The valleys around the city of Oaxaca are home to several villages that host markets on different days of the weeks, artisan workshops, mezcal factories, and ruins of pre-hispanic civilizations.

Many of these sites can be visited on half-day or full-day tours organized through agencies in Oaxaca. This saves you the trouble of having to find your own transport (which can be an adventure as you’ll see below) and provides you with the services of an English-speaking guide.

Here are a few places in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys that I visited during my stay (photos at the bottom).

Tlacolula Market and mezcal

The village of Tlacolula, which holds its market on Sunday, is located in a valley to the east of Oaxaca . While I was still staying in my Airbnb accommodation in early February, our host José offered to take me and another guest to the Tlacolula market. We accepted of course!

On the way, José, aficionado of all things mezcal, stopped at a mezcal factory by the side of the highway, where the mezcal is still produced the traditional way. He personally explained the process, and we got to try samples of different mezcals and cremas de mezcal, creamy flavoured concoctions with the texture and sweetness of Baileys!

The Tlacolula market was a sprawling affair, occupying several streets around the more permanent indoor market. Locals sat behind wooden tables or simple blankets laden with produce, domestic implements, handicrafts, even live chickens! Women still wore their traditional clothes here.

Hierve el Agua

A few weeks later, my new friend Josée and I decided to make our own way to much-touted Hierve el Agua. Located in the mountains to the southeast of town, this is a natural attraction consisting of two petrified “waterfalls” and a couple of artificial pools on top.

Because it is rather far out, the tours that go there are full-day and rather pricey, making several other stops along the way. We decided to get there on our own using public transport.

The most common and frequent form of public transport consists of “colectivos”, shared taxis that pick-up and drop off passengers along pre-determined routes. To get to Hierve el Agua, we had to take a colectivo to Mitla, then a second one to our final destination.

Our first colectivo was a taxi where we shared the back seat with a small indigenous woman. The driver sped up the whole way, and as usual, the lack of functioning seat belts was a little unnerving. He didn’t even wear his own seat belt, which is probably against the law, but rules of the road seem more like suggestions here than anything else, and don’t appear to be enforced. This ride took about 45 minutes.

Our second colectivo was a pick-up truck. We chose to ride in the front (yes, both of us) instead of the dusty open-air cab. This took a further 45 minutes, up a mountain, but fortunately the road was paved. For some reason, we were dropped over a kilometre from the site’s entrance and told to hike down the dusty road.

By the time we got there it was midday and hot enough that we didn’t feel like hiking further in full sun, so we remained around the pools and watched other tourists soak in the green but not very clear water (mineral deposits?). The views over the mountains and the second petrified waterfall were fantastic though.

One short hiking path went to the top of that second waterfall, and one snaked down to the bottom of the one we were standing on. I almost regret not doing one of the hikes. Try to get there as early as possible if you go, as there is no shade.

Coming back turned out to be more of an ordeal. We had to wait for the colectivo pick-up to fill up (minimum eight passengers), which took nearly an hour. This time we chose to sit in the open-air cab to get more fresh air, but the driver took a different route, down a curvy and unpaved mountain road which took a lot longer than the inbound ride.

We were dropped at a dusty crossroad and had to wait for a taxi to take us to the bus depot where we learned that we had just missed the bus back to Oaxaca. So we ended up in another cramped speeding colectivo taxi, which eventually had to slow down when it got stuck in rush hour traffic. Uumph!

Apparently two nearby villages compete to make money from Hierve el Agua . They have resorted to sharing revenues by each monopolizing one of the two roads, one to get the tourists there, and the other to get them back. In addition, you have to pay 10 pesos as a “road improvement fee” on the way there, plus an entry fee of 25 pesos.

Zaachila Market, Cuilapan convent, and alebrijes

This past Thursday, I joined a half-day tour that headed south to the market in Zaachila, with stops at San Martin Tilcajete to learn about the making of alebrijes (fanciful wood carvings), as well as the 16th century abandoned convent of Cuilapan.

The tour cost 200 pesos ($17 CAD), and our group consisted of only three people, which allowed us to travel in a private “luxury” car with our guide. What made this car seem luxurious to me was the air-conditioning, the presence of functioning seat belts, and its clean and relatively new condition.

Our first stop in San Martin Tilcajete was a home-workshop where a family has been making alebrijes for six generations. The current master carver, Zeny Fuentes, has been featured in travel publications such as National Geographic.

The figures are carved in a soft wood called copal with simple tools like an ax and a couple of knifes. Then the wood must dry for three to four months, before being polished and the cracks filled. It is then painted with a base coat, before passing into the hands of the artist who will paint the intricate patterns. The whole process takes about six months!

Some of the best pieces in Fuentes’ workshop sell for several hundred dollars, including an octopus one-metre across worth 30000 pesos ($2000 US). Fortunately many smaller and simpler pieces can be had for a few dollars.

The Zaachila Market was laid out over a large rectangular area and was smaller than Tlacolula’s. Similar items were on sale, including produce, clothing and live poultry. Right in the middle of it stood an “ice cream place” and our guide encouraged us to to try some. Closer to sorbet than real ice cream, these cold treats are called nieves (snows) and come in many flavours including uncommon ones like avocado, corn, and cactus fruit. It’s refreshing, but it doesn’t beat Italian gelato!

Finally, the old Cuilapan convent was quite an attractive building, even though the church was never finished, and the indigenous chapel had lost its roof. Gusts of wind were blowing dust into our faces, but even so, the deserted site with its purple jacaranda trees was quite charming.

Other attractions

I had already visited some of the other villages during my previous trip in 2006, so I didn’t go back. But if this is your first time in Oaxaca, make sure to visit Monte Alban and Mitla, two pre-hispanic archeological sites, as well as the villages of Teotitlán del Valle (carpet weaving) and San Bartolo Coyotepec (black pottery). There is also a giant Montezuma cypress tree in the village of Santa Maria del Tule which is worth a look.

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