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We come now to the moment of my greatest regret in all our trip to Mexico. Not that I could have done much about it, given the desires of my traveling companions. But even so.

I left San Martin Tilcajete without shopping bags full of alebrijes–the carved wooden figurines for which this town is justifiably famous. I miss every one of them that I wanted but did not buy. I miss every workshop we did not visit.

Alebrijes, you might ask, what’s the big deal? Let me show you the few alebrijes I bought for myself, and I think you will see.

Two small winged fire-breathing dragons with large ears and (!)antennae

A winged cat

These are just commercial-grade alebrijes, available inexpensively in the workshops where they are carved. We could have bought hummingbirds (every feather carved and painted separately), porcupines, robots, and a profusion of other real and imaginary creatures. Other alebrijes are of collector quality, gorgeous one-of-a-kind creations that are worth the high prices they command. Here are some good examples of both.

In one workshop we watched the artists at work, skilled carvers and imaginative painters both.


Even the entry to the workshop exuded the whimsical fantasy that makes the alebrijes so endearing.


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This post has taken a while to put together simply because I have too many pictures, and it’s been hard to winnow them down. Not that I haven’t taken too many pictures of other places in the past, but…it’s so terribly hard to take a bad picture of Monte Alban. And therefore so hard to choose just a few.

It takes a visit to a place like Monte Alban to realize how pathetic our educational system is in the US. Or at least, it was when Dan and I were growing up. How many of us even heard of the great Zapotec civilization that flourished for over a thousand years in southern Mexico?

Over a thousand years.

And vanished (not the Zapotecs, who are still thriving in the region, but the great civilization they created) without a trace, and no one knows why.

Here is a map of the site at Monte Alban, estimated by some at less than ten percent of the original city, a mountaintop artificially leveled to create this stunning city center whose main plaza is the size of several (American) football fields (300 by 200 meters). The English description says:

Monte Alban, the largest pre-Hispanic city in the region of Oaxaca, represents the first urban plan on the American continent. Its continuous human occupation spans more than thirteen centuries (500 B.C. to 850 A.D.), when its gradual abandonment began, for reasons still unknown.
In its golden age, this city was composed of a Main Plaza, the heart of the ceremonial center, and a series of nearby monumental architectural complexes...
It was characterized by having developed a true State as its system of government, led by the priestly class. A large part of its economy was based on tribute paid by communities in the Valley of Oaxaca, complemented by the cultivation of corn, beans, squash, and other rain-fed products grown on a system of terraces built on the slopes of the surrounding hills.

Monte Alban is one of the few sites in the world where the rise of the State as a system of government is clearly shown...

In 1987, UNESCO named this Zone of Archaeological Monuments a World Heritage Site for the convservation and enjoyment of all people of the world.

Here are some views of the monumental ruins, mostly those to the north of and surrounding the main plaza.

  Looking from the north platform back over the main plaza, you can get an idea of how huge this site is. And yet, it is only a small part of the original city.


And here are some views of the setting. You can see the city and valleys of Oaxaca on all four sides of this site, a breathtaking setting that people would come and visit even if the ruins of the city weren’t so stunning.



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They are strange. Eerie. Haunting.

Over two thousand ceramic sculptures of misshapen, forlorn people watch the plaza silently. They stand by the side of the street and watch the living people pass by. They do not interact. They are the people who are seen in the mind’s eye but who are not there.

The artist is Alejandro Santiago. According to his statement, he enlisted the participation of more than twenty-five people from his village over a period of several years to complete this work. He says these sculptures “represent the men and women who leave their villages to travel to the United States.”

The people are no longer here, but their shadows, cast in ceramic, remain.


One shop owner tells us that these are people who have died while trying to migrate to the US, or who have been killed by organized crime in Mexico. In Mexico, he assures us, his American customers, not in the United States.

There is something about these figures that lends credence to the idea that they represent those who have died, though the artist’s statement doesn’t say so. Many of the statues show corpses on their backs.

They line the street outside the grills of the shop and restaurant windows. Silently, they watch us, who are still here.


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These things defy categorization. A wireframe figure watching the street from a balcony. An angel behind bars. A skeleton waiting to offer you a menu. A strange bride in the middle of the marketplace.



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The details are as rich as the streetscapes here in Oaxaca. I have poked my head into more doorways and courtyards because…who could resist?

This is the courtyard of the excellent Catedral restaurant. The space was so beautiful that we made a reservation for dinner right then and there. And the meal was wonderful, too.

Here are a few other courtyards.



This last one reminded me of a “Via” in old Palm Beach.

The interior of the mescaleria below seemed a fitting place to try the local Oaxacan brew–mescal, made from all the species of agave except the blue agave that yields tequila. It’s milder than tequila, but still over seventy proof. Three shots for ten dollars, more or less. And an atmosphere that can’t be beat for drinking strong drink. (Yes, that’s a happy Margot and Dan, with a happy bartender.)



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Oaxaca City, named a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its abundance of notable (and beautiful) Spanish colonial buildings, is remarkable for the fabric of the streetscape of its ordinary buildings as well. Located high on a plateau in the mountains (at about 5,000 feet), the city has a mild climate year round. We’ve been experiencing dry, sunny weather with days warm enough for shorts and sandals and evenings cool enough for a light fleece. The city is immaculately clean.

The people are friendly. Many have beautiful smiles. Most don’t speak any English.

Have I said that the streets are beautiful? Here are some typical views.


The next several pictures show the wonderful colors and inviting doorways of the ordinary buildings that comprise the fabric of this great city.


In the next few posts I’ll show some of the more significant buildings and plazas, a few charming details, and some interior courtyard views.



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Embarrassingly, I have found a hitherto hidden cache of additional aerial photographs of the approach to Oaxaca City by air. Some of them are too pretty to let go by. So here they are for your enjoyment, as I fall further and further behind in this blog.



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Greetings from beautiful Oaxaca, a gem of a city in the mountains of Mexico. We arrived yesterday, flying over the mountains on a commuter plane from Mexico City. Here are some images of the approach by air.

Layers of clouds and mountains


A river runs through it


Folds and wrinkles


More folds and wrinkles


Long, narrow fields and a shining river


More fields and the river


A solitary mountain


Small town near Oaxaca


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Because we are traveling with our elderly mothers, we have ruled out small-boat rides, eco-tourism, and any vigorous cruise excursions. And, in any case, we are more interested in seeing old towns than anything else. We plan relaxed days in our four Mexican ports of call.

The first of these is Huatulco, in the Mexican province of Oaxaca. Huatulco is being newly developed for tourism. When I learned this during my pre-cruise research, I wasn’t much interested in this port of call, envisioning a modern town of mid- to high-rise buildings and little character. About a mile or so away from the port, however, there is an older town, La Crucecita, where an historical church dominates a traditional plaza and market area. We plan to visit this old town and then, if nothing else appeals, just head back to the ship. But we find we like both the old town and the new port area very much.

The ceiling and wall paintings inside the church at La Crucecita are beautiful.

Angel in church at La Crucecita

st. george and dragon in church at La Crucecitas

The shops around the main square are engaging.

rudys shop
And the new port area of Santa Cruz is surprisingly appealing. The buildings around the port area are in fact new, but the development is low-rise, traditional in character, and completely charming.

view of Huatulco port from the sea

boat in marina and buildings


Later, we take a break at a beach-side restaurant where Dan and I enjoy the best margarita ever, and where we admire the traditional (but not at all “touristy”) woven tablecloths. My mother buys an embroidered dress from a street vendor. To me it seemed “touristy” in the pile of such dresses, but when Mom puts it on, it’s stunning.

mom in traditional Mexican dress
Later we all go our separate ways: Mom back to the ship, Dan walking along the beach, and I seeking out a handicraft boutique for which I’ve been given a brochure. The handicraft boutique is a pleasant two-block walk along the marina and back from the port area in a boldly painted yellow building (circled in red in the picture below).

Here I find a weavers’ shop. One man at the front is working an old wooden loom. Another welcomes me inside. I’ve been on this cruise long enough to be leary of welcoming shopkeepers, but this young man is not at all pushy. If anything, perhaps he’s a bit shy. So I go inside.

And behold! Tablecloths just like the ones we admired at the restaurant. Without hesitation and with only a little bargaining, I buy one of these in a size that will fit my dining room table fully extended. And behold, too! The rugs in this shop are beautiful. This is not the ubiquitous merchandise in the tourist shops down by the port; this is something so traditional and tribal it could be almost be a distant form of Persian rug-weaving.

When I admire the rugs, the young man takes out a book about Zapotec weaving (you can read a little about it on this Web site), and he tells me a little about himself. He is a Zapotec from a village some seven hours away. He lives with relatives in Huatulco most of the time and gets back home only two or three days a month. He misses his village, but his wife and little daughter are here with him, and the work is important, as he is one of only a few people in his village who can speak some English. Besides, he tells me, he likes learning about things that they don’t have in his village, like electricity and taxes. In his village, the people have been weaving for two thousand years. Children start learning the craft at age 7 or 8. When the shop is not busy, he also weaves. I very much want to return to Oaxaca some day and see much more of it.

The shopkeeper’s name is Gregorio Ruiz. Here he is with his family.

zapotec weaver & family
If you get there, say hello for me.

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