We crowd into a colectivo for the two-hour ride on a winding road north from the city of Oaxaca, across the Sierra de Juárez, to the town of Ixtlán de Juarez, the biggest settlement in this area, with 7,000 inhabitants. The town is quiet, the streets spotlessly clean. There is a celebration in the vast church on the main square, and afterward an Indian woman offers us a plate of food that we cannot refuse although we have just had dinner.
The next morning along with our guide Raul we head up a steep path for a 15-mile round trip hike in the mountains. Raul knows these mountains well. He is not only a guide and a kind of guardian for local ecologists but also owns land and a small herd of cattle. In past years he lived in Los Angeles.
We climb some 3,000 feet, much of the way along an ancient road that the Zapotec Indians carved out of the jungle millennia ago. From their capital in Monte Alban, in the valley south of Oaxaca, they wanted to keep an eye on what lay over the horizon. So they made this road to El Mirador del Cerro Cuachirindo, a 2-mile-high lookout point with views north to the volcanos outside Mexico City and west to the Gulf of Mexico.
In these cold forests and woodlands there are supposed to be 500 bird species and 6,000 plant species.
Near the top of the path we detour through the Bosque Mesofilo, an extraordinary woods that has been miraculously preserved intact. The forest is magical.
The grove of well spaced trees is the largest in these parts. Walkers are confined to clearly marked path. The tall trees are hung with lichen. The surrounding forest is alive with flowering bromelia. Deer still wander here as do rarer large mammals.
The survival of these woods in a country where most forests have been destroyed, however, is due to neither magic nor a miracle. It is due to the hard labor of its owner, the town of Ixtlán, which guards the forest as if it were the crown jewels, which in a way it is. This forest protects the watershed for 2 million people.
Raul notes every footprint, every overturned rock, every pile of ashes from a campfire. He cocks his head and listens intently to the distant sounds of gunfire. Periodically he hauls out his phone and calls down to an ecological agency in Ixtlán to inform them of what he has seen.
In Ixtán streets are spotlessly clean and a vast church one side of a large rental square. This is hardly a tourist Mecca. We find a small hostel and one restaurant. By far the best place to eat in town is the market where Indians gather to sell their produce and wares.
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In the 16th century—before the Spanish and then the Mexican government decided to ignore it—the State of Oaxaca was important. Hernán Cortés, the conqueror and ruler of Spain’s Mexican empire, chose Oaxaca as the location of his estate. His army spent half a century fighting to conquer the region.
And here in the 16th and 17th century is where Spain, with Mexican laborers and engineers, built a series of vast and beautiful churches, including perhaps the most beautiful of all its churches in the Western Hemisphere—Santo Domingo de Guzmán, consecrated in the city of Oaxaca in 1611. The size of the churches testifies to the size of the population before it was decimated by diseases the Spanish brought with them. The decorations are sometimes extraordinarily elaborate, with gold filigree and fine paintings and baroque architectural motifs.
Then as now, the State of Oaxaca was riven by mountains and broken up into fiefdoms that defied central authority. Then as now, the heart of its multi-ethnic population was the Zapotecs, who built the city of Monte Alban, and the Mixtecs, who built its successor, Mitla. Today, these two ruined cities, in the rich valleys that link the city of Oaxaca to the southern mountains, are among the most impressive pre-Hispanic sites in Latin America.
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The valleys contain other wonders. In the tiny village of El Tule the largest tree in the world dominates the central square. The ahuehuete is 2000 years old, 190 feet in circumference, 138 feet high and weighs 636,107 tons. It has its own irrigation system, built by the Zapotec pueblo after a natural stream dried up.
Other towns weave some of the most vivid, brilliant tapestries you’ll see anywhere. Raul Chavez Sosa, a weaver in a large cooperative in the village of Teotitlan, shows off his brilliant tapestries with portraits, birds, flowers and even Navajo designs. He tells us that, though he is illiterate, he visited Santa Fe and remembers with pleasure the Albuquerque Balloon Festival.
The finest mescal is produced here. In Matatlan a billboard proclaims the town to be “la capital de mescal,” although other villages challenge the title. Mescal is produced from agave. The cactus grows wild, but producers prefer the numerous types of agave that they cultivate. The sweet smells of mescal and roasting agave permeate the entire village of Matatlan. At bars and shops and markets in the city of Oaxaca, small bottles of the cheapest mescal can be bought for as little as $5, while a liter of the gourmet stuff goes for 10 times that.
Some of the world’s best coffee beans and chocolate manufactured from cocoa also come from Oaxaca. The chocolate is combined with local chile to create a magical sauce, at once sweet and spicy, called mole. Legend has it that the first mole was created in the 16th century by nuns in the city of Puebla, and that they took three days to concoct their specialty.
Mole, mescal and coffee are not the only culinary specialties of Oaxaca. Sweet treats made from corn and sugar are sold on the streets everywhere. And tlayuda, a kind of Oaxaca pizza, is ubiquitous. It consists of beans, onions, cheese, beef and several sauces spread on an oversized flour tortilla called a gringa (because so much of Mexico’s flour is now imported from the United States).
Local craftsman carve the small wooden animal figures called alebrijes that are international collectors’ items. These cats, dogs, wolves, horses and other animals have comical faces flush with surprising expressions and bodies stretched with startling antics.
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It is all a long way from the nation of rapists and murderers our president persists in depicting. This is a proud people. They don’t much like their government but they brag about their country, its history and culture. A large roadside sign proclaims that Mexico is not “mierda”—its government is.
Mexico will have a presidential election July 1. And due to Donald Trump’s hostility, the probable winner will be Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, a passionately anti-American socialist whose most remarkable proposal is to pardon drug smugglers and reintegrate them into society rather than killing as many of them as possible as his two predecessors tried to do. Widely known as Amlo (for his initials), he lost two presidential bids and was widely considered a political has-been until Trump’s insults to Mexico and his threats to withdraw from NAFTA gave Amlo a new lease on life.
In a few months, it could be a different world, one the United States government may not much like but that stubbornly independent places like Oaxaca will cheer. In “Avenue of Mysteries,” a Oaxaca-based novel published in 2015, author John Irving notes that the city of Oaxaca experienced two historic earthquakes. One of his characters adds, “A third earthquake is definitely due.”
THIS CONCLUDES THE SERIES ON OAXACA.