Around the Valley of Oaxaca- EAST

Trip Start Mar 01, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mexico  , Oaxaca,
Thursday, December 17, 2009

With John's mom in town, we finally managed to do a bit more sightseeing outside of Oaxaca de Juarez (the city).  Today, we ventured eastward on a jam packed tour that included Hierve El Agua, Mitla, a mezcal factory, Teotitlan de Valle and El Tule.  Combined, these sites comprise a popular, Eastern Valley of Oaxaca tour, characterized by beautiful mountains, cacti and (at least part of the way) the Pan American Highway (which stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina).

Our first stop was Hierve El Agua, the site of several springs located in the mountains, whose waters, laden with sulphur, calcium carbinate and magnesium, have become petrified and created rock formations that mimic cascading waterfalls.  The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful and after hearing that the springs were cool, not hot as the name, Hierve El Agua or boiling water implies, I wished I'd taken my bathing suit along.  The day was warm and though we were 7,000+ ft above sea level, the prevailing tropical climate prevents snow from ever falling here.  An interesting side note is the geopolitical aspect of Hierve El Agua.  Before entering the park, we met a road block where we were required to pay 30 pesos each in order to enter.  Land rights in rural Oaxaca are taken very seriously, and disputes between the surrounding villages and peoples of San Bartolo, San Isidro Roagui, and San Lorenzo Albarradas, have caused park closings and even violence in recent years.  According to our guide, six people were recently killed when one community collected fees from tourists without sharing or telling another community.  Thus, we paid the piper and all was well. 

On our way back west, we stopped at Mitla, a fascinating Zapotec ruin constructed primarily for ceremonial purposes.  This major religious center was constructed in 850 A.D., as Monte Alban (the largest Zapotec city) was declining.  The decorative motifs at Mitla are unique in that they reflect Mixtec influence.  Several tombs built for high ranking priests have been excavated, and one particular palace instillation is well preserved (apparently because it served as Pedro Alvarez's living quarters after the Spanish arrived), while the other structures were pillaged by the Spanish for building materials.  A church, built in the post-Columbian era still stands a top the ancient Zapotec foundation from which it was adapted.

A quick stop at one of the many small Mezcal factories that scatter the Valley of Oaxaca was next.  The Maguey cactus is cut up, laid over hot coals that surround a below ground fire, covered with cloth and allowed to smoke for 72 hours.  It is then ground by a large stone whose circular path is guided by a horse.  The maguey pulp is placed in large wooden tubs and allowed to ferment.  The fermentation is then placed in a pot over a fire and the alcohol vapors rise through a pipe whereby distillation occurs.  This process is repeated twice before half of the young, white mezcal is bottled and sold, and the other half reserved and left to age another year or multiple years.  The older, the more rare, and therefore the better the price achieved at market.  Cognac is born after three or more years.

Just across the road from the mezcal factory we visited, lay the town of Teotitlan de Valle, famous for its weaving and exquisite wool rugs.  I was thrilled to catch a demonstration and amazed by the intricacy or the work and the diligence of the workers.  All natural dies are used, cochineal red, also known as Oaxacan gold, being the most treasured.  Cochineal is an insect that lays its eggs in the nopal cactus and afterward, dies.  The very small, white insects are scraped off of the cactus, and when crushed, they produce a beautiful bright red color

Our last stop before returning to Oaxaca was Santa Maria del Tule, a town whose entire local economy relies on a gigantic Tule Tree.  Over 2,000 years old and 58 meters in diameter, it's definitely a remarkable specimen.  Since the Pan American Highway was rerouted farther south (away from the tree) a few years ago, the Tule's foliage has regained its healthy green color, and appears to be thriving.

Naps all around upon our return home.

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