One of the fun things about the area of Oaxaca we were stuck in for 4 months was the variety of small towns that were excursion-worthy. Many of these towns specialized in a craft or event or a special natural feature. I always had a hard time remembering the names of these towns so I ended up just calling them the weaving town, or the town where they make the painted animals, the town with the really big market, or the town where they make that cocoa drink.
This is my third post about Oaxaca. I already wrote about the city of Oaxaca, here, and some of the surrounding archeological sites, here. Today I want to take you to some of these small towns in striking distance from the city of Oaxaca.
Santa María del Tule
We spent 4 months just outside of the city boundary of Santa María del Tule. El Tule is just about 6 or so miles from downtown Oaxaca. It is a super cute little tourist town. Every morning when Greg and I walked through El Tule’s business district we saw giant tour buses parked on either side of the main thoroughfare and smaller vans carrying tourists parked right in the thick of everything.
The biggest attraction in El Tule is the tree. It is a Montezuma Cyprus and has the widest circumference of any tree (137 feet) in the world. It is estimated to be 1,200 and 3,000 years old but might be older. It is located on the grounds of the Templo de Santa María de la Asunción. You can pay a small fee to enter the gates of the church and look at the tree close up but we declined since we had previously had this experience 4 years ago when we first visited Oaxaca. I just took a pic from outside the fence.
Besides the tree, El Tule has lots of souvenir and crafts shopping, a large Mercado Gastronómico (an indoor food court), and many amazing restaurants running the gamut from sushi and pizza to traditional Mexican. Walls and businesses sport colorful murals, and bushes all over the town are carved into fun animal and geometric shapes. The town is super clean and maintained regularly (In the early morning on our daily walks we always saw the workers picking up trash, sweeping the sidewalks, maintaining the landscape, and keeping the paint on benches, sidewalks, and walls looking fresh.).
San Antonio Arrazola
San Antonio Arrazola is the town where they make the painted animals. These brightly painted wooden creatures are called alebrijes. We visited here twice. On our first visit, we drove there in Ballena Blanca with our friends, S&E, who were staying in an Airbnb in the city of Oaxaca. The town is an easy 8-mile drive southwest from downtown Oaxaca. Unfortunately, on our first visit we left from Monte Alban and had a rough drive on dirt roads through a few tiny little pueblos. On our second trip, we went with our friends Michael and Layne who were staying at our campground. The drive from El Tule was all paved, a much smoother ride.
In Arrazola we visited the Manuel Jimenez El Tallador De Sueños Museum. Manuel Jimenez was one of the original alebrije artists. He was world-renowned for his art and was featured in many American magazines and newspapers. He died in 2005. In 2007, Manuel’s son, Isaías, started turning Manuel’s house into a workshop/museum where he and his family continue to create alebrijes.
We were greeted by Isaías when we arrived and were given a tour of the museum which turned out not only to be a museum and workshop but also the home of Isaías and his family. We bought t-shirts and a few beers from a cooler on his patio where he was selling refreshments. Before we left Isaías offered us shots of mezcal, a thank you for our visit to his home.
From the museum, we walked the streets of the town visiting many other little shops where people were selling and creating alebrijes big and small.
We stopped by Vives Verde after our second visit to Arrazola with Michael and Layne. This botanical garden was recommended to us by one of our Spanish teachers. We would have never known about it otherwise. Located in a town called Xoxocotlán, it is not far off the main road that leads from Oaxaca to Arrazola but I don’t remember seeing signs or anything else directing you there. But it is listed on Google Maps so we had no problem finding it on an unassuming dead-end road.
The idea for Vives Verde was born in 2010 when the landscape architect, Francisco Martinez, decided to take a trash heap, clean it up, and turn it into a garden. Eight years later in 2018, it was finally inaugurated and opened to the public. Of the over 200 plants, 95% live sustainably on rainwater. The garden is full of sculptures created from found items.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by a docent who took us on a tour of the garden. Although he only spoke Spanish he spoke clearly and slowly enough that we understood much of what he said. After the tour, he took us across the street where they are currently building a cafe and Airbnb.
All of it was just stunning! A must see!
Tianguis de Domingo en Tlacolula de Matamoros
Tlacolula de Matamoros is the town with the really big market. Every Sunday streets are blocked off and filled with vendors from all over the region selling fruits and vegetables, housewares, mezcal, tools, crafts, snacks, cooked food, used items, and just about anything else you can think of. This tianguis (open-air market) is the biggest in the region and is hugely popular.
Many of the vendors are Indigenous peoples from the surrounding area. They wear traditional clothes and oftentimes Spanish isn’t their first language – or a language they speak at all.
We originally visited this market during our first visit to Oaxaca 4 years ago. I wrote a whole blog post about it, here. This time we made 3 visits to the tianguis. The first was in Ballena Blanca with S&E and the second and third were with Michael and Layne along with various other friends.
San Andrés Huayapam
San Andrés Huayapam is the one place that we went on our own after the van went into the black hole of auto repair in Oaxaca. We weren’t sure exactly how to accomplish this without our own transportation (or without taking a taxi). But by the time we went, we had become quite adventurous with public transportation. We set out on a bus that dropped us off at the intersection of the highway that led north to the town. We asked a few people how to get to the town and they each pointed us to a different method, taxi, colectivo, or bus (who knows if we were pronouncing the town name correctly and if they understood us). When we saw a bus with Huayapam posted on it’s windshield we decided that it was the best and easiest option.
Huayapam is the town where the maize and cocoa drink Tejate originated back in Mesoamerican times. Another off-the-beaten-path treasure, we learned about this city from another one of our Spanish teachers. But before the bus reached the town we stopped at the Parque Ecoturístico Huayápam. We discovered this park by looking at Google Maps.
At Parque Ecoturístico Huayápam, we paid a small entrance fee and wandered around taking pictures of wildlife and soaking in the scenery. After we had thoroughly traversed the park, we walked up the road and into town.
In Huayapam we wandered around, took pictures, had a very nice lunch, and then set out to drink some Tejate. This ancient drink is only made by the women of the town. Some sell it at restaurants or stands and some right out of their doorway. There is a very precise way to make it including the way the ingredients are combined – in a large bowl with the Tejatera’s (a woman who makes the drink) arm up to their elbow.
My tejate was served in a painted round bowl that I needed two hands to hold. When I ordered it I was asked if I wanted any added sugar (a simple syrup). Yes, I said. The drink is somewhat bitter. When I asked for more sugar, I was frowned at but my Tejatera kindly obliged.
Teotitlan del Valle
The rug town, Teotitlan del Valle, was a place that Greg and I talked about visiting often. Like Huayapam we weren’t sure exactly how we’d get there without our own transportation. There would have been at least one bus involved, and then maybe a colectivo – or hopefully another bus. But we procrastinated so long on this trip that our friends Michael and Layne who we had met months before when they were heading south had returned to the campground heading north. They had already visited Teotitlan but had missed the Vida Nueva Women’s Weaving Cooperative the first time. We planned an excursion which included a brief trip to the rug town to the women’s collective.
Weaving has been traditionally a man’s job. But in the late 1990s six single women who needed to provide for their families defied the norms and started a weaving collective for women.
Although our visit to Teotitlan was brief, there was no weaving demonstration, and we didn’t find anything we wanted to buy (Layne and Michael found some merch they needed, though), I loved talking with these women. They all spoke very clear slow Spanish. And they had an infectious happiness about them.
In the end…
We didn’t have time to get to all the little towns surrounding Oaxaca City. We missed the black pottery town and the green pottery town, and all the other off the beaten path places hidden in the beautiful state of Oaxaca. But I still have one more town to write about – the mezcal town. More about this town and our adventures with mezcal in my next and last post about our 4 months in in Oaxaca.