dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Sunday, January 18, 2015

More Sights in the Valley of Oaxaca

On Saturday we hired the same driver we had before to visit some more of the places of interest outside of the city of Oaxaca.  This time we traveled through the southwestern arm of the Valley of Oaxaca.

We went first to the Ocotlán, 26 miles to the south of Oaxaca.  Ocotlán was the home town of noted contemporary artist Rodolfo Morales.  Morales was considered one of Mexico's most important living painters until his death in 2001.  He used a good portion of his fortune to benefit his town.  Morales undertook the restoration of Ocotlan's principal church, the16th century Church of Santo Domingo.  Today it is a little gem.

From Ocotlán we headed back north along the highway, and stopped at San Martín Tilcajete.  San Martín Tilcajete is famous for its workshops which produce "alebrijes", the brightly painted, whimsical carvings of animals that have become one of Oaxaca's most famous handicrafts.  Perhaps the most outstanding masters of the craft are Jacobo Angeles and his wife María.  

On my last visit to Oaxaca, I visited the workshop of Jacobo and María, and I bought a beautiful "alebrije" of a bear.  It is decorated with incredibly intricate designs.  It cost $350 US at the time, but it is truly a work of art.  Looking at the prices of "alebrijes" of similar size and quality today, I suspect that my bear has appreciated greatly in value... not that I would ever part with it.

The workshop is located in a lovely garden courtyard.  When we entered, artists were at work on several amazing, large-scale "alebrijes."   I am sure that the price tag on these would be tens of thousands of dollars.

We were given an explanation by workshop employees on how "alebrijes" are made.  The carvings are made from the wood of the copal tree.

The wood is carved into figures of animals.

The carvings are soaked in gasoline to kill any termites, and then allowed to dry for months.  Finally the figures are painted.  The less expensive carvings are painted with acrylic paints, but the more expensive ones are painted with natural pigments.  The intricate geometric designs are based on indigenous symbols, and all have a meaning.

We spent a long time examining the finished "alebrijes" in the workshop's store.  Jane finally picked one to buy, and I selected two.

 Before we left, we had the pleasure of meeting Jacobo.  (His hands were painted with "alebrije" designs.)

After our visit to the workshop, it was time for lunch.  At the entrance to the town is a restaurant owned by Jacobo and María called "Azucena Zapoteca".  (They recently opened a branch in downtown Oaxaca.  You may remember that last week I wrote a post about our meal there.)  I invited our driver, Victor, to join us for lunch, and we all had "chiles en nogada".

(photo taken by waitress)

We then continued on to the town of Zaachila.  After the abandonment of Monte Albán, Zaachila was the capital of the Zapotecs.  There is a small, largely unexcavated archaeological site in  the center of town.

We descended into a tomb where in 1962 a treasure of gold and jade jewelry and painted pottery was discovered.  The objects are now in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, much to the unhappiness of the residents.  They have not allowed any further excavations of the site to occur until the treasure is returned to Zaachila.

The spaces where we are sitting, carved from the rock, are supposedly where the Zapotec king and queen sat as they watched ceremonies.

(photo taken by Victor)

Our final stop was the town of Cuilapan.  Here the Dominican order established a monastery, one of the early centers for the conversion of the indigenous people of Oaxaca  to Christianity.  The Dominicans planned an extravagant basilica which was never completed due to cost overruns.  The planned basilica remains roofless.


  1. Hi there!

    I am the founder of a non-profit organization called Doodles Academy (doodles-academy.org) that provides a free art curriculum to schools and community centers. We are developing a project on Alebrijes, and I was wondering if it would be o.k. to use your photo? We would, of course, credit you in the materials.

    1. As a retired teacher and an amateur painter, I would be happy to have you use my photos. You might also be interested in checking out the entry "Strange Creatures Invade the City" from October of 2016 which has pictures of the "monumental" alebrijes on display in Mexico City.