by Lee Foster
A journey to southern Mexico can acquaint a visitor with the country’s authentic ethnic past, at Oaxaca, and its ambitious tourism future, at Huatulco.
In many ways, Oaxaca presents the purest and most engaging ethnic heritage remaining intact in Mexico. The presence of major ruins, at Monte Alban and Mitla, complements a vital modern Indian life in Oaxaca, whose markets allow a visitor close contact with the original Mexicans.
Only a short air flight away, at the Bays of Huatulco, Mexico has built an ambitious and planned coastal tourism development. Huatulco rivals Cancun. However, benefiting from recent environmental awareness, 70 percent of the Huatulco land remains as a perpetual biological reserve. The 30 percent developed is low-density, low-rise.
Several elements combine to make Oaxaca one of the most satisfying and unified cultural experiences available to a traveler in Mexico. The large and independent Indian population, the preserved colonial architectural heritage, the pulsating town square alive at all hours, the museums displaying pre-Conquest art, and the presence of two extraordinary ruins near the city combine to create the effect.
The Indian population, which retains its cultural integrity, can best be seen at the colorful markets of Oaxaca. There are 16 ethnic groups among the 3.5 million people in the state of Oaxaca. Some Indians, who sell their work in the city square, called the zocalo, wear their regional costumes. Many Indian groups sell all manner of vegetables and finished goods at the city’s central market, a few blocks from the zocalo. At this market you can sample fried grasshopper or the local braided cheese.
Weavings and pottery are the two most prominent regional crafts. Although these crafts can be seen in Oaxaca, you will enjoy getting out to the villages where the work is done, such as the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle.
At this village over 800 families support themselves by weaving. If you stop at the studio of one of the main weaving artists, you can see the full process. First the wool is carded and spun. Then the yarns are colored, using natural materials. Red comes from the insect cochineal, blue from the indigo plant, black from the huizache plant, and yellow from a rock moss. Craftsmen with handlooms fashion the rugs and blankets for which the town is famous.
Another noted regional craft is the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec. Take a taxi to this village to see how the artisans developed the method of making black pottery. You may find a craftsman throwing a pot during your visit. From the extensive collection of ornamental pots, large and small, you can choose a memento from your Mexican trip.
Architecture is a major asset of Oaxaca. The cathedral on the edge of the zocalo epitomizes the ornate architecture of the city. Constructed from a local, greenish volcanic stone, the cathedral was built over a period of two centuries and has survived several quakes. Exterior details, such as its bas-relief facade, are intriguing. However, the interior is rather plain compared to the extraordinary Baroque masterpiece, known as the Church of Santo Domingo, a few blocks away. At Santo Domingo you will marvel at the polychrome ceilings and gold altars.
Wandering the side streets can take you back to an earlier century if you can mentally erase the automobile from the scene. One example of the 19th-century colonial houses, open to the public, is the Juarez House Museum. The house was the home of the patron who nurtured a young Indian boy, Benito Juarez. Juarez went on to become one of the most beloved and influential presidents of Mexico in the 19th century.
Another critical architectural and art stop is at the Government Palace, adjacent to the zocalo. Step inside to see the mural by Arturo Garcia Busto, recounting the history of Oaxaca and its critical role in the story of Mexico. The Indian way of life and the achievements of Juarez in the 19th century formation of the Mexican constitution are aspects of the mural.
Before heading out to see the archaeological ruins near Oaxaca, be sure to visit the Oaxaca Regional Museum and the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art.
The Oaxaca Regional Museum displays the most famous find from the local ruins, the “tomb 7” discoveries at Monte Alban. This tomb yielded, for archaeologist Alfonso Caso in 1932, a vast treasure of ornate gold and silver jewelry, augmented by craft work in turquoise, alabaster, crystal, and bone. The many gold necklaces and pendants stand out as breathtaking examples of superb jeweler’s craftsmanship. Besides these treasures, the Regional Museum helps a traveler understand the different eras of Oaxacan development, starting with the Olmecs around 1200 B.C.
The Rufino Tamayo Museum houses a collection of pre-Columbian art put together by this noted Mexican painter. Tamayo collected many works from throughout Mexico, especially ceramic and stone figures. Notable are the images of fat dogs that the Aztecs raised for food. Statues of the Aztecs show the characteristic depressed foreheads that they considered a mark of beauty, binding the head of the child so that the nose and forehead ran in a continuous line, surely one of the more bizarre examples of body modification for aesthetic purpose in the history of mankind.
Two major ruins, Monte Alban and Mitla, await a visitor near Oaxaca.
Monte Alban, one of the country’s major pre-Columbian legacies, was a prime religious site for a long time period, roughly 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. Zapotec and Mixtec Indians constructed the site in several phases. As many as 40,000 people may have resided near the site at the most vigorous times of use. The site peaked and declined. For example, around 800-900 A.D. the site declined because of a collapse of the theocratic system when a militaristic mentality took ahold of the people.
At Monte Alban you can see a vast plaza, ringed by four sizable ceremonial platforms. Many tombs have been opened, including the famous tomb 7. Monte Alban hosted many facilities, including ball courts, residences, and astronomical observatories. The site is an ongoing archaeological dig. Restoration is in progress and will continue for the foreseeable future.
The monumental grandeur of Monte Alban is what most impresses a visitor. This remote site, carved from the top of a hill, far from water sources, would never have been a viable city except by decree of priests. A visitor is equally amazed by the masonry skills that could build such massive structures and the social cooperation that a priest class could elicit from a people to achieve a work of such magnitude. UNESCO has ranked Monte Alban as a World Heritage Site, an award it surely deserves.
The other major archaeology site, Mitla, also served as a major religious center for the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians. Today the descendants of these Indians live immediately adjacent to the ruins. Mitla is noted for its cut stone and elaborate geometric designs in the stone work. Some of the architectural efforts are monumental, such as the Hall of Columns, with its enormous pillars.
Mitla is surrounded by a viable village, with the ruins tucked between houses and the local church. The effect is much less imposing than the lonely magnificence of Monte Alban, but the exquisiteness of the stone work at Mitla makes it appear as more of an artifact than Monte Alban.
Stop at the Frissell Museum of Zapotec Art in the town of Mitla to become acquainted with the Indian culture, which was flourishing here at the time of the Spanish conquest and still continues today.
Archaeologists assert that there are some 9,000 known sites in the state of Oaxaca, recording civilized life here from roughly 1800 B.C. to the time of the Conquest, 1521 A.D. Only about ten percent of the sites have been excavated.
One exciting find in recent years is a tomb from about 650 A.D., known as the Huijazoo tomb, about 1.5 miles from the village of Suchilquitongo. The tomb boasts remarkable painted frescoes, whose red and green colors remain fresh, plus a world-class red stone stella ( a vertical post) intricately carved.
The main subject of the fresco murals is priests making a procession of offerings on the occasion of the burial of the great leader entombed here. The procession depicts the life of the period and the trade goods brought to honor the dead potentate. The main topic in the red stone stella is the transition of power from one generation to the next. Archaeologists have gained valuable new information from this tomb. They know more about adornment, such as headdresses, earrings, and clothing. They also know more about trade goods and the political organization of the period. Scholars have deduced that the region was more thoroughly organized, as a confederation to increase trade, than previously thought. For the ongoing detective work of archaeology, this tomb presents a major set of clues.
Traveling around the Oaxaca region to view villages or archaeology sites amounts to an educational and extremely pleasing experience. The clarity of the light at this 4500-foot altitude is striking. Clouds make the sky visually interesting. The mountains and small valleys have a proportion and scale that is satisfying. Everywhere, fields of corn flow across the flatlands and foothills.
Although Oaxaca exudes the past, it does not lack for comfortable lodgings for the modern visitor. The Hotel Victoria, a short taxi ride from the zocalo, puts you on a hill, affording lovely views of the city waking up to the first dawn light. One choice lodging in Oaxaca is in a former convent near the downtown. This Camino Real Oaxaca Hotel has no two rooms alike, since the hotel basically adapted itself to the courtyards and rooms of the convent.
Oaxaca is an excellent place at which to immerse yourself in Mexican cuisine, based on corn, chiles, beans, squash, and tomatoes, augmented with herbs such as cilantro. The moles (pronounced mo-lays) of Oaxaca are famous. A mole is a chile-based sauce that may contain as many as 35 ingredients, especially chocolate. Oaxaca is sometimes called “The land of 200 moles.” Almost every meal will include some kind of mole on rice, on tortillas, in tamales, or as a sauce over chicken.
Oaxaca is the heart of the chocolate-drinking culture of Mexico. Here you can thoroughly celebrate your cup per day of chocolate, a food once thought fit only for the gods and the royalty.
Three restaurants around the zocalo are engaging. At El Asador Vasco, try the carne asada, Mexican fried beef, as you sit out on a colonial balcony. From the balcony you can observe night life around the zocalo. Dinner at the Monte Alban Hotel might consist of corn soup and mole tamales wrapped in banana leaves, a Oaxaca specialty. The food is accompanied by colorful regional dancing. Restaurant Vitral offers, for dessert, delectable flan, the sweet custard that is such a delight in Mexico. At some point, be sure to test mescal, the fiery drink of the region, fermented from the spiky cactus you’ll see in the countryside.
The Mexican tourism authority, FONATUR, made decisions to build megaresorts at several Mexican locations–Cancun, Ixtapa, Cabo San Lucas, Loreto, and Huatulco. Additionally, FONATUR has provided major assistance at other megaprojects, such as the new marinas forming a “nautical stairway” in major coastal cities along the west coast.
At Huatulco, along the coast south of Oaxaca, FONATUR expropriated 21,000 hectares of land required for the megaresort region. Then FONATUR determined, for ecological reasons, to put 70 percent of the land in a perpetual biological reserve. This land is primarily forest in back of the coastal zone. The remaining 30 percent, along the water, has been developed, but with the benefits of modern planning. Huatulco emphasizes well-installed infrastructure, such as adequate water and sewers, low-rise construction, and low-density resorts along a 35-kilometer stretch of coast.
Huatulco boasts many types of modern properties. Sheraton and Gala Resort are among the players. Most of the properties are known for their architectural innovations. The architectural star of the area is the white-stucco Camino Real Zaashila, which flows in sensual curves down a hillside toward the sea. All the properties are tucked into bays with a decentralized and private feel to them. Each bay has its own individual physical features, an amenity that contrasts with the line of highrise hotels on a flat beach that one encounters at Ixtapa or Cancun.
When in Huatulco, you should explore some of the bays and their secluded white-sand beaches, clear water, and ample backdrop of greenery. The bays are rather compact and can be seen with excursion boats leaving from the village of Santa Cruz. Dolphins and schools of fish populate the water. The coastline topography is visually interesting because of the deeply-indented small bays, rugged rocky bluffs, a blowhole phenomena on one bay, and the ever-present mountains in the background. The year-around temperature is pleasantly warm, with afternoon and night rains June-September. Huatulco exudes a tranquility and an assured natural setting that few other Mexico resort areas can match.
Most of the emphasis is on watersport at this edge of the ocean. Watersports include swimming, sailing, and snorkeling. Some of the best snorkeling is at Entrega Beach.
A traveler who ventures to Oaxaca-Huatulco can savor both the rich ethnic heritage of Mexico and the country’s newest resort region.