Lush pine forests. Massive mountains. Winding roads, a sweet and damp mist dancing through them. Although fitting, this isn’t a description of Switzerland. This is the Mixteca. And lucky for us, it’s in Oaxaca. Mixteca Alta, to be exact. Located to the Northwest of the Oaxacan capital, the region’s landscapes are as varied as its peoples. The region is, of course, worthy of a life-long expedition; but for us, making the most of one free weekend was all we were getting this time.
Friday. Driving North from Oaxaca into the Mixteca region is quite a spectacular journey. After a confusing junction when reaching Nochixtlan, the large highway shrinks to a two-way federal route that leads to one of Mexico’s most spectacular sites: the Dominican temple of Yanhuitlan. Hard to miss, this baroque colossus leads us closer to the heavens with its exquisite carved wood retablos and an acoustic effect that makes you feel minute. The main golden altar is reminiscent of our beloved Santo Domingo back in Oaxaca City, yet its size is beyond comparison. It is amazing that this feat was funded entirely by red cochineal and silk exports to Europe.
The trek continues up brick-red eroded mountains that make you believe you made a wrong turn and ended up in the Arizona desert. The effects of overgrazing are discouraging, but it is hard not to admire the beauty as the land slowly implodes, carving deep ditches into the land from which life manages to reappear as dry grass, shrubs, and gnarly mezquites. After veering to the left at the intersection with the road to Huajuapan, we leave the dry slopes behind and enter the world of enchanted mountain forests. We pass several ponds and rivers as we drive forward, amazed by the diversity in trees, and begin to feel the cold mountain air take hold of our bones. The curves and slopes can make your head spin, but we take it slow and enjoy every turn, until we land at the heart of the region: Tlaxiaco. The “Little Paris”, as it was known in the late nineteenth century, is the largest population in the high Mixtec mountains. The city has a charming modernist personality, strangely balancing the western bourgeois with one of the planet’s most ancient civilizations. A perfect combination for a cultural treat.
Saturday. The market, rises… and light-footed buyers, to meet it. The early morning sun creeps over the mountains that surround Tlaxiaco and welcomes hundreds of vendors from all over the region, gathering at and around the city’s main square. Just a few steps outside the Hotel del Portal, we are immersed in a sea of people and exotic scents that can only be found in such a place. The sight of fresh fruits and vegetables is a kaleidoscope of colour. The steamy morning beverages like atole and champurrado make you feel cozy inside. The deep fried corn and huge pots of pozole mixteco make your mouth water. And there are so, so many crafts, from different pottery styles to carved wood and beautifully coloured huipiles and rebozos, that make you think “why didn’t I work those extra hours last month?”
After enjoying a succulent meal at the hotel’s restaurant and a well-deserved rest, we stroll around the city centre’s streets, slowly growing more and more quiet after the day’s ruckus. We walk past the impressive main cathedral and enjoy some sweets at the town’s central park, right outside city hall, where a bunch of kids and teens are enjoying a friendly but passionate street soccer game. We walk a little more and around the corner find a little gem of a mezcal place. It’s run by a charming local family who, aside from organising visits to local villages, share with us some of their delicious mezcal infused with a diverse range of the region’s fruits as well as the most entertaining and interesting stories and myths of the area.
Sunday. Along the path back to Oaxaca there is much to see. As we drive away from the city, small farms emerge in between the slopes of the mountains that protect Tlaxiaco, and we can see fields of corn and wheat waving at us as we drive by. We also get a couple of indifferent glances from a few sheep and cattle, grazing calmly as we zoom by. As the road begins to twist and turn, making us slow down, we pass several small villages that seem both enchanting and welcoming. We decide to stop at one of these, which forces us to park and feast our eyes at the massive Dominican twin temples of San Pablo and San Pedro Teposcolula. Recently denominated a “Pueblo Mágico”, Teposcolula’s cobblestone roads are a delight to walk over, and the main square is full of town life and local snacks. Of course, the church is impressive; but I find the paintings inside to be incredibly interesting, displaying a greatly preserved Mexican mannerist interpretation of the hot-shot European artists of that time.
For our last stop, we decide to dive into another local market. It is Sunday in Nochixtlan, which means “market day” and its famous barbacoa. Hustling and bustling as one expects a busy market, we walk past familiar stalls as a lot of the products offered here also come from the city of Oaxaca. There is also a great variety of goods from the Mixteca lands of not only Oaxaca but also the northern neighbour of Puebla. We finally find a local barbacoa spot to sit at, and order a couple of kilos of the well-cooked lamb meat, along with tortillas and consommé. Finger-licking good, this barbacoa is different from what you find in Tlacolula as it is covered in agave leaves and cooked underground. Along with our order, a strange yet delicious corn dumpling is offered to us, referred to only as masita.
Of course, all good things come to an end; in our case, though, we are fortunate that this region is less than three hours from Oaxaca City by car. So naturally, we’ll collect our thoughts, sensations, and souvenirs, until the next time we visit the Mixteca Alta and all its wonder.