Thursday, June 8

Anything you can imagine: A visit to Tlacolula Valley


Sunday is here! Rest day, family day, a day to get out of the house. In our home, it is always a debate: do we complete tasks still looming from the week or take a day to do something fun and disconnect? Oaxaca is versatile and ingenious enough to tempt us outside, especially with my daughter arguing that she’d much rather go to the park and buy a nieve than to take on the grocery shopping for the week. 

All within an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca, there are a variety of places to visit: historical monuments, natural areas of spectacular beauty, and countless villages that each offer a unique cuisine. And then, every Sunday, without fail, is market day in the community of Tlacolula. Market day is an adventure in itself, whether you go to attend mass in the church, Señor de Tlacolula, or if you need to buy three kilos of criollo avocado. On Sunday, the main streets become a carnival of merchants with their time-honoured shouts, “¡Llévelo, llévelo!” or “¡Ahí va el golpe!” (“Come and get it! Take it while it’s hot!”) There are corridors of fruits and vegetables that unfold like a rainbow while navigating through the deep vats of oil frying golden tacos, hissing like snakes, and following the whistle of the boy who is trying to break through the crowd with his overloaded basket of bread.

Photo: Isahrai Azaria

As we wander through the market streets to the main hall, we pass in front of a roast chicken stand. There, as has become our market day tradition, I buy a bag of potatoes cooked under the coals to savour as we continue our pilgrimage. In any stall, there is a wide variety of products, local and imported: grinders and cajetes, pewter pots, cloned DVDs, traditional-style and brand name ice cream, bolis, and popsicles, pulque and tepache fermented drinks, leather belts, tables brimming with bottles of mezcal in various flavors, dried peppers, snacks, and seeds. Everything you can imagine is there for the buying on the streets of the Tlacolula market. 

When we arrive, we are received by the “welcoming committee”: a row of women wearing traditional aprons, with deep barrel-like baskets, full of soft blanda tortillas or crunchy tlayudas made of native corn in an array of colours: golden, brown, blue, and bone white. Here, we also find the town specialties: pan de cazuela (casserole bread) made with chocolate, cinnamon, and raisins; and don’t forget, the barbacoa made from goat and preferably still in its broth to yield a little more meat when scooped up with tortillas.

How about a tejate to drink from a jicama gourd cup or a lime ice cream paired with prickly pear? If there is still a little room in our stomachs, we will take a walk through the pasillo del humo – the smoke hall filled with butchers and grills. We choose our favorite cuts of meat directly from the butcher in his open basket along with a piece of fat to add more flavour. As if by magic, several ladies appear in colourful scarves and aprons, bringing field onions and chiles de agua that, without hesitating, we add to our feast so the tasajo meat won’t be lonely. 

Photo: Isahrai Azaria

Photo: Isahrai Azaria

At the edge of the market, the church celebrates mass throughout the morning, but we are still permitted to enter and admire the side chapel decorated in baroque expression: golden lines and curls between white reliefs, with mirrors and figurines that explicitly and sombrely demonstrate how Catholic saints and martyrs died when they came to the Americas. As we leave the church’s atrium, the blocks that surround the temple are filled with crafts from the region and beyond that, families from nearby towns have brought their small weekly harvest to also sell. After buying chamomile, avocados, and tangerines, we finish gathering the groceries and decide to explore beyond the market corridors. 

Ten minutes from Tlacolula, we find the archaeological site of Yagul, where the restoration work of this ancient Zapotec city allows us to interact with space, climb the steps of its temples, or go down to the ball field and run along its sidelines. We explore and encounter not only the past but also the future, through the imagination of young children, creating a new universe in real time within the constructs of these ancient ruins. The tour takes us through labyrinthine corridors, hidden chambers, and tombs with figures and motifs carved into the stone. At the end of the tour, we climb the rock that overlooks the site. From above, it is easy to understand that those who built the city chose this place to maintain control of their lands thanks to its unobstructed view of the entire Tlacolula Valley. 

Photo: Isahrai Azaria

After a walk, intense in stairs and sparking the imagination, we begin the return to Oaxaca City, but then, we decide to detour to Tlacochahuaya for one last snack. This small farming community houses one of the most visually impressive churches in the area, called San Jerónimo in honour of the town’s patron saint. The murals, dating from the 16th century, are covered by cherubs and floral motifs in light shades of red, blue, and green, arranged in such a way that it looks like a large canvas has been stretched across the entire space. The carved figures and altarpieces are impressive both individually and as a collective piece, while in the choir space, a majestic 18th-century organ sits to contemplate the temple from above. 

We leave the temple feeling inspired and, to complete the satisfaction of our souls, we enjoy a traditional ice cream in the plaza. We look inside each ice cream drum: the quantity of flavours is incredible! Lime, prickly pear, strawberry, mango, leche quemada (burnt milk), beso del angel, and guanábana – some made with water, others with milk. Each has its own particular aroma and colour, as varied and unique as the people who live and work in the villages throughout the valley but come together each Sunday in Tlacolula. 

Photo: Isahrai Azaria

Photo: Isahrai Azaria


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