Oaxaca is very ethnically diverse. There are 16 officially recognized indigenous groups with many more subgroups with their own languages, history, and customs. Many of these indigenous communities have unique crafts that they have specialized in for generations. We visited some of these villages and had a lot more fun than we thought we would. A few years back I think we would have cared more about finding the coolest cafe or bar than visiting a rug workshop, but now, maybe it’s a product of us being older, we found that we really appreciate the tradition and artistry of these cultural crafts.
Weavers at Teotitlán del Valle
Half hour outside downtown Oaxaca is a village called Teotitlán del Valle which is famous for its hand woven wool rugs. We visited a workshop called El Tono de la Cochinilla and saw an interesting demonstration of how they turn sheep wool into a rug. As far as we are concerned, this counts as school time for Ty.
There is a very popular drink in Oaxaca called ‘tejate’ which originated from the Zapotecs from before pre-Hispanic times. We have seen many tejate stands at markets and on the streets, and have seen people young and old drink it. But the look of it, and the way it is prepared, made us shy away from it although still very curious.
Finally, in Teotitlan, Ty and I took a walk on our own and he chatted up the woman making tejate. “Is that chocolate?” With everyone around urging us to try it and the lady actually offering to make us a fresh batch, we could not refuse. The verdict? With everyone watching us, Ty had a few sips and I finished it. But I do think you need to grow up with this to genuinely like it.
In Teotitlan is also a famous restaurant called Tlamanalli which is the name for the Zapotec god of food. This restaurant has been around for decades serving traditional Zapotec food and have been written up by many food magazines. Since we arrived in Oaxaca we had been searching for the what the big deal was about Oaxacan cuisine. And although our meals had been fine up to this point, we had not been blown away until we came here.
Yes, prices are high for Mexico. Our meal below was $55. And I had read opinions that this place is a watered down gringo restaurant. But when we went there, Mexican tourists represented equally. I think it is just the price point that exclude most locals. And the fact that it is only open from 1-4pm.
Black Pottery at San Bartolo de Coyotepec
There are lots of villages that specialize in pottery in Oaxaca – green, red, black – depending on the clay in their area. San Bartolo de Coyotepec is known for their black pottery, which they have made for thousands of years, with no wheels but by hand and two shallow plates. Until the 1950s, their black pottery was more like a rustic dark grey and they looked unfinished but very strong and utilitarian. In the 50s, a woman potter named Doña Rosa invented a way to fire and polish the pottery such that they become jet black and shiny, without paint or glaze, albeit more fragile. Now the black pottery here, barro negro, has become collectors’ ornamental pieces.
Tianguis at Tlacolula
Tianguis is a modified Aztec word for a traveling open-air market. It’s like an Amazon where you can buy everything from produce to meat to live animals to counterfeit DVD’s to purses, toys, clothes. We have been to a few of them but this one is by far the most vibrant and interesting. The indigenous women with their traditional dresses and unique customs speaking their own language lend a different tone to this market.
It’s hard to photograph here without seeming rude. The Zapotecs do not like being photographed. The most traditional ones actually believe the camera steals their souls. When I asked for permission, most of them ignored me or even if they nodded yes, they did not pose or look at the camera. I asked a tour guide who was working the area and she said it’s okay if you are discreet about it or some people may ask for 20 pesos for the trouble. Funny enough, our family actually became the center of attention at one point. We got paparazzi-ed by a Mexican family (not Zapotecs) who wanted pictures with Chino! Chino! Each one of their large family took turns taking a picture with us. We felt famous for a second.
It has been such a colorful tour through these towns east of Oaxaca City. There is much more one can do here but we will see if we will have the chance. Our van is at the shop again. Simon noticed there is something wrong with the oil pressure reading. So back to the shop we go.