Wanderluxe Home’s Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico
Part One: Art & Cultural Attractions
The moment you step into the center of Oaxaca, you know you’ve arrived at a special place. Oaxaca is one of the most diverse states in the country of Mexico. It is home to eighteen indigenous groups and more natural diversity than most other Mexican states. Since there is so much to discover, we’ve broken up our guide to Oaxaca into two parts. Part One we’re going to take you through our favorite parts of the arts and cultural attractions. Part Two we will take a bite out of the food culture.
Let’s dive in…
Exploring Culture Through Art
As a company that creates connections through ethically sourced homewares, exploring culture through art is the foundation of our business. The artisans that expertly craft our pieces are all taught their trade by ancestors that came before them. It’s a way to discover their history and their stories while admiring their skilled creations. When we’ve visited Oaxaca, we have studied two forms of art to share through Wanderluxe Home: clay and weaving.
Red Clay in San Marcos Tlapazola
One place we felt honored to discover was San Marcos Tlapazola. This town is home to Las Mujeres del Barro Rojo, The Women of the Red Clay. The Zapotec community that lives there has been crafting pottery for 20 generations. When modernization of the craft began to take over in the 1980s the Mateo Martinez family kept the centuries-old tradition alive. From there, Las Mujeres del Barro Rojo was born. Some of the community judged Macrina Mateo Martinez for leaving the village to perfect the trade and sell her wares. But her display of their work is what made the pottery of Las Mujeres del Barro Rojo so popular and successful still to this day. Together with all the women in her family, Macrina continues the tradition today.
Learning from Las Mujeres del Barro Rojo
To arrive at their home workshop and pottery studio, you take a stunning ride surrounded by mountains and other small villages. You head down a bumpy dirt road that leads to bright blue doors welcoming you. The women describe the process from start to finish, it seems so simple yet so physical and intricate. Firstly, they mine the red clay by hand in the surrounding mountains and carry it in a shawl back to their home. Then, it’s processed with water, sand, and other materials to make the clay. From there, the women use simple tools like dried corn cobs, pieces of gourd, and their hands to shape the pottery into magnificent works of art. Next, they burnish the pieces with a smooth stone to create the glazed finish. Lastly, they fire the formed clay pieces in a smokeless outdoor kiln.
Their most popular product is a comal, a dish used for shaping and serving tortillas. However, they also make pots, bowls, vases and more!
Today you can find pottery from Las Mujeres del Barro Rojo displayed across the globe, even in places like the MOMA in New York City. It’s an inspiring story that shows that grit, unrelenting dedication, and hard work can change lives. Wanderluxe Home will include pieces from Mujeres del Barro Rojo so that you can display them and tell their story in your own home.
Black Clay in San Bartolo Coyotepec
Beyond red pottery, the Oaxaca state is also very well-known for black pottery. We discovered this majestic form of art in San Bartolo Coyotepec. This quaint, charming village is 25-minutes south of Oaxaca City making it an easy drive for a quick trip to explore.
The Zapotec people that call San Bartolo Coyotepec home have been crafting black pottery for over 2,000 years. Yes, 2,000 years! It started as grey pottery over the years. However, in the 1950s a local potter introduced a polishing technique. She polished the pieces with quartz prior to firing, which produced the shiny black finish that the town is famous for. To form the pieces, they use two plates as a pottery wheel, with tools like wooden sticks to create the shape. Their pottery is a bit more intricate than that of Los Mujeres del Barro Rojo, with designs carved into each piece. When the artists complete the design, they place the piece out to dry. Once the piece is dry, they polish it and put in an underground pit to bake, creating the final product.
You’ll find the Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca in San Bartolo Coyotepec. The museum displays beautiful handicrafts from the region, focusing on the stunning black pottery.
Discovering Rug Weaving in Mitla
Mitla is a city that is about 45-minutes outside of Oaxaca City. It’s famous for being the home to historic Zapotec ruins that date back an estimated 10,000 years. They believe that Mitla is one of the first sites colonized by the Zapotec people, playing a large part in their history. Today, Mitla is home to unique, intricately designed Zapotec ruins as well as a large Zapotec weaving community. Many textile and pottery designs you find in Mexico are still inspired by the Zapotec designs and artifacts uncovered at the Mitla ruins. This design is not limited to just the Oaxaca region either, you can find it all across Mexico!
The weaving done in Mitla is extraordinarily complex and typically done with a flying loom style weaving technique. Check out our blog post about the art of Mexican weaving to learn more about Mexican weaving techniques and history!
Favorite Oaxaca Cultural Attractions to Discover
The Museo Textil Oaxaca is a unique museum homed in an old convent dating back to the mid-1500s. Their mission is to preserve the art of Mexican textiles and the culture that surrounds this important tradition. There are nearly 11,000 pieces of textile art displayed throughout the museum. Take a guided tour to really get a feel for the history and stories!
Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (Botanical Garden)
The Oaxaca Botanical Gardens are some of the most unique botanical gardens in the world. They began building in the 1990s with a mission to capture the essence of the Mexican people, culture, and biodiversity all in one place. The garden is the brainchild of artist Francisco Toledo. He hired artists, farmers, and healers to decide which plants to include from across the state and country. Then, they had to determine how to design the gardens in a way that told the story of Mexico. The gardens are on the grounds of the Santo Domingo Church which dates back to the 1500s. As such, they were able to incorporate some of the historical features of the church that they found. It’s a unique spot where you can experience the culture of this special state all in one place.
One of the most impressive landscapes you’ll find in Oaxaca is Hierve el Agua. This natural oasis is markedly unlike any other place you’ll find in Mexico. It is a pristine natural rock formation with calcified waterfalls and brightly colored waters to wade in. There are two falls: Cascada Grande and Cascada Chica. You can visit both in one shot hiking about two miles along the trails to explore both. To get there, you can take a bus, hire a private driver for the day, or take a guided tour. It’s a spectacular vista that you must witness when traveling in Oaxaca!
Religion is of the utmost importance in all of Mexico. It’s the foundation for most families and their lives. Over eighty percent of the population is Catholic. So, this means that no matter where you go, you’ll discover churches around every corner. Oaxaca is no exception. Whether you’re religious or not, the moment you walk into these historic churches you feel at peace. The beauty that surrounds you is stunning.
The most beloved church in Oaxaca is Templo de Santo Domingo. Dating back to the 1500s, the church has served as a place of worship, a refuge for troops during war times, and is now a cultural center and home to the botanical gardens as well as a church.
The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad features intricate architecture and is home to the main statue of Oaxaca’s saint, the Virgin of Solitude.
Located in the center of Oaxaca City is Oaxaca Cathedral, right on the main plaza. Not only is the architecture unique, but it holds a variety of beautiful historic paintings.
This just scrapes the surface of what churches you can visit when in Oaxaca. As you walk around, you’ll find more to explore!
Subscribe for Oaxaca Culinary Highlights
If you’re a foodie, check back soon for Part Two of our Oaxaca blog series. We’ll uncover the best food and the amazing culinary traditions of this Mexican state! When you subscribe, you’ll be the first to know when we release the new red clay pieces, handwoven textiles, and other handicrafts from Oaxaca. Stay tuned and click here to subscribe!