A Travellerspoint blog

Alebrijes, Copal & Sustainable Industry in Oaxaca

Mexico Keeping Its Head High in Sustainability and Cottage Industries

Woodcarver Jacobo Ángeles, and his talented wife, painter María Mendoza, own an alebrije workshop in the town of San Martín Tilcajete, Ocotlán, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Alebrijes are those fanciful carved wooden figures one finds not only throughout the tourist destinations in Mexico, but now also in gift and folk art shops, and even museums, in Canada, the US, and further abroad. But for Jacobo and María, and those who know them, their business is more than a means of providing a livelihood for their family. It represents sustainable industry for Oaxaca.

The Ángeles – Mendoza taller arguably produces the highest quality alebrijes in the entire state. Jacobo recounts stories of the predecessor to alebrijes; rudimentary carvings dating to pre – Hispanic times, which were placed in a revered part of each Zapotec home, or small amulets which were worn around the neck. Each individual had his own animal protector, depending on date of birth in the 20 day Zapotec calendar.

The wood most often used to carve images of these mammals, fish, fowl and reptiles was, and continues to be, copal. Its bark was traditionally used to produce many of the pigments used for painting friezes on ruins such as Mitla. Since time immemorial its hardened sap or resin has been burned as incense for rituals, including religious rites. And so copal has been dubbed a sacred tree. But in modern Oaxaca it symbolizes sustainability.

Copal and Alebrije Carving in Oaxaca, Mexico

The word copal comes from the Nahuatl term copalli, applied to any resin producing plant which gives off an aroma when burned. The copal tree belongs to the genus Bursera. There are about 100 species ranging from Mexico down through the Americas. The copal used to carve alebrijes and produce resin is a softwood, medium sized tree reaching a height of about 12 meters.

Alebrijes are carved when the wood is still green and therefore more easily worked. Copal grows with significant bends and contortions, lending itself to the creation of the most whimsical of figures simply by using one’s imagination to determine what branch will be used to carve what creature. Some alebrijes are carved from one solid piece of wood, while others are assembled.

Sustainability and the Use of Copal

Once the figure has been carved and sanded, the artist is left with small wood chips and sawdust. But nothing goes to waste in the workshop of Jacobo and María. The alebrijes must be completely dry before the painting begins. During the drying process, cracks appear – a good thing. The small pieces of wood from the carving process, discarded in the course of the wood being cut with first a machete, then a series of chisels, and finally small finishing knives, are used to fill the cracks. The sawdust is mixed with commercial glue, and the paste is then used to ensure the wooden shims remain in place. Thereafter the paste is used as a coating over the areas which have had remedial work. Any remaining wood chips are used as fuel – kindling and firewood to make tortillas and other prepared foods on the grill or comal.

One is hard-pressed to encounter another workshop in any of the three main alebrije villages in Oaxaca which decorates its figures using paints made from fruit, vegetable, insect and mineral material. While María’s painting group also works with acrylics, its use of naturally produced colors is the specialty: pomegranate for yellows, pinks and greens; cochineal for reds and oranges; añil or indigo for blues; huitlacoche (corn smut) for ochre and zinc for lightening. Other natural substances are also combined, yielding a rainbow of colors.

The copal tree itself can be used to produce a vast range of colors. The inside of the bark of the “male” species, when dried, toasted and ground, yields a deep brown / maroon powder which when mixed with lime juice, baking soda (in pre – Hispanic times sea salt) and other natural substances, creates yet further colors and tones.

In order to ensure that these natural colors do not fade with exposure to the sun or absorb into the wood, before application they are combined with a mixture of 50% honey and 50% liquefied (with the application of fire) copal resin – the same resin which continues to be used ritually in Oaxaca at funeral gatherings and prayer services, church masses, and at other times of the year marking important dates, such as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In some Mexican cultures, pursuant to local tradition inhalation of the resin or drinking it in a tea is believed to relieve respiratory problems. The smoke is also used to purify the individual, the home, and even as custom at the inauguration of a new business. The humo is also employed as aromatherapy by curanderos (native healers), and in ritual associated with the temazcal, a pre – Hispanic cleansing and curative steam bath akin to the Iroquois sweat lodge.

The same liquid resin is also utilized as lacquer. And in Ocotlán, a short drive from San Martín Tilcajete, it is employed by acclaimed knife maker Apolinar Águilar. Apolinar hand – forges knives, swords and cutlery using only recycled metals, with the aid of only a mallet and heat produced by his stone and mud hearth – a technique imported from 16th century Toledo, Spain. To engrave his work with a name, verse or drawing, he uses an ink he makes by liquefying the copal resin with other compounds.

Production of copal resin constitutes a distinct industry providing many with work. The trees are tapped by cutting a well from which the sap can easily be collected. Similar to tapping a maple, the copal tree continues to grow once tapped.

The copal matures and is ready to be cut for use as wood at about 30 years of growth, a relatively short period of time. But the tree is not simply cut down. Those involved in cutting and selling copal branches to the artisans ensure that the tree trunk remains sufficiently large and viable so that it continues to grow, for future cutting.

But since copal remains the wood of choice for carving alebrijes, and alebrijes continue to be popular tourist purchases, copal runs the danger of become a scarce natural resource.

Since 1994, the Rodolfo Morales foundation has donated saplings to the cause of ensuring a continuous supply of copal. Every year the townspeople and friends of San Martín Tilcajete participate in a reforestation project which centers upon the planting of 5,000 copal saplings and a further 5,000 mixedwood. The planting occurs during the summer rainy season, to take advantage of the natural irrigation at this time of year. Of course some trees do not survive extremely heavy and sustained rains, and others die during the dry season if watering is insufficient. But most saplings do take, so that eventually irrigating is not required to maintain healthy, fast growth.

The cycle of cultivating copal from sapling to cutting is remarkably similar to that of agave, used in the production of mezcal, another sustainable Oaxacan industry. For generations to come, alebrijes and copal, mezcal, as well as other local industries including production of rugs and hand blown glass, will continue to enhance Oaxaca’s reputation as a world ambassador of sustainability.

Alvin Starkman (M.A., LL.B.) is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today (http://www.mexicotoday.org). Alvin has written over 200 articles about cultural traditions in Oaxaca. He consults to documentary film companies working in Oaxaca, tours couples and families to the sights, and works with Chef Pilar Cabrera arranging Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) and with his wife Arlene operating Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).

Posted by titosarah 17:10 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico in industry wood carvings oaxaca oaxacan sustainable alebrijes copal Comments (0)

Found Object as Visual Art

Some Observations and Application in Oaxaca, Mexico

As a consequence of the innovative thinking of Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and others, the 20th century bore witness to the concept of found object as visual art becoming a mainstream European and American medium of artistic expression. In the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, itself known for quality, cutting edge art, found object has received attention over the past 20 years. Take for example the masterful works of Damien Flores, the collages produced by Rodolfo Morales during the final years of his life, and young Mixteco artist Manuel Reyes’ use of archaeological pieces as well as local sands and soils as aids in expressing the strong sense of indigeneity he seeks to impart through his art.

Oaxaca’s 16 native cultures, the diversity of its landscapes and climatic regions, and its rich human history beginning with pre-Hispanic times, continuing through the era of the Conquest, to ongoing 21st century human struggles, provide a diverse, ultra – rich proving ground. Within it, visiting and resident artists, tourists with a bent towards antiques and collectibles, and both expat and native born Oaxacans who are inclined to think out-of-the-box, can readily encounter found objects to incorporate into their aesthetic lives.

Contemporary Manifestations of Found Object as Visual Art

A found object within the context of visual art may be defined as the artistic use of an object, man – made or otherwise, which has not been created for a predominantly artistic purpose. It can be a toaster, a shoe, a car part, a beaded jacket, a newspaper, a simple tool or a farm implement, a leaf or stone, a wrestler’s mask, a clump of clay, or a Coke bottle – empty or full.

One can designate three broad categories of found object which are then transformed into the realm of art:

• An object encountered by chance or sought out by design, for the purpose of using it essentially “as found,” to enhance the aesthetic environment of a home, an office, a store or other workplace environment, or a landscape. Of course it can be a featured artwork in an exposition (i.e. Duchamp’s seminal display of a ceramic urinal in 1917) which eventually finds its way into one of the three foregoing contextual environments or as a permanent gallery exhibit.
• An object or objects encountered by chance or sought out by design, and incorporated into a traditional piece of art such as an oil or watercolor, for the purpose of enhancing its overall aesthetics, or the imagery its author seeks to impart, or both (i.e. Manuel Reyes’ use of potsherds).
• Objects usually sought out by design for the purpose of employing them to create a specific art form, which may or may not include a utilitarian function (i.e. rusted horse shoes made into a wine rack or polished old metal car parts fashioned into a twirling ballerina).

Found Objects in Oaxaca for the Expat Resident and Tourist Alike

Artists resident in Oaxaca should have no difficulty advancing the breadth and quality of their works within the realm of the last two categories noted above. They already have a trained eye and a mind yearning to continually grow in different directions with a view to keeping the art fresh, both on a personal level and for their benefit of public consumption.

It’s the availability of the broadest selection of Oaxacan material culture, objects which can be used “as found,” which should attract the attention of non – artist expat residents and tourists alike. The case can be made within the following parameters:

1. Middle and upper classes have an eye for a different and often broader continuum of objects which they deem aesthetically pleasing, than working and lower classes.
2. There is a much larger per capita middle and upper class in the United States and Canada, than in Oaxaca, of which a significant segment of the former is inclined to visit Oaxaca.
3. It’s relatively difficult for members of those same two classes in Oaxaca, having grown up surrounded by and conditioned to ignore much of their day – to – day material culture (indigenous or otherwise), to appreciate its aesthetic value; they are accordingly less interested in its acquisition.
4. Based on the foregoing, relative to the American and Canadian phenomenon over the past 50+ years, found objects in Oaxaca have only to a minor extent become deemed collectibles.
The Transformation from Found Object to Collectible

When an object becomes a collectible, its acquisition price tends to increase exponentially. The first time an American saw a discarded or stored away pine foundry form, he probably picked it up for free or at a nominal charge (perhaps its value as firewood). After he took it home, and then cleaned and oiled it and put it on the wall in his den, he began using the found object as art; a piece of wood used to fabricate industrial metal, now adorning an upscale contemporary household.

Foundry forms became collectibles, offered for sale in antique stores and interior design galleries. Much in the same vein, old working wooden duck decoys have been transformed from utilitarian hunting paraphernalia into thousand dollar (and indeed much more) adornments of fireplace mantels; and wooden tongue and groove Canadian Butter and Southern Comfort boxes initially used to transport product from manufacturer to market, have become aesthetically pleasing receptacles to store kindling for those fireplaces.

These days one rarely picks up a foundry form, a decoy or an old wooden advertising box “for a song,” because each has been transformed into a class of collectible. In Canada and the United States, and it is suggested throughout most of the Western World, a solitary found object as visual art is virtually non – existent outside of the context of being offered for sale as art, folk art or otherwise for interior design purposes. On the other hand, objects found for the purpose of either incorporating them into a traditional art form (newspaper comic clippings, potsherds, shoe laces) or fabricating a piece of art using only that class of object (the car part ballerina), will be easily encountered for generations to come, bought outright based on non – aesthetic value, scrounged on the street, or found in a junk yard and purchased by the pound.

Found Objects in Oaxaca Still in Abundance for Aficionados of Art & Aesthetics

Insofar as Oaxaca remains a developing state, with a middle / upper class contingent as previously described (small, generally unconditioned to appreciate a certain level of aesthetics), its realm of collectibles has not reached the level one encounters in the Western World, or even within the Mexico City environs. This provides interesting buying opportunities for visitors to Oaxaca.

Although in each of the three or four downtown Oaxaca antique stores one does encounter found objects, these particular objets d’art have been transformed into collectibles over the past few decades and in some cases merely years (stone metates or grinding stones, well worn ritual masks, pine votive candle holders, chango mezcalero clay painted mezcal bottles, etc.). However, by getting out of the city and knocking on villagers’ doors, and even simply walking along dusty roads, visitors can still stumble upon a treasure trove of found objects which when brought home, with proper placement and juxtaposition are easily transformed into visual art.

Of course residents of Oaxaca are not restricted in the size or weight of what they choose to transform, nor by customs and immigration rules. Hence, one might find in their homes, now as art, an old rusted iron plough adorning a well landscaped garden; or a pine mule saddle riddled with tiny holes evidencing a period of insect infestation, now gracing an interior wall of a new home, draped with colored twine and worn leather parts, all as originally found in a farmer’s shed.

Indeed the traveler on a brief visit to Oaxaca can also return home with a bounty of found object art. The big old rusty plough and the well worn wooden saddle are found objects which today complement the aesthetics of this writer’s Oaxacan home.

Opportunities abound to find smaller found objects, manageable for export, to transform into art, simply by exploring villages in the state’s central valleys. Examples? Just keep a keen eye, and remember to think out-of-the-box.

Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) with his wife Arlene. Alvin writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and its central valleys, including articles about art and antiques. He also consults to documentary film companies, tours couples and families, and together with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo organizes culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 16:04 Archived in Mexico Tagged art objects gallery mexico object found oaxaca visual Comments (0)

Oaxaca Lending Library & Community Center

English Language Books, Social Events, Outreach Programs & Charities

The Oaxaca Lending Library (OLL) has been in existence for over 40 years, and is one of the largest English language libraries in all of Mexico. Over the past decade it’s grown into a vibrant community center, in large part due to the dedication of its many volunteers.

The library supports and sponsors various charitable outreach programs, and as such is a valuable resource which benefits the broader Oaxacan population. Donations it receives from American taxpayers are deductible through a U.S. Foundation (Canadians can give it a try, but be prepared for CRA to reject the write-off, since to my knowledge a Canadian foundation has not yet been formed). The OLL also facilitates the learning of English and Spanish for respectively Oaxacans and expatriates (mainly Americans and Canadians), with special emphasis on children and youths.

Charity Work & Outreach of Oaxaca’s English Language Library

The main, ongoing charitable project of the OLL is its support of the Libros Para Pueblos program. The goal of Libros Para Pueblos is to create Spanish language libraries in neighborhoods, villages and towns where none exist, and to stock and replenish the supply of books and related educational tools. The object is to improve the level of learning of those who would otherwise not have the ability or resources to enhance their literacy. The program has created over 30 libraries.

¡Kids Go! is a pre-school program which teaches underprivileged children basic socialization and learning skills prior to their entry into public school. The program currently has about 60 participants.

Youth Adelante addresses learning of Oaxacan teens by assisting them with their Spanish, library and computer skills, through supporting their socialization with visiting foreign students.

Linda’s Kitchen teaches mentally and physically handicapped young people to function productively in various types of restaurant work. After completing the program the graduate youths are assisted by the Kitchen personnel and others associated with the OLL, to find paid employment in Oaxaca’s working world.

Raising Resources

Aside from outright donations to fund the foregoing programs, there are other ways that the OLL receives resources. Both native Oaxacans and expatriates are encouraged to donate excess books, computer equipment which they are no longer using, and items of clothing, furniture and even foodstuffs.

[I have my own program independent of the library, wherein I encourage visitors to Oaxaca to fill the empty suitcase they’ll be bringing down (earmarked for craft, clothing and rug purchases) with new or gently used clothing, toys and educational tools. I pick up the bounty from hotels and B & Bs upon receiving a call or email, and then distribute directly to families I know to be in need, or to the administration of rural schools, which often has a better handle on identifying the families of students clearly living on the edge.]

With the support of Oaxacan restauranteurs and other benefactors, charity dinners are held on a regular basis. There’s also an annual rummage and bake sale, the occasional fine art auction which is generously supported through donations of works by Oaxacan artists, and additional ongoing efforts aimed at fundraising.

And of course there are periodic book and DVD sales on the premises. Occasionally it’s necessary to cull the collections, especially after a large, new donation has been made. There are always books and DVDs for sale, but the best time to find real bargains is when sales first begin.

Social Programs and Language Learning at the Oaxaca Lending Library

The Library is a hub of activity for its members and visitors, six days a week. Expatriate residents, part-timers and snowbirds, those traveling through Oaxaca, and tourists, are all welcome to participate in all social programs. Activities include: lecture series on a regular basis, a bridge club, gatherings of musicians anxious to jam, monthly garden club meetings including field trips throughout the central valleys and further abroad. And of course every day there are informal chats over coffee, pastries and bagels, whenever passersby yearn for familiarity of language and culture, or have questions about anything to do with Oaxaca or Latin American travel.

A monthly newsletter keeps members and visitors up to date. At the library premises there’s a bulletin board with postings for personal and professional services, as well as other announcements and news; a binder with accommodations wanted and being offered and homes / land for sale; and other helpful resources.

On Saturday mornings, Spanish and English speakers, children and adults alike, gather at the Oaxaca Lending Library to assist one another to better their language skills, on a semi-formal basis. There are opportunities to arrange for ongoing intercambios, whereby on a fixed schedule hour-long sessions can take place to assist Oaxacans to better their English, and Americans and Canadians to improve their Spanish. These informal discussions often supplement more formal language training.

Become a Member of the Oaxaca Lending Library

The OLL offers modestly priced annual memberships, as well as a short – term program which enables snowbirds and avid readers on a short vacation to Oaxaca, to avail themselves of the library’s vast selection. And by joining, part – timers can become permanent members on the OLL mailing list, enabling them to keep abreast of activities and events pending their next visit to Oaxaca. And for those who winter at the beach resorts on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, such as Huatulco and Puerto Escondido, it would certainly be worth a call or email to the OLL to inquire about making arrangements to have a rotating selection of books available to read while soaking up the sun.

Alvin Starkman has a masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. A resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes couples and families to the sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies working in southern Mexico, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), a unique b & b providing accommodations which combine the privacy and amenities of an apartment, and comfort of Oaxaca hotels with the personal touch and service of country inn lodging. Alvin also leads culinary tours of Oaxaca with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 09:46 Archived in Mexico Tagged books charities_in_oaxaca oaxaca_library outreach_programs spanish_schools expatriots_mexico Comments (0)

Visiting the Zapotec Ruin at Mitla, Oaxaca

Gilberto, the Federally Licensed Mitla Tour Guide

Gilberto Arreortua Jimenez has been a federally licensed tour guide working at the Mitla archaeological zone in Oaxaca, since 1997. Being able to guide tourists in English, French, Italian, and of course in Spanish, is quite a feat for anyone, let alone a Zapotec native who grew up in the village of Capulalpam de Mendez (now designated a pueblo magico or “magical village” by the government of Mexico). One would be hard-pressed to find any other guide who works at Mitla on virtually a daily basis, with Gilberto’s credentials – university educated in linguistics, and lifetime student of archaeology.

Overview of the Zapotec Ruin of Mitla, Oaxaca

Mitla dates back about 1,000 years, perhaps less, and is thus one of the more recent ruins within the context of Oaxacan archaeology. However it was restored relatively early, at the beginning of the 20th century while Mexico was under the rule of Porfirio Diaz.

Mitla is the second most popular archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca, after Monte Alban. It’s a 50 minute drive from the capital, along the popular Sunday route to el Tule, Tlacochahuaya, the Tlacolula market, and various other archaeological sites such as Dainzu, Lambityeco and Yagul. It’s also the take-off point for visiting the Xaaga pictographs, the mezcal factories of San Lorenzo Albarradas and San Jose del Rio, Hierve el Agua, and the Mixe District.

The main Mitla attractions include:
• The precision angles of the limestone walls and massive lintels, and upwards of 100,000 small cut mosaic stones hand-formed using rudimentary tools;
• Its dry construction whereby the limestone pieces were fit into clay, rather than affixed with mortar;
• The quality of some of the remaining painted glyphs;
• The two tombs;
• The church, constructed by the Dominicans in the 16th century, on top of a Zapotec temple, using stones dismantled from Zapotec buildings by the Spanish conquistadores.

Multilingual Mitla Tour Guide: Family Background, Experience & Education, and Certification

Gilberto is 47 years old, married and has two children age 13 and seven months. His wife is employed in an administrative capacity by the federal government.

Gilberto’s family lives in a modest brick home in a working class neighbourhood in Oaxaca’s east end, making for an easy drive to Mitla. “I’m in the process of constructing a rental building on land I own near El Tecnologico [a university], for students and tourists, sort of a hostel,” Gilberto revealed one evening while visiting me with his wife, children and nephew. “I’m not in a rush. Right now we’re doing fine, and I know that with what we’ve already accomplished our family will be well-provided for down the road.”

At age six, Gilberto moved to Oaxaca from Capulalpam with his parents and siblings. A year later his father died. His mother died when he was 17, after which his older sister assumed parental responsibilities.

Gilberto doesn’t attribute his parents’ influence as the greatest determinant of his career path: “I was always interested in learning about foreign cultures and world archaeology, from as young as I can remember, eager to look at any books I could find; I suppose that interest lead to wanting to learn different languages.”

Gilberto studied languages for four years; hence, his proficiency in English, Italian and French. A career in tourism was a natural. In 1991 he began working at a travel agency, and continued in that vocation for close to three years.

After Gilberto decided to become a licensed guide, rather than take a formal course he self-taught, enabling him to work while studying. After passing the exams and being certified as a federally licensed tour guide, he began working throughout the state in different capacities.

Gilberto eventually decided to work exclusively at Mitla: “I’d already been a student of pre –history, and I’m Zapotec, so deciding to work at Mitla was easy; and of course not having to compete with several other guides with linguistic proficiency like I would have had to do at Monte Alban, made Mitla a logical choice.”

Gilberto always has the economic well-being of his wife and children as the primary focus in his life. Since he’s licensed to work as a guide anywhere in Mexico, when the opportunity to guide a group of tourists to perhaps Monte Alban or Yagul, or further abroad, Gilberto seizes the opportunity. But Mitla is his bailiwick.

Gilberto’s Work as a Federally Authorized Guide at Mitla, Oaxaca

Gilberto works with anywhere from a single tourist with a keen interest in Oaxacan archaeology, to a large tour bus group. But it’s when he’s engaged by a couple, family or small group that his breadth of knowledge emerges. He invests the time to field a diversity of questions and provide detailed answers, drawing on his knowledge of not only Zapotec, Mixtec and other Oaxacan cultures, but also his ability to illustrate contrasts with ancient Egyptian, Mayan and Inca civilizations, as well as those in other parts of Mexico.

“When studying for my exams, I also had to learn about other world civilizations. However what I was required to study was a fraction of my current knowledge base. I keep up to date with scientific knowledge, and like to mull things over. What we think we know about pre – Hispanic cultures is not entirely based on archaeological data; a lot is interpretation. It’s important to distinguish fact from conjecture. I’m always careful to do so when explaining Mitla.”

Gilberto also keeps current with archaeological developments by regularly attending conferences sponsored by the department of tourism. When less than two years ago new archaeological finds near the Yagul site were reported, it was important for him to learn as much as possible through reading and seminars. “That new data helped to confirm what until then we could only say was conjecture. For example, we had hypothesized that the Zapotecs used ixtle [twine made from agave leaves] to lift the multi-ton palace lintels into place, but actually discovering 800 – 1,000 year old ixtle close to Mitla elevated that knowledge into the category of extreme probability, if not certainty.”

Gilberto is easily engaged into discussion regarding his views on the relationship between Zapotec ethnicity and Catholicism. “While there are pockets of Oaxacans which maintain a strong cultural identity, I think I’m different from most,” he confesses. “Sure I have a cross and image of The Virgin in my home, but being at Mitla day in and day out, inevitably considering my ancestors, puts Catholicism is a different light for me.” Just ask Gilberto his thoughts about the construction of the first Catholic church at Mitla, right on top of a Zapotec pyramid.

Gilberto’s fees for a guided tour of Mitla vary depending on the number of people. It’s well worth the investment, making all the difference in your understanding of what you’re seeing, regardless of whether or not you have a guidebook in hand.

Alvin Starkman has been a fixture in Oaxaca since 1991, when he first began visiting the city on a frequent basis. Now a permanent resident of Oaxaca along with his wife Arlene, the two operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), combining the quaintness and personal touch of the best of B & B Oaxaca, with the comfort and service of a four star Oaxaca hotel. Alvin writes, consults to documentary film companies working in Oaxaca, assists tourists in visiting the sights in the state’s central valleys, and works with chef Pilar Cabrera in organizing culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 14:16 Archived in Mexico Tagged ruins the in of tours guide tour archaeological guides monte oaxaca alban touring mitla zones Comments (0)

Flying to Oaxaca is Exciting: Hierve el Agua in a Piper?

Flying to Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, in a Piper Arrow II Single Prop is Plain Exhilarating


Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

When Tom Penick emailed me and indicated that he would be flying to Oaxaca in his own airplane (actually co-owned with others), and that he wanted to see Hierve el Agua from the plane, I knew that if I could swing a ride with him it would be an experience I would not likely have during the balance of my lifetime.

Hierve el Agua is a site just beyond the central valleys of Oaxaca, at approximately 6,500 feet above sea level. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons it’s passed up by the lion’s share of tourists visiting Oaxaca. It consists of bubbling, mineral rich springs which feed two man-made pools suitable for a refreshing swim, and a couple of petrified “waterfalls,” all located in an absolutely breathtaking mountain setting.

Tom Penick owns a popular website (tomzap.com) designed to assist travelers interested in learning about and visiting one of three states in Mexico which border on the Pacific; Jalisco, Colima and Oaxaca. While he gathers a lot of information about these states from third party sources, he likes to periodically update his website by personally visiting the regions where he has gained some expertise. For Tom’s February, 2011, sojourn to Oaxaca, he was accompanied by his wife, Nancy, and spry, delightful, 96 – year – old mother, Doris.

My wife Arlene and I had decided to invite Tom and family over to the house for drinks and botanas, simply as a nice gesture, since as is the case with so many of us in the age of email, facebook and twitter (I must confess I abhor the latter two), I had come to know Tom and Nancy quite well over the past few years, but only online through advertising on tomzap.com, submitting articles to his website, and more generally as a consequence of passing on information about Oaxaca to Tom for publication.

Sometime in the course of that evening of chatting and indulging in food and drink with Tom and Doris (Nancy had been ill so could not join us), Arlene and me, and our friends Pilar Cabrera and Luis Espinosa (of La Olla restaurant and Casa de Los Sabores Cooking School), Arlene mentioned to Tom that I was hoping to accompany him to Hierve el Agua. I had not planned on broaching the topic that evening, even though I had mentioned to Tom in the course of emailing, that I would love to see the site from his plane.

As I was dropping off Mr. Zap and his mother at their hotel at the conclusion of our evening together, Tom said that the only day he would be able to take me to Hierve el Agua was Monday. “Tell me what time and I’ll be by to pick you up and we can head to the airport,” I replied excitedly.

The small Mexican domestic airlines which fly to and from Oaxaca and both Puerto Escondido and Huatulco (the two major Pacific coastal resorts in the state), Aerovega and Aerotucan, take off in the mornings, as early as 7 a.m., although at times weekend flights leave around noon. Wind currents over and between the mountains tend to pick up in the afternoon, and accordingly morning flights reduce the likelihood of significant turbulence and make for more comfortable and enjoyable flying. Tom suggested I come by for him at 8 a.m.

The Oaxaca airport is comprised of two terminals, the large one for international and domestic commercial jet air travel, generally used by planes which can accommodate at least 50 passengers; and the small one for the military, sometimes cargo, short haul runs by small airlines such as Aerovega and Aerotucan, and for small private planes. A perk of using the small terminal is that parking to pick up and drop off passengers and when you’re off for a short flight in a private plane, is free. The air of informality is also pleasing, of course not extending to matters of safety and security.

With 20 years of flying experience under his belt, including several flights between home state Texas and Mexico, Tom knows the ropes, although his Spanish could use more work than mine. But when flying in Mexico you can get by with little Spanish, since air traffic controllers can communicate in English.

Doris and I waited for close to half an hour while Tom attended to the required paperwork and fee payment. We knew that he would have to walk from office to office, but at least the offices were in the same small terminal complex, not always the case.

A glitch arose, at which point I initially thought that we would not be permitted to take off. Tom returned from his final office visit, requesting my assistance as a Spanish speaker. “Alvin, I think I need your help; the guy upstairs says that foreigners are not allowed to just take off in a plane for a little sightseeing trip; you have to be going somewhere and land there.”

I accompanied Tom to the upper deck, where we met with Juan, in apparent charge of such matters, and the one who had moments ago turned him away. I initially thought that flashing my permanent Mexican residency card would work since in many cases being a resident trumps the FM – 2 and FM – 3 visas which are held by most foreigners living in Mexico; but in this case it just wasn’t good enough. I then asked if this was a rule specific to the state of Oaxaca, or just to this airport, but received no reply. I indicated that Capitán Tom had gone on similar short flights, up the coast leaving from both Puerto Escondido and Huatulco airports, always receiving the required stamped permission.

We were not prepared to take “no” for an answer, at least not so easily, so we held our ground until Juan said “then you’ll have to speak to the comandante.” While we walked across the hall I began fidgeting in my pocket, looked for a couple of bills, of denominations not too large. “This pilot wants to fly to Hierve el Agua and then come back, but I already told him our rules,” Juan explained. I piped in, “yes, we just want to go out there for a little while, take some photographs of the beautiful scenery, and come right back.”

My interchange with the comandante went something like this:

“No, no, no, you’re not allowed to take photographs from up there without a permit.”
“Okay, can we fill in a form and get a permit?”
“You have to go to Mexico City for such a permit.”
“Well, what if we put our cameras in the car, can we then go?”
“I didn’t say you have to put your cameras in the car, just that you’re not allowed to take pictures from up there; do you know what I’m telling you? It’s for reasons of national security.”
“Okay, so you’re saying that we can go to Hierve el Agua, but we simply cannot take any photographs.”
“That’s right; so Juan, please take these two gentlemen back to your office and complete the paperwork.”

I didn’t even have to take my hand out of my pocket, and the rule against foreigners going up for a short flight and returning, was never discussed with the comandante.

But Juan did not like the way the flight plan had been filled in by the official in the SENEAM office. He had printed the 25 nautical miles we would be flying, and the direction, and then in parentheses indicated Hierve el Agua. “The form must be completed again, omitting the words Hierve el Agua,” Juan demanded. Tom began to ask me if I would suggest to Juan that we simply cross out those three words and initial the change. I explained that here in Oaxaca, in almost all instances you cannot make changes to the face of any official or quasi – official document; initialling does not remedy a defect. Documents are king; they are sacred, have a life of their own, and must not be torn, altered, smudged.

Tom went to two of the offices he had previously attended, then returned to Juan and had a fresh flight plan stamped. We were ready. We went through security and the x – ray machine, just as one does in any commercial airport terminal.

I had been in a private single engine plane only once before, close to 40 years ago, with a friend who took me for a ride over Lake Ontario. This time I knew to take a Dramamine, early morning flight or not.

For Tom, checking over the exterior of his Piper Arrow II before take – off is second to nature. For me, seeing him carefully examine every screw, wire, hinge, moving part, and fuel – related mechanism was comforting, especially in light of the fact that I had only met Tom once before, and knew little of his personality including any propensity for dangerous or carefree living. But with his dear old mother on board, I knew all would be fine, if not out of concern for me or our pilot himself, then certainly for Dorita.
Two federales approached, weapons in hand, to check over the paperwork as custom dictates. I asked if I could take photos of the plane and they said it was okay, somewhat of a surprise to both me and Tom. I told Tom I would not take photos from the air, since I did not want a problem in case my camera was checked upon our return. I value the privilege of being able to live in Mexico. Tom had an extra memory card, so he put the new one in his camera, the plan being to put the old one back upon our return so that in the event that anyone asked to check his camera, no photos of the flight would appear.

Tom examined the control panel and the multitude of screens and switches in the cockpit, then checked it all again. He explained what a couple of the screens were, but it went in one ear and out the other, except I took note of the LED screen which seemed would be functioning like a GPS. The engine started like a charm, but then Tom realized he didn’t have enough space to turn out of the parking area because of the plane in front of us; he turned off the motor: “I guess I’d better get out and push the plane so we can get out of here; and what a pity, since it started so easily, just like that.”

After several exchanges in English with the air traffic controller, we were Hierve el Agua bound. I must admit that for me the somewhat wobbly ascent was a bit uncomfortable. I sat beside Tom, feeling a bit like a co-pilot, with my own steering wheel and foot pedals.

Soon enough we were at cruising altitude, Tom and I communicating with our headsets and attached microphones in place, while Doris sat in back, quietly. As we ascended Tom began taking photos, or perhaps he was using the video mode. I didn’t ask. Tom would frequently use his camera throughout our flight.

The GPS unit told us how many minutes until we reached Hierve el Agua. Tom had us on a course, but I knew from having driven to the site hundreds of times over the past 20 years, that we were a few degrees off. Tom was relying on his sophisticated navigational equipment, while I was simply looking down at the highway and dirt roads leading to Hierve el Agua; with familiar landmarks including ruins, towns, particular restaurants and mezcal – producing facilities; and mountain peaks I had frequently criss-crossed in my pick – up or the van.

There it was, Hierve el Agua in clear view as we flew over the final mountain top; the poolings of water, the falls, and the newly constructed yet abandoned modern brick buildings and large, concrete swimming pool (one of the white elephant’s of the last governor’s administration). Of course we could not see the water bubbling up from the ground, nor any tourists milling about, but all the rest was easily visible, even more so as we descended and circled twice.

“Those are all agave espadín fields under cultivation on the surrounding slopes, with pretty well no corn,” I explained. There are a couple of towns close to Hierve el Agua, such as San Juan del Rio and San Lorenzo Albarradas, many of the residents of which are dedicated to producing mezcal the old – fashioned way, using firewood to bake the agave, a horse pulling a limestone wheel to crush it after it’s been cooked, pine vats to ferment, and a brick, mud and copper still for the final stage of the process.

As we descended into the valley as close as possible to the actual site, the wind took hold of us, making the ride rather bumpy, and my stomach more than a little queasy. As much as I was in awe of the experience, I secretly hoped that two circling downward swoops would be all, and that soon we’d be on our way back. I looked around near my feet, but could not find a bag in case my stomach decided to completely revolt, of course too embarrassed to ask if one existed.

I suggested a little more direct return route than we had used in arriving at Hierve el Agua. Tom complied. In due course we joined up with the main highway, #190, which we had been following for our arrival route. I pointed out Mitla, Dainzu, and the Armando Prieto massive, modern mezcal factory which produces the Zignum brand. We flew over a few housing developments I did not know existed because they were well set back and not visible from the main highway. There were also a couple of expansive green areas which were similarly unfamiliar to me. It was indeed rare to encounter them in the midst of the dry season. They appeared to be sod farms, but confirmation would have to await an exploratory drive through the countryside. Finally, we passed by the pre-Hispanic pictographs on a couple of rock facings, near Yagul and at Xaagá just beyond Mitla, which had contributed to the 2011 UNESCO designation of the area as a World Heritage Site.

Our landing was uneventful, except that on our approach Tom did a maneuver known as a “slip,” a means of losing altitude more quickly without speeding up. We initially saw four white lights directing us in. The appearance of two white and two red, is a guideline for a happy landing, indicating that the airplane is on a 3 degree glideslope to the touchdown zone of the runway. While I don’t thing Capitán Tom was aware of my earlier nausea, it was nevertheless kind of him to do whatever was appropriate to reasonably assure a smooth and uneventful return to mother earth.

By the time we had touched down, Tom had already switched his memory cards. No one asked to see our cameras, and we were not approached by federales after landing, a surprise to Tom. He asked airport personnel if there were any further steps to follow before leaving the terminal, and was told we could simply leave. Even for me it seemed unusual that Mexico would permit an airplane to land and park, and its occupants depart the premises, without any checking of anything, by anyone, regardless of the fact that less than an hour ago we had departed. Perhaps our every move had been monitored.

Virtually no tourist to Oaxaca, or resident for that matter, ever has a chance to view Hierve el Agua from an airplane. But those with any opportunity to get to the site the traditional means should not pass it up. Hierve el Agua is one of the premier wonders in all Oaxaca.

Alvin and Arlene Starkman operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com). Alvin writes, takes couples and families to the sights in the central valleys of Oaxaca, and consults to documentary film companies. Alvin and Pilar Cabrera lead culinary tours in the Oaxaca through Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 13:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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