Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Celebrating CHOCOLATE & the dead

Mexico's Oaxaca region exudes pre-Columbian and Spanish flavours

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Oaxaca, nestled in the mountainous region of southern Mexico, is undoubtedly one of the country’s most impressive colonial cities.

In a sunlit valley surrounded by the cloud-tipped peaks of the Sierra Madre, an overnight trip from the Huatulco resort region, small villages specializing in folk art form a ring of cultural excellence along Oaxaca’s perimeter.

In a sunlit valley surrounded by the cloud-tipped peaks of the Sierra Madre, an overnight trip from the Huatulco resort region, small villages specializing in folk art form a ring of cultural excellence along Oaxaca's perimeter.

In the city's Historico Centro, colour dominates. The buildings in shades of French blue, orange, lime green, yellow ochre, sultry mauve and pink, with windows covered with ornamental ironwork, create a Spanish-style elegance. Scarlet, magenta, gold, salmon pink, and creamy white bougainvillea spill in dense falls of blossom over high walls. Huge squat palms, tulip trees covered with brilliant flame-coloured flowers, and jacaranda trees with clouds of mauve blossoms in springtime all line the roadways.

On the edge of the city, Monte Alban, an ancient and mighty archeological ruin, was built five centuries before the birth of Christ. Its treasure, comprising hundreds of gold and jade bracelets, necklaces, nose and earrings, are now housed in the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo.

Various artifacts in convents and monasteries erected at the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century provide a glimpse into Oaxaca's pre-Columbian past.

Chocolate, favoured by so many, is another pre-Columbian treasure. Way back in the 1700s, when a surgeon in the Spanish army waxed lyrical about chocolate, calling it "a celestial drink, divine, sweat of the stars, a universal medicine," this irresistible concoction had already for ages delighted the palates of the Mayans and Aztecs.

"Discovered by the indigenous people in the 6th century, the Hispanic drink is a fusion of corn, cacao seed, mamey fruit and three different wild flowers," our guide "Koko" Alvarez told us. "It was so delicious they called it 'tejate', the drink of the gods." Even today it's considered to be a magical drink that imparts wisdom and energy.

Venturing onto Oaxaca's famous "Chocolate Street" at mid-morning recently, the heat was intense. Home to Mayordomo, the city's largest chocolate producer, and the Mercado Juarez, a rambling market, the pervasive aroma of chocolate mingled with an exotic cocktail of flowers, fruit and freshly baked bread.

Entering the dimly-lit Mercado Juarez and wandering along narrow passageways, mounds of papaya, grapefruit, lemons and bananas created caverns of colour. Leather sandals and baby shoes, embroidered cloth bags, tubs of roses and lilies, and barrels of every kind of chili were crammed into this rabbit warren of a market.

Hessian sacks of cacao beans at the market's entrance drew me back to Mayordomo, where Mexican ladies crowded together on a bench awaiting their custom-ground molienda, the paste used for making hot chocolate. There are 115 chocolate grinders in different parts of the city, catering to the needs of Oaxacans, grinding and blending each family's unique recipe.

For the chocolate-obsessed, a decadent chocolate massage at Namaste, a local spa, is the ultimate in luxury.

For a taste of Mexican cuisine, the Cathedral Restaurant, just steps from the zocala (main square), serves a local favourite, Crepa de Cuitlacoche con salsa de Poblano.

Its main ingredient: black mushrooms that grow on corncobs in humid conditions. Nieve de petalos de rosa almendrada, a granular rose-coloured ice cream sprinkled with slivers of almond, was a sweet finale to my meal.

Festivals are joyfully celebrated in Oaxaca. The Day of the Dead in November is a grand occasion where the deceased are invited home for a night and honoured with elaborate flower-covered altars.

That November night, we joined thousands at a spectacular Day of the Dead event in the zocala, where bands, dancing, singing and parades made for a glorious party beneath the leafy canopy of giant Indian fig trees. Partygoers were dressed in outlandish costumes -- skeletons, ghosts, clowns, Mexican bandits.

Trumpets blared, drums were thumped with unbridled enthusiasm and people danced in the square. Beneath a full moon, marimba bands played tinkling music on traditional instruments.

Villages surrounding Oaxaca are occupied mostly by indigenous Zapotec people, noted for their folk art. San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola are centres for the carving and painting of small wooden animals. San Antonino Castillo Velasco is the place to buy traditional textiles. Atzompa is famous for its green glaze pottery and San Bartolo Coyotepec for the burnished black pottery made in the studio of Dona Rosa, a famous peasant potter.

In Teotitlan del Valle, a small village with a community of rug weavers, Bulmaro Perez Mendoza is the master weaver. Each year, a grand family outing sees all 25 members of the Mendoza clan take to the mountains, where they harvest the plants used for their natural dyes. Handwoven rugs, made on family-built looms using wool purchased from local farmers and dyed with their own plant dyes, are absolutely stunning. I left having acquired not one but two treasured heirloom rugs.

In Santa Maria Atzompa, we were to have attended a demonstration of Day of the Dead customs, but Koko reluctantly informed us that "the two men who were to show you the special bread, the tamales, chocolate and mole for the Day of the Dead celebrations, unfortunately are drunk."

And so we wandered down to the village's tiny cemetery, where a sea of orange marigolds, great drifts of red gladioli and scarlet cockscomb flowers decorated every grave. It was beautiful. As I watched, a man called Pastor and his wife Juana stirred up clouds of dust as they raked his grandmother's grave before covering it with marigolds from an overflowing wheelbarrow. I was touched by their diligence.

"I did my mother's grave yesterday" Pastor said. "Today, it is my grandmother's turn. Last night, families slept here beside these graves."

A day trip from Oaxaca, travelling west to the Pacific coast, brings one to Puerto Escondido, the third-finest beach for surfing, after Hawaii and Brazil. Eyes shining with a surfer's enthusiasm, Koko tells us "the waves are huge, six-metre rolls. You feel inside something incredible -- in the finger of God."

For my next visit to Oaxaca, I'm heading for the mountains. There's a forest up there nestled among the mountain peaks that, in Koko's words, is "mysterious, so cold and humid and dark." Mushrooms, lichens, orchids, Spanish moss and ferns thrive in its cloud-covered environs more than 2,000 metres above sea level.

"It's one of the most scary places I've been," he says. "The sensation... I didn't feel comfortable. Trunks of trees have formed like they are talking. When you are walking, you feel as if the trees behind you are going 'whoooo,' " he said, as he crouched over with hands clenched.

"I must see that forest," I told him. And I will, when next I visit Oaxaca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2009 E4

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