We decided to see more of the past and drove out of town to the ruins of Mitla, calling in on the village of Santa María del Tule on the way to visit what may be the oldest tree in Mexico. It is a giant ahuehuete, a Mexican cypress, which is reputedly over two thousand years old, 40 meters high, and 42 meters round, and 549,020 kilos in weight. How anyone managed to weigh it I don’t know, but the information is on a plaque, and I am not a doubter. A magnificent tree, green and flourishing despite its great age, it is the home of innumerable singing birds. After walking round it, one stands there thinking philosophical thoughts about the transitoriness of man. A market was in progress on the church grounds, and despite firm resolve I bought some green glaze casseroles and was glad I had my yellow istle bag. Both church and grounds were decorated with balloons, flowers, and streamers. The small stone structure is charming, highly decorated inside, and has an interesting painted façade. It is well worth stopping for. We drove on to the town of Mitla, where there was also a market, which seemed to me to have everything from clothing to live piglets—and even a desperate character. A small boy was asking each passerby in a hopeful treble: “¿Quiera cosas de contrabando?” (Do you want any smuggled goods?) I wonder what they were. I forgot to ask. For a market-fancier Oaxaca is a perfect base; markets are held on Sundays, Wednesday, Thursdays, and Fridays in various small towns near the capital.
Milta, on top of a small hill, seemed to be asleep in the sun, its great courtyards now open to the sky where once they were roofed with wood and thatch. There is a very impressive hall of untopped columns and massive stone walls carved in the Greek key design. Mitla was built by the Zapotec perhaps as far back as 300 B.C. It reminds one how very urban ancient Mexico was. In face, over a hundred city sites have been found by archaeologists in Mexico and Central America. Even then farmers brought their produce to market from the countryside and townspeople sold their manufactured goods—pottery, weaving, jewelry, and so on. That tradition is still strong, as I realized when we left Mitla and stopped at the weekly market in Tlacolula, a rather dusty little town.
I wanted to investigate the local varieties of chili peppers and hoped I would find people willing to help. Indeed I did. Number of ladies sitting in front of piles of dried of fresh peppers of all kinds, who spoke Zapotec to each other and Spanish to me, explained names and uses and flavors with great goodwill. The large covered market was very comprehensive. There were silk and wool rebozos in every color; rugs; tablecloths, some striped pink and green and purple and other striped orange and green and purple; dresses and huipils; and handkerchiefs, scarves, ribbons, laces, jewelry, combs, needles, pins, and thread. There were live turkeys tethered by the leg, meats of all kinds, strings of chorizo sausages, brilliantly orange cecina (meat spiced with ground guajillo chili pepper), a Oaxacan favorite, and herbs and spices scenting the air. One whole section was filled with fruits and vegetables and another, with pottery. I saw green glaze casseroles as big as a baby’s bath and was told they were for make mole negro oaxaqueño. The size of them made me understand old recipes that have puzzled me by the sheer volume of sauce that goes with so little bird. It is the sauce that everyone likes best, mopped up with tortillas.
Still in pursuit of the past we set off early the next morning—after a breakfast of café con leche and pan dulce, the sweet bread that Mexico excels in baking—for the ruins of Monte Albán. This other pre-Columbian Zapotec city of the region was begun about the same time as Mitla. It was built on a group of hills and is really vast. Only one part has been fully explored, and we drove up a steep hill to reach it. The great plaza lies six thousand feet above sea level and stretches more than nine hundred by six hundred feet, though numbers cannot justly convey its expanse. The remains of buildings line each side, some, like others, like the tombs, are painted with murals. The great pyramid is tremendously impressive, and I was glad we had seen Mitla, so much smaller, first. It would have been anticlimactic to do it the other way around. A lot of work has been going on at Monte Albán, and some sense of what a great city it was has emerged. The views over the valley are magnificent, and after spending an hour or so walking from stone building to stone building I found I wanted very much to visit the Regional Museum in Oaxaca, with its fabled collection of jewelry and artifacts from this site, so that I could people Monte Albán in my imagination.
On the way back we made a brief detour to the ruins of the early colonial monastery of Cuilapan; so much of it is in such fine shape that “unoccupied” seems a better term than ruins, it is build of the green stone of Oaxaca, which has a very subtle color. The church itself is open to the sky, with only one row of the columns of the name standing. Though the church is only a shell, the monastery is in very good order, roofed and with flower-filled cloisters, spacious cells, and marvelous views of the mountain-ringed valley. One can still see the old kitchen and it chimney. It makes a fascinating contrast to the pre-Columbian ruins.