Monday, October 22, 2012

Day-tripping (Mitla)

There are any number of places to visit within a few hours drive of Oaxaca de Juarez.  Los Valles Centrales, or the Central Valleys, are full of gorgeous scenery; myriad small towns with beautiful, ancient churches and zocalos to visit; and endless examples of fine craftsmanship in every medium from clay to textiles. There are pre-hispanic ruins and there are opulent buffets. 

I've been here many times and made many daytrips from Oaxaca, and I've barely scratched the surface of places to visit. In the coming posts, I'll try to lay out a few possible trips, with photos, depending on your interests. One of my favorite daytrips from Oaxaca is Mitla. 

Mitla is a world heritage site, and one of the largest and most interesting pre-hispanic archeological sites in Oaxaca. The entire modern day town of Mitla was built right beside and largely on top of the old town, and as was their habit, the Spanish built their church directly on the ruins of the ancient temple, and largely using its stone. 

Church of San Pablo, with ancient foundations in foreground

The archeological zone, which costs about $3.50 to visit, is directly adjacent to the church, and covers an area of perhaps 30 or 40 acres. It is well worth hiring a guide. They hang out in the shade under the largest tree in the upper plaza as you enter. Look for a guide with an official laminated card showing he is certified by the state historical society. Unless, of course, you are more interested in learning the local people's oral traditions regarding the site, which most likely do not square with the archeological record. 

The unique feature of Mitla is the marvelously preserved mosaics facing most of the buildings. These are not reconstructed; they are original. They are not bas relief, which is what I thought when I saw them, but true mosaics. That means that each of the tens of thousands of pieces were individually carved and then fitted together into the friezes that face the surviving buildings. I have not the slightest idea how it was done without metal tools, and neither does anybody else.

Mitla seems to be well excavated, and one would never imagine that there were still hidden treasures here, but there most certainly are. Only a few years ago - less than five - a German tourist visiting in the rainy season went off the marked path and literally tripped over a half-exposed skull. This is not a suggestion that one should bring along a shovel, of course, but it surely adds to the general mystique of the place. 

The town of Mitla is a wonderful place to explore. It is more touristy than other, similarly sized nearby towns (owing to the world-class ruins, of course) and therefore the prices of artisanal goods are a bit higher than they might be elsewhere. On the other hand, you do see the very best of the best, especially as regards textiles. This whole section of the Valle is renowned for its textiles. One of the things I enjoyed most in Mitla was entering a textile fabrica and watching a young man weaving a cotton tablecloth on a gigantic, handmade loom. I took a short video, but I can't get it to upload. 

Below, however, please see an example of the local ingenuity that makes me very happy indeed. It's a spinning wheel made out of an old bicycle. 

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