The state of Oaxaca is one of the most enticing destinations in Mexico. The state capital, cosmopolitan yet utterly Mexican, encapsulates much of what the region has to offer. Here and in the surrounding countryside indigenous traditions are powerful; nowhere else in the country are the markets so infused with colour, the fiestas so exuberant, or the old languages still so widely spoken. There are traditions in the villages that long predate the Spanish Conquest; yet the city can also offer sophisticated modern dining, great places to stay and wild nightlife. The landscape, too, represents a fundamental break, as the barren deserts of the north are replaced by thickly forested hillsides, or in low-lying areas by swamp and jungle. On the Pacific coast, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are established resorts with very different characters, while Puerto Ángel and its surrounds offer a more back-to-basics beach experience.
If you’ve come from Mexico City or the north, the physical differences of the region are compounded by its relative lack of development. Industry is virtually nonexistent, and while the city of Oaxaca and a few coastal hot spots have thrived on tourism, the rest of the state is woefully underdeveloped – the “Mexican economic miracle” has yet to reach the south. Indeed, the region witnessed considerable political disturbance in the early years of the twenty-first century, though for the moment the protests seem to have been subdued.
The city of Oaxaca is the region’s prime destination, close enough to Mexico City to attract large numbers of tourists to its fine crafts stores, markets, seemingly constant fiestas, cobbled, gallery-lined walkways and excellent restaurants. The church of Santo Domingo here is one of the region’s – and the whole of Latin America’s – most magnificent examples of Baroque architecture, fusing Spanish and native influences to spectacular effect. And it’s just one of many. Nearby, the Zapotec and Mixtec sites at Monte Albán, Yagul and Mitla are less well known than their ancient contemporaries in central and eastern Mexico, but every bit as important and impressive. All this is set among spectacular mountain scenery where the Sierra Madre del Sur meets the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the continuation of Mexico’s central volcanic belt.
On the coast, west of the mountains, lie some of the emptiest and best Pacific beaches in Mexico. The resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco are now firmly on the map, though Escondido still has the flavour of the surfer hangout in which it has its origins, while Huatulco, conceived and purpose-built as an environmentally conscious resort, can still boast some wonderful and relatively empty sands. Between the two, around Puerto Ángel, are several tranquil beach villages with a distinct “alternative” vibe.
Land of the seven moles – Oaxacan cuisine
Oaxaca is known as the “land of the seven moles” after its most famous sauces: mole negro or Oaxaqueño (the most popular, made with chocolate giving a distinct roasted flavour), amarillo, coloradito, mancha manteles, chichilo, rojo and verde. Moles are typically served with chicken or enchiladas, but you don’t have to go to one of the smart restaurants serving contemporary Oaxacan cuisine to sample them: mole negro is often better from street or market vendors. Other specialities include tamales, worth trying in any form, and chapulines, crunchy seasoned grasshoppers. Tlayudas, giant crisp tortillas dressed with beans and a mild Oaxacan string cheese called quesillo, are staples of cafés and street stands after dark.
The place to go for exceptional home-made ice cream is the plaza in front of the church of La Soledad, full of rival vendors and tables where you can sit and gorge yourself while watching the world go by. Flavours are innumerable and often bizarre, including elote (corn), queso, leche quemada (burnt milk; even worse than it sounds), sorbete (cinnamon-flavoured sherbet) and exotic fruits like mamey, guanabana and tuna (prickly pear; a virulent purple that tastes wonderful). There are also more ordinary varieties like chocolate, strawberry and coconut. At the opposite end of town, you can sample many of these flavours at Museo de las Nieves, Alcalá 706, just up from Santo Domingo.
- New Year’s Day (Jan 1). Celebrated everywhere, but particularly good in Oaxaca and Mitla.
- Día de San Sebastián (Jan 20). Big in Tehuantepec.
- Día de la Candelaria (Feb 2). Colourful indigenous celebrations in Santa María del Tule.
- Carnaval (the week before Lent; variable Feb–March). At its most frenzied in the big cities – especially Oaxaca – but also celebrated in hundreds of villages in the area.
- Día de San Isidro (May 15). Peasant celebrations everywhere – famous and picturesque fiestas in Juchitán.
- Día de San Juan (June 24). Falls in the midst of festivities (June 22–26) in Tehuantepec.
- Fiesta de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (first Wed in July). Teotitlán del Valle, near Oaxaca, holds a festival with traditional dances and religious processions.
- Guelaguetza (last two Mon in July). In Oaxaca, a mixture of traditional dancing and rites on the Cerro del Fortín. Highly popular; tickets for the good seats are sold at the tourist office.
- Fiestas (Aug 13–16). Spectacular festivities in Juchitán (Vela de Agosto) and Tehuantepec (Fiesta del Barrio de Santa María Relatoca).
- Fiesta de San Bartolomé (Aug 24). In San Bartolo Coyotepec, near Oaxaca.
- Blessing of the Animals (Aug 31). In Oaxaca locals bring their beasts to the church of La Merced to be blessed.
- Fiesta del Señor de la Natividad (Sept 8). In Teotitlán del Valle.
- Independence Day (Sept 16). Celebrated everywhere.
- Feria del Árbol (second Mon in Oct). Based around the famous tree in Santa María del Tule.
- Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Observed everywhere, with particularly strong traditions in Xoxocotlán and in Atzompa.
- Día de la Inmaculada Concepción (Dec 8). Observed widely. There are traditional dances in Juquilla, not far from Puerto Escondido, and Zacatepec, on the road inland from Pinotepa Nacional.
- Fiesta de la Virgen de la Soledad (Dec 18). Celebrations in Oaxaca in honour of the patroness of the state – expect fireworks, processions and music.
- Fiesta de los Rabanos (Radish Festival; Dec 23). There’s an exhibition of statues and scenes sculpted from radishes in Oaxaca.
- Christmas Eve (Dec 24). In Oaxaca there’s music, fireworks and processions before midnight Mass. Buñuelos – crisp pancakes that you eat before smashing the plate on which they are served – are dished up at street stalls.
Fiestas in Oaxaca
Staying in local communities around Oaxaca
Indigenous communities in the mountains and valleys of Oaxaca have been developing their ecotourism potential since the 1990s, when a cabins programme was established. These small, self-contained cabañas ecoturísticas were designed to bring income to the villages while minimizing the disruptive effects of tourism. These days many villages organize tours (hiking, coffee farms, biking, adventure sports and agrotourism) and some sort of “community lodging”, from homestays to simple but comfy cabins, usually arranged through a local Comité de Ecoturismo. Either type of accommodation makes a convenient and economical base for exploring the villages and archeological sites of Oaxaca state. Many communities have particular handicraft traditions, such as carpet-weaving, wickerwork or pottery; others have museums devoted to local archeological finds and the life of the villagers.
The best place for information and reservations – ideally made a few days in advance, especially for the more accessible sites – is Oaxaca’s state tourist office at Juárez 703 (951 502 1200), though be warned that individual staff may know little about this, that their information may be out of date, and that even where they do make a reservation it may take a while to seek out the key locally when you arrive. Oaxaca's lending library, at at Pino Suárez 519, is a great resource for rentals. For the Sierra Norte and the Pueblos Mancomunados contact Expediciones Sierra Norte, which coordinates all the local community programmes in that area. For Ixtlán contact Ecoturixtlán (951 553 6075) directly, based at 16 de Septiembre in Ixtlán de Juárez.
The city of OAXACA sprawls across a grand expanse of deep-set valley, 1600m above sea level. Its colour, folklore, indigenous markets and magnificent colonial centre make it one of the country’s most rewarding destinations even though, with a population of over 250,000, it is well on its way to becoming an industrial city. Many streets are choked and noisy and a thin veil of smog often enshrouds the valley – yet in the colonial centre the city’s provincial charm is hardly affected and just about everything can be reached on foot. Simply being in Oaxaca, wandering through its streets and absorbing its life, is an experience, especially if you happen to catch the city during a fiesta (they happen all the time – see Fiestas in Oaxaca). The city is an important artistic centre, too, with several state-run and private galleries, craft and jewellery masterclasses and regular exhibitions.
Among the highlights of any visit are the Museo de las Culturas and the Museo Tamayo, the markets (craft shopping in Oaxaca ranks with the best in the country) and the churches of Santo Domingo and La Soledad, along with the nearby archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla.
Once central to the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations, Oaxaca had a limited role during the early years of the Spanish Conquest. Cortés, attracted by the area’s natural beauty, created the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and until the Revolution his descendants held vast estates hereabouts. For practical purposes, though, the area was of little interest to the Spaniards, with no mineral wealth and, due to the rugged mountain terrain, no great agricultural value (though coffee was grown). This meant that the indigenous population was largely left to get on with life and did not have to deal with much outside influence beyond the interference of a proselytizing Church.
Nevertheless, by 1796 Oaxaca had become the third largest city in Nueva España, thanks to the export of cochineal and, later, textile manufacturing. In the nineteenth century it produced two of Mexico’s most influential statesmen: Benito Juárez is commemorated everywhere in Oaxaca, a privilege not shared by Porfirio Díaz, the second most famous Oaxaqueño, whose dictatorship most people have chosen to forget. Thereafter Oaxaca was something of a political backwater until autumn 2006, when it made international headlines as striking teachers occupied the city’s main plaza and clashed with riot police in a dispute that began over wages and mushroomed into protests over corruption and political cronyism; the city is perfectly safe for tourists but occasional protests and demos rumble on to this day.
Benito Juárez ranks among Mexico’s greatest national heroes. He was the towering figure of nineteenth-century Mexican politics, and his maxim – “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“Respect for the rights of others is peace”) – has long been a rallying cry for liberals. A Zapotec, he strove against nineteenth-century social prejudices and, through four terms as president, successfully reformed many of the worst remnants of Spanish colonialism, earning a reputation for honesty and fair dealing.
Juárez was born in San Pablo Guelatao in 1806. His parents died when he was 3, and he grew up speaking only Zapotec; at the age of 12 he was adopted by priests and moved to Oaxaca, where he began to study for the priesthood. Turning his talents to law, he provided his legal services to impoverished villagers free of charge, and by 1831 had earned a seat on Oaxaca’s municipal council, lending his voice to a disenfranchised people. Juárez rose through the ranks of the city council to become state governor from 1847 to 1852, on a liberal ticket geared towards improving education and releasing the country from the economic and social stranglehold of the Church and the aristocracy. In 1853, the election of a conservative government under Santa Anna forced him into eighteen months of exile in the US.
Liberal victory in 1855 enabled Juárez to return to Mexico as minister of justice and give his name to a law abolishing special courts for the military and clergy. His support was instrumental in passing the Ley Lerdo, which effectively nationalized the Church’s huge holdings, and bills legalizing civil marriage and guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1858, President Ignacio Comonfort was ousted by conservatives enraged by these reforms, and Juárez, as the head of the Supreme Court, had a legal claim to the presidency. However, he lacked the military might to hold Mexico City and retired to Veracruz, returning three years later, victorious in the War of Reform, as constitutionally elected president. Stymied in his attempts to reduce the power of the Church by an intractable Congress and empty coffers, Juárez suspended all national debt repayments for two years from July 1861. To protect their investments, the British, Spanish and French sent their armies in, but when it became apparent that Napoleon III had designs on the control of Mexico, the others pulled out, leaving France to install Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as puppet emperor. Juárez fled again, this time to Paso del Norte (now Ciudad Juárez) on the US border, until by 1867 he was able to return to the capital and to round up his army and execute the hapless Maximilian.
Juárez was returned as president in the 1867 elections but alienated much of his support through attempts to use Congress to amend the constitution. Nevertheless, he secured another term in the 1870 elections, spending two more years trying unsuccessfully to maintain peace before dying of a heart attack in 1872.
The church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is one of the real highlights of Oaxaca. Consecrated in 1611, this elaborately carved and decorated extravaganza is one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque anywhere; its external walls (10m thick in some places) solid and earthquake-proof, the interior extraordinarily rich. Parts were damaged during the Reform Wars and the Revolution – especially the chapels, pressed into service as stables – but most of the interior was restored during the 1950s.
The church drips with gold leaf throughout, beautifully set off, especially, by the afternoon light. Highlights include the great gilded main altarpiece and, on the underside of the raised choir above you as you enter, the family tree of Felix de Guzmán, father of St Dominic (the founder of the Dominican Order), in the form of a vine with leafy branches and tendrils, busts of leading Dominicans and a figure of the Virgin right at the top. Looking back from the altar, you can appreciate the relief scenes high on the walls and the biblical events depicted in the barrel roof and the ceiling of the choir, a vision of the heavenly hierarchy with gilded angels swirling in rings around God. The adjoining Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario (completed in 1720) is also richly painted and carved: the Virgin takes pride of place in another stunning altarpiece, all the more startlingly intense in such a relatively small space.
Mole and chocolate
Calle Mina, south of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, is lined with spice vendors selling plump bags of the chile-and-chocolate powder that makes up most Oaxacan moles. Cinnamon-flavoured chocolate powder is also available, for cooking or making into drinking chocolate. One of the best places in this area to try a mug of hot chocolate, laced with almond, cinnamon, sugar or chile and served with pan dulce, is Mayordomo, the Willy Wonka of Oaxaca; the main branch is at the corner of Mina and 20 de Noviembre. You can also buy pure cacao by the kilo and all sorts of chocolate products. Nearby La Soledad at Mina 212 has a row of old bean-crushing machines and is drenched in the overpowering aroma of sweet cacao – choc addicts beware.
The Zapotec and Mixtec heartland
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.
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 for sale everywhere. There’s a tranquil and well-managed homestay programme 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 signposted 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 stunning 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.
Brief history of Mitla
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 and the Pueblos Mancomunados
North of the Oaxaca valleys the wild ranges of the Sierra Norte stretch for over 100km, a pristine world of pine forests, mist-cloaked mountains and rustic Zapotec villages. 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 Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) 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 100km 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-Columbian 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.
Oaxaca’s Mixteca region is not at first an obvious tourist destination: the pre-Hispanic sites here are far less spectacular than those in the Valles Centrales and there are no artisan centres to compare with Teotitlán or Arrazola. However, the colonial buildings are widely regarded as some of the country’s most important, there’s stunning mountain scenery and the low number of visitors means that you are likely to have vast crumbling monasteries and Mixtec ruins to yourself; the main appeal is their aching, faded glory and the spine-tingling sense that you’re witnessing a scene that has remained relatively unchanged since before Cortés.
Broadly the region divides into two – the barren hills of the Mixteca Baja and the mountainous, pine-clad Mixteca Alta. Toll Hwy-135D, one of the country’s best roads, cuts through the Baja’s deforested hillsides en route from Oaxaca to Mexico City. The Mixteca Alta lies off to the south, where Hwy-125 climbs into and through the sierra before eventually descending to the Pacific coast. The Mixteca Baja’s highlights are three vast Dominican monasteries – Yanhuitlán, Teposcolula and Coixtlahuaca – imposing relics of Mexico’s imperial past. All three have been expertly restored and can easily be visited as a day trip from Oaxaca if you have your own transport; it’s less easy if you’re relying on public transport, though still possible.
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.
Puerto Ángel and around
Some 65km from Puerto Escondido, at the junction of Hwy-175 from Oaxaca and coastal Hwy-200, the oppressive, shabby city of Pochutla is the service hub for a string of beach towns and resorts that unfurl east towards the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Puerto Ángel, now firmly on the tourist radar, is a fishing village that draws budget travellers with its unpretentious, low-key vibe and picturesque setting. Seven kilometres west, the beautiful beach of Zipolite has gained a reputation for its liberal-minded, European-hippy vibe, while north over the headland, attractive San Agustinillo has a more restrained feel. Further west, Mazunte is the main nesting site for Golfina turtles. Rapidly developing, it has something of the feel of a junior Zipolite.
Though it’s well established as a tourist destination, PUERTO ÁNGEL goes about its business as a small, down-at-heel fishing port with minimum fuss. Everything remains resolutely low-key – you may very well find pigs and chickens mingling with the visitors on the streets – and locals fish off the huge concrete dock, catching yellowtail tuna and other gamefish with a simple rod and line. Though it has a gorgeous setting – around a sheltered bay ringed by mountains – the beaches are less than pristine. Small hotels, rooms and simple places to sling a hammock, however, are abundant, with some of the most promising on the road between the main village and the Playa del Panteón. If you’re on a tight budget Puerto Ángel can be a fun place to spend a few days, meandering and sampling the superb local seafood.
Rounding the headland north of Zipolite you come to SAN AGUSTINILLO, another fine beach graced with good surfing waves. Fast developing, it has a more restrained vibe than Zipolite, with some charming and upmarket places to stay and eat. The sand is backed by restaurants, which offer space for a hammock or small rooms for rent in addition to reasonably priced, fresh seafood. Colectivos and pasajeras pass frequently along the main road, heading in one direction to Zipolite, in the other to Mazunte and Pochutla.
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec
The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the Pacific and the Atlantic are just 210km apart and the land never rises to more than 250m above sea level, is the narrowest strip of land in Mexico. It’s a hot and steamy region, with a fascinating and unique cultural identity. The people are descendants of various indigenous groups, principally Zapotec. Historically, the Zapotec indígenas, especially those in the south, have been a matriarchal society. Though you’ll still find women dominating trade in the markets (they are renowned for their tenacious, even aggressive, sales skills) while the men work in the fields, this is a tradition that is dying faster than most others in macho Mexico. Nevertheless, some elements remain: the women exude pride, many dressed in ornate hand-woven dresses and draped with gold jewellery; it’s still the mother who gives away her child at a wedding (and occasionally still the eldest daughter who inherits land); and on feast days the women prove their dominance by climbing to the rooftops and throwing fruit down on the men in the Tirada de Frutas.
The best reason to stop in this region is if there’s a fiesta going on, as they’re among the most exciting in the country. Otherwise, you can go straight across – from Oaxaca to Tuxtla Gutiérrez or San Cristóbal in Chiapas – in a single, very long, day. Most first-class buses bypass the grimy port town of Salina Cruz, dominated by a giant oil refinery; better places to stop are Tehuantepec itself, around 250km from Oaxaca City, or nearby Juchitán.
The modest town of TEHUANTEPEC visibly preserves many of the isthmus’s local traditions, has some of the best fiestas in the region and is generally a pleasant place to stop, with several inexpensive hotels. In the evening, the central plaza comes alive, with singing birds and people strolling and eating food from the stalls set up by the townswomen, some of whom still proudly wear the traditional flower-embroidered huipil and floor-length velvet skirt of the Zapotec. Perhaps because the town is so concentrated – a walk of ten blocks in any direction will take you out into the countryside – it’s extraordinarily noisy; the din of passing buses redoubled by the flatbed motor tricycles (motos) that locals use as taxis. There’s a very busy market, just off the main plaza, which sells fruit, herbs, bread, flowers and other local produce.
Mescal (or mezcal) is the Oaxaqueño drink of choice, sold everywhere in bottles that usually have a dead gusano worm (actually a type of caterpillar) in the bottom. Tradition has it that the creature lives on the cactus-like maguey plant and is there to prove that the ingredients are genuine, although these days most of the worms are farm raised. You don’t have to eat the worm, though few people are in any state to notice what they’re ingesting by the time they reach the bottom of the bottle. Like tequila (which is technically a type of mescal), mescal is made from the sugary heart of the agave plant, which is baked, pulverized and then distilled. Many of the best mescal stores can be found around the Mercado 20 de Noviembre where you can taste before you commit to buying; good brands include Los Amantes (also has a great shop), Los Danzantes (also a restaurant), Mezcal Amores and Alipús.
Several towns produce mescal, but the original is Santiago Matatlán, 45km from Oaxaca City near Mitla . Mescal tours are advertised everywhere.