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29th July 2011
Leaving Oaxaca  the scenery to the north changed dramatically. Tall cactus plants like dead tree trunks grew straight up above the surrounding bushes.
On advice from a local we stopped at Tehuacán , a pleasant provincial town, to visit the nearby Biosphere Reserve. A surreal forest of cactus, many endemic and some endangered, thrives here due to the moisture starved air. The adjoining pueblo of Zapotitlán Salinas has 2 fine churches.
The province of Puebla has a seasonal specialty in July and August, Chiles en Nogada. It is an amazing dish of chillies stuffed with shredded meat and dried fruit, smothered in a walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. The flavours explode in the mouth. Too bad we will not be here for the other seasonal specialty, goat stew – in October and November.
26th July 2011
After an overnight on the comfortable ADO bus we arrived in Oaxaca  to spend a week in a cute little apartment owned by William and Nora on a cobbled street just outside the historic centre. Nora gives cooking classes (Alma de Mi Tierra) in Oaxaca cuisine in her home kitchen. After a visit to a local market to buy ingredients, we made a four course meal including starter, soup, mole, and a sweet tamale for desert. The best part was tasting the finished meal!
The city is another colonial treasure with more than 23 churches and ex convents to visit. The main square, or Zócalo, is always full of vendors, locals and tourists, and a good place to people watch. Oaxaca State is famous for its rich and complex moles (sauces) containing up to 30 ingredients painstakingly brought together. We set out to try as many as we could. A black smoky sauce made from chillies, chocolate nuts, seeds, spices and many other ingredients is the most common but they could be green, yellow or red, even one called a tablecloth stainer.
We stayed on for the annual Guelaguetza, a traditional folk dance festival by people from the surrounding area. The hilltop stadium holds 10,000 people and there was a near riot in line B as people pushed and shoved to get in first; the police had to step in. With the music, costumes and dance together with the crowd participation, it was a truly emotional experience. After each performance the group threw gifts, including whole pineapples, to the audience. Click here for a short video.
|Yellow and green moles for our final meal in Oaxaca|
25th July 2011
Here is a short movie of Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.
25th July 2011
8 Zapotec villages, called the Pueblos Mancomunados, lie between 2000 and 3000 meters in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca (mountains to the north of Oaxaca). The villagers are known as “the cloud people”. They offer experienced local guides along the lovely trails connecting the pueblos. Guests stay in comfortable cabañas with fireplaces and meals are provided by the village women in a successful joint eco tourism venture. It is the best managed and coordinated tourism project we have seen anywhere.
Every little detail for us was organised by Expediciones Sierra Norte in Oaxaca beforehand, right down to what colour public bus to take to reach Cuajimoloyas  at 3200 metres to begin a 6 hour hike to Latuvi at 2400 metres. 1000 meters down, followed by 200 meters steeply up – our going down muscles and our going up muscles were sore for days!
We walked on a path of soft pine needles in a forest of moss and lichen covered trees. Bromeliads clinging to the branches thrive in the humid air. Many types of wild mushrooms had sprung up in the undergrowth. Our guide picked 2 large bright red ones to take to Latuvi to be cooked for dinner. They were delicious with onion and forest herbs.
We spent the next 2 day´s walking to the villages of La Nevería at 2800 metres and Benito Juárez at 3000 metres. Each community was welcoming and friendly. The scenery changed daily. Near the pueblos corn grew up steep slopes and wildflowers in every colour grew on grassy hills. The weather though cold, stayed fine and we enjoyed a fire in our own little cabaña.
We walked back to Cuajimoloyas on day 4 along the most beautiful forest paths. On August 6 and 7 there is a wild mushroom fair which includes gathering and cooking mushrooms from the surrounding woods. We are sorry we are going to miss it.
|His and hers baños|
20th July 2011
Three valleys radiating out from Oaxaca  are populated by small villages. The best time to visit is on market days when they come alive with bustle and colour.
To the south, San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its shiny black burnished pottery, barro negro, the techniques developed by the late Doña Rosa many years ago. In Cuilapam, the stone ex Dominican monastery of Santiago Apostal dominates the skyline. The Dominicans were converting the indigenous in the area and did so quite quickly, but to reinforce the new faith they built a huge convent with murals depicting Christian beliefs with an indigenous influence. It became so expensive that it was never completed with construction halted in 1570.
In the valley east of Oaxaca, the village of Tlacloula holds a large market on Sundays with vendors selling anything from tiny edible insects to yokes for oxen and anything in between. Further away in Mitla, the colonial church was built on the ruins of an ancient Zapotec ceremonial centre. Mitla is unique in the elaborate and intricate mosaic geometric designs that cover its walls. These mosaics are made with small, stone pieces which have been fitted together without the use of mortar. We arrived in town just as their Guelaguetza festivities of dance and music was about to begin. Invited in, we thoroughly enjoyed the show and the pueblo atmosphere helped along as Mezcal was handed out freely and the performers threw gifts to the crowd. There were 2 tourists (us). Teotitlán del Valle is a famous weaving village where brightly coloured blankets and rugs hang in the streets. Traditionally natural dyes such as cochineal and indigo are used.
On a hill (Monte Albán or White Mountain) to the south west of Oaxaca City are the ruins of an ancient Zapotec capital. Sitting on a ridge 400 meters above the valley floor, it was the most important Zapotec centre for over 1,000 years from 200 BC. The buildings were once covered in stucco and painted red.
13th July 2011
Founded by the Spanish in 1528 in the cool south eastern highlands of México and surrounded by hills covered with pine forests, San Cristóbal is one of our favourite colonial towns. Having an apartment in La Casa Morada for a week, we wasted no time going to the colourful, bustling indigenous market to pick up fresh veggies for dinner. Mayan women from outlying villages in eye-catching traditional dress sell produce and crafts. In the Museum of Amber we saw beautiful pieces of the fossilized pine resin, some embedded with insects millions of years ago. Our second favourite bar in the world is La Viña de Bacco where we tasted some excellent Mexican wines with great tapas.
The best way to appreciate the stunning Sumidero Canyon to the west of San Cristobal is by boat. The sheer walls disappear up into the clouds and 250 metres below the water. On the return trip we stopped in Chiapa de Corzo to see the huge cathedral and a brick fountain built by the Spanish, completed in 1562 in the Mudeja Gothic style to resemble a Spanish crown.
The village of San Juan Chamula, 10 kilometres away, holds a large market in front of the pretty white church with blue and green Maya motifs (Templo de San Juan) on Sundays. Inside is like no other catholic church. It is the strangest place. There are no pews, the floor is covered in pine needles and burning candles; the air thick with incense. Here Maya customs mix with catholic beliefs. We witnessed a mass baptism by the visiting Catholic priest while at the same time dozens of traditional healers were attending to their clients, rubbing them with candles which were then lit, or sacrificing chickens. Meanwhile others were praying to their saints whose statues line the walls. Yet others played a flute to call up the spirits of their birth animals (Jeff´s is the Falcon, Pam´s is the Bat). The statue of Christ takes second place to that of John the Baptist. The people of this village believe only in baptism -no confirmation, no confession, no communion, no marriage (they are polygamous). Pictures are not allowed in the church and rightfully so.
A smaller market is held in San Lorenzo Zinacantán, a village of flower growers. Here is a “normal” Catholic church – what a contrast! We visited both villages with Raul, an outstanding local guide, (Alex y Raul Tours) who took us to a village house where we ate tortillas fresh from the hot comal and watched a woman weave on a backstrap loom. A few days later we visited 3 more interesting Mayan villages with Raul. In Aguacatenango there is a church built by and for the indigenous, simple in style still beautiful centuries later. Amatenango is the centre for pottery – all hand built by women and fired in an open wood fire. We just had to by a few small pieces. On the way back to San Cristóbal we stopped at the cemetery of Romerillo. Here huge crosses dominate the skyline. Each grave has boards resting on top, representing a door to the heavens. It was another great day for us.
06th July 2011
Inside the old city walls of Campeche  are neat rows of pastel coloured historical buildings and handsome colonial churches. Over 1000 colonial buildings have been restored. The city was once the Maya settlement of Can Pech before the arrival of the Spanish in 1540. The main square comes alive in the evenings with the cathedral all lit up and bands play while people stroll.
The richness and variety of the food amazes us, nothing like the Mexican food we know. The specialty here is Pan de Cazón, grilled shredded baby shark on tortillas covered in a tomato sauce. We opted for Pollo Pibil instead, chicken marinated in tomato, sour oranges and spices and cooked in banana leaves. A special seed, annotte, is used to give it the rich brick colour. For lunch we tried Papadzueles, hard-boiled egg filled tortillas covered in a sauce made from summer squash seeds.
We followed the Gulf of Mexico south and then turned inland passing extensive wetlands to reach Villahermosa  where relics from the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta are displayed in an outstanding jungle setting. La Venta is 100 kilometres from Villahermosa, but the artefacts were moved here in the 1950´s for preservation. The Olmec civilization, the earliest in Mexico, thrived between 800 BC and 400 BC and left behind colossal carved stone heads displaying African characteristics.
Next stop was Palenque , located in the north western Maya lowlands, one of the most important archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. From about 100 BC it grew steadily until by 750 AD it had great splendour, some of the most outstanding Mayan buildings and a population of about 8000. The city was abandoned 150 years later (click here for the Maya Exploration Center). We stayed in the nearby town where we liked the Sopa Azteca (soup with a tomato base, smoky chillies, avocado, grilled tortillas and cheese) so much that we had it three times!
|Two jade funeral masks in the Olmec Museum|
|Heads realistically depict important people|