By Richard Varr
Oaxaca City, Mexico – All it took was a quick step around the corner to take my breath away. What started as quiet stroll down the pedestrian-packed street Macedonio Alcalá has now left me agape in front of Iglesia de Santo Domingo – a grand church with its lighted façade shining in the dimming twilight. But the real surprise comes when we walk inside.
“There’s nothing within one square meter without decoration,” says tour guide Diego Cruz, pointing upwards to a rounded ceiling dotted with medallions of saints. “Sometimes we don’t have words to describe our beautiful church that’s lined with pure 23-karat gold.” Dating back to the 1570s, Santo Domingo’s gilded and hand-painted interior is a glittering mix of Baroque, Romanesque and Moorish styles.
It’s my first night in Oaxaca, and my visit to this ornate house of worship is just the beginning of an adventure exploring a region with more than two and a half millennia of history – from when the native Zapotec civilization swarmed the mountainsides beneath the ruins atop Monte Albán and at nearby Mitla, and through colonial times after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century.
What we see today is a melding of the two cultures – an elaborate mix of ancient ruins and churches of architectural splendor. More than 400 colonial-era buildings remain along narrow city streets. Beyond the city limits sit small villages that have maintained Zapotec traditions in their arts and crafts, producing burnished black pottery and the brightly painted wooden figurines known as alebrijes – all handmade using natural dyes, simple tools and Zapotec-inspired designs.
With sculpted facades and lavishly adorned interiors, the impressive churches, convents and basilicas are why Oaxaca City’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The holiest church, residents here will tell you, is the Basílica de la Soledad. Named after the Virgin of Solitude, Oaxaca’s patron saint, its stone façade is decorated with chiseled religious figures. A jewel-studded statue of the Virgin sits in an enclosed glass-covered shrine inside.
The basilica’s construction dates back to 1682 – on the very spot where locals spotted the image of the Virgin in 1620. According to legend, a mule collapsed at the base of a rock and wouldn’t get up. “They moved the donkey and found he was carrying two big baskets. When they pulled him away, they opened the baskets and found the face of the virgin and her hands,” explains Cruz. “That’s why they call it Soledad, or solitude.” Today, the outcropping of rock is enclosed by bars inside the church.
Others churches include the Cathedral with its Baroque façade and twin bell towers across from the zócalo. A short walk away is Iglesia de San Felipe Neri where Benito Juárez, Mexico’s most celebrated president, was married in 1846. South of town, the 16th century construction of the chapel of the former convent at Cuilapan de Guerrero was never completed, leaving the long and narrow chapel roofless.
Twelve miles east of town and not too far from the sprawling 2000-year-old cypress tree, Arbol del Tule, sits the 16th century church of San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya. Inside, I see a thin ray of sunlight piercing the darkness and casting a fiery glow upon the alter, helping to illuminate walls and ceilings decorated with Indian motif designs. “The church was painted by Indian hands in the 18th century with natural dyes and natural colors,” notes Cruz. On the front façade, a statue of St. Jerónimo is seen with a horn directed at his ear. “He’s listening to God,” Cruz says with a smile.
The Oaxaca Valley’s Zapotec legacy dates back to about 500 B.C. with its most prolific civilization centered just west of the city at Monte Albán. On this flattened mountaintop sit ruins of temples, tombs and expansive plazas that once served as a ceremonial center and marketplace for a civilization spanning 1,400 years with a population of more than 20,000 at its peak.
“Monte Albán is one of Mexico’s most important archeological sites – not the first but one of the earliest,” Cruz says. “We have a ball court, a cistern, the astronomical observatory and the Gallery of the Dancers which was the first building made here 2,500 years ago.” The Dancers building includes carvings of figures in apparent ritual dances.
The site’s most impressive treasures can be found in a small museum near the entrance. The collection of Mixtec jewelry and art unearthed from Tomb #7, however, is on display at Oaxaca’s Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, a museum housed in the former gold-studded monastery adjacent to Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
East of the city, the ruins at Mitla feature an impressive array of abstract stonework in unusual but consistent patterns. “Mitla is awesome with the detail,” notes Cruz. “Nobody knows where the construction begins or ends. The same design will be repeated on the next line and this could go all around the wall. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.” Mitla rose to prominence after the decline of Monte Albán with some carvings from as late as the 1500s. Zapotecs founded the city that was later taken over by the Mixtecs.
In the towns and villages outside Oaxaca, I find an arts and crafts paradise. We drive to Teotitlán del Valle, known for its woven rugs and textiles produced by about 20 weaving families. One is the Pérez Mendoza family, where family members still hand brush sheep’s wool and spin yarn with an old-fashioned spinning wheel. Now in its ninth generation of weaving, the family continues the tradition of using natural dyes, including color from the tiny cochinilla insect that provides the blazing reds used by the Zapotec culture for hundreds of years.
The nearby village of San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its black pottery, a craft dating back 3,000 years. We stop in Alfarería Doña Rosa, a workshop and store named after a popular local who founded the business in 1934. Today, Doña Rosa’s son continues the tradition. “I have no arthritis,” jokes Valente Nieto Real, as he sculpts a vase using simple hand tools made of leather, bamboo and quartz. His weathered hands have formed thousands of pottery pieces over seven decades.
On my last night in Oaxaca, I stroll through the lively 20 de Noviembre market. Filled with everything from clothing and crafts to sweet smelling bins of ripening fruit, vendors sell the region’s popular foods. I taste famous Oaxaca string cheese and mole, a sauce made from grains, spices and chili peppers. Others munch on chapulines – fried grasshoppers with lime – like one might eat chips or popcorn.
I walk to the nearby zólcalo, now energized by dancers and performing bands. Reminiscent of a European square on an airy spring evening, I relax at an outdoor café and watch chatty children and couples in love. “From the city, we walk here and spend an hour in the zócalo because we consider it like the patio of our home,” a local woman tells me. “We use this like our patio to rest and to play.”