Handmade in Oaxaca
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Attending Mexico's greatest artisan area during the annual Guelaguetza festival means a decadent bombardment of hand-crafted food, spirits, and works of art.

Oaxaca Guelaguetza

On the table is a fire-breathing dragon with pink ears, covered with flowers. Beside him is a monster with owl eyes, four horns, blue wings, and a long red tongue. The squat vendor is wearing an elaborately embroidered skirt that has even more colors than the wood carvings in front of me.

Mexico is already ridiculously rich in distinctive handicrafts, in almost any corner of the country, but Oaxaca stands above them all. The food is also superlative, with this city of less than a million people mentioned in the same breath as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or Lima. People say the word with a wistful sigh..."wah hahkah." So exotic sounding, so full of promise that this vacation will be different.

Indeed, ours was different, even though my family lives in Mexico and we've probably been to more states here since my daughter was born than we have in our land of birth. We lucked out and arrived in the thick of the annual Guelaguetza Festival in July. The highlight of this is a multi-hours dance extravaganza with live music, but it's also an excuse to stage dozens of other celebrations and events at the same time.

tejate drink

For us it all started with a tamale festival, the women dispensing moist corn flour concoctions stuffed with all kinds of ingredients and wrapped in banana leaves. Here the drink of choice was literally handmade: muscular housewives stirred the chocolaty tejate corn meal drink with their bare arms, preparing enough of it in one batch to fortify an army. It was next to one of those achingly beautiful churches made back when artisans had all the time in the world, or at least enough to spend a year on one scene carved in stone.

That unhurried artistry hasn't died in Mexico though, at least not when private collectors are involved. On a tour of local villages we made it to the Matamoros workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles. All over Oaxaca City you find the fantastical, colorful alebrijes—carved wood creatures—that eventually adorn the shelves of most people who visit here. Those who buy from this workshop are on a different financial plane, however, and they are willing to invest in art that is on a different level as well. Here a few dozen workers ply the craft in an open-air workshop, enabling Jacobo and Maria to expand their output enough to export and do gallery exhibits. Using traditional paints made from natural materials and intricate designs, these works go for a few thousand dollars each and the best can fetch as much as a new car.

Oaxaca alibrige

Feeling out of our league, we traveled to San Martin Tilcajete, where a weekend alebrije market set up on a town square basketball court featured items out of an acid-fueled dream. With two of the craziest creatures on display in hand for what seemed like a trifling amount after the high art gallery, we headed back to the city fulfilled. For the moment anyway.

Artisans Through the Ages

The city of Oaxaca sits where three valleys converge and each of those valleys has long been populated by different indigenous groups. Each developed their own clothing, their own dances, and over time started to specialize in specific handicrafts.

The people of the region also built some amazing structures, the most famous being one of Mesoamerica's greatest and longest-lasting ancient cities: Monte Alban. The Zapotec people managed to flatten a whole mountaintop by hand to erect a series of grand temples and administration buildings. The city was active from around 500 BC to 700 AD. This may have been the first place in what is now Mexico with written records and a calendar. It also created what was probably this hemisphere's first medical manual for a hospital's doctors. There are large flat stones carved with pictures of deformities and births gone wrong. The reigning theory is that these were used as teaching materials in a time before paper and pen.

Oaxaca Mitla

The second major archaeological site near Oaxaca City is located in Mitla, in a beautiful setting with mountains rising up in the distance. The site is best known for the series of 14 geometric designs made from individually cut stones fitted together. In the land of artisans, even empire building required some flair.

We visited a few market towns branching off the roads in central Oaxaca, places with tongue-twisting names like Ocotlan and Tlacolula. People come from all the nearby villages to sell their homemade mezcal, their fried crickets covered in spices, and their sal de gusano: worm salt. I passed on all those, but did buy an 80-cent glass of pulque (fermented maguey juice) as you don't see that very often anymore in the more urban parts of Mexico.

worm salt

There's an informal "mezcal trail" in this region, with dozens of small distilleries producing one of the world's most artisanal spirits. The biggest concentration of them is around the town of Matatlan, where the surrounding land is filled with spiky maguey plants of many varieties. Each of the plants produces a different taste and with preparation methods varying quite a bit—some still use the lava rock tahona wheels to crush the fruit and roast it in a smoky pit—it's hard to find two mezcal brands that taste the same.

I did my best to find one I liked. Since we were visiting during the annual Guelaguetza Festival period, one of the many side events was a big mezcal fair taking place in the Paseo Juárez El Llano Park. Trying to get a handle on what's what with this spirit is like taking a crash course in nomenclature. You've got multiple levels of aging, with a worm and without, and a whole slew of varietals like coyote, espadín, and tobalá . After trying more than a dozen though and hearing all the explanations, I came to one conclusion: I like mezcal a lot better in cocktails than drinking it neat. Judging by the furrowed brows and wrinkled noses among some of the other casual tasters, I'm not alone.

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