People come to Mexico’s mountainous southern state of Oaxaca for many reasons: the architecture, the culture, the food, and often the handicrafts. Oaxaca has a long tradition of creating beautiful ceramics and pottery, as visitors will surely notice once they arrive. Recently, archaeologists have speculated that these Zapotec ceramic traditions date back even farther than they had originally thought, and yet this art form still thrives in the region.
The capital’s exquisite Spanish Colonial architecture is enthralling, though the ruins of the ancient Zapotec metropolis of Monte Alban, just visible in the hills above, make the Spaniards’ best efforts at city planning seem almost primitive.
Pilgrims possessed of good taste come to the “Land of Seven Moles” for the cuisine. The food is considered among the finest in the world, and many travelers are tempted to visit based on the recommendations of celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless and Anthony Bourdain.
Oaxaca is also the most indigenous region in Mexico and is home to the first modern-native head of state: President Benito Juarez. There are around 17 different languages in Oaxaca, and it hosts several fantastic pre-Columbian festivals, such as July’s fabulous Guelaguetza.
This region is also one of Mexico’s best developed circuits for indigenous tourism in the Pueblos Mancomunados, and its wonderful handicrafts are unequaled anywhere in the Americas. According to local guides and the beautifully illustrated table book, “Mexican Folk Art: From Oaxacan Artist Families” by Arden Aibel Rothstein, these handicrafts hail from several different traditions. A word of caution: not all of these traditions are as ancient or authentically Zapotec as certain guides might have you believe.
For example, Oaxaca’s most recognizable crafts, called alebrijes (fanciful and brightly colored balsa-wood animals), were first conceived in the 1930s by artist Pedro Linares. Though he is of native descent, Linares’ fantastic pieces would have been completely unfamiliar to the original residents of Monte Alban. Other crafts, like the famed tapetes (woven wool rugs of Teotitlan and Santa Ana del Valle), are a blend of Spanish and native traditions; weaving New World techniques and aesthetics into Old World looms and wool brought to the region in the 1560s.
And then there is Oaxaca’s pottery. In pre-Columbian times it was considered so beautiful that people went to quite a bit of trouble to ship these pieces all throughout the region. Although these ceramics have been made in Atzompa since at least 500 BC, archaeologists speculate that large-scale pottery production didn’t begin until around 700 AD. Since 2009, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has been excavating the ruins of old Atzompa, a surprisingly impressive sprawl that includes Oaxaca’s largest ball court. Last month the oldest, production-sized, Zapotec pottery kiln ever discovered was uncovered right here in Atzompa, dating back more than 1300 years.
Today, from the gleaming black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec to the whimsical and figurative work of the famous Aguilar Sisters in Ocotlan de Morelos, the Oaxaca Valley’s oldest art form continues to command international respect, as art dealers send Oaxaca’s finest pottery all over the world. You can buy a wide range of ceramics online, or in any of several Oaxaca City markets, but the best place to go for great deals and a great selection is Santa Maria de Atzompa.
When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, Atzompa was already a ceramics center and supplied products throughout Mesoamerica. By the 1700s, Atzompa’s gorgeous emerald green pottery was being shipped to Europe and what would become the United States (note that the lead-based tints used until the 1960s have been replaced by safe, modern glazes). Many travelers look forward to visiting the excellent and enormous Atzompa market when they visit. A special tip: you may want to try wandering around town to see if local craftspeople will invite you in to watch them work (but should remember that a purchase or tip is always appreciated).