Monday, December 28, 2009

Puebla and Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of the cities in Mexico I wanted to explore and I decided to travel there with a group from San Miguel this Christmas. We went by bus—not my favorite way to travel so far—but we overnighted in Puebla, another place I’ve wanted to visit, both coming and going. We were gone a week—only enough time to sample a little of the riches in these two cities. Both deserve further investigation, but I was glad to have this taste.

About 40 of us headed out for Puebla on the morning of the 20th—three people I knew and several acquaintances. Many had made a number of trips with Vagabundos. I’d only gone with them once, more than two years, ago to Mexico City. David’s trips are near perfect— never too expensive, hotels centrally located, and a prefect blend of planned activities, to some of the area’s highlights, and free time to explore your own interests.

Puebla, one of Mexico’s most populous cities, is a place of tile and Talavera pottery. It was established in the early 1500s by the Spanish, who needed a settlement between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz. Like San Miguel it is a colonial city, mountainous, about 7,000 feet above sea level, and was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. Its architecture is diverse—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when its textile industry was thriving, immigration from Europe was encouraged and the French and Germans have left their imprints on the city. Our two half-days didn’t allow me to see much. I joined the walking tour of the area around the Zacalo and hung out there our first night.

One of my biggest Mexican surprises has been its churches—among of the most exquisite I’ve seen anywhere. The exterior of Puebla’s Cathedral, a somber dark grey quarry stone, was an utter contrast to ornate interior. Its ceilings are a series of domed arches; fourteen chapels flank the main sanctuary whose altar is adorned with onyx, marble and gold; and its choir loft is a superb example of Moorish artwork, inlaid with wood in eight different colors. On our return, after visiting Oaxaca, I saw the tiled exterior of its San Francisco Church en route to La Purificadora, a boutique hotel on the grounds of the Paseo San Francisco, designed by renowned Mexican architects Ricardo Legorreta and his son Victor in a former 19th-century water-purifying centre. The side entrance from its four star restaurant, which wasn’t expensive, led into a beautifully landscaped garden with a couple of outstanding pieces of sculpture.

The ruins and craft villages that surround Oaxaca, Mexico’s fifth largest city, were what attracted me. This was my first trip South and also my first visit to an Olmec site, Monte Albán. Although Zapotecs were the longest inhabitants of one of the first Mesoamerican cities, the Olmec, the first documented Africans in Mexico, inhabited it initially. This impressive city, had a long period of influence, approximately 500 BC thru 900 AD, and remained a religious and burial site until the mid-1500s. Its history has been divided into five distinct stages and shows evidence that different cultures inhabited the city, the last being the Mixtec. The other archaeological site we saw was Mitla, a Zapotec religious and burial center, whose greatest sphere of influences parallels the dates of Monte Albán. The original color of its walls, adorned with stone-cut mosaics, was red, which is also a funerary color in some West African cultures. I am been intrigued by design similarities I’ve observed between ancient Mexican and African cultures.

At Casa Vasquez, a weaving workshop in Teotitlán headed by Oaxaca’s most renowned weaver, Isaac Vásquez, we saw the weaving process from start to finish. The rugs and other hand-woven items produced here are all produced from yarns colored with natural dyes—only four plants are used to produce over 150 colors. At Doña Rosa’s studio, in Coyotepec, her son demonstrated the traditional way of making Oaxaca’s famed black pottery. And we also visited a natural wonder, a 2,000-year-old cypress tree in Tule that is believed to be the widest tree in the world.

This taste was good but I want to go back and savor. I’ve posted more pictures from my trip to Puebla and Oaxaca at

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