Travel | 3 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Lesser Traveled Places of Oaxaca, Mexico
After spending half a day visiting Monte Alban, in the afternoon we took our car and ventured east of the city to visit Mitla ruins. The sleepy village of Mitla lies about 40 kilometers to the east of Oaxaca City along the highway 190.
Zdenko and Vera at Mitla ruins
The countryside around Oaxaca, Mexico is dotted with small archaeological sites and villages, and the most important are easy to reach. The landmark ruins in the region are Monte Albán (30 min.) and Mitla (1 hr.). If you’re heading toward Mitla, there are some interesting stops. A number of interesting villages in other directions make good day trips from Oaxaca, Mexico.
The State Tourism Office in Oaxaca, will give you a map that shows nearby villages where beautiful handicrafts are made. The visits are fun excursions by car or bus.
Many villages have, in the past several years, developed fine small municipal museums. San José El Mogote, site of one of the earliest pre-Hispanic village-dweller groups, has a display of carvings and statues found in and around the town, and a display model of an old hacienda. Teotitlán del Valle also has a municipal museum; it features displays on the weaving process. Ask at the State Tourism Office for more information, or check out the additional information and/or Oaxaca Travel Guide.
Welcome to Mitla
Mitla: Ruins & Rug Weavers
East of Oaxaca, the Pan American Highway (Hwy. 190) leads to Mitla and passes several important archaeological sites, markets, and craft villages. You can visit the famous El Tule tree, an enormous, ancient cypress; the church at Tlacochahuaya, a lovely example of a 17th-century village church; the ruins at Dainzú, Lambityeco, and Yagul; the weaver’s village of Teotitlán del Valle; and the village of Tlacolula, with its famous Dominican chapel.
There are a lot of little stops on this route, and some are a bit off the highway, so I recommend having your own vehicle, hiring a taxi, or signing up with a small tour rather than using local bus transportation. If you take a tour, ask which sites it includes.
To get to the highway, go north from downtown to Calzada Niños Héroes and turn right. This feeds directly on to the highway. All the sites are listed in order, from west (Oaxaca) to east (Mitla). It’s just a few kilometers farther southeast to Mitla. The turnoff comes at a very obvious fork in the road.
On our way to Mitla, Vera asked me to stop at one local Mezcal factory/shop where they make their own Mezcal. They explained how it is made which is quite simple: The maguey (a local version of agave) plant is cooked in an outdoor oven for a few days, then cooled and husked. With its now carmel-like sweetness, the piñas are ready to be removed, then cut into small pieces with the use of a machete, and thereafter crushed by a horse or donkey dragging a multi-ton circular concrete wheel over a round, low-walled area in which the charred piña pieces have been placed.
Mezcal production: Agave plant crushed by horse
The plant is then fermented in pine barrels and finished off in oak barrels. We did a tasting but chickened out on eating the worms. Vera had a few samples and bought a bottle as gift, but one thing is for sure – Oaxacan’s love their Mezcal.
Enough degustation Vera; how many bottles do you want to buy?
Mitla’s Large Zapotec & Mixtec Site - Mitla is 4km (2 3/4 miles) from the highway; the turnoff terminates at the ruins by the church. If you’ve come here by bus, it’s about a half-mile up the road from the dusty town square to the ruins; if you want to hire a cab, there are some in the square. Even if you don’t drive, be careful on the square. There is big uncovered manhole in the middle of the street (see picture), where even a grown up man can fall in.
On the main street in Mitla was this open manhole
Named by the Spaniards after San Pablo Mitla, Mitla’s quaint, narrow and colorful streets are home to textile merchants as well as to a great number of Mezcal producers and vendors.
I parked the car by the Catholic church of San Pedro, and if you go straight through the souvenir stands, you can enter the site without paying the admission. If you drive around the church another 300m and use official entrance like we did, the admission is 37 pesos per person ($3 CAD). Use of a video camera costs $5. Entrance to the museum is included in the price. It’s open daily from 8am to 5pm.
The Catholic church of San Pedro, that Spaniards built with the stones from the Mitla buildings
Next to the Church is an open-air crafts market set under the nearby trees, where local craftspeople offer embroidered regional garments, hand-painted wooden figures and an assortment of other colorful crafts.
Inside the Catholic church of San Pedro
There are five groups of buildings, divided by the Mitla River. The most important buildings are on the east side of the ravine. The Group of the Columns consists of two quadrangles, connected at the corners with palaces. The building to the north has a long chamber with six columns and many rooms decorated with geometric designs. The most common motif is the zigzag pattern, the same one seen repeatedly on Mitla blankets. Human and animal images are rare in Mixtec art. In fact, only one frieze has been found (in the Group of the Church, on the north patio). Here, you’ll see a series of figures painted with their name glyphs.
The Zapotec settled Mitla around 600 B.C., and it became a Mixtec bastion in the late 10th century. This city was still flourishing at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and many of the buildings were used through the 16th century.
Tour groups often bypass the town of Mitla (pop. 7,000), but it is worth a visit. The University of the Americas maintains the Museum of Zapotec Art (previously known as the Frissell collection) in town. It contains some outstanding Zapotec and Mixtec relics. Be sure to look at the Leigh collection, which contains some real treasures. The museum is in a beautiful old hacienda.
You can easily see the most important buildings in an hour. The site is not very big. Mixtec architecture is based on a quadrangle surrounded on three or four sides by patios and chambers, usually rectangular. The chambers are under a low roof, which is excellent for defense but makes the rooms dark and close. The stone buildings are inlaid with small cut stones to form geometric patterns.
The carvings in the buildings
I found it just amazing that 1000s of years ago there was a civilization that could create such an intricate set of buildings. The carvings in the buildings were exquisite and some of the intricate etched paintings are still visible. It is very said though to see the Catholic church the Spaniards built with the stones from the Mitla buildings. It was also interesting to learn that Cesar thinks himself as a Mixtec and not of Spanish descent. He is very proud of the Mixtec heritage.
Outside the ruins, vendors will hound you. The moment you step out of a car or taxi, every able-bodied woman and child for miles around will come charging over with shrill cries and a basket full of bargains – heavily embroidered belts, small pieces of pottery, fake archaeological relics, and cheap earrings. Offer to pay half the price the vendors ask. There’s a modern handicrafts market near the ruins, but prices are lower in town.
We didn’t bother… the only souvenirs we bring home when we travel, are rocks and stones from around the world. This trip was no different…
Catholic church of San Pedro in Mitla
Catholic church of San Pedro in Mitla