Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hierve el Agua

Hierve el Agua is a top ecotourism destination in Oaxaca, especially popular among naturalists, hikers and photographers. The site consists of two rock shelves or cliffs which rise between fifty and ninety meters from the valley below and have white rock formations which look like waterfalls. These formations are created by fresh water springs whose water is over-saturated with calcium carbonate and other minerals. As the water goes over the cliffs, the excess minerals are deposited, much in the same manner that stalactites are formed in caves. There is a similar, but larger site in Turkey called Pamukkale.
One of the formations is called 'cascada chica' or small waterfall. It was pretty easy to access, unlike the larger waterfall which required a guide to hike to the top. We didn't see any way to access the bottom of either waterfall.
The smaller and more accessible waterfall has two large pools for swimming as well as a number of small natural pools.

One of the pools is very near the edge of the cliff and is one of the most unique infinity pools that we've seen.
It was very crowded on the day we went, due in part to the holiday season. Lots of people with picnics, swimming and wading and just enjoying the day. We were told that it was an up and down hike to the pools so we wore our hiking boots, unlike many others who were there in flip flops. Don't think we could have made it safely in flip flops, but were probably overdressed for the occasion. That's Sue, all prepared for our hike, leaning against the wall where the water flows from one pool to the other.
Getting to Hierve was interesting. We drove part of the way on a cuota (toll road) then hit the dirt roads. Ever since the Mexican government decided to promote Hierve el Agua as a tourist destination and improved the road that connects it to Mitla, the two nearest indigenous towns close to Hierve el Agua started a conflict between each other in order to decide who gets the profits from the site. It doesn't matter that this is a natural attraction that existed way before the towns were settled and it's the Mexican government that's paying for its maintenance. The conflict escalated so much that Hierve el Agua was completely closed from 2005 to 2008. Today, both towns have reached an agreement and each one charges an entrance fee to pass on the road. This is in addition to the one that the government charges for entering the place itself. None of the fees were expensive and so many people were going there that I'm sure the towns made a nice chunk of change.

More information as well as maps to Hierve. The new cuota just opened and the toll is 43 pesos ($2.65 U.S.). It's the easiest route and there are signs all along the way. Once you get to Hierve, there are places to camp, restaurants, rest rooms and what looked like a hotel. Old maps will show going through Mitla but the new cuota goes around Mitla and is worth it. The new road has curves but not as many as the map shows. Once exiting the new road and on a paved road to San Lorenzo Albarradas the road gets more and more curves, then turns to dirt road.

The Tule Tree

We took a short drive down the road to see the Tule tree, or El Arbol de Tule. It is said to have the stoutest tree trunk in the world. In 2001 it was placed on a UNESCO tentative list of World Heritage Sites. In 2005, its trunk had a circumference of 137.8 ft and a diameter of 46.1 ft. However, the trunk is heavily buttressed so the diameter of the smoothed out trunk is 30.8 ft. Not sure what that means but it's still slightly larger than the tree named General Sherman in Sequoia National Park which has a diameter of 29.5 ft. Whatever, it's a pretty big tree.
The tree is so large that it was originally thought to be multiple trees, but DNA tests prove it's one tree.The age is unknown, with estimates ranging between 1,200 and 3,000 years, and even one claim of 6,000 years. The best scientific estimate based on growth rates is 1,433-1,600 years.

The tree is occasionally nicknamed the "Tree of Life" from the images of animals that are reputedly visible in the tree's gnarled trunk. As part of an official project local schoolchildren give tourists a tour of the tree and point out shapes of creatures on the trunk, including jaguars and elephants. We missed out on that tour, probably because school was out for the holidays.
There is a church next to the tree that we called 'The Crayola Church.' In addition to being colorful, it looks like there are crayons going up the front facade.

The garden areas near the tree and church are full of interesting topiaries, mostly animals.
The message on the wooden stake was appropriate for the holiday season as well as year round -
May Peace Prevail on Earth

Oaxaca Centro, Some Highlights of Our Walk

Church of Santo Domingo, Culture Center of Oaxaca, and the Botanical Garden

The Iglesia de Santo Domingo was a highly recommend place to visit in Oaxaca. We were told that of the many churches in the city this one would be most likely to take our breath away.

The church is part of a complex that includes the former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzm√°n which now houses the Cultural Center of Oaxaca, and the Botanical Garden. There is an extensive system of courtyards, cloisters and rooms in the former monastery.
The former monastery garden is now an Etnobotanical Garden, containing a large collection of plants native to the region.
Inside of the simple church facade is one of the finest and most lavishly ornamented baroque churches in Mexico. The highly decorated interior includes the use of more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf.
We were persuaded to hire a guide before we entered the church. That turned out to be a wise decision since the church is overwhelming and the history is fascinating. As its name implies, the church and monastery were founded by the Dominican Order of the Catholic church. Begun in 1570, they were constructed over a period of 200 years, between the 16th and 18th centuries. The monastery was active from 1608 to 1857. In the period of the revolutionary wars, the buildings were turned over to military use, and from 1866 to 1902 they served as a barracks. It was restored to religious use in 1938. In 1993 the decision was made to undertake a full restoration which was completed in 1999.
The church is covered with exquisite details. The domed ceiling in the photos below has the images of 104 saints and martyrs. This is the first time we've seen something like this where the figures are three dimensional, not just painted on the ceiling.

Our guide pointed out that several of the figures had been be-headed, and were carrying their heads.
The church is amazing - almost too much to take in.

Much of the church was constructed by indigenous people, and the Dominicans made a side chapel to appeal to them. The Virgin is dark-skinned and dressed in indigenous clothing
Another side chapel called the Rosary Chapel was the last to be finished in 1720. It's extremely ornate and also has a dark-skinned virgin. Today all baptisms take place in this chapel
Another gilded side chapel 
Quite an experience to visit this church. We've seen many in our travels and this one was pretty breath taking, as promised.

Following our church tour we walked next door to the Cultural Center. It's an impressive building, and the exhibits offer an overview of local Indian cultures. Many of the artifacts come from Monte Alban, an archaeological site we hope to visit in the coming days.

Mercado de Artesanias

During the holiday season there is a special craft market, or Mercado, in Oaxaca. Many of the local villages are known for specific skills and crafts, and send representatives to the Mercado. The booths had signs telling what village the artisans and vendors were from, 
This gentleman had a selection of black pottery from the village of San Bartolo Coyotpec which is known for its black pottery.
The village of Santa Maria Atzompa is known for terra cotta, green glazed, and multi-colored glazed pottery. I bought a virgin similar to the one on the left of the three displayed. Always nice to buy directly from the artist.
I love the colorful, hand-carved and painted figures called alebrijes, or monsters. Although some artists do create monsters, many pieces are centered around themes of natural beauty, religion, and fantasy. One village known for the alebrijes is San Antonio Arrazola - we're hoping to go there soon. 
We saw many alebrijes on our walk - these were kind of fun.

Busy day in Oaxaca Centro - we put in a few miles.

Monday, December 28, 2015

La Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes) en Oaxaca

When we decided to spend the Christmas holiday in Oaxaca we did some research and one of the things we found out about is the Night of the Radishes. It sounded too fun to pass up so we made sure were in Oaxaca by Dec. 23 when La Noche de Rabanos is traditionally held. Evidently it's one of the most anticipated celebrations in Oaxaca. Every year, the humble radish is carved into beautiful, intricate sculptures of animals, dancer, saints, conquerors, kings and everything else imaginable. 
The Night of the Radishes has an interesting history. It has its origins in the colonial period when radishes were introduced by the Spanish. One legend as to how this began states that one year in the mid 18th century, the radish crop was so abundant that a section lay unharvested for months. In December, two friars pulled up some of these forgotten radishes. The size and shapes were amusing and they brought them as curiosities to the Christmas market held on December 23. 
The misshapen vegetables attracted attention and soon they began to be carved to give them a wider variety of shapes and figures. Oaxaca has a long wood carving tradition and the priests encouraged the carving of radishes into figures as a way to attract customers’ attention. In 1897, the city created the formal competition. As the city has grown, the city has had to dedicate land to the growing of the radishes used for the event, supervising their growth and distribution to competitors.
The event has become very popular, attracting over 100 contestants and thousands of visitors. However, since the radishes wilt soon after cutting the displays last only a number of hours, which has led to very long lines for those wishing to see them. We were warned that if we went to see the radishes at night the lines could be miles long and wait times could be 4 to 5 hours. We were advised that if we went in the early afternoon we would be able to see most of the displays and that worked out well. The crowds weren't too bad and most of the displays were set up.
 Since the radishes wilt pretty quickly the exhibitors were constantly spraying and wetting them.
The radishes used in the competition have different qualities than the radishes we're familiar with, They have thick skin that is dark red. Many measure up to two feet and weigh up to three kilograms. This type of radish is used for preparing the figures. Until recent years the growers who participated specifically planted radishes for this event. Today, the planting is done in the "Tequio" Forest located on the outskirts of the city. The municipality of Oaxaca borrows a vast expanse of land for planting the radishes which will be given to the contestants. Generally the symbolic planting is done by the Mayor the first days of October. The radishes are softer and easier to carve but due to the amount of chemicals and fertilizers used to make them so big, they're inedible.
Not only do the carvers use the contrast between the skin and the interior, but they also peel and flatten the red skin for use as clothing items, flags and more.Typically participants use knives and toothpicks to create the sculptures, after the tops of the radishes with their long, green leaves have been cut off (and sometimes used in the scenes).
 The displays were creative and pretty mind-boggling.

 In addition to the radish displays there were elaborate displays using dried flowers 

and corn husks

There were several categories and we did our best to figure out what they were. The prize for the winner of the traditional category is 15,000 pesos, roughly $870 U.S. at today's exchange rate.
As we were walking back to the car we came upon a group of children having fun learning to carve the radishes.
They had a pretty good sized pile of radishes to choose from.
La Noche de Rabanos, even though for us it should be titled La Tarde de Rabanos (Afternoon of the Radishes) was great fun. Loved it, love Oaxaca.