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Alebrijes

Visiting the Alebrije Hotspot of Oaxaca

One of my favorite parts of my trip my recent Oaxaca trip via Mexico Today turned out to be the visit we made to the small town of San Martín Tilcajete. When John & I visited Oaxaca back in 2009, we’d heard from friends about all the little villages specializing in various handicrafts that are located within an hour’s drive from the city. To be honest, I was skeptical.  You’ve seen one Mexican handicraft, you’ve seen them all, right?

This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill handicraft!! I *loved* this turkey alebrije @ Jacobo and Maria Angeles' shop.

But this was before I had a true appreciation for Mexico’s many incredibly-specialized small towns. For instance, are you interested in seeing every piece of home decor that could possible be made out of onyx? Tecali de Herrera in the state of Puebla is your answer for all your onyx lamp needs! Hoping to buy as many trendy leather shoes for $200 pesos each as can fit in your suitcase? Head over to Leon in Guanajuato state, hub of all things leather (except for women’s shoes in size, ahem, 12 or 13).

So three years after being introduced to my first alebrije (including some extra-large ones scattered along Reforma in Mexico City), I was more optimistic about visiting the small town that’s bursting at the seams with alebrije action!

Oversized alebrijes seemed to escort us as we drove into the town of San Martin Tilcajete

For those wondering “what is that word she keeps using?”, alebrijes are colorful fantasy animals that are traditional folk art in both Oaxaca & Mexico City. There’s one history on the origination of alebrijes here— those in DF were papier mache, but those from Oaxaca are carved out of wood. Fellow blogger Alvin has more great detail on the unique tree that Oaxacans use for their alebrijes– the copal–and their sustainable farming practices.

A smattering of Oaxacan alebrijes

Many of my other blogger pals have highlighted the gorgeous finished alebrijes that we saw at the workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles. But I wanted to share my favorite part– the shelves of naked alebrijes, categorized by animal & awaiting their coats of paint to make themselves presentable to the world. :)

You can almost hear the howling of that dog with his back to the camera.

This bear was one of the more agile looking bears I've seen, and also one of the more pouty.

These guys were great-- frogs ready to party, some with guitars and other with jugs full of moonshine. (yes, I know; anthropomorphize much?) ;)

Here was one of the alebrije carvers hard at work, with a flurry of copal wood scattered around him.

The unique aspect about the alebrijes at this workshop was their amazing level of detail– like nothing I’d seen elsewhere in Mexico.

This gentleman carefully puts the finishing touches on this wacky dragon

Still a little dragon tail left to be painted, but look at that detail (not to mention, how did they carve the tail like that??).

And here's one of the amazing finished pieces.

How do I get to San Martin Tilcajete?

If you’re ambitious & are driving, Moon Travel Guides has a great, fairly detailed map of all the villages around the city of Oaxaca. You’ll take Highway 175 south from the city, and San Martin Tilcajete is about 23km out. It took us about an hour to get out there when you include some slow-moving traffic in the city + a festival of topes (killer speedbumps!) on the way out of town.

Look for this sign to mark the inauspicious entrance to the town of San Martin Tilcajete!

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a tour guide, I can only speak to the experience I had with the tour company with whom the Mexico Today folks made arrangements– Turismo El Convento de Oaxaca. Ulises Bonilla Martinez and his mother Maria Esther Martinez Ricardez both did a great job, and she in particular had the gift of story-telling that added a lot to the experience. The prices outlined on their brochure I received for various tours around Oaxaca state start from $180 pesos for half-day trips to Monte Alban or the nearby artisan villages, and $300 pesos for full-day outings. You can email info@oaxacaexperts.com for more details. If you want to do some shopping around, here’s a list of some other tour options to consider.

Finally, there is a great list here (in Spanish) of recent/upcoming events in Oaxaca, so be sure to monitor that for 2012’s Feria del Alebrije schedule as you plan your travel– you know how much I love a good niche festival!!

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  I was also invited to an all-expenses paid trip to Oaxaca as part of my role and for the launch of the program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared in my blog are completely my own.

Sluggy McSluggerson recounts some Mexico Highlights!

Ok, so I’ve been a slug. Every now and then, I like to do a blog post outlining all the riveting topics I’ve been meaning to write about, promise you that I will actually write about them, and then never execute on this.  Which sucks, because we have been some really amazing places in Mexico that I would highly recommend, if I ever got around to recommending them. :)

As a temporary fix to this, I thought I’d quickly highlight the best of my “Haven’t Blogged About Them” Mexico spots (and then vaguely promise to elaborate on them at an unforeseen later date).

IXTAPA: When I was trapped at school one weekend, John abandoned me for a much more glamorous weekend with a former boss of his who was in Ixtapa for the week with family. They stayed at this crazy-pretty house on the beach called Casa del Sol. It is located right next to a ski-lift (essentially), so he didn’t even have to exert himself going up & down to the beach, and the live-in staff of 3 took care of every food & drink need. If you have money to burn & a week to spare, this sounds like a great place to do it.

The view over Ixtapa's bay from Casa del Sol

The view over Ixtapa's bay from Casa del Sol

A glimpse of the pool & house that John had to suffer in for 3 painful days... :) So jealous!! (see the house website for more pics)

GOOD VIEW OF MEXICO CITY + GOOD TACOS: To enable friend Kim to experience the monstrosity that is Mexico City, we drug her up to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, which holds the impressive distinction of “used to be the tallest tower in Latin America”! What excitement!! But, they have a good viewing platform (once you get outside so as to avoid sweating to death in the greenhouse portion). We recovered by stuffing ourselves with beer and tacos at El Huequito, top contender for “best tacos al pastor” in DF.

Kim observes that Mexico City just won't quit!!

Kim observes that Mexico City just won't quit!!

This tower is so cool, it even has a mascot...?

This tower is so cool, it even has a mascot...?

After that rigorous multi-story elevator ride, we relax with beers & tacos al pastor galore at El Huequito.

After that rigorous multi-story elevator ride, we relax with beers & tacos al pastor galore at El Huequito.

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE: During the swine-flu frenzy, we escaped town to check out San Miguel de Allende, generally known as “Hub of Retired Gringos”. This place has some of the most beautiful B&Bs I’ve seen in Mexico, but know that you will be paying US prices for the privilege of staying in them. :) The town is lovely & rife with tasty restaurants and trendy galleries. Food was amazing at a spot called “The Restaurant“.

The iconic pink Parroquia of San Miguel de Allende.

The iconic pink Parroquia of San Miguel de Allende.

"The Restaurant" (aptly named, eh?) is a good place to go for a manly man's drink.

"The Restaurant" (aptly named, eh?) is a good place to go for a manly man's drink.

GUANAJUATO: The second half of our swine-flu trip, we stayed in Guanajuato– town of crazy tunnels & colorful houses. It was cute & felt v. European with loads of plazas to lounge about outside. If you drive, abandon your car at first apparent parking garage below the city & walk everywhere.  Stayed in Hotel Casa del Agua & were v. pleased with it. Employee walked with us to get our car & rode with us back to the hotel parking lot (a standard service at that hotel, which gives you a feel for how much of a cluster the roads are in Guanajuato. This hotel also created our new Mexico travel requirement of “hotel bathroom must have solid toilet that flushes plus a vent that vents outside of the room”.  During the 1.5 days of food poisoning aftermath, we realized how lucky we were that Hotel Casa del Agua had exactly that.

I ate at La Capellina repeatedly while John was MIA; food was great. Go to the fancy-pants Hotel Refugio Casa Colorada on the hill for drinks but no need to spend the money/effort to stay there.

The view from the Casa Colorado restaurant terrace (note fall-preventative glass paneling).

The view from the Casa Colorado restaurant terrace (note fall-preventative glass paneling).

And another shot of colorful Guanajuato

And another shot of colorful Guanajuato

HUATULCO for our ANNIVERSARY: Huatulco, aka Las Bahías de Huatulco, is made up of 9 bays along the Oaxaca coast. Some of the bays are part of a National Park & hence untouched by development, resulting in some of the most amazing, pristine beaches I’ve seen in Mexico. (e.g. if you’ve seen the Mexican movie “Y Tu Mamá Tambien“, its famous beach scenes were shot here on Bahia de Cacaluta“). You can rent a small boat at the marina, and the captain will take you as many bays as you want & stop as often as you want to snorkel/check out the beach. I recommend getting one with a roof or the sun will roast you. Not sure how much we paid, but I want to say around $800-$900 pesos for as long as we wanted to be out? But I could be way off. The very last bay is developed & has loads of restaurants where you can eat amazingly fresh shrimp cocktail & fish.

The boat we rented to peruse the beaches & bays of Huatulco

The boat we rented to peruse the beaches & bays of Huatulco & its trusty captain.

Tasty seafood at Bahia San Agustin in Huatulco

Tasty seafood at Bahia San Agustin in Huatulco

One of the pristine beaches along the Oaxaca coastline

One of the pristine beaches along the Oaxaca coastline

We stayed at a gorgeous house called Villa Escondida located on the eastern-most beach (La Bocana). Whoever designed/built this house did an amazing job– infinity pool, hot tub on the roof, water feature in the entry way, master suite w/amazing views, a secret bar down on the beach. It’s a bit spendy, but we lucked out negotiating a deal due to post-swine-flu tourism slump. This place would be brilliant to rent out w/8 people, though you would have to battle for who gets the Mar Vista suite.

The couple, Elsa & Armando, that care for the place are super friendly & accommodating, picking you up from the airport in an air-conditioned SUV (so you can slowly acclimate to the humidity) & whipping up welcome drinks once you arrive.  Armando’s mango mojitos & hamburgers are both to die for– best hamburger I’ve had in Mexico to date. This beach was only marginally developed when we were there in May 2010, so it was v. quiet & private, yet had a great “meat & booze” restaurant around the corner. Only caveat– the Copalita River meets the ocean here, so it’s not a great beach for swimming- more for surfing, so if you are a “must be able to swim in ocean outside my door” type, be forewarned. But I personally found the beach to be absolutely beautiful.

The entryway into Villa Escondida

The entryway into Villa Escondida

And a view of the house from the beach

And a view of the house from the beach

SAN FRANCISCO, CA: This is not in Mexico. However, they did have lucha wine.

Luchador Shiraz: I recall it costing just enough to prevent you from buying it as a joke gift.

Luchador Shiraz: I recall it costing just enough to prevent you from buying it as a joke gift.

THE PYRAMIDS a.k.a. TEOTIHUACAN: In June, I finally made it to the pyramids with visiting friend Emily. If you come to Mexico City, it is totally worth the trip. Teotihuacan is located about 45 minutes north of the city, assuming no traffic drama. You can take a bus from the Terminal Central del Norte (reachable via metro to “Autobuses del Norte” on Yellow Line #5 ), just confirm it’s going to the Zona Arq. Teotihuacan or Teotihuacan ruinas or Piramides. Rumor has it tickets are ~$70 pesos for return trip. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi for the day for maybe $600 pesos to take you there, wait for you, and bring you back at your convenience. Obviously more spendy, but not bad split amongst 3-4 folks.

Here're Emily & I in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. This is the one you can climb up to the top.

Here're Emily & I in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. This is the one you can climb up to the top.

Other tips:

  • Bring water with you, as it isn’t sold within the ruins (just at stores outside).
  • Wear a hat/sunscreen; there is *no* shade out there & you will burn the crap out of yourself.
  • Leave early to beat crowds & the heat– I recommend leaving DF at 7:30AM.
  • I like to start near the Pyramid of the Sun (Puerta 5, if you drive). You can climb all the way up this one, which is much cooler if done before every other tourist & their pet dog arrives. Here’s a good map.
  • If you’re not going to pay for a guided tour (they do have them in English), I strongly recommend reading up a bit before you go or buying a book. Otherwise you will have 5,000 questions that the 10 plaques will not answer & you might not find the experience as interesting.
Our guide pressured us to act like morons while on the Pyramid of the Moon. Hot tip: if you stand on that lower platform (just above Emily's right foot) & yell your name, there are cool echoes. That is basically the only thing I recall from our guided tour.

Our guide pressured us to act like morons while on the Pyramid of the Moon. Hot tip: if you stand on that lower platform (just above Emily's right foot) & yell your name, there are cool echoes. That is basically the only thing I recall from our guided tour.

OAXACA: It’s pronounced Wah-ha-ka for anyone wondering how that combination of letters can possibly form a word. The drive between DF & Oaxaca City through the mountains was actually quite beautiful– duration of 5-6 hours depending on time required to escape Mexico City. The town is lovely, the food/mezcal are fantastic, and the archaelogical site (Monte Alban) offers sweet views over the whole valley. Another town with lots of cute B&Bs/hotels. We stayed at Los Pilares Hostal, which was very nice & cost ~$1000 pesos, but is a few blocks away from the action. The Centro Cultural Santo Domingo (an ex-convent) is worth checking out. For food, hit La Olla for comida & La Biznaga for dinner; Los Danzantes is good for the mezcal but I’d skip the food… not amazing for the $$ (except for the magical Hoja de Santa appetizer– a crazy-big leaf stuffed w/cheese). Also, La Farola was a great cantina for further mezcal sampling.

The toll road between Mexico City & Oaxaca is well-maintained and takes you through gorgeous scenery-- cactus forests, vibrant red soil, mountains, etc etc.

The toll road between Mexico City & Oaxaca is well-maintained and takes you through gorgeous scenery-- cactus forests, vibrant red soil, mountains, etc etc.

The vegetation outside the convent in the city of Oaxaca.

The vegetation outside the convent in the city of Oaxaca.

Me perched atop one of the many formations at Monte Alban, just a few minutes from downtown Oaxaca.

Me perched atop one of the many formations at Monte Alban, just a few minutes from downtown Oaxaca.

MEXICAN INDEPENDENCE DAY IN COYOACAN (SEPT 16): The festivities for Dia de la Independencia start the nite before (Sept 15) at 11PM with the El Grito (the cry of independence). If I teach you nothing else, let it be that Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Mexican Independence Day. :) Instead of joining in the craziness in the Zocalo, we went with some friends to the plaza in Coyoacan. In a nutshell, there is much excitement, food, carnival rides, fireworks, music, dancing, yelling, etc., though all of these to an even greater degree when it isn’t raining out. (boo) It is worth experiencing at least once– though try to learn some of the relevant songs/chants in advance to better blend in. 😉

We are all decorated-up with my stars & John's flag pin. Sandro is Mexican so apparently he doesn't feel like he needs to prove his support for Mexico by cheesily wearing patriotic colors... ;)

We are all decorated-up with my stars & John's flag pin. Sandro is Mexican so apparently he doesn't feel like he needs to prove his support for Mexico by cheesily wearing patriotic colors... ;)

They had an impressive fireworks performance in Coyoacan that included words, dates, and profiles of famous men depicted in flame! Here is a shot of the spinning fireworks, as the crowd (who is tightly pressed around the base of the fireworks) tries to avoid being sprayed by a flurry of sparks.

They had an impressive fireworks performance in Coyoacan that included words, dates, and profiles of famous men depicted in flame! Here is a shot of some spinning fireworks, as the crowd (who is tightly pressed around the base of the fireworks) tries to avoid being sprayed by a flurry of sparks.

ALEBRIJES ON REFORMA: If you’ve been to Mexico, you’ve likely seen for sale crazy-looking, multicolored animals made of paper-maché or wood. These are called alebrijes, and were originally conceived of by a guy in Mexico City in the 1930s. For the last two years during October, Mexico City has had an impressive display of gigantic alebrijes along la Avenida de Reforma (the main east-west drag through town). I hope they do it again this year, because these things are the coolest.

This alebrije eating a dragonfly rules. I am impressed at his ability to stabilize himself on his curled-up tail.

This alebrije eating a dragonfly rules. I am impressed at his ability to stabilize himself on his curled-up tail.

This one reminded me of some kind of deformed Trojan Horse...

This one reminded me of some kind of deformed Trojan Horse...

Ok, now we’re marginally caught up through the end of October 2009…. Please comment if you would specifically like to see more details/photos on any of the above topics, & I’ll see what I can do! 😉

Farewell for now from the blog slug!

Farewell for now from the blog slug!

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