12 May 2015

Oaxaca: Visiting El Tule, Teotitlán, Mitla and Hierve El Agua

There are various attractions within an hour or two of the city of Oaxaca, and the one that interested me most was Hierve El Agua (literally. ‘the water boils’), a natural mineral spring perched high in the Sierra Madre 40 miles south-east of Oaxaca. The only public transport option, however, involves hopping in the back of a series of collectivo pick-up trucks — a cheap and probably fun mode of transport, but I was hoping for something with a more certain timetable.

Instead, I took a full-day guided tour, which took us to Hierve El Agua and a few other key sights. Several companies offer similar packages for roughly the same price; I went with Turismo El Convento, which is based in the Hotel Quinta Real on Calle 5 de Mayo. My tour cost 330 pesos (about £16), plus another 100 pesos or so for admissions and 150 pesos for lunch at a Mexican buffet (which I would have preferred not to have).

Our group of seven — four Mexicans, two Danes and me — left Oaxaca at 10 am on Saturday and the first stop was in the small town of El Tule, a few miles outside Oaxaca. El Tule is famous for the Árbol del Tule, which some say is the biggest tree in the world. This is unlikely, but it may be the widest, with a diameter of over 14 metres, and a girth of 58 metres. It’s also over 2,000 years old. I included a picture of myself for scale! If you’re on your way east of Oaxaca, you might as well make a fifteen-minute stop-off here, but it probably doesn't warrant a big detour.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to the famous weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle. Our guide, who spoke excellent English, gave us a whole wealth of information about the Zapotec culture: many of the villages in the area have political autonomy from the government and don't vote; about 80% still speak only Zapotec. I would have liked to have spent more time here, but we just made a short visit to a small weaving factory. We learned about how the colourful dyes were made from natural products: the reddish pink one was made from a white cactus fungus, which is dried, and then, when crushed, it explodes with a gorgeous, vibrant berry colour. We watched some of the weaving too and there was, of course, an opportunity to buy some of the products. The craftsmanship is truly impressive and reason the village is UNESCO-listed.

I didn’t want to become too ruined-out on this trip, but I enjoyed the hour we spent in the town of Mitla, which is built around the remains of an ancient Zapotec settlement — unlike Teotihuacán and Monte Albán, which were abandoned after the Spanish conquest. The Mitla archaeological site is quite small, but the buildings have stunning, geometrical engravings. The significance is uncertain, but it’s likely that they refer to the sun, lightning and a serpent. Interestingly, in the 1960s, a wall was constructed around the lower level to protect the buildings from earthquakes, but it turns out that the Zapotecs had already done a great job of making their buildings quake-proof.

When we were there, we were also able to descend into one of the tombs, which aren't normally open to the public. It was dark, cramped and humid inside and the engravings were fairly similar to those in the other buildings, but a fun experience. Our guide mentioned that the invading Spanish would often seek to destroy the temples dedicated to the rain god — the most important god — and then build their own church on top of the site. This is the case in Mitla, where the red-domed Templo de San Pablo is right next to the Zapotec remains.

Finally, it was time to go to Hierve El Agua, where we had an hour of free time to hike to the petrified waterfall at the site or to swim in the two beautiful natural ‘infinity’ pools near the edge of the cliff. I had done my research and had worn my bikini, but the rest of the group didn’t know there was a swimming opportunity — if you take this tour, do wear or bring a swimsuit; it’s much less fun sitting in the hot sun without being able to take a dip. I would happily have spent another hour there, splashing around in the pools and enjoying the view, but sadly, it was buffet time.

The buffet was fine, but as I wasn’t very hungry, it wasn’t particularly good value for me. The final visit of our tour was to a mezcal factory. On our outbound journey, I kept seeing small mezcal producers by the roadside and knew we wouldn't be going to one of those. At the factory, we had a ten-minute introduction to the mezcal-making process and were then taking to the tasting area and shop. The mezcals I tried were nowhere near as nice as anything I drank at In Situ or Mezcaloteca (and I won’t go into the creamy, flavoured mezcal blends on sale), so if you want to bring home a nice bottle, save your pennies for one of those two bars. In particular, the staff at Mezcaloteca taught me way more about the drink than the tour did. I did get to try an agave worm, though, which surprised me with the explosion of booze once you bite into it.

We got back to Oaxaca just after 6 pm, and although I enjoyed some activities more than others, the tour was, overall, a relatively cheap and very convenient way to visit some of the harder-to-reach spots outside the city. Although public transport options might let you tailor your itinerary a bit more, you would probably spend more time waiting around in the hot sun for the next collectivo. Also, as I mentioned, our guide was really good. He was friendly and very knowledgeable and had a lot of information about the places we visited.

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