Back in Oaxaca, we went to the Dominican Church of Santo Domingo, surely one of the most splendid in the hemisphere. Only in Brazil have I seen churches that compare. It was begun in 1575 and finished a century later. Both the church and the adjacent convent had a rather checkered history during the Reform of the mid-nineteenth century, which separated church and state; at one point the convent was turned into a barracks and the church, into army stables. The imposing façade has twin Baroque towers of pink and green Oaxaca stone, and the church is set back in a wide plaza. But it is the interior that is the astonishment. All the walls and ceilings are covered with gilded stucco reliefs, sculptures, and frescoes. My neck became stiff from gazing at the ceiling and trying to look at the gold altar at the same time. The Rosary Chapel is magnificent, all the gold and richly decorated with figures of saints. Another delight is the genealogical tree of Don Félix de Guzmán, who was the father of Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order. On part of the ceiling the family figures are in relief on branches of a leafy tree, and the whole is richly colored. I don’t think there is an inch of the church that isn’t visually exciting.
To go to the Regional Museum, housed in the exceptionally beautiful convent beside the church, is to be thrust from on epoch to another, from colonial past to antiquity. There is a fascinating collection of old religious masks, now usually worn only on feast days when there are dances in front of the church, and regional costumes, still in use today. There is also a collection of ceramics and handicrafts of all kinds and gold, jade, and other jewelry from Monte Albán, as well as obsidian and rock crystal pieces and pearls. The Mixtec were great goldworkers. They learned their techniques from the Chibcha of Colombia, who were famed for their jewelry and ornaments and whose work was bought by both Incas and Maya. The jewelry is well displayed, and I found that it gave added meaning to my visit to Monte Albán.
To round things out we went off to visit the house where President Bentio Juárez, architect of the Reform, lived from 1818 to 1828. It is small and attractive, with beamed ceilings, whitewashed walls, tiled floors, and colonial furnishings. It as an interesting kitchen in which there is a tiled charcoal-burning stove.
I especially wanted to see the virgin of Solitude, so we made our way to the Church of La Soledad, which has a very fine carved façade in addition to the famous statue. The Virgin, in a richly embroidered, jewel-encrusted gown and gold crown, is worth the visit, but after Santo Domingo I could not really appreciate the church. I was Still dazzled by the earlier explosion of gold.
We particularly enjoyed lunching under the arches of the plaza. There the offerings included international fare such as steaks, Mexican food in general, and Oaxan dishes. On one occasion we shared tamal oaxaqueño, a banana or plantain leaf spread with the usual tamal corn dough, stuffed with mole negro, folded up, and steamed. This has always been a favorite of mine, but what I was really interested in was the cecina enchilada de Oaxaca, which I had seen in the market. This spiced pork was served with mashed black beans, triangles of crisp fried tortilla, lettuce and tomato, and an interesting guacamole, the avocado simply mashed with finely chopped coriander, fresh hot green peppers, and salt. It was a bit picante but very good. The pork was well flavored and unusual. We drank a Mexican red wine, Los Reyes, and found it pleasant as Mexican wines often are, but not really more than a vin ordinaire.
I was intrigued by the Hotel Victoria on a hillside, with its dramatic view of the valley, and we went there for a night. The hotel is very attractive and the grounds are well aid out with a large swimming pool set among trees, shrubs, and flowers. As night falls the terrace is a lovely place to sit and enjoy the sweeping vistas. It is also worth getting up early when the valley is filled with mist to watch the changing color of the mountains as the sun gains strength and dissipates the mist.
No state of in Mexico celebrates fiestas better than Oaxaca, and I remember with pleasure the guelaguetza I attended one July on an earlier visit. It is called Lunes del Cerro (Monday of the Hill), and its origin is very old. People from the various regions bring gifts of flowers, fruits, produce of all kinds weaving, pottery, whatever is their specialty, for the governor or visiting dignitary. In the colonial period the honored person was the viceroy or similar figure, and in antiquity, the Zapotecan king. There are regional dances, the most splendid of which are those performed by dancer with feathered headdresses. Guelaguetza means offering or gift in Zapotecan, and the fiesta does not have to take place only on the customary Monday of the Hill. Even during the Christmas-New Year period when one fiesta tumbles over the heels of another once can see the dances put on by the Instituto Cultural Folklórico de Oaxaca, and great fun they are.
Oaxaca also has the advantage of being on the way to other places, giving one every excuse for visiting it. There are airline connections with Acapulco, Villahermosa (the proper stopping point to reach the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque), and Mérida in Yucatán. For drivers, there is a highway over the mountains to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and on the Chiapas and Guatemala. We had not planned to go on; it was just that the road lured us with scenery that changed from lush beauty to dramatic harshness, then to cultivated valleys with villages nestling beside rivers, to hillsides of maguey plants, and to other hillsides that looked quite untenanted, as if man had yet to discover them.