Our first program day in Oaxaca started with a brief orientation and a lecture by Glen Pinchbeck on the "Market System in Oaxaca and its importance to Oaxacan Cuisine." It provided a good introduction to the cultural background of the area. Briefly, Oaxaca has been inhabited by a variety of indigenous peoples beginning over 10,000 years ago. Mesoamerica is considered one of the cradles of civilization and the region around Oaxaca was one of the early cultural centers. Although there has been controversy about the origin of the early inhabitants, what is clear is that an originally nomadic people began to cultivate and improve the native vegetation -- eventually producing modern corn, squash and beans and  establishing a settled agrarian society over 8000 years ago.

During the nomadic ages, people became familiar with the many microclimates of the region. They knew what resources were available where and when. As they settled down, they traded with other areas to obtain food and resources that were not available in their particular location. A market system evolved regionally and eventually reached throughout Mesoamerica and into far-away locations -- even as far as the Andes. This system has formed the basis for scholarly study.

After the lecture we embarked on a walking tour including two modern downtown markets.


Our local tour expert, Suzanne Barbezat started our walk on this colorful pedestrian street with an abandoned aqueduct in the background.


We followed the aqueduct for a few blocks to this fountain where residents would have been able to draw water when the aqueduct was still in use.

The building behind the fountain is the home of ARIPO, a local handicrafts store.

Benito Juarez

Farther along the street we stopped at the home of Benito Juárez. He was from Oaxaca province and was a full-blooded Zapotec. Although born to poor peasant parents and left an orphan at a very early age, Juárez's intelligence and ability enabled him to find mentors and receive an education. He entered politics and became president of Mexico from 1861 until his death in 1872. Part of this time he spent in internal "exile" for reasons too complicated to summarize here. For more information check the link above.

Juárez is viewed as a Mexican hero and his birthday is a national holiday.

Street market

Street markets or "tianguis" may be found along the main streets. A common sight was a vendor selling tejate, a popular non-alcoholic drink made from maize and cacao among other things. Our tour leaders prepared some for us later. It must be an acquired taste -- I found it bland.

Santo Domingo

Our destination was the church of Santo Domingo and the adjacent Oaxacan Cultural Museum.

The sanctuary and attached monastery were constructed starting in the 16th century. After all church property was confiscated in the mid-19th century, it was used by the military as barracks and stables. The sanctuary was returned to church use in 1938. The facility was restored in the late 20th century.

Santo Domingo interior

The interior of the sanctuary was encrusted with gold leaf!

We were told that the government used to subsidize the electricity, but has since stopped that. As a result the interior was quite dark except in the transept, which receives sufficient natural light to enable a picture.

The scaffolding in the north transept is part of a project to construct a new shrine.


After our visit to the church, we went next door to the Cultural Museum. We got there early enough that we avoided the crowds, including this collection of schoolchildren who were waiting to go in as we left.

This was pretty much true of all the sites we visited: we got there before the crowds. A typical Road Scholar service.


As noted above, the church and monastery had been used as a barracks and stable for many years and there was significant damage and deterioration. As part of the restoration this exhibit of "before" and "after" pictures was created. All of the text was in Spanish, but it was still interesting to look at the images. I found this to be a very clever display.

On our last trip I was grateful for my rusty German that enabled me to read the occasional non-English explanations. Here in Mexico I was sorry (yet again) at my lack of Spanish because few signs and explanations were in English.

Much of the population in this area speaks one of the 16 indigenous languages in addition to Spanish. Many, but by no means all, also speak English.


The restored fountain in the center of the cloister. Some of the features had to be reconstructed by written descriptions since no pictures existed.


The ceiling over the main stair in the monastery. We were told that the word convento was used regardless of whether the occupants were monks or nuns.

This was a Dominican monastery, so St. Dominic is in the center flanked by four major Dominican saints.

There are still a few monks in residence in a small facility behind the church.

Steeples and sundial

The twin steeples of the church as seen from the cloister. The oblong feature to the right of the image is a sundial dated 1639. It showed pretty much the correct time.

The remaining pictures on this page are artifacts from the museum. I wasn't able to find descriptions of some of them.

Alabaster bowl

One of the rooms in the museum was dedicated to objects found in Tomb 7 at Monte Alban. My favorite  item was this translucent jar of alabaster.

Tomb 7 is a classic period Zapotec tomb that was reused in post-classical times by the Mixtecs. It is ranked as the richest pre-Columbian tomb in Mesoamerica.

Scribe of Cuilapan

This striking vessel is known as the scribe of Cuilapan. The link takes you to a description of a piece at the Cleveland Museum of Art. There is also a similar piece at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This work has been dated to 100 BC - 200AD.

The flattened shape of the skull was artificially produced by binding an infant's head between boards. The resulting shape was an indication of high status.

Zapotec effigy vessel

A face only a mother could love. Vessels of this shape were braziers.


The description says (thanks to Google translate):

Sculpture with funerary characteristics that represents the Monkey God in the headdress, who is related to agricultural activities. It comes from the archeological site of Reyes - Etla, Oaxaca (around 900 AD).

The fine molding and detail of the ancient figures is astounding.

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