There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Oaxaca (1) Monte Alban: Part 5 of South East from Mexico City


We breakfasted on melon, pastries, bread and jam, avoiding corn-based products to settle queasy stomachs.

A Bus Ride from Puebla to Oaxaca

G arrived on time for our transfer. A red light was flickering on his dashboard, and the car continually threatened to stall at low speeds. He managed to keep it going, but we were relieved when the bus station came into view. G kindly presented us with a bag of home-made tamales for the journey, we said our ‘goodbyes’ and he went off to fix his car.

Unlike our journey from Mexico City, the bus left Puebla on time and we settled in for the 5hr, 340km trip to Oaxaca (pronounced O'Hacker - well, near enough). Some of our fellow passengers slept, some read, some watched the films, no one but us pulled aside the curtains to look at the passing world.

by bus from Puebla to Oaxaca
At first there was little to see, the maize harvest was over and the cut stalks were piled in the fields.

Harvested maize fields outside Puebla
Further out of town we continued across an uncultivated plateau, with much unfamiliar vegetation and many cactuses…

The plateau once Puebla was left behind
…though the best cactuses were in a garden around one of the toll booths. At a couple of the toll booths inspectors got on the bus, gave a little speech, walked up and down, said goodbye and left. I have no idea what they were looking for, but they seemed friendly.

Cactus garden at a toll booth on the road to Oaxaca
Lunchtime came and went. We considered the tamales, but going without seemed a better option than more corn dough.

Later the land became more rugged, the valleys deeper….

Nearing Oaxaca, the valleys get deeper...
…and the bluffs higher.

Nearing Oaxaca, the bluffs get steeper
As we descended into Oaxaca, 500m lower than Puebla, we realised we had passed through no towns or villages en route. We had seen occasional dwellings and farm buildings, but had by-passed the sizeable town of Tehuacán, and maps show little else between the major cities of Puebla and Oaxaca.

The House and Garden of Cassiano Conzatti, Oaxaca

We were met at the bus station by a large cheerful man who introduced himself as Oscar. He drove us to the Conzatti House Hotel in the Centro Historico, once a rambling colonial-style private home.

Hotel Casa Conzatti, Oaxaca
Italian-born educator and botanist Cassiano Conzatti arrived in Mexico aged 19 in 1881 and lived in Oaxaca from 1891 until his death in 1951. Although lacking a formal botanical training, he collected and studied the local flora, became director of Oaxaca’s Botanic Gardens and published 32 works, describing 92 new species. One genus, numerous species and the garden opposite his former home are named after him.

The carnivorous plant Pinguicula Conzattii
Photographed in Oaxaca by Noah Elhardt and borrowed from Wikipedia
We took a walk round the garden and surrounding area, finding two Italian and one Moroccan restaurants within a short distance. Oaxacan cuisine is famous and I pride myself on eating local wherever I may be, but neither of us could face more corn dough so that night we went Italian.

Jardin Conzatti, Oaxaca
Oaxaca is lower and warmer than Puebla, but cool rain fell as we tucked into fettuccini with ham and mushrooms, and downed a cheapish bottle of La Mancha red. It was not the best Italian food, nor the finest Spanish wine, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.


Breakfast of huevos con jamon would have been better had the cook seasoned the scrambled eggs, but the fruit, bread and jam were good.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Our morning visit to Monte Alban was a shared tour organised by a local company. We waited for someone to pick us up, half expecting the cheerful Oscar, but it was a weasel-faced youth who arrived ten minutes late. It is standard practice for someone doing a pick up to establish their bona fides by knowing your name; Weasel had no idea who we were, and then announced that we should pay him for the trip. I told him we had prepaid. He gave me a look of intense irritation, pulled out his phone and a few minutes later he told me my name and that we had indeed prepaid. We climbed into his empty minibus and for the next twenty minutes toured Oaxaca's hotels as he filled it up.

We expected to go to Monte Alban next, but instead he drove into the courtyard of a large hotel, apparently a minibus marshalling point. We were taken off his bus and sent to sit in the shade with a lone American lad while everyone else was driven away. Our feeling of being sat on the naughty step was intensified when another bus arrived, our new American friend was put on it and we were left on our own.

The organisation may have been shambolic, or perhaps it was just that nobody explained it to us, but another bus soon arrived, we joined a mixed group, mainly Americans and Mexicans, and were driven out of town on a road which became progressively steeper and narrower as it left the urban confines behind.

The Monte Alban archaeological site is 400m above the valley, and from the car park we had a good view down into Oaxaca.

Oaxaca from Monte Alban
Our busload was divided into hispanophones and anglophones (which included several speakers of other north European languages), more people were added from other buses until eventually an anglophone group of about twenty was led away by a bulky elderly man in a large stetson.

Before we could enter we had to endure an argument between Stetson and a twentyish American who wanted to take his drone in, despite the large NO DRONES sign. Stetson said no. ‘But I have no intention of flying it,’ the lad whined. Stetson stood firm, Drone-boy became heated and Stetson continued to stand firm. Eventually, realising he was making no friends, Drone-boy was persuaded to use one of the lockers thoughtfully provided for such eventualities.

After listening to Stetson’s long introductory lecture we finally made it onto the site.

Onto the Monte Alban site while in the foreground Stetson and Drone-boy continue their discussion
Despite the length of the lecture and time we spent there, there is little say about Monte Alban. Built by the Zapotecs, presumably as a civic-ceremonial centre, it was founded around 500BC and abandoned between 500 and 750AD. It has been convincingly demonstrated that the civilization here had cultural and trading links with other centres, notably Teotihuacan but if the Zapotecs had writing, none has survived let alone been deciphered so everything else is speculation. No one knows what they called the site, nor even how it got its Spanish name.

The main plaza is an artificially levelled sward 300m long by 200 wide.

Main plaza, Monte Alban
Along the sides are, probably, civic-ceremonial and/or elite residential buildings,…

Civil/Ceremonial buildings (?) and the north platform, Monte Alban
while the line of structures down the centre of the plaza are …um…important…definitely.

The west side of the Monte Alban plaza, with the buildings along the median on the right - ending with the arrowhead-shaped building (see below)
None of this uncertainty concerned Stetson. Over the years he had formed opinions and gradually these opinions had strengthened until, if only in his own mind, they had solidified into facts. 'Can you spot the altar?' he asked as we stood in the shade of the central buildings. Nobody offered a suggestion. 'It's obvious,' he said and led us towards the only structure not on the boundaries or central alignment. Nobody can be certain this is an altar - nor whether there was an altar, nor even whether it was a religious site at all, but Stetson knew (and he might be right).

The altar? Monte Alban

An arrowhead-shaped building turned at an angle to the median line pointed straight at the Pleiades, he told us. Even Stetson could not explain why this was important, but the stars move, so it must always be pointing at something of astronomical interest.

Lynne in front of the arrowhead-shaped building, Monte Alban
Stetson finished his spiel with the suggestion that we should climb the south platform (the north platform was cordoned off and festooned with wooden props supporting earthquake damaged structures), have a wander and meet our guides in the car park in 30 minutes. 'Fair enough,' we thought, though there was no one we could identify as 'our guide'.

The South Platform, Monte Alban
There was little to see on the south platform itself,...

On the south platform, Monte Alban
...but it provided an excellent view back down in the valley...

The Oaxaca Valley from Monte Alban
...and, of course, across the whole Monte Alban site.

Monte Alban from the south platform
Several steles are positioned round the site. One group, known as the Danzantes, were once interpreted as carvings of dancing men. This fitted well with Stetson's view that the Zapotec civilization was a golden age and Monte Alban a Shangri-la. 'There were no human sacrifices or anything unpleasant until the Aztecs came,' he told us with certainty. Later archaeologists wondered why the Danzantes were missing certain important organs, and current thinking is that they represent the tortured and mutilated bodies of prisoners taken in war. Stetson might disagree.

Stele, Monte Alban
Our return to Oaxaca was as chaotic as our journey up the mountain. I will spare you the details, but we eventually arrived back at Casa Conzatti in the car of the tour company boss in time for a late-ish lunch of soup and chunks of bread.

A Stroll into and Around Central Oaxaca

In the afternoon we strolled to the city centre, 20 minutes away. Oaxaca's precise grid of narrow roads with frequent traffic lights make driving frustrating, but is good for walkers. Even the fiercest of monsters is no problem...

Fierce monster in the streets of Oaxaca
...and if you are unsure of your location the city tells you, colourfully. Behind is Santo Domingo de Guzman, and we intended to visit the church and museum on Thursday.

Oaxaca sign, Oaxaca
The centre is a square, part paved and part wooded. There is no excuse for having dirty shoes in Oaxaca...

Shoe shine stalls, Oaxaca city centre
...and anything you require can be found in the shops or stalls, some semi-permanent, others very temporary.

Some of the more permanent stalls round Oaxaca city centre
The non-paved part of the square was covered in tents. The earthquake that shook Mexico city on the 8th of September was followed by another, slightly smaller but centred near here, on the 25th. The tents were occupied by those made homeless two months before.

Tents, Oaxaca city centre
Just off the square is the cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Construction started in 1535, earthquake damage required a couple of rebuilds and the present structure dates from 1733, though the towers needed rebuilding in 1931. The central section is highly decorated but the rest is plain – why bother with all that work when it will come down in the next earthquake? Oaxaca is known as The Green City as much of it is built from the local green-tinged Cantera stone. The Cathedral is a fine example – and no, it does not look very green to me, either.

Oaxaca Cathedral
The inside is relatively simple, as Catholic cathedrals go, though the railed off section down the centre was something we had not seen before and do not understand.

Inside Oaxaca Cathedral
Back in the square we drank a cappuccino at one of the many cafés...

Cappuccino in the main square, Oaxaca
.before strolling back towards our hotel.

The misleadingly named Day of the Dead is actually a three day festival (31st Oct to 2nd Nov) where families gather to celebrate the lives of deceased relatives, rolling together Christian All Saints Day with pre-Hispanic cultural practices and adding a touch of Halloween. Although the festival was three weeks ago, some of the decorations remained, like the skeletons in the photo below.

Day of the Dead skeletons climb around the balconies


Further along we found the entry to an Organic Market. We wandered in, but it was largely food stalls and in the late afternoon most were packing away. The pulque stall, though was still operating.

Pulque stall, Oaxaca Organic Market
Pulque, the fermented juice of the agave, has been drunk by Mexicans for millennia. Lonely Planet says “it retains an earthy, vegetal taste and has a thick, foamy consistency some people find unpleasant.” It is often sold 'curado' (mixed with fruit juices) to make it more palatable, and we had tasted a curado version at Teotihuacan. This, though, was the 'natural'; it was very pleasant, not thick or foamy in the least, and had a refreshing sharpness.

Drinking pulque, Oaxaca Organic Market
In the evening we visited the second Italian restaurant for pizza, spaghetti and more cheap Spanish wine. After two full days without corn dough we were feeling much better.

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