The region around Oaxaca can be divided into two parts: the Valles Centrales, comprising three valleys which radiate from the state capital to the south and east, towards Mitla, Ocotlán and Zaachila (collectively the Valle de Oaxaca); and the Mixteca, which extends northwest towards Puebla and arcs down to the Pacific coast via Tlaxiaco and Pinotepa Nacional. The Valles Centrales include the state’s most famous and frequented archeological centres, craft villages and colourful markets, while the Mixteca, rich in ruined Dominican convents and ancient towns and villages, is less visited but well worth exploring.
This area saw the development of some of the most highly advanced civilizations in pre-Hispanic Mexico, most notably the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. Their craft skills – particularly Mixtec weaving, pottery and metalworking – were unrivalled, and the architecture and planning of their cities rank among ancient Mexico’s greatest achievements. Traditional ways of life and indigenous languages are still vigorously preserved by Mixtec and Zapotec descendants in villages today.
The Valles Centrales are the cradle of some of the earliest civilizations in Mexico. The story begins with the Zapotecs, who founded their first city – now called San José Mogoté, and little more than a collection of mounds, a few kilometres north of the state capital – some time before 1000 BC. As the city grew in wealth, trading with Pacific coastal communities, its inhabitants turned their eyes to the stars, and by 500 BC they had invented the first Mexican calendar and were using hieroglyphic writing. At this time, San José, together with smaller villages in the area, established a new administrative capital at Monte Albán, a vantage point on a mountain spur overlooking the principal Oaxaca valley. Just like Teotihuacán, Monte Albán mysteriously began to implode from about 700 AD, and the Zapotec influence across the Valles Centrales waned. Only Yagul and Mitla, two smaller cities in the principal valley, expanded after this date, though they never reached the imperial glory of Monte Albán.
As the Zapotecs disappeared, the gap they left behind was slowly filled by the Mixtecs, pre-Hispanic Mexico’s finest craftsmen, who expanded into the southern valleys from the north to occupy the Zapotecs’ magnificent cities. Influenced by the Zapotec sculptors’ abstract motifs on the walls at Mitla, the Mixtecs concentrated their artistic skills on metalwork and pottery, examples of which can be seen in the state capital’s museums. By the fifteenth century, the Mixtecs had become the favoured artisans to Mexico’s greatest empire, their conquerors, the Aztecs; Bernal Díaz recounts that Moctezuma ate only from plates fashioned by Mixtec craftsmen.Read More
Valle de Tlacolula
Valle de Tlacolula
Hwy-190 provides access to the alluring villages of the Valle de Tlacolula, slicing some 45km east of Oaxaca towards Mitla, before cutting south to Tehuantepec and the coast. The route is well served by colectivos and buses from the second-class terminal (every 30min or so), making day-trips possible, even without a car. Check with the tourist office for which village has a market on the day you’re going. If you want to explore the valley further it’s a good idea to stay in one of the villages, some of which have self-catering facilities.
The main allure of the ancient Zapotec site of DAINZÚ resides in its raw appeal, with few tourists or imposing facilities to detract from soulful contemplation. Just over 20km from Oaxaca on Hwy-190, Dainzú, established around 700–600 BC, stands partially excavated in a harsh landscape of cactus-covered hills around 1km south of the main road. The chief structure, Edificio A, is a large, rambling hillside construction set around a courtyard, with elements from several epochs. Along the far side of its base a series of danzante figures can be made out, similar to those at Monte Albán except that these clearly represent ball-players. Nearby is the ball-court, only one side of which has been reconstructed. Edificio B is another large and complex platform structure; its most striking feature is a tomb whose entrance is carved in the form of a jaguar.
Teotitlán del Valle
TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE, 4km north of Hwy-190, is the most famous weaving town in Oaxaca. The rugs are the product of a cottage industry that seems to involve almost every family in town; along the road as you approach and all over the village you’ll see bold-patterned and brightly coloured rugs and sarapes, some following traditional designs from Mitla, others more modern, including many based on the work of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.
Even if you’re not buying, poke your head into one of the compounds with rugs hanging outside. There’s little hard-sell, and most weavers will be more than happy to provide a demonstration of pre-Hispanic weaving and dying techniques; traditional dyes use natural substances including indigo, pomegranate and cochineal, the latter made from a substance secreted by the cochineal beetle that, when dried, creates an inimitable blood-red colour. There’s a small Mercado de Artesanías on the main plaza with a decent range of rugs, but quality and prices are generally better if you go direct to the producers.
The small Zapotec site of LAMBITYECO, prettily planted with agave and cactus, can be seen in twenty minutes, but it’s worth it for the exceptional carvings and stucco-work. Just two buildings of the two hundred or so that have been identified have been excavated, along with some outbuildings that include an original temazcal. The smaller building at the back is the Templo de Cocijo, extensively decorated with masks of Cocijo, Zapotec god of rain and thunder, in the form of a stylised jaguar; two stunningly preserved versions flank the tiny central patio. The larger Palacio de los Racoqui is thought to have been the home of several generations of an important family – perhaps the city’s rulers. There are some superb friezes, including those on the lintels of two tombs, excavated where they had been buried deep inside the building, with remarkable portraits of the individuals buried there.
Santa Ana del Valle
SANTA ANA DEL VALLE, 4km north of Tlacolula, is a tiny, very quiet and very traditional village with a fine selection of locally produced rugs. You’ll see them on sale everywhere. There’s a tranquil and well-managed Tourist Yú’ù should you want to stay; the local baker makes delicious bread and there’s a shop where you can buy basic provisions. A three-hour walk, outlined on a board outside the community museum, will take you to Iki ya’a, a hilltop Zapotec site with fine views.
One of the least-visited archeological sites in the region, YAGUL lies to the north of the highway at about the 35km mark – a twenty-minute walk (or 1.5km drive). The large site spreads expansively across a superb defensive position, and although occupied by the Zapotecs from a fairly early date, its main features are from later on (around 900–1200 AD, after the fall of Monte Albán) and demonstrate Mixtec influence. On the lowest level is the Patio de la Triple Tumba, where the remains of four temples surround an altar and the entry to the Triple Tomb, whose three funereal chambers show characteristically Mixtec decoration. Immediately above the patio, you’ll see a large and elegantly simple ball-court, the largest known after Chichén Itzá. Higher up, the maze-like Palacio de los Seis Patios, probably a residential complex, features six small courtyards surrounded by rooms and narrow passages. From here a good path leads up to a viewpoint on a mesa-like crag, with superb views over the surrounding valleys.
The town of MITLA (“Place of the Dead”) is a dusty and none too attractive place, which you’d visit only to see the magnificent Mixtec site at the upper edge of town. It may not have the grandiose scale and setting of Monte Albán, but Mitla is magnificently decorated with elaborate stone mosaics that are among the finest in Mexico. You’ll see these superlative bas-reliefs and geometric designs at their best if you arrive towards closing time, when the low sun throws the patterns into sharp, shadowed relief, and the bulk of the visitors have left.
Mitla reached its apogee during the post-Classic period, when Monte Albán was in decline. Construction at the site continued until the late fifteenth century, at which point it was finally conquered by the Aztecs. The abstract designs on the buildings seem to echo patterns on surviving Mixtec manuscripts, and have long been viewed as purely Mixtec in style. But more recent opinion is that the buildings were constructed by Zapotecs and that the city was a ceremonial centre occupied by the most important Zapotec high priest. This Uija-Tao, or “great seer”, was described by Alonso Canesco, a fifteenth-century Spaniard, as being “rather like our Pope”, and his presence here would have made Mitla a kind of Vatican City.
The Sierra Norte
The Sierra Norte
North of the Oaxaca valleys the wild ranges of the Sierra Norte stretch for over a hundred kilometres, a pristine world of pine forests, mist-cloaked mountains and rustic Zapotec villages.
The Pueblos Mancomunados
The Pueblos Mancomunados (literally “joint villages”) occupy the southern edge of the Sierra. The landscape here is spectacular and the biodiversity phenomenal, with birdlife, butterflies and mammals, including ocelot, puma and jaguar – some sections of the pine forest have been classified by the World Wildlife Foundation as among the richest and most varied on earth. It’s a rewarding place to spend a few days, enjoying nature and getting first-hand experience of rural Oaxacan life.
The hills are laced with more than a hundred kilometres of signposted rural footpaths and country roads, suitable for hikers and mountain-bikers of all abilities, and almost every community offers simple accommodation, local guides and a roster of activities. The paths have been used for centuries by local people accustomed to sharing resources with surrounding communities and the villages are an impressive example of social organization, with eight small towns perched on common land. One of the most enchanting hikes is along the 15km high-altitude footpath between the isolated villages of Latuvi and San Miguel Amatlán, which passes though mystical cloud forest and is believed to be part of a larger pre-Colombian route that connected the Zapotec cities in the Valles Centrales with the Gulf of Mexico – you can still see the remains of an old road along the trail (tours usually take two days to hike this route).
Perched on a ridge overlooking the Oaxaca valleys (18km north of Teotitlán) and surrounded by pine trees, the little village of BENITO JUÁREZ is the gateway to the Pueblos Mancomunados. Known for its spectacular sunsets – in clear weather you can see all the way to Mexico’s highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba – Benito Juárez makes a good base for exploration. There’s a river where you can fish for trout and plenty of walking and other activities on offer.
Ixtlán de Juárez
Ixtlán de Juárez, a pretty Zapotec village near San Pablo Guelatao (the birthplace of Benito Juárez), 61km north of Oaxaca, is in an area of great natural beauty, and its cloud forests and pine and oak woodlands are claimed to be home to five hundred bird varieties and six thousand species of plants.
Among the most striking features of the monasteries of the Mixteca Baja are their capillas abiertas. These graceful open-air chapels, found only in the New World, look like unfinished, roofless churches, or cathedrals chopped in half. They face out onto huge open areas where the idea was that mass conversions of and services for indigenous people, too numerous for the church to accommodate, would take place. They are designed for congregations of thousands; the very same people whose prodigious labour produced these vast churches in the first place. Sadly, even by the time they were first completed, those populations had been decimated by disease and the demands of the Spanish overlords; the capillas became vast white elephants, testament to a vanished population.