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THE SOUL OF MEXICO; Oaxaca: If it's part of the national spirit and history, chances are it converges in the colorful town squares, faces and architecture of this southern city and state.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the end of every street in the city of Oaxaca, a mountain rises, a nubby tooth in the eternal smile of the Sierra Madre. If you look down from a balcony or window upon the central plaza of the town, the zocalo, your mind inevitably brings forth the analogy of an immense school of fish, an undulating swarm that defeats all efforts to focus upon any individual within the collectivity.

It's only when you go down and get among them that you can see things in their particularity. A young woman rushes to work, her remarkably long hair flying behind her like the tail of a brown fox in flight. There are a few joggers, including one in a baseball cap (Oaxaca Guerreros). A vendor near the gazebo languidly arranges his hammocks. A child in a red-striped poncho waits to buy chocolate to drink, sold by a man with a cart. Chocolate is to Oaxaca what beer is to Milwaukee and is a better drink in the morning than Mexican coffee. An Indian woman -- Zapotec, Mixtec (one would have to ask) -- displays her blankets. Another brings forth her inventory of pastries, her face stained with sleep. She has a black eye.

The gazebo seems larger than it does in the evening, when so many people cram its pavilions, climb over its iron rails to get closer to the marimba players who appear intermittently and draw dancers from the crowds.

The gazebo is at the center of the zocalo. It is a big Victorian structure of concrete and green steel, a church of human pleasure -- relief from the nearly 30 churches of godly piety within this city of 170,000 people.

In the morning the smoke from the charcoal cooking fires set by the Indian women drifts into the huge laurels. These trees form the canopy over the plaza. They are green thunderheads, so large that you can always locate the zocalo simply by climbing to an elevated place in the city and looking around for the dense leafy clouds rising above the buildings, all built low here as a defense against frequent earthquakes. Trees are not plentiful in the greenish-brown, semi-arid valleys around Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hock-a),though lemon trees and jacaranda flourish in many a secret patio garden throughout the city.

But such native trees as there are must be reckoned with. In the village of Tule a few miles outside of town, there is a cypress tree said to be more than 2,000 years old. It has a twisty, rough bark, and here and there it seems almost hairy, so that one thinks of the skin of a mammoth. It is highly revered, and lovingly cared for. You might come all the way to Oaxaca from anywhere in the world just to see the tree at Tule, and be satisfied the trip was worthwhile. Nearby, on the other side of the nondescript church dwarfed by the big tree is a younger cypress, a child of the great tree. It is only 1,000 years old.

And yet the cypresses are not the most salient signposts in time as it unfolded in these parts. For upon the summit of a nearby mountain, 800 years before the great cypress of Tule pushed its first hopeful tendril up through the sand, the people known as the Zapotecs undertook to chop the top off the mountain and thereupon build a fortress city.

It took them 300 years to level the peak, another century or so to finish all the fine temples, ball courts for that mysterious game favored by the ancient peoples of Meso-America, and site the pyramids upon the extensive platforms they created. There they lived, the Zapotecs, high and mighty and secure for nearly another millennium. Then they left, for reasons no one has ever been able to determine with any certainty. They moved down into the valley. They left their dead behind in hundreds of secret tombs filled, in some cases, with immense treasures. Their enemies, the Mixtecs, took over the mountain for a while, then they, too, abandoned the place.

The temples and other edifices of this American Xanadu slumped into the sand. The wild morning glory crept back up the slopes and covered the rubble. They were in bloom when the first Spanish conquistadors came into the valley in 1519. One of them, looking up and seeing all the flowers, said, "Look, a white mountain!" Or words to that effect.

So today that is how it is known: Monte Alban. White Mountain.

The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs are still here, in the city itself, and in villages nearby. They thrive in Coyotepec, where they make the lustrous black pottery coveted by collectors throughout the world. They are in Teotitlan del Valle, weaving primeval designs into fine woolen rugs, and in Arrazola, where they carve and paint those brightly colored fantastical animals -- dragons and jaguars with wings -- so emblematic of Oaxaca, and which seem to represent the hallucinations occasionally induced by the mezcal, the drink of which Oaxacans are so oddly proud.

Mezcal, distilled from the maguey plant, "is good when everything goes bad for you," they say, "and good when everything goes well." You just can't beat it.

Monte Alban is the first place to visit outside of Oaxaca, the eponymous capital of the Mexican southern state of Oaxaca. It's only about six miles down the road. The second excursion must be to Mitla, where the spirits of the Mixtec people dwell.

A Catholic church has been planted on top of the ruins of a Mixtec temple there. This was a normal practice of the missionaries who came with the Spanish conquerors. It was an attempt to extend the idea of conquest into the spiritual life of the conquered. These architectural atrocities are found from Mexico down through Peru. The few monuments to indigenous architecture that escaped this specific violation did so by virtue of their location in remote places, or because they were abandoned and the missionaries felt there was nobody around to impress. Because the first Spaniards found no people living on Monte Alban, there was no reason to destroy the heroic symmetry of the city with another European church dedicated to another European saint.

The palace in Mitla is covered with a strange script, which probably would tell us much about the Mixtecs, if only somebody could read it. But the Rosetta stone that might reveal the sense of these ancient tongues, such as that which illuminated the history and lore of the Mayan world, has not yet been found.

A colorful city

No place in Mexico gives you so much of Mexico as Oaxaca, through both its colonial and indigenous expressions. It is possibly the most beautiful colonial city in the country, with its cobbled streets, and the ochre and sienna tones and cool pastels of its grand, stone buildings. There is no black smoke in the air; no pink stratus hovering above.

Ruffino Tamayo, one of the notable abstract painters of this century, was born here. He bequeathed his collection of pre-Columbian art to the city. It is housed in a gray fortresslike building with a virtual cataract of bougainvillea and Virginia creeper pouring down over the roof into its stone patio. Tamayo assembled his pieces not for the same reasons that drive archaeologists: for the information they reveal about lost cultures. No. Tamayo's figurines, ceramic dogs, sculpted and molded images screaming silently over the millennia, beings with truncated legs, square torsos, were chosen to reveal the artistry of the ancient peoples. There are Toltec pieces from the high planes to the north, Mayan sculpture and rare Olmec carvings more than 3,000 years old.

Several of the nearly 30 churches in the town were built in the 1500s. A few are steeped in dust, pocked and worn by the elements, cracked by earthquakes, repaired again, split again, touched here and there with ancient paint the color of bull's blood. One such is the eroded Cathedral of Oaxaca on the zocalo; another is the Church of the Virgin of Solitude a few blocks away. Both are worn and pitted but oddly improved by time's insistent rub. This latter church is a favorite of Oaxacans, for the virgin is the patron saint of the city. The most popular church, however, is the the first church, the dark and humble Juan de Dios, built in 1526, behind the Benito Juarez Market.

The favorite of visitors and tourists is clearly the recently re-opened Church of Santo Domingo, with its abrupt geometry and ivory-colored stone that virtually glows in the white sun, its twin steeples and blue and white checked domes. It is proof of the long influence and power of the Benedictine Order in Oaxaca. They began building it immediately after their arrival in the 1520s. It took a century to complete, and another century to decorate. It is richly adorned with painted biblical scenes and Benedictine heraldry, portraits of notable defenders of the faith (including one of the few images of Cortez in Mexico), with even here and there a furtive reference to indigenous mythology: the faces of the original twins, the sun and moon, the creators of the Zapotec universe.

It is possible there is no more lavishly ornamented celebration of the Benedictine Order, nor a more lushly rich church anywhere on the planet. Virtually the entire immense surface of the interior of Santo Domingo gleams with a brilliant white plaster, upon which has been laid a complex web of gold leaf rising up its walls and spreading into the ceiling; brilliant columns of it ascend like sun rays. The church is without large stained glass windows, but takes its internal brilliance from this combination of gold and white, and red. Its two principal altars -- one at the end of the nave, and the other in the Chapel of the Rosary -- are high cliffs of gold.

Santo Domingo is one of those churches capable of offending people whose notion of beauty runs to classical Greek simplicity, or those who find extravagance of wealth in a region where many people are poor somehow distasteful. For others, certainly most people here, it is an exultant expression of faith, art and creativity -- especially because Santo Domingo has been restored from the ruin it was left in by the twin disasters of the Reform Wars of the 19th century and the Revolution of 1910. During these two sieges of violent social chaos, virtually every church in the country was turned into a military stable. They were vandalized and burned, all the art within, the carvings, paintings, the altar furnishings, obliterated, destroyed, stolen.

Most of the churches, and other major buildings in the town, are built of a stone quarried nearby that turns a pale green when it rains, an effect that for a time caused people to describe the city as La Verde Antequera, referring to the first name given it by the Spaniards. With time, however, and indigenous pressure, Oaxaca won out as the name for this city below the mountains. It is derived from a Nahualt word relating to a local tree no longer easily found.

A melting pot

The indigenous peoples set the tone of Oaxaca, especially when they pour in from the surrounding villages, as they do three or four times a year and set up their stalls (called tianguis) in the zocalo. Sixteen Indian languages are spoken in this state, and during the Christmas-New Year's holidays, or over Easter, or in the summer when Oaxaca hosts the Guelaguetza (a wildly popular festival of folk dance) and the zocalo becomes a carnivalesque Babel. You can expect anything, such as the man who appears about 8 every night on a unicycle juggling flaming torches, balladeers who wander about singing lugubrious love songs, one after another, the inevitable mariachis. A 30-piece orchestra performs on Sundays; the most relentless mime in Mexico, Robot Man, struts mechanically through the crowds; the marimbaists play, and, of course, the beggars and vendors are always there, moving among the tables put out by the cafes and restaurants under the arcades on three sides of the plaza. The fourth side, without tables or restaurant, is the monumental headquarters of the Oaxaca state government.

Within, at the top of a broad stairs, a huge mural depicts elements of Oaxaca's history blending into that of the Mexican nation as a whole. At its center is Oaxaca's historic exemplar, and Mexico's greatest president: the Indian Benito Juarez, the man who imposed the separation of church and state in Mexico, who drove the French Foreign Legion from the country, and executed the putative European emperor they sought to impose, the sad, well-intentioned Maximilian.

The vendors in the zocalo sell blankets, delicate blouses, other woven goods, and jewelry: necklaces of amber and silver and strings of bright, white "river pearls." You can buy a bark painting, a carved image, a wooden spoon or instrument for mixing chocolate, a blood red rose. There's always something new on offer. One night a man turned up with a selection of miniature fiddles. He had no luck with these, and you could watch people turn their heads and scrinch their faces as he passed by, sawing away, sounding a terrible skreak.

There is nothing sanitized about the zocalo in Oaxaca. If you hang around for a short time, life will turn to you all of its faces: the healthy and the lame, the rich and the wretched, people of great beauty followed by the utterly grotesque. There is no compromise in this, for it is understood in such places that you have to take all that life has to offer; you cannot edit out the uncomfortable parts. Else, how can you talk about the world with any confidence?

The zocalo is more than a place to stroll and socialize, to take drinks and watch other people pass by, watching you watching them. (The exchanged glance is the first step in engagement, perhaps the most honest.) The zocalo is more than a venue for buying and selling, romancing and begging, singing and laughing. It is a picture, a miniature of the larger place wherein it is set. It's where people bring their grievances, if they are large enough. It is the public space, and, as such, it has a sacredness to it, and an illusion of immunity.

Under the arcade of the Oaxaca state government building, for instance, the people from Loxicha have installed a protest, a vigil. They are demanding the federal government return their fathers and husbands and sons, off in some prison somewhere. The protesters hang the sad images of their loved ones from a clothes-line, set out little baskets and petition for help to carry on their fight to free the political prisoners. They share space with the potters and weavers.

Mexico is a free country, but it is also a violent country (perhaps not so advanced in this regard as ours) and police abuses are not unusual. The government is weak and corrupt, and this weakness, as much as the corruption, has stimulated the birth of guerrilla armies in Chiapas and Oaxaca, though neither has posed any danger to tourists, foreign or otherwise. The great majority of tourists in Oaxaca are Mexicans.

The targets and purposes of protest are not always so obvious or desperate as those made by the people of Loxicha. On New Year's Eve, as we sat in our usual table at the Cafe Del Jardin, a strange ceremony unfolded. It was about 9 o'clock and we noticed two men come along together but sit down at separate tables. They were oddly dressed. One wore a red bandanna over his head, like a pirate. The other, a bigger man with athletic build, had on a fitted white cotton outfit, a large straw hat and ivory-colored leather boots.

In a moment this man had collected a few young street kids around him. These he set up with sandwiches and ice cream sundaes, each at a different table. Shortly the two men had control of five tables on the curb. At this time of night, and on New Year's Eve, this was highly desirable real estate. Tourists would come along, ask if this or that table was free, and be turned away by the man in the white boots.

Before long, about five fat cops assembled across the street. Something was fishy, they knew, broadcasting their suspicions, if not their intentions, with their body language.

What he was doing was not, after all, illegal; but it wasn't normal either, and nothing ignites a gendarme's suspicions so quickly as the out-of-the-ordinary. The waitresses at Cafe Del Jardin were displeased. There would be no tips from kids. New Year's Eve was a big night for them.

The tension began to grow as the cops walked back and forth, furtively conferring, as if broadcasting their intention to act. Clearly it was worrisome for them: The zocalo buzzed with tourists from all over Mexico, all over the world. And since these people bring and spend the cash that feeds the Oaxacan economy, well, one can understand what had to be avoided.

Then the leader disappeared, and as he did another kid took his table. But he was back in five minutes and he had about 15 new actors for this strange play. They were tourists, Germans, Swiss, Austrians. They claimed the five tables already occupied and then a few more as people abandoned them. More children were invited to sit down. Then the man in the white boots began to talk, in German, and started taking orders for drinks. He called the waitresses forth. It was time to talk to him.

He had a perfectly symmetrical face, though deeply lined. He spoke English. He said he was an Aztec who lived in Germany, a dancer, and teacher of the ancient dances of Mexico. He went with his troupe around Europe giving performances. He called himself Xokonoschtletl.

What he was about, he said, had nothing to do with dance or publicity, or depriving the waitresses at Cafe Del Jardin. He was trying to call attention to what he regarded as a great wrong, trying to embarrass the Mexican government into doing something about it.

"I organized this," he said, indicating the increasingly boisterous people at the table, "because I want to bring pressure on the Mexican government. I want them to get back Montezuma's crown."

This priceless treasure of Mexico's history, he told us, is in the Hapsburg Museum in Vienna, not in the national archaeological museum in Mexico City, where it should be. The fact that the Austrians are in possessions of one of the greatest artifacts of Mexico is not all that unusual. The Germans own one of only a few of the Mayan codexes that exist; the others having been burned by Spanish priests. In fact, Europe's museums are stocked with treasures such as these, as are many in the United States, many of which were obtained under dubious legal circumstances.

By the time Mr. X finished explaining all this, his foreign allies, all members of a travel club, were fully engaged in embracing the New Year. They had seemed tired and torpid when they arrived, having just ridden down from Taxco on a bus. But the restorative margaritas from the Cafe Del Jardin quickly rekindled their enthusiasm, and before long the cops had to come over and respectfully urge them to stop pitching firecrackers at the other tourists.

The next day, at lunch at our usual table, the waitresses smilingly informed us that before they finally gave up their places, the Europeans had spent over $400 -- a princely sum.

And Mr. X?

The waitress just shrugged. He had disappeared, she said, just like that.

Poof! He came as he went -- suddenly. Like Montezuma's Revenge.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: Flights to Mexico City via either Dallas or Atlanta leave from Baltimore-Washington Airport and Dulles. Try to arrange your itinerary to have the minimum layover in Mexico City before flying on to Oaxaca. Airfares from the Baltimore area to Oaxaca should range from $300 to $400 round-trip.

You can check luggage straight through to Oaxaca, but be sure to pass through immigration in Mexico City. Neither passports nor visas are required in Mexico of United States tourists, but you have to be processed in.

Packages: You can choose your hotel, or a prepaid package that includes hotel and all transfers, through Zapotec Tours. Any travel agent can arrange this. You will pay a higher daily hotel rate for your accommodations this way, however. If you want more economical accommodations, you might book yourselves for a couple of days into a hotel on the zocalo, such as the Marques de la Valle, and then look around for a less expensive room when you get there, something well appointed for about $50 to $70 a night. Many smaller, less expensive hotels have Web sites. Check out the Hotel California, Hotel Villa Blanca and Hotel Gala de Oaxaca.

What to pack: Oaxaca enjoys an ideal climate year-round. The days are warm, sunny and dry. The nights are cool, so it is a good idea to bring a jacket. Because so much dining is done al fresco, it would be prudent to bring a cotton sweater.

What to bring: Virtually all credit cards are accepted for purchases or dinners. Money changers are open seven days a week, with the peso exchanging about 9 or 10 to the dollar.

Where to eat: Oaxaca is full of restaurants, most of them reasonably priced. A dinner in one of the city's finer restaurants should cost no more than $40 for two, and that includes drinks. Usually it's cheaper. Here are a few of the more popular ones:

* Cafe Del Jardin, under the arcade on the zocalo. Regional food, sometimes hot.

* La Casona del Llano, a block from the Parque Juarez. International cuisine.

* Pizza Rustica, a few blocks north of the Parque Juarez. Italian.

Must-sees:

* Take a tour to Mitla to visit the ancient temples of the Mixtec Indians. Tour usually stops by the small village of Tule, where they have a 2,000-year-old cypress tree. Duration, about four hours.

* Visit the village of Coyotepec, where artisans make the famous black pottery of Oaxaca.

* Take a taxi out to Arrazola, where the entire village is full of artisans engaged in carving and painting the strange animals so emblematic of this place.

* Check in at the tourist center at the corner of Av. Independencia and Garcia Vigil to learn if anyone is putting on a Guelaguetza. This is a show of Oaxacan dance, and is highly entertaining.

Information: Mexico Government Tourist Office, 405 Park Ave., No. 1401, New York, N.Y. 10022; 800-446-3942. The Oaxaca tourism web address is http://oaxaca-travel.gob.mx.

AN IDEAL DAY

9 a.m.: Start with breakfast at the Flor de Oaxaca, a simple, clean and inexpensive restaurant a block and a half off the zocalo on Armenta y Lopez Street. Scrambled eggs are a favorite, either huevos revueltos or huevos oaxacana or simply American style. They go nicely with corn tortillas. Also, pancakes are popular in Oaxaca, and are not a bad idea if you have a big day planned. Chocolate is an ideal drink. This is where it comes from.

10 a.m.: Return to your hotel. Tours begin about 10 a.m. to all the interesting villages and archaeological sites around the city. Monte Alban is a good first choice. It's only about six miles away. It is a fabulous ruin, artfully restored, an ancient city built atop a mountain by the Zapotec people starting about 800 B.C.

1 p.m.: Back in town, try lunch at the Cafe Del Jardin, under the arcades on the zocalo. They have a nice steak sandwich there. Then visit the Oaxaca Museum next to the Church of Santo Domingo, and see the treasure of gold and jade found by archaeologists in one of Monte Alban's tombs.

3 p.m.: Spend a few hours wandering through Oaxaca's markets, starting with the Benito Juarez Market a block south of the zocalo between 20 de Noviembre Street and Miguel Cabrera Street. After warming up on that, wander down to the main market -- one of the largest in Latin America. It's near the peripherico, or ring road, next to the Second Class Bus Station. Everything is there: hammocks, sandals, nicely finished blouses, straw hats, ceramics of all sorts.

6 p.m.: Time for a stroll north up Macedonio Alcala, to sit in the broad plaza before the magnificent 16th-century Church of Santo Domingo. On the way up, stop for a brief visit to the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art.

7:30 p.m.: Have a margarita in one of the cafes on the zocalo; listen to the troubadors or marimba players who set up in the large gazebo about three evenings a week.

8:30 p.m.: Dinner in the restaurant Asador del Vasco, above the Cafe Del Jardin. Excellent European food, with Mexican touches. Don't forget to make a reservation during the day.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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