At the Pace of a Turtle

March 18th, 2008

Grasshopper antennas, their translucent wings and even a couple of the little insects’ hairy legs were all stuck in-between my teeth. My gums itched, and the sensation in my tongue was so disgusting and vivid that it woke me up in a sweat. Thankfully, it was only a dream, a nightmare, really. That evening, our dinner appetizer was tacos de chapulines made with grasshoppers cooked in limejuice, a local delicacy in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I spent a week with my partner, Tom Cruz. With our itinerary inspired in part by Oliver Sacks’s Oaxaca Journal, a wonderful work about ferns and a literary piece that can well be a travel book, and in part by my sisters’ expeditions there, our journey was an adventure in every way. In the city, we visited colonial churches and cultural centers, drank with fresh-squeezed fruit juices and licuados (shakes) at the Mercado Benito Juarez and livened-up our evenings with a variety of local mescals accompanied by orange slices sprinkled with sal de gusano (crushed dried worms combined with chili powder and salt). We also traveled in the Valley of Oaxaca and to its beaches.

To my surprise, one of the highlights of our city tourism was a guided-tour to the city’s ethno-botanical garden. With plants endemic to the state of Oaxaca, including dozens of cacti species, the garden was created ten years ago in an area that is flanked by the colonial sixteenth-century Templo de Santo Domingo, the Museo Regional de Oaxaca and the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, which are housed in what was the temple’s convent, and an armory building that was built and occupied by the military from the late nineteenth century until 1993 and that is now a public library. The garden’s landscape design is inspired by the cacti fence and the greca engravings of Mitla, one of the three archeological sites in the Valley of Oaxaca that we visited.

Located some 40km northeast of the City of Oaxaca is the archeological zone of Mitla. Unlike Monte Alban, which is a lone site over a hill away from colonial or modern buildings, in Mitla a church stands over a pyramid ruin and homes of locals are in its immediate surroundings. It is said that Mitla’s beautiful decorative frisos on the building’s facades were created about 700 years ago by the Mixtec community.

The once fortified city of Yagul emerged circa 500 BC by the Zapotecs, and was apparently abandoned some centuries later only to be taken-up again by the Mixtecs along the rise of Mitla. Yagul’s ball court (second largest in Mesoamerica) is better known then its labyrinth-like palace of rooms, tombs and plazas. On our way there, we made a couple of stops. One at a mescal factory to learn the way this local liquor is made—from the farming of magueys and the slow-cooking underground cooking of their penachos to the fermentation and distillation processes. The other stop was to check out the monumental Arbol de Tule, a 2,000-year old tree; some say the world’s largest.

At just a 20-minute drive from the city of Oaxaca sits the grandiose site of Monte Alban, founded by Zapotecs circa 500 BC. The main archeological excavations and findings in Monte Alban were directed by Alfonso Caso Andrade in 1931 and 1939, but other excavations happened earlier and have taken place ever since. It was here, in Caso Andrade’s expedition in 1932, that the largest group of gold artifacts has been found to date in Mesoamerica. These were part of the funeral offerings, including more than 400 rich artifacts and jewelry made of gold, silver, jade and other precious materials found in Tumba 7 in Monte Alban.

After some days exploring the city and valley of Oaxaca, we headed further west and spent a couple of days in San Agustinillo, one in a series of relatively virgin beeches including Mazunte and Zipolite, located between the more tourist-filled Oaxaca beaches of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. The main site of the now illegal turtle industry, San Agustinillo primarily receives foreign travelers interested in bio-diverse landscapes and eco-tourism. Of course, there are other types of travelers that end there–and never leave.

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