Feature Travel Archives

Mexico: Exploring the Heart of Oaxaca

 By Arin Pereira

In Mexico the heart is a familiar motif. For centuries, Aztecs and Mayas offered up still-beating human hearts as sacrifices to their hungry gods. Then the Spanish arrived, bringing their own form of corazon, emboldened in Catholic imagery. Today the heart is a popular symbol in Mexican art, especially in Oaxaca where so much art is created. Hoping to discover the heart of Oaxaca, I followed some of its many rich veins.

One of these is its geography. Oaxaca, the state, is the fifth largest and most diverse in Mexico. Its topography ranges from 10,000 ft. mountain peaks to some of the worlds deepest caves, its vegetation from tropical forest to desert plain. Almost anything could grow in Oaxaca, it seems. Oaxaca, the city, lies in the center of the state, in a fertile valley which still looks much the way D.H. Lawrence described it in the early 1950s:

"The dry turf of the valley-bed gleams like soft skin, sunlit and pinkish ochre, spreading wide between the mountains that seem to emit their own darkness, a dark-blue vapor, translucent, sombring them from the humped crests downward."

At 5,000 ft. elevation, Oaxaca's semitropical climate provides cool nights and warm days with plenty of sun. Over the centuries, its gentle climate has rubbed the paint-over-plaster facades of its gorgeous colonial architecture, creating soft, multi-hued pastel washes. Combined with the prevalent building stone, or cantera, which comes from nearby Etla in shades of light green, rose, and yellow, these colors can look unearthly.

The geographical heart of the city is the Z=F3calo, or main square, where people stroll or sit under the cafe arcades; municipal bands play and protesters march. On the south side is the State Capitol, decorated by an engrossing detailed mural, "Oaxaca in the History of Mexico," by Arturo Garc=EDa Bustos. On the north side, the 18th-century Cathedral provides a stately backdrop to the hundreds of gaudy bouncing balloons that seem to go forever unsold.

Including the Cathedral, there are an astounding 27 Roman Catholic churches in Oaxaca. These are stratified somewhat socially: Santo Domingo Temple, with its extraordinary Baroque polychromed plasters and heavily gilded altar would be at one end; San Juan de Dios, the first church in Oaxaca, where simple paintings tell the story of the arrival of the Conquistadors from the Indian perspective, would be at the other. Somewhere in-between is the 17th-century Lesser Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude, or La Soledad, famous for its fine stone facade. The Virgin of Solitude is the patroness of the state of Oaxaca. Above the altar, her image rises in a great gown of black velvet, brilliant with jewels, and wearing a crown encrusted with diamonds. Catholicism, obviously, leads toward the heart of Oaxaca.

A good place to see the full effect of the city is from Monte Alban, at sunset. Located on a mountain top six miles southwest of the city, Monte Alban was the holy city of the great Zapotec Indian empire. Its well-preserved ruins cast strange shadows and create unusual echoes. Especially interesting are the ball court, observatory, and danzantes (dancers), a group of thick-featured, carved human forms representing-it is believed-various medical challenges. The valley of Oaxaca was ruled by Monte Alban from 600 B.C. until 1000 A.D., when the rival Mixtecs conquered the city. The Mixtecs built their capital at Mitla, located about 25 miles southeast. Mitla is remarkable for its mosaic walls and Hall of Columns.

As varied as its geography, Oaxaca's indigenous population is another important vein. There are 16 distinct ethnic groups in Oaxaca, of which Zapotec and Mixtec are among the largest. Each maintains its own customs and traditions, including distinctive clothing. Walking through the streets of Oaxaca, it is not unusual to see a couple of Trique women in their vibrant, full-length huipils (block-form tops), woven in deep red on white; a Mixtec woman in her short, heavily embroidered huipil with a bright, floral patterned skirt; or a Yalalag woman in a simple, monochromatic dress with a horizontal bit of twisted yarn at mid-chest. These and other traditional clothing items are displayed at the abbreviated Guelaguetzas, performed in town at the Hotel Camino Real. The main Guelageutza is a two-day affair in July, when delegations from all regions of Oaxaca gather for a spectacle of music, folk dancing and song, followed by a feast.

Food is a vein essential to the Oaxacan heart, and the region is famous for its delicious dishes, both simple and complex. On the simple side would be chapulines (grasshoppers), which are sold both on the streets and in the finest restaurants. They are pure, cholesterol-free protein, sizzled in lemon and chili salt. If you can get beyond the aesthetic, they really are tasty. Tamales are especially good in Oaxaca (corn meal packed with a variety of herbs and meats, baked in corn husks or banana leaves) as are the quesadillas (made with squash blossoms and Oaxacan string cheese). At the high end of complexity would be the Oaxacan mole, served with chicken or turkey. There are several different types of mole, but the black is the richest, concocted with more than 30 ingredients including peanuts, raisins, spices, and chocolate. Mole is a real gastronomic art.

Art, of course, is one of Oaxaca's main veins, and I followed its course straight to Mary Jane Gagnier de Mendoza. Canadian by birth, she is married to well-known artist Arnulfo Mendoza and has lived in Oaxaca for 11 years. The Mendozas run the popular art gallery and shop, La Mano Mágica, located on the ground floor of their hacienda in the center of town. La Mano Mágica carries only the finest examples of Oaxacan fine and folk art, and seems to attract foreign visitors like a magnet.

Briskly friendly, Mary Jane is constantly on the move. Her dark eyes do not miss a thing and business seems to be good, thanks in part to the recent devaluation of the peso. Sitting in her airy gallery one day, I asked Mary Jane why she thinks art is such an integral facet of life in Oaxaca. Three of Mexicos greatest contemporary painters, Rufino Tomayo, Francisco Toledo, and Rodolfo Morales, were born in the state, as were many others whose work is shown in the city's excellent galleries and museums. (These include the Quetzalli Gallery, Gallery of Mexican Art, Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca, State Graphic Arts Institute, and the Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center.)

"It may be genetic," Mary Jane said. "Look back at Oaxaca's artistic past; it may be that there is a just the right climate here to grow art." Witness the dazzling contents of Monte Alban's Tomb Seven, on display at the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History. The work, in gold, silver, stone, shell, and bone, accomplished centuries ago, is of astonishing beauty and precision.

There is also an inescapable folk art tradition in Oaxaca, echoed in the marvelous ancient pottery and stone carving on view at the Rufino Tomayo Museum of PreHispanic Art. Some of the Oaxacan folk art, or artesanías, is subtle and fine, particularly the work in gold and silver, religious ornaments, glass, distinctive pottery, textiles and weaving; much of it is cruder, attractive for its bright, lively vulgarity.

Death, it seems, is also a vein. It was late at night, and we were in a graveyard in Xoxocotlan, 15 minutes from town. The place was packed. Copal incense filled the air, mingling with the heavy scent of many flowers. Candles glowed on every grave where entire families crowded, set up to spend the night. For a week, people had been preparing for this night, buying incense, candles, flowers, breads and decorations at the tianguis, temporary markets set up once a year just for this. It was October 31, the beginning of festivities surrounding the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos.

Death is a central cultural theme in Mexico, and Mexicans seem to have a comfortable, even ironic, relationship with the concept. At no time is this more evident than when the Roman Catholic All Souls Day nears and shops are full of macabre, but humorous, "dead" merchandise. Since the end of the thirteenth century, All Saints Day has been celebrated first, on November 1, when Church saints are commemorated, and, in Mexico, the souls of dead children. The next day, November 2, is All Souls Day, a day of prayers for the souls of the Christian departed, especially those thought to be in purgatory. Elaborate home altars and graveyard vigils underscore the respect Mexicans feel for their ancestors. The arched altars are filled with offerings: mole, tamales, chocolate and mezcal, or other favorite foods and drink of the departed, pan de muertos (decorated sweet breads), candles, and flowers (mainly cempaz=FAchiles, a kind of marigold). Garish candy skulls, photographs and plaster skeletal representations of the dead complete the offering. It is believed that while they do not actually eat the food, the dead consume its essence and leave behind positive energy to be ingested later by the family, sustaining them for the coming year.

In Xoxocotlan, the famous medieval graveyard lured hundreds of tourists that night. A perverse, carnival-like atmosphere developed between the outside food vendors, fireworks and crush of the crowd. It seemed intrusive as we stepped over one another, examining the graves and threading our way through family groups. But I spoke with a number of residents, and each one said basically the same thing: "The more the merrier."

The last vein I followed was to Oaxaca's wild Pacific coast, famous for its virgin beaches, scenic bays, flora and fauna, especially sea turtles (the Mexican Sea Turtle Center is the world's only research center of its kind). Now it is famous for something else: the careful resort development of the nine bays of Huatulco, the "new, improved Acapulco."

The bus ride south from the city of Oaxaca is not for the fainthearted: eight hours of twisting and turning up into the mountains, through the cloud forest, then down again through the jungle. Suddenly, you can smell the ocean through the tropical air.

On my way to Huatulco, I stopped first in Puerto Escondido, the "Hidden Port," where palm groves line fine, white sand beaches. The town's laid back attitude contrasts with the violence of its surf. It is dangerous to swim in Puerto Escondido, but surfers from around the world flock there to ride the waves, and major competitions take place twice a year.

Puerto Angel lies 50 miles southwest of Puerto Escondido. A tiny fishing port wedged between green cliffs, it is often referred to as "sleepy" and "rustic," but I would add "seedy." The main beach is freckled with the colorful boats and the daylong activity of fisherman, and did not look like an inviting place to swim. (Nearby La Esobia, Zipolite, and Mazunte beaches are reputedly nicer.)

Forty miles east of Puerto Angel, Huatulco is a world away. Once a primitive fishing village, in 1984 the Mexican National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) took over development of what may be the country's most beautiful coastline. The government's conscientious plan will eventually transform the nine pristine bays of Huatulco into an environmentally-protected megaresort, designed to receive an estimated two million guests a year by the early 21st century, many via a new international airport. The lessons of gaudy, overgrown Acapulco have been learned, however, and the government plans to keep 75 percent of the area green. Efficient sewage treatment plants and fresh water networks mean clean bays and tap water in Huatulco.

Huatulco has an average year round temperature of 87oF and green, bathwater-warm surf. Each of its nine bays is separated by rolling hills which afford near-total isolation. Tangolunda was the first to be developed: in 1988, Club Med opened there its largest installation in the Western hemisphere, followed by the Royal Maeva, Sheraton, Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, and Deluxe Omni. There is also a golf course. I stayed at the Royal Maeva (see Hotel Spotlight), to date, the loveliest, and only totally Mexican-owned, of the Tangolunda resorts. Following strict architectural regulations, each resort has been designed to blend somewhat with the tropical surroundings.

I returned to Oaxaca, the city, having seen something of the state. The varied and vibrant veins I had followed included geography, architecture, religion, indigenous culture, gastronomy, art, and history. They led me to wonderous places and marvelous things, however lightly I touched. And while I may not have found all of Oaxaca's heart, I certainly left behind some of mine.

Getting There
Many domestic airlines fly to Mexico City, including Continental, United, and Delta. Connecting Mexicana flights to Oaxaca take about 40 minutes. The bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca takes six hours and costs about $15 if leaving from the first class terminal. There a numerous direct flights daily from Oaxaca to the coast. They take some 40 minutes and cost around $150 roundtrip. The Oaxaca to the coast bus leaves twice a day (first class terminal), more often from second class, and costs $10-25