Sleep was briefly interrupted overnight by a jolt from an aftershock that woke us both up, but by the time we got to the relative security of the bathroom, the shaking was over. It took a few minutes for the commotion in the hallways to die down, but we crawled back into bed and quickly dozed off. The following day we loaded onto our bus for an excursion into the countryside.


Road Scholars

Our first stop was at Santa Maria del Tule to visit THE Tule Tree. It is in the Guinness Book of World records as the "stoutest" tree in the world, but its existence is threatened by the gradual drying of the surrounding land. It had once been marsh land with a nearby lake, but the lake and the marshes have disappeared.

Our guide pointed out that towns in the area often have two names. The first name is Spanish, "Santa Maria" in this case. It typically denotes a patron saint. The second name is older. "Tule" comes from the Nahuatl and is related to the former marshes.


Tule guide

A local nine-year-old youngster was one of the authorized guides and he introduced tourists to the tree. For the rest of our visit we picked up his catch phrase of "Come on, please" when we needed to move on to a new site.

He pointed out the fanciful images that he saw in the gnarled bark. The only one I remember was "baby elephant taking a nap." He also told us that he had been leading tours for three years -- starting when he was six!


Tule tree

It is of course impossible to get a close-up of a tree this big, but it had a lovely arrangement of branches.

The tree is a Montezuma Cypress and is estimated to be around 1500 years old. At one time it was thought to be two or more trees grown together, but DNA testing has confirmed that it is a single plant.


The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and dates from the 17th century. The Spanish had a policy of placing churches near indigenous people's sacred sites and the tree had been a sacred place of pilgrimage for a long time. The church was closed due to damage from the September, 2017, earthquake.

The large tree to the right of the church is a "child" of The Tule Tree. We were told that at one time there was quite a market for Tule Tree babies.

The extensive gardens were quite lovely with some beautiful roses.

Topiary was popular throughout our travels.

 


Sculpture

Of course I had to take a picture of the "horse with wings" sculpture at the entrance to the gardens. I also took a picture of the label hoping to look up the artist for this travelogue, but I can't read the script. Our guide said that he had gotten enough commissions at government-sponsored tourist sites that there was some grumbling among other artists.


Agave Plantation

As we proceeded toward Mitla, we passed many agave farms. The plants are cultivated for mezcal production and it appears to be the primary crop of the area.

Oaxaca city is at the center of three intersecting valleys: Etla in the northwest, Valle Grande in the central and southern area, and Tlacolula in the east. We are proceeding along the Valle Grande.

The Pacific coast is on the other side of the mountain range, the Sierra Madre del Sur.


Caves

We also passed an area containing several caves and some petroglyphs (I failed to get a picture of the rock art). These prehistoric caves have been named UNESCO World Heritage sites. Seeds and corn cobs dating back 8000 years that were found in the area are the oldest evidence of domestication of these plants.


San Paulo church Mitla

When the Spanish arrived at Mitla, which was a Mixtec city and ceremonial center, they systematically destroyed many of the buildings and used the stones to build this church dedicated to St. Paul. As noted above, it was a policy to co-opt sacred sites.

The church and adjacent pre-conquest buildings are called, for obvious reasons, the "Church Group."


Mitla ruins

Adjacent to the church was an area, "Courtyard C," that escaped wholesale destruction. As I recall this was either an administrative or residential area so the Spaniards may have adapted it to their use.

The geometric friezes above the arch are made from cut and polished stones fitted together without mortar. They are unique to Mitla.


Mitla Fresco

There were also extensive frescoes, but only fragments remain. This one was located in the recess of the lintel above.


Tomb

Another major area of pre-conquest buildings was called the "Columns Group," for some massive columns that you will see later.

There were at least two large tombs in the courtyard. One can be seen here in the lower right of the image. I didn't go into it, but I did visit the other one, which was awkward and cramped, but which had elaborate stonework friezes. (The flash photo that I was able to get didn't show much.)

Our guide said that the square piers once held carved decorations that were removed and put into a local privately-owned museum. The contents of the museum have since vanished under suspicious circumstances. No one knows what has happened to them. The only discussion that I can find in English is embedded in the Mitla Wikipedia article.


Destroyed structure

On the opposite side of the courtyard are the remains of a structure that was dismantled by the Spanish so that the materials could be used to build the church shown above. A plaque nearby states:

The ultimate objective was to do away with the vestiges of power of the pre-Hispanic culture in order to impose Western civilization and religion.

One of the things that had not been destroyed was the courtyard surface itself. Jim & I were amazed to find out that the concrete-surfaced courtyard was original. Although concrete was known to the Romans, the knowledge of how to make it was lost until the 18th century. The technology of lime mortar and eventually concrete was also developed in MesoAmerica, possibly beginning as early as 1000 BC. (The link takes you to a technical paper. It may be slow to load.)


Columns

On the north side of the courtyard is the "palace" containing the massive columns that gave this assemblage its name. (The red paint is a modern addition.)

The room containing the columns, which would have held up the original roof, is an anteroom to the interior of the structure.


Columns

The unassuming door is the entrance of a crooked passageway that leads to the rest of the building. This anteroom would originally been covered.


Interior room

Following the passageway led to an inner courtyard with several rooms such as this one surrounding it. The walls of these rooms were almost completely decorated with the cut-stone friezes seen elsewhere. The designs seamlessly wrapped around the corners in the same manner that a figured wallpaper is installed nowadays.

The roofs are modern additions intended to show how the rooms would have originally looked. As there were no windows and only a single door, they were pretty dark.

The function of these rooms is unknown.


Stonework

Another view of the stonework. Originally the raised designs would have been highlighted in white against a red background. Traces of the colors can be seen here as well as the variety of the designs.

Jim and I agree that Mitla was the most fascinating of the ancient sites we visited. The information at the link repeats some of the above information, but also gives some insight into how these ancient buildings have survived so well in a highly active seismic zone.


Exit Through Gift Shop

Even archeological sites have an "exit through gift shop" component.

In this case the way out of the site and back to the bus parking lot took us by numerous stalls mostly selling handiworks. It was a lot more crowded there than in the actual ruins!

We were visiting on the same day as a number of Ford Mustang car clubs from the surrounding area and beyond. The various clubs had matching polo shirts with club logos and it was definitely a family-friendly event. We played tag with Mustangs all weekend. I wasn't able to find an English-language site that described it, but a Spanish one (thanks, Google translate) said it was the second annual national rally of Mustang clubs in Oaxaca.


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