Title: Ancient sites...perfect beaches Location: Oaxaca, Mexico
Despite how much I enjoyed the food, the highlights of my stay in Oaxaca were the ancient sites that dotted the countryside. I ended up at Mitla on my first day in town. Mitla was a small Zapotec site that is famous for its intricate stone mosaics adorning most of the buildings. I wasn't sure what to expect when I got off of the old bus in the new town of Mitla. It was a small, dusty town, but a pleasant one. I quickly found one set of ruins, which were un-restored and not all that impressive, so I kept walking. I initially had a hard time finding the main ruins because the modern town surrounds them and I missed one important detail about the site. I kept asking the locals where the ruins were and they kept directing me to the old cathedral. I remember thinking, "It is a pretty church, but I came for the ruins", but all of the locals directed me to the same place. What they knew (and I had read and ignored) was that the church was built on top of the ruins! I spent the next several hours exploring the site amid large tour-bus crowds and locals sharing their heritage with their children. All of the structures were of similar construction with internal courtyards surrounded by rooms on each side. The lintels (the top of the doorways) were all of megalithic (carved out of one giant stone slab) construction and above the lintels and covering all of the walls were the stone mosaics forming a multitude of patterns. There were also two tombs open to the public that had intricate mosaic work as well. The site was impressive, but hard to photograph. I found myself sitting around for a long time waiting for people to move out of the way so I could get a shot I wanted. While I waited I got to watch a very entertaining show put on by all of the visitors - There was the young girl in one of the tombs who started screaming, "Look at the mummy!", which sent a stampede of frantic adults out of its tight confines - It was funny to watch, especially since the tomb was empty. My favorite, though, was watching a line of tourists walk by a sign at the entrance to a tunnel that said, "Watch your head" and each, in turn, bumping their heads on the steel beam supporting one of the cracked lintels - It was like a cartoon, 'thud', "ouch", 'thud', "ouch", 'thud', "ouch" as each of them passed the beam; there were, of course, a few that ducked, but they were the exception!
The next day I visited the enormous ruins of Monte Albán, spectacularly situated on top of a small mountain just outside of Oaxaca. It was a fun day filled with climbing pyramids and crawling through some of the lesser (and open to the public) tombs. Monte Albán was a large place and the main tourist transport to the area kept the ruins full of people, but the crowds of tourists were so spread out that it was not too overwhelming, in fact, I found myself alone on a pyramid more than once. Monte Albán was the Zapotec capitol until about 700a.d., but the most impressive find at the site was from the later Mixtecs. The Mixtecs reused Tomb No. 7 to bury one of their kings and a vast treasure of gold, silver, jade, turquoise and amber along with many other well crafted artifacts were found, unlooted, by archaeologists during the excavation of the site. The treasure is now on display at the 'Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca' in the city and was an impressive sight to see.
Of the three ruins I visited in the Oaxaca area, my favorite was Yagul. Yagul didn't have the impressive mosaic work of Mitla or the grand scale of Monte Albán and its buildings were far from what I would call spectacular or unique as compared to other sites in Mexico. What Yagul had was a spectacular location and a lack of visitors - I shared the site with just a few others! The name also reminded me of the witch in the book, 'King Solomon's Mines'. The lack of visitors meant that all of the structures were open including some spectacular tombs. It also meant that everywhere I looked, even in the tombs, I saw pottery shards or pieces of other artifacts just laying around. I spent the day clambering through several tombs, getting lost in the labyrinth of rooms in the 'Palacio de los Seis Patios' and climbing the fortress cliff behind the site. The spectacular setting of Yagul on a hill surrounded by high desert scenery was as memorable a part of the day as the ruins themselves. I stopped at the Arbol of Tule in the town of Tule on the way back to Oaxaca. The tree is supposedly the largest biomass in the world and its trunk is larger than a sequoia's and it towers over the church next to it. It was definitely a tourist trap, but it was still nice to see.
I left the city of Oaxaca on the Monday following Semana Santa and headed for the Oaxacan Coast and the small coastal town of Mazunte. In Mazunte I rented a nice cabana overlooking the ocean with a few people I met on the bus ride and spent the next few days enjoying one of the most perfect beaches I have ever seen! The beach was narrow and surrounded by green cliffs and palm trees, the water was green and clear, the waves were not so big that swimming was out of the question and there were hardly any people. I toured the sea turtle research center where I got to see some big and endangered turtles - Until the '90s Mazunte's main business was hunting sea turtles, so now they are doing their part to help bring them back from the brink of extinction. As much as I love beaches, I can't sit on one for more than a few days, so I said good bye to my new friends and to the perfect beach headed south for Chiapas and San Cristóbal de Las Casas to begin my time on La Ruta Maya, the main reason I started my trip in Mexico and to learn some Spanish in the Spanish immersion school.