Oaxaca Day Trip: Eastern Valley

The widest cypress tree in the world, a petrified waterfall, and the Sunday Market in Tlacolula

2 de Abril, 8va Etapa IVO Fracc el Retiro, Santa María del Tule, Oax., Mexico
The Tule tree is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. It’s not the oldest or the tallest, but at about 30 feet in diameter, it is the widest tree in the world, and it’s quite impressive. The species is Taxodium mucronatum, but it’s commonly known as a Montezuma Cypress. If you visit on the weekend, you can ask one of the local children who act as guides to give you a “tour” of the tree—they point out figures in the natural formations of the tree’s bark and branches.
Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico
Teotitlan del Valle is world-renowned for its production of high quality woven goods. The weaving tradition in this village dates back to ancient times, when they paid tribute to the Aztecs in weavings, although at that time they wove mostly cotton and used the backstrap loom. The majority of the residents in this community speak Zapotec as well as Spanish and have conserved many of their traditions. On a visit to Teotitlan you can visit a family of weavers and they will show you the whole process of how the rugs are made from spinning the wool to dyeing it (using natural colors such as the cochineal and indigo) and weaving the rugs. Designs range from traditional geometric patterns like those found on the walls of the nearby Mitla archaeological site, to more modern designs such as reproductions of the work of contemporary artists.
Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax., Mexico
Tlacolula is the largest town in the Eastern arm of the Oaxaca valley. Market day in this town is on Sundays and on this one day of the week hordes of people come to town from nearby villages to buy, sell, and socialize. You’ll find all kinds of goods for sale, from produce to live poultry to electronics. Block after city block is closed to traffic and vendors occupy both sides of the street, while shoppers and ambulant vendors fill the space between them. Tarps suspended by ropes overhead provide shade, but you will need to watch where you’re going, and duck occasionally to avoid walking into a tarp or rope. There are some specialties you should be sure to check out in the Tlacolula market. The food stands selling “barbacoa” are very popular here. This meat - either lamb or goat - is cooked in an underground pit and you buy it by weight. The bread made in Tlacolula is very good; there are a few types that are particular to this area, but one that you should definitely try is the “pan de cazuela.” It has a swirl of chocolate and raisins in it; when it’s really fresh it’s absolutely delectable.
Yagul, Universidad, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
Monte Alban and Mitla are the well-known Zapotec ruins near Oaxaca, but Yagul is worth a visit too. It was absolutely empty the day we were there, and it’s overgrown, unkempt, and has an amazing view over the valley.
Latin America
Mitla is located in the Oaxaca Valley, just a short distance from Oaxaca City. However you get there, it’s worth the visit. It’s not a large site; an hour and a half will be more than enough time to walk around. There are so many things that set Mitla apart from other ruins in Mexico. First off, it’s neither Maya nor Aztec. Its influence comes from the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. It sits right on the desert floor, so cactus, desert scrub, and aloe plants punctuate the surrounding landscape rather than jungle. There are no pyramids to climb; the highest structure on the site probably has no more than 10 or so steps to get to the top. There are no stone sculptures or carved walls to be seen anywhere. Instead, the decoration on the buildings are beautiful geometric patterns created by inlaid and interlocked pieces of stone (grecas). Amazingly enough, no two walls have the same grecas, and on some of the walls, you can still see the original red-painted stone. Some of the walls and the cupolas of the San Pedro Church (built by the invading Spaniards) have been restored to their red-colored glory. The desert backdrop, the grecas, the pops of red color – it all adds up to a very special place!
Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, Mexico
This small village just east of Mitla has a large sign declaring it the world capital of mezcal. Here you’ll be able to see the whole process of how mezcal is made from harvesting the agave plant to distillation. There’s a wide variety of producers—some are small family distilleries, others have larger-scale production—but they all use traditional techniques. But the best part of a visit to Matatlán is the opportunity to sample the wide variety of mezcals including reposado, añejo, espadín and tobalá, among others.
Carretera a Tlacolula 190 Km 17, San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, Oax., Mexico
This small archaeological site is situated on a hillside about 12 miles east of Oaxaca city. The name “Dainzú" means “hill of the organ cactus” in Zapotec, although that most certainly was not the original name. The site was occupied in very early times, but its apogee was roughly at the same time as Monte Alban (200 B.C.E. to 350 C.E.). It was excavated in 1965 by Mexican archaeologist Ignacio Bernal. This is one of Oaxaca’s less visited sites, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself. It is quite a nice site, however, and worth a visit for a few special features. The site has a ball court, as well as a gallery of bas-reliefs depicting ball players, so undoubtedly the game was very important to the inhabitants. Another must-see is a tomb that has a jaguar carved into the entrance; the face is carved in the lintel, and the animal’s forearms are on either side.
Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oax., Mexico
Lambityeco rose to prominence around the time of the decline the great Zapotec capital Monte Alban, roughly 700 A.D. The site was originally excavated in the 1960s, although some restoration work has been done since that time. Among the buildings to visit there are two important palaces, some temples and a patio, as well as a temazcal steam bath. This is just a small part of what was a much larger city. Evidently, Lambityeco was a salt production center (obtained through distillation of saline groundwater) and was an important stop in the Prehispanic trade route. This site has some examples of elaborate stucco work that are not common in ancient sites in Oaxaca. Besides the figure of Cocijo, the Zapotec rain god, pictured, there are also depictions of Zapotec rulers. This small archaeological site is often overlooked, but it is easy to visit. It is located right by the side of the highway, in the eastern valley of Oaxaca, just before Tlacolula.
Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico
The natural fresh-water springs at Hierve el Agua were incredible (and cold!). The water is very high in calcium carbonate, and the minerals have formed these natural pools and crazy waterfall-like rock formations. The dusty road was somewhat harrowing, we had to make way for quite a few donkeys packing some serious loads. (And the formerly white rental car came out of the experience with a light yellow coating.) But the view over the valley of Oaxaca was unbelievable, and the meal we had at one of the stands was delicious. We were there in December; it was clear and warm and perfect.
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