxaca combines the past with the present in a very exciting way.


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