Wandering Oaxaca’s Market Villages

Oaxaca is in the lower part of Mexico.
Oaxaca is in the lower part of Mexico.

Tours of Oaxaca’s Markets Tempt the Taste Buds

By Kent St.John
Senior Travel Editor

Fresh fruit at Oaxaca Sunday Market, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mari Gold photos.
Fresh fruit at Oaxaca Sunday Market, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mari Gold photos.

Oaxaca Sunday Market: This city is legendary in Mexico for fine foods and culture. The Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico is every bit as complex as the mole sauce it is famous for.

It is a mixture of ingredients that while very different, fused into one amazing end product.

Learning to Cook in Oaxaca

The city of Oaxaca is stately and stands with a proud colonial Spanish air, yet the streets are filled with unmistakably indigenous Indian faces.

Sitting in the cafes that ring the zocalo (Center Square) in the evenings, hearing the strange unintelligible language, combined with seeing different styles of dress, helped us decide to spend several days exploring the city’s outlying villages and markets, learning about each village’s specialty and crafts.

With the main tourism office located just three blocks from the zocalo, we went to gather information on the villages that ring the city.

There I was told that indeed there are 16 distinct indigenous villages within a 50-mile radius of the city. All have their own language, dress, customs, festivals, and world-famous crafts.

Each Village’s Tianguis

While there are several tour companies that will guide you, we decided to rent a car. Due to the prices of the tours and the number in my family, this was a cheaper alternative. Armed with a map and the day of each village’s tianguis (main market day) we set out early the next morning.

Sunday Market in Oaxaca

Our first stop on Oaxaca’s busiest market day was Tlacolula, twenty-four miles from the city. Tlacolula was founded by Zapotec people around AD 1250 and still maintains strong ties to its local past despite the ornate Spanish 16th-century church. It also has the largest Sunday market.

The marketplace spills throughout the center of the village and attracts hundreds of visitors from smaller nearby towns. Although it is more of an agricultural affair, the profusion of colors and abundance of live animals takes you to the heart of the market spirit.

Mescal is King

This is also the town where mescal is king and should be tasted. At a friendly shop called Pensamiento, they offered 24 samples of mescal, 17 for women and 7 for men. While visiting Tlacilula we stopped at two towns just a few miles away, Teotitlan del Valle and Santa Ana del Valle.

Both are well known for their woven rugs. Ever since the Dominican missionaries introduced sheep in the 16th century the weaving of woolen rugs and wall coverings has developed into these towns’ trademark. The dyes used in the coloring of the wool are all-natural and the deep reds are produced from the cochineal — a female beetle.

In Teotitlan we wandered through the shops and watched the local weavers creating works of art. Our favorite stop was the Cooperativa Mujeres Tejedoras (Women Weavers Cooperative) at 37 Hildago. While the prices were not much cheaper than Oaxaca City, the selections were far greater.

Haggling is expected and if your Spanish is weak, try using a pen and paper to offer and counteroffer prices. Try to remember, however, that at even higher prices the women earn about a dollar an hour for their labor.

A tamale in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mari Gold photo.
A tamale in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mari Gold photo.

To Mitla

With our shopping urges satisfied we continued east a few more miles to Oaxaca State’s second-best known archaeological ruins, Mitla (Place of the Dead).

Passing through the entrance we started our tour at the Grupo de las Columnas, the best-preserved area of the ruins. The ruins differ from all others in Oaxaca because of the Mixtec style buildings.

The geometric designs that dominate the ruins are proof that this was once a center for the Mixtec Indians and remained so right up until the Spanish conquest.

As if a reminder to the local Mixtecs, the Spanish built the massive 17th-century church of San Pablo Milta that still towers over the ancient city. Mitla’s are the type of ruins where you can still climb through passages and down into ancient tombs–hands-on exploration.

Monday Market Monte Alban

Deciding to forgo the tianguis in Miahultlan we headed to Monte Alban and several of the craft villages nearby. Our first stop was at the village of Atzompa, located at the base of Monte Alban and known for its natural and green glazed pottery.

At the Casa de Artesanias, you can see these enormous pots with raised applied designs being crafted. Monte Alban was our next stop and literally took our breath away. Days should be spent wandering the state’s most important archeological site, and we did indeed return several times during our stay in Oaxaca to explore its temples, palaces, ball court, and tombs.

Monte Alban was founded around 500 BC and developed into one of the largest ancient cities in the Americas. The entry building provided excellent displays and exhibits that help in understanding both the Zapotecs and Mixtecs cultures.

Arrazola is the town where some of America’s best-loved Oaxacan treasures are crafted. In this village, the craftsmen carve copal wood into the twisted, brightly painted animals, or alebrijes.

The shape of the wood determines the final alebrijes. Most of these painted animals are exhibited in the villager’s homes that double as their workshops. With our car loaded with the day’s buys, we happily headed back to our base in Oaxaca City.

Tuesday Market in Cuicatlan

This was to be our longest trip for market day in the village of Cuicatlan. Cuicatlan is located in Canada or Canyon Country north of Oaxaca. This area is the home to the Cuicatecs, a Mixtec-related people who are reclusive and very traditional; Cuicatec language is used far more often than Spanish.

The local ladies at the market were wearing huipiles: the white cotton dresses that are colorfully embroidered. The embroidery is said to hide magic and religious secrets within each dress. Nowhere else in Oaxaca did we find clothing so vivid and beautiful.

The market is located near the Templo de San Juan Bautista church. We strolled past stalls filled with flowers and produce. Live turkeys swung from the arms of the vendors, and it was obvious that for those who came down from the mountains, market day was also socialization time.

In Cuicatlan, my son found a great selection of his favorite Mexican craft: the wooden masks carved to look like animals, saints, and strange gods from the past. Even the devil was represented. These masks were not made for the tourist but for use in festivals and rituals that still thrive throughout the country. With a masked man in the back seat, we drove back to what by now seemed the large city of Oaxaca.

Wednesday Market in Etla

As an ex-restaurateur, I was thrilled to find that Etla’s tianguis was held on the last day that we had our rental car. This is a market that is a foodie’s paradise — where the famous white string cheese made in Oaxaca is sold. This is also where the best chefs in the city meet because its sole purpose is to offer special cuts of meat, produce, as well as forest-gathered herbs that define Oaxaca’s cuisine.

One specialty sold in bulk there is the chapulines: grasshoppers meant to be deep-fried and seasoned with chili powder and lime. These are offered as bar food throughout the city, often mixed in with peanuts.

At the market, I was told that those who eat chapulines are guaranteed a return to Oaxaca. I opted instead for a red Oaxaca tamale. Not because I didn’t want to return to Oaxaca: I did. I just wasn’t too keen on a grasshopper that afternoon.

Deciding to make full use of our car rental, I backtracked past Arrazola to the Cuilapan de Guerrero. The church and monastery were started in 1550 and were under the control of the conquistador Hernan Cortez as was the whole valley.

In 34 trips to Mexico, I have yet to visit such a historic monastery. At the far end of the open chapel, the Mixtec laborers managed to sneak in some of their own stone plaques with their messages, most likely under the eyes of the Dominican monks. Cuilapan was also where the Mexican hero, President Guerrero was placed against a wall and shot in 1831.

City Bound

As we sat on the zocalo Wednesday night underneath the trees and amongst the passerby in Oaxaca’s living room, we now felt we were better able to grasp more of Oaxaca’s unique mix. We could wander the cathedrals, museums, and art galleries with a better understanding.

We knew we could fill our next two days with the sites and sounds of this place that hosted D.H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and Mary Morris. So much to see until the city’s own tianguis on Saturday.

There I knew that more bags would be bought to transport the mescal, alebrijes, huipiles, and other treasures. As the church bells rang I grabbed a hand full of chapulines (grasshoppers) to munch on. I wanted to ensure a quick return to Oaxaca.

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