Oaxaca Day Trip: Southern Valley

Visit various handicraft villages, the Friday market in Ocotlan, and a superbly restored 16th-century church and former convent.

28 Benito Juárez
Many of the crafts of Oaxaca are still made using techniques that date back to ancient times. At the workshop of Doña Rosa in San Bartolo Coyotepec, you can see a demonstration of how black pottery is made. Instead of using an electric wheel, the potter shapes his piece while he spins it by hand as it rests on top of two stacked concave plates - one is right side up, the other upside down. Oaxaca’s famous black pottery gets its color in the firing process, not from any glaze or paint applied to the pieces. Doña Rosa is said to have originated this firing technique in the 1950s - prior to that time the pottery was mostly grey. Black pottery is used mainly for decorative purposes as it will not hold water. Pots that will be used to hold water are fired longer and turn grey. Many families in San Bartolo make black pottery, but this workshop is the most famous. You’ll find a wide variety of black pottery items for sale here, all at very reasonable prices.
The residents of San Martin Tilcajete (a village about 14 miles south of Oaxaca city) specialize in woodcarving. The fanciful wooden animals they create are sometimes called “alebrijes” They are usually carved from the wood of the copal tree from which they also extract the sap to use as incense. The copal is a particularly twisty tree and the carvers use the natural shape of the wood to inspire them when forming their pieces. The carvings are painted with tiny, intricate patterns. Although you can purchase woodcarvings at shops in Oaxaca city (and throughout Mexico, for that matter), on a visit to this village you can see the woodcarvers at work and gain a deeper appreciation for the craft and all that goes into it. Many families in San Martin Tilcajete carve and paint, and on a walk through the village streets you will see lots of signs inviting you to just go on in to the family workshops to see them at work and browse their finished pieces.
Santo Tomás Jalieza, Oaxaca, Mexico
The weavers in Teotitlan del Valle may be more renowned, but the backstrap loom weavers of Santo Tomás Jalieza are practicing the art in a way that dates back to very ancient times. The local market is set up in the main square and every day you can see weavers at work and browse the products of their labor, but Fridays are particularly busy. They sell belts, handbags, change purses, table runners and place mats at reasonable prices. This small community is located 15 miles south of Oaxaca city and can easily be combined with a day trip to Ocotlan.
Calle Hidalgo 2, Centro, 71510 Ocotlán de Morelos, Oax., Mexico
The Aguilars are a family of folk artists who live in Ocotlan, a town about 20 miles south of Oaxaca city. There are four sisters; Josefina, Guillermina, and Irene live in a row of houses at the entrance to the town, and Concepcion lives a bit farther out. They all make similar pieces, though each brings her own particular style to her work. Their pieces reflect the colorful rural life in Oaxaca and depict market women, Frida Kahlo replicas, religious symbols and nativity scenes, as well as cantinas and “women of the night.” Although their work can sometimes be purchased outside of Oaxaca, if you visit the Aguilar family workshops, prices are much more accessible and you get the bonus of meeting the artists and their families and seeing how they live and work.
México 175 2, Centro, 71510 Ocotlán de Morelos, Oax., Mexico
Apolinar Aguilar is a blacksmith who lives in the town of Ocotlan, about 20 miles south of Oaxaca city. He makes swords, knives and martial arts weapons as well as domestic utensils such as letter openers and cake serving sets. He hand forges each item using methods that date back to the colonial period. One thing that is different is his source of metal: he uses old car parts, bronze plumbing pieces, and door fixtures. The handles are made of other materials: tropical wood, antler, or bone. It’s quite an experience to see him at work. He pumps the leather and wood bellows until the coals are red-hot, and hammers the pieces by hand until they take the desired shape. Besides the pieces that he has on display, he also makes items to order and will engrave names and dedications on the pieces if requested.
104 Calle Pueblos Unidos
Inside the main market in Ocotlan de Morelos there is a food stall called La Cocina de Frida (“Frida’s Kitchen”), and standing behind the counter is none other than Frida Kahlo herself, or at least a reasonable facsimile. Owner Beatriz Vázquez Gómez likes to play up her resemblance to the famous Mexican artist. She greets visitors warmly and serves up excellent chiles rellenos, mole, enchiladas, and other local specialties. This is a great choice for breakfast or lunch on a day trip to Ocotlan.
Calle Pueblos Unidos, Centro, 71520 Ocotlán de Morelos, Oax., Mexico
Ocotlan is a charming town that’s bustling most days of the week, but it’s especially so on Fridays. On this day the town’s market spreads beyond the confines of the covered permanent market building and covers several city blocks, including the main square. Besides the requisite produce, dried goods and meat, there are also textiles, leather goods, hats and baskets. Vendors selling handicrafts are centered around the kiosk in the center of the main square. Ocotlan is on route 175, about 20 miles south of Oaxaca city. While you’re there, you should also visit the town’s 16th century church which was restored in the 1990s with funding from the Rodolfo Morales Cultural Foundation.
Centro, 71510 Ocotlán de Morelos, Oax., Mexico
Ocotlan de Morelos is the hometown of Oaxacan artist Rodolfo Morales (1925-2001). Morales painted a mural which depicts the various products, industries and occupations of the area, in the council hall of Ocotlan’s “Palacio Municipal,” the government building. He painted the main section in 1954, and in 1980 he covered the remaining walls in the room. There is more of his work on display inside the museum that is housed in Ocotlan’s former convent, just beside the church.
San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca, Mexico
Visitors to Oaxaca who would like to acquire some beautiful embroidered clothing have a few options. There are women who sell their work along Alcalá street in the city center, and some can be found in the Benito Juarez market in the traditional clothing section, but for the best quality pieces, head to the village of San Antonino Castillo Velasco, very close to Ocotlan de Morelos, where there are several women who are known to produce very high quality intricately hand embroidered blouses and dresses.
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