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La Mixteca Alta Oaxaca

Oaxaca’s Dominican Masterpieces

On my last day in Oaxaca, two friends and I decided to visit three beautifully restored Dominican monasteries. These colonial masterpieces lie within a relatively poor and mountainous region: la Mixteca Alta. A well-populated center of the highland Mixtec people at the time of the Spanish conquest, it attracted the attention of Dominican missionaries, who erected more than a half dozen imposing mission churches with huge, open atriums for catechizing and converting large numbers of indigenous people. Lack of opportunity has seen the exodus of large numbers of people (there are large populations of Mixtecs in California and New York, as well as Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico), and the region has held little draw for tourists. Until now.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a big tourist destination. But for people who like out-of-the-way places and beautifully restored old churches and monasteries, la Mixteca Alta is a great place to visit. Three 16th-century fortresses of religious fervor have been recently restored through the joint collaboration of INAH (Mexico’s national department of history and archaeology), Banamex, and several major philanthropic donors.

We started our day trip on the “super carretera” towards Mexico City. This road looks like any other minor Mexican highway; there is nothing “super” about it except that it has fewer curves than the free road, and one pays a couple of small tolls. Our first stop was San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, about 1.5 hours northwest of Oaxaca City. The original open chapel, to the left of the church, is still largely in ruins, but the temple itself is beautiful. Its limestone façade has a rose window surrounded by symbols of the Passion of Christ and other icons; the seashell motif is associated with John the Baptist, patron saint of the church and the town. Inside, the single-nave temple has gold-encrusted pulpits and side altars, old and modern statuary, and an impressive, four-story main altarpiece.

It was Palm Sunday, and as we were finishing up in the church, a parade of parishioners arrived bearing a wooden statue of Jesus atop a donkey. Leaving the faithful to celebrate Mass, we continued to the adjacent former monastery, where the building’s super friendly caretaker, José Guadalupe López Onofre, showed us around. Although parts of the large structure are still unrestored, many of the interior walls have been redone using original techniques. Cactus gel mixed with limestone dust gives them a luminous, eggshell sheen. From the rooftop we appreciated the surrounding landscape, dry and somewhat barren this time of year.

Asking about the town’s most important religious holiday, we were invited to stay at Sr. López’s family’s home if we came for la Fiesta del Señor del Calvario. Beginning on May 20 and culminating on the 25th, the Feast of Our Lord of Calvary is apparently an impressive affair with castillos (elaborate wooden towers shooting off fireworks in all colors and shapes), jaripeos (horse riding events and contests), dances, and traditional bands. There are no hotels in town in this town of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants.

Our next destination was Teposcolula. Rather than sticking to the highway (which would have meant returning towards Oaxaca), we decided to follow the dotted line on the map rather than the solid one. Local people assured us that there was no problema with this road, and they were right.

We took a few wrong turns but after about 40 minutes reached our next destination: San Pedro and San Pablo Teposcolula. Established by Dominican friars shortly after the Conquest, this church fronted a huge, open atrium meant to accommodate thousands of potential indigenous converts. Although impressive, we found that some of the columns and the ceiling vault of this Gothic and Renaissance-style open chapel were of recent vintage. This was our least favorite of the three monastery churches we visited that day, with more formal-looking architecture and more obvious reconstruction. Still, the church had amazing altarpieces, statuary, and well-restored pulpits and pipe organ. A pair of binoculars would have helped appreciate some of the detail work.

After visiting the church we bought a snack from a man selling ice cream from his modified motorcycle. Taking a break in the main plaza, shaded by pines and ash trees, we admired the old-fashioned city hall, painted tan with red accents. Its working clock is inscribed with the date 1828.

Colonial and Pre-Hispanic History in La Mixteca Alta

Although an important pre-Hispanic and later colonial town, Teposcolula’s influence waned after the War of Independence (1810-1821). During the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy Spanish-born and criollo merchants here dealt in silks and other fine textiles, precious stones, natural dyes, and imported items. Although their impressive homes are now in ruins or have been replaced by more humble structures, this is still the largest of the three towns we visited, with approximately 4,000 inhabitants. It’s most important festivals celebrate Our Lord of the Stained Glass (the first Friday of Lent), and patron Saints Peter and Paul (28th and 29 June).

Returning to the highway, we drove about 20 minutes to Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán. Our last stop of the day was once the capital of the highland Mixtecs, who were united with the lowland Mixtecs under the ruler Lord Eight Deer “Jaguar Claw” in the 11th century. These are other exploits are detailed in the Mixtec codices---picture books on folded deerskin. Unlike many other pre-Hispanic documents that were destroyed by over-zealous Catholic priests, several of these surviving books (including the Vienna and Nuttall Codices) described the beliefs, history, and genealogy of the Mixtec people.

The Mixtecs were master metalworkers and jewelers. Among the priceless artifacts passed down to us today are earrings, nose rings, necklaces and bracelets of finely crafted gold, silver, and turquoise. Because the Mixtecs used the abandoned Zapotec city of Monte Albán as an elaborate gravesite for elite members of society, archaeologists found a rich cache of their best pieces buried there. As did the Zapotecs (who built Monte Albán), the Mixtecs used hieroglyphics and the 260- and 360-day calendars. The word Mixtec (Mixteco in Spanish) comes from the Aztec’s word for "cloud people," but the Mixtec’s own name for themselves has to do with the god of rain, one of the most important deities in this area of uncertain rainfall.

In the 15th century the Aztecs subjugated the Mixtecs; they insisted on fine Mixtec metalwork and jewelry as part of their annual tribute. About a century later, the Spanish razed Yanhuitlán’s main pyramid and replaced it with the current fortress monastery, named for the founder of the Dominican Order.

Here and Now

A sweet local boy showed us around the exterior and told us about the town while we waited for the church to reopen---it’s closed between about 2 and 4pm. We took time to admire the temple’s beautiful limestone façade, in perfect condition. Then for a small fee (which we could have avoided if we’d carried our resident visas), we visited the adjacent monastery. Within it, the site museum houses religious statues used during local fiestas as well as reproductions of ancient Mixtec codices.

Once we finally entered the church, we were amazed by its restored 17th-century pipe organ, coiffured ceilings, and the colonial paintings and statues. Despite the town’s small population (about 1,600 souls), out-of-the-way location, and relative unimportance, the old stronghold of Spanish Catholicism has been stunningly restored. For more than a decade, skilled and unskilled laborers restored Gothic windows, the choir floor, and vaulted ceilings. Restoration experts rescued deteriorated statues and the unusual, hexagonally shaped main altarpiece with its impeccable statues and paintings. Whitewash was removed from frescoes that originally covered the walls, although only a small portion was actually restored.

Yanhuitlán has at least one comfortable hotel, making it possible for visitors to attend some of the town’s lively fiestas. Throughout the month of May, townspeople honor Nuestro Señor de la Luz (Our Lord of the Light) with daily rosaries and Mass---followed by a lunch to which all are invited. Other big holidays are Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and the feast of St. Dominic, the order’s founder and town’s patron saint, August 2-4.

An earthquake in 1999 damaged all three of these former monasteries, which prompted their restoration beginning in 2006. In addition to resurrecting these architectural icons from Mexico’s past, INAH hopes that the project may bring a measure of economic development to the Mixteca Alta, one of the driest and poorest regions of Oaxaca State. We hope so too.

If You Go

All three monastery-church complexes are closed Mondays and otherwise open approximately 9 to 2 and 4 to 7 (or until dusk). If your interest in this forgotten region extends beyond the mildly curious, there are more former monasteries--- largely unrestored---in Tamazulapan, Tonalá, Chila, Juxtlahuaca, Jaltepec, Huajuapan, and Tlaxiaco. The last two are the first- and second-largest towns in La Mixteca Alta, with approximate populations of 70,000 and 17,500, respectively.

Of the three much smaller towns mentioned in this article, you can find overnight lodgings at Hotel Nudzavui Nuhu ($, Calle Allende #4, Centro, tel. 951/518-2437, ext.101, www.yanhuitlan.com). Its name in the Mixtec language means “Sacred Land.” Rooms are simple but comfortable, and non-guests as well as guests can enjoy the restaurant with regional food. Their small spa offers massage, facials, and ritual temazcal steams. It’s just a couple of blocks from the monastery complex, which can be admired from the rooftop terrace.

At Hotel Nudzavui Nuhu (above) you can hire a local guide to tell you about Yanhuitlán or to accompany you elsewhere in the region. It’s best to call ahead to make arrangements.

Getting Here: The main attraction, Yanhuitlán is about 93 km (58 miles) northwest of Oaxaca City. Take Highway 190 out of the city, then Highway 135D; get off the toll road at Asunción and head toward Huajuapan de León. To continue on to San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, continue toward Huajuapan and very soon head south (left) at San Juan Teposcolula on Highway 125. It’s about a 20-minute drive between these two monasteries.

San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca is 117 km (73 miles) northwest of Oaxaca City on Highway 190D.

To travel between Coixtlahuaca and Yanhuitlán/Teposcolula, you can backtrack toward Oaxaca to stay on the highway, or take a good secondary road that heads due west from Coixtlahuaca. For more detailed directions, go to http://www.mexicoguru.com/mexico-driving-distance.php. In the search box be sure to use the full name of each city: Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, and San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca.

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