Handmade in Oaxaca

Thousands of tall cacti stood erect on the hills like goosebumps, welcoming us to the state of Oaxaca. In places, there were thick blankets of pale, fluffy grass, almost as if the hills were sporting fur jackets.

As we drove into the historic centre of Oaxaca city, the vibe resembled that of both, a beach town and a quiet spot in the mountains. Many of the handicrafts we had admired at Museo de Arte Popular and at little shops all over Mexico City, come from Oaxaca. The culture and cuisine of the state were a real highlight for us. In this post, I’ll be sharing a few of our favourite Oaxacan experiences.

Making of the Alebrijes, San Antonio Arrazola 

These whimsical animal sculptures are carved out of wood and painted by hand with bright acrylic paint. The crazy mix of colours reminds me of how as a child, I insisted on using every crayon in the box to colour my animal drawings.

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Soft, fresh branches of the Copal tree are carved into one or a combination of animals of significance in the Zapotec culture. 
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The body of the animal is carved out of a single branch. But if a piece calls for a tail of tentacles, more pieces of wood may be attached.
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The resin from the tree is used as glue to fill up cracks with small pieces of wood, once the sculptures have dried. Artist David Hernandez tells us that this resin is burnt on many important occasions. Newborn babies are held over the smoke from the burning resin for the protection of their spirit. It is also burnt for forty days when a family member dies.
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Once carved, dried, and smoothened with sandpaper, the alebrijes are painted with acrylic colours, fine brushes, and a wild imagination.
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Many of the patterns and designs the family paints have been passed down generations. These depict elements of nature, ancient architecture, and signs and symbols of importance to the Zapotecs. The designs are so intricate that it can take months to paint a single sculpture, depending on its size.
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I love their use of colour gradients. It makes the sculptures look so dramatic, and the animals, so powerful!
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We were blown away by the combination of colours, the crazy patterns, and more of that stunning gradient on this frog!

Rug Weaving, Teotitlán del Valle

I was traveling from India with a rug-shaped hole in my bag. I just had to bring one back from Oaxaca! These rugs are woven on the handloom with woollen yarn dyed in beautiful, earthy colours; more subtle compared to the alebrijes. But each one feels like a hearty Mexican celebration.

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A basketful of wool waiting to be combed into fluffy cloud-like clusters.
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We tried our hand at combing the wool, and it’s a lot harder than it looks!
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Wool spun into yarn, ready to be dyed and woven.
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Natural elements like flowers, nuts, roots, and insects are used to dye the yarn, giving it some lovely, earthy colours. The marigold made me homesick!
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Dyed yarn, all set to be woven!
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A Zapotec rug in the making on the handloom. Their traditional geometric designs are similar to those painted on the alebrijes, and are delightful!
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The beautiful store at weaver Isaac Vasquez’s workshop.

Mezcal Distillery, Santiago Matatlán

After being introduced to tequila’s lesser-known cousin at Mezcal tasting bars across Oaxaca city, one of our new friends took us to 5th Generation, a family-owned Mezcal distillery. Elsa, the owner, walked us through the slow, non-mechanized process of how they make their beloved alcohol in their backyard.

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Five generations of Elsa’s family have been making Mezcal at their in-house distillery. It is mostly for their own consumption, and for a few clients.
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Tree trunks and rocks are loaded into a pit-like oven. Once the rocks are searing hot, the piñas, the pineapple-like heart of the agave, a spiky succulent, are put in the oven and covered with dirt. The three-day slow-roasting process melts the piñas into sweet, gooey chunks. 
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Tahona, a horse drawn stone, is used to mill the roasted agave to extract its juice. 
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The golden fibres of roasted agave are sweet like sugarcane, and bear an earthy, smokey flavour. 
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The milled agave is loaded into wooden barrels where it sits to ferment. A few days later, it starts to make a therapeutic bubbling sound. I could listen to the music of fermenting agave all day!
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The fermented agave boils in copper stills from the heat of a wood-fire oven. As it passes through copper tubes, it condenses and comes out as Mezcal. 
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Elsa tells us that they don’t have any customised labels for their bottles. So, we’re making her one using this portrait of hers.
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Elsa’s sister bottles up one of their special blends for us to bring back home; a Mezcal made of five different kinds of agave. It is packed with flavours of the earth that bears it, the wood that roasts it, and the stone that mills it, and every sip warms me up like it’s beautiful birthplace which is etched onto my heart forever.

Tips for Oaxaca – 

– There are frequent buses through the day from Mexico City to Oaxaca, for which tickets can be bought at the bus terminal. We relied almost entirely on ADO buses for inter-state travel, as we found them to be the most comfortable for long journeys.

–  We visited Oaxaca in the last week of January, and the weather was perfect. The days were warm and sunny, and the evenings called for just a light jacket or stole.

–  We stayed at Hotel Parador de Alcala, a lovely property with super helpful staff and a great location. It is a two-minute walk from the Santo Domingo Church.

– There’s a beautiful ethnobotanical garden behind the church. You could go up to the first floor of the museum for a panoramic view of the gardens, or take a two-hour long tour of the gardens if you’d like to learn about the flora of the region.

–  We booked a hotel cab to take us to the handicraft villages, mezcal workshop, and archeological sites. Our driver, Abraham, deserves a special mention for going out of his way to help us meet some lovely local artists, and for sharing tons of information about the history of the Zapotecs.

– Visit the Benito Juarez Market to buy fresh Oaxacan cheese, hot chocolate, and chillies. There’s lots of vendors cooking local delicacies here too!

Los Amantes Mezcalería for a mezcal-tasting session, followed by Mezcal cocktails at the beautiful terrace at Praga across the street! They have really nice live music in the evening, and this is where I was first introduced to the smokey Mezcal-tamarindo cocktail.

–  Los Danzantes does amazing modern Mexican food, experimenting with local ingredients. We had some fantastic vegetarian food and dessert here. Be sure to get a reservation at least a couple of days in advance!

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