Oaxacan Day Tour: Mitla

One of my goals coming to Oaxaca was to visit a mezcal distillery for a tour. Among the coolest things we learned about after we arriving in Oaxaca is Hierve el Agua, the petrified waterfalls. So when our hostel advertised tours with a group that included both attractions in a five-part "Mitla" day tour, at a reasonable price, guess what we did?

The five sights on this Mitla tour were:
  1. El Tule, a massive, 2000 year old tree
  2. Visiting a Zapotecan family that produces wool goods using traditional methods
  3. Mitla, probably the #2 ruin around Oaxaca (Monte Alban is bigger and more popular)
  4. Hierve el Agua
  5. The mezcal distillery "El Rey de Matatlán"
We signed up through the hostel, a van picked us up right outside the door the following morning at 8 AM and got it done.

El Tule

This was a big tree. A really big tree. Much wider around than the redwoods in California, although not nearly so tall. Technically, it has "the stoutest trunk of any tree in the world" (Wikipedia) and is over 2000 years old. It's in a town near Oaxaca City proper and the area has been built up around the tree to support tourism.

Our group for the day was a mix of English and Spanish speakers, so all day we would wander around while the guide did the Spanish portion, returning for the English. We learned that in 1990, the local authorities contacted tree scientists (dendrologists), who recommended a few changes to preserve it: stop draining all of the water from the area and reduce the air pollution nearby. So today, the road that went right by the tree is now closed to cars and incorporated into the the walkable tourist area.

Oaxaca sign in front of El Tule

The massive trunk of this tree with a bit of perspective

Zapotecan Wool Production

It's a good thing we did a full day tour, because this is something we never would have done on our own but was totally worth it. Visiting this traditional wool producing family was surprisingly interesting and well organized.

We arrived at their beautiful ranch in the Oaxacan hills (I guess the wool tourist business pays well), filed out of the van and sat down in the demo corner to hear how they produce their wool goods. The patriarch giving the tour didn't have much English so the Spanish speakers got the best part of it, and what he did try in English we barely got half of.

This family was actually featured in an Oliver Sack's book called Oaxaca Journal, written about the nine days that the author spent in Oaxaca, visiting and researching native ferns. I want to pause here to let it sink in that Oliver Sacks wrote a book after visiting Oaxaca for nine days, so anyone who thinks that I'm writing too much on this trip (Melissa) can take that into consideration.

As we sat in their demo area and tried to figure out what was going on, we saw the techniques used to card, dye and spin the wool. The wool off the sheep is either white or black, and it's lumpy and dirty with sticks and leaves in it, so it needs to be cleaned up for weaving. The woman performing the demo used hand carders to for this process; she'd take a bit of wool and scrape it between the two paddles to remove debris and order the wool into a fluffy, usable product. They insisted that some of us try the carding so a few people did, and... could not do it at all. The tool creates a lot of friction and apparently takes some practice and strength to be able to use.

A hand carder from yarn.com

One of the large production looms, with the pattern stenciled on paper to the left

The entrance to this wool house

After the wool is carded it's spun into a thread. The woman demonstrated this by holding a lump of carded wool in her hand, hooking a bit onto a hand powered spinning machine and slowly drawing out thread as it spun. It's kind of hard to explain but fortunately Melissa volunteered to try it and was able to spin! Other volunteers broke the thread immediately and couldn't produce much.

The most interesting part of this visit was the techniques they had to dye their wool almost any color. All the dyes came from nature; none of them were factory made and store bought. The origin of the red dyes was fascinating: it comes from a bug that infests cactus paddles. They had some infected cactus paddles around, it looks like they have dry little white cocoons on them. They don't look like living bugs moving around. The Zapotecans here actually cultivate cacti with these cochina bugs so that they have a sufficient source of red, orange and purple dyes.

The process of creating the red is to harvest the bugs, dry them in the sun, crush them into a powder and boil it until it turns red. We got a brief demo of the finished product as they smeared red dye across one of the daughter's hand's. Next they squeezed some lime juice onto the girl's red dyed hand and the dye turned orange, explaining that red dye plus a bit of acid gives them orange. Finally, they rubbed a bit of limestone into the remaining red and it turned purple, so red and a bit of something basic means they can create three colors from these little bugs. It was a great look at indigenous chemistry, and makes me wonder how long it took to figure these techniques out.

Other colors were less chemically sophisticated, such was:
  • Gray - just a mix of white and black wool in the carding process. Different amounts of each vary the darkness of the gray
  • Ochre, a burnt yellow color, is made from a rock lichen
  • Yellow is made from marigolds. Farmers put the marigolds into chicken feed around here so that their chickens at the market stand out as richly yellow
  • Brown comes from ground up nut shells
  • Blue comes from the indigo plant, after it's treated and oxidized for 90 days
We also saw some demos of the weaving process, done on large, wooden, hand operated looms. They had one piece with a complex design, half-woven. To create the designs they mark the outlines on the vertical threads in the loom, and use those markings to know where to start each color on the horizontal threads. The vertical threads are a lot less numerous and comprise very little of the finished product, and none of its coloring or design.

To finish up we went into their sales room with thousands of wool products, where they showed us each design, size, and style. Melissa liked some of the geometrical table runners; I liked some of the neutral colored massive rugs hanging on the wall. The products ranged from rugs we'd never fit in a NYC apartment down to tiny coin purses.

A cactus with the red producing insects

A panorama of the Oaxacan mountains surrounding the wool house

They didn't allow any pictures in this room so we don't have much to show for that. The products would be a good value if we were heading straight back to the states, but weren't cheap. I think a normal area rug ran from $50 - $150. They explained that the cost of a finished product depends not on the complexity of the design in it, but the size, amount of wool and amount of dye used in the finished product. So it seems like their labor costs aren't a major factor in the finished product, material costs are.

We didn't buy anything but appreciated the experience and were surprised at how interesting the entire visit was.


The third stop of the day was the town and archaeological site of Mitla. These ruins are some of the most well-preserved Mayan sites, and are particularly notable because some of the original coloring is still visible.

The original painting that remains is all red, made from the same insect based dye that we saw at the wool stop. Every ruin we've seen so far was originally painted with bright colors and elaborate art, but the only evidence of that we've seen has been some very faint redness on interior walls.

Some of the red dye at Mitla

Still colored walls surround the stairs up to the best preserved building

Mitla is also less intentionally destroyed than many Mayan ruins, because for whatever reason the Spanish that arrived here liked this site and rather than tearing it down to use the stones for a new church, left it intact. It's suffered some damage from weather and earthquakes over the centuries but many delicate features are still standing.

Especially notable at Mitla is the architectural style of the roofs. We saw hints of a similar style at Palenque but nothing so well preserved. Many of the ruins open to tourism span a wide range of time periods and geography, so despite all being "Mayan", they differ widely in architectural style.

This ruin site isn't large; there's only two main areas that we visited. The first was a temple-like building that archaeologists believe was a palace with administrative functions, unlike most Mayan palaces that only housed the royal family. This looked out over a large flat stone courtyard and held all of the impressive architecture. We were able to climb the stairs and explore the interior rooms and hallways of this building, taking care not to hit our heads on the low doorways.

In this building our guide pointed out several features. According to him, the design is so precise and the designers were so earthquake aware, that every single stone is cut exactly for its position in the structure. You can't remove any one stone and swap it with another, they wouldn't fit. The designers also left gaps in some parts of the building so that when an earthquake hits it has room to move a bit rather than just shake apart.

Broad view of the main Mitla structure still standing with unique details in the stone work

Some of the well preserved stone work in the interior of that building

A peak into one of the tombs discovered later

Also, some of the largest stones used were the broad, strong stones that sit over the doorway. These need to be strong because they support the hundreds of pounds of stone above. One of these was completely original, still in use after hundreds of years. The other two large doorways on the palace's facade were buttressed with some steel I-beams, as archaeologists determined that they were weakening with time and may collapse.

The second area of interest at this site was the tombs, which were discovered long after the site itself. These were under a nearby stone courtyard, with modern stairs descending below the surface into some cramped spaces that were...empty.

Our guide explained that the best theory for why these tombs are empty is that by the time the Spanish were working inland towards Mitla, the residents knew of the invasion and what had happened to other cities. Rather than abandon their tombs with the remains of their ancestors and valuables, the Mitlans emptied them out and moved them to Monte Alban, the largest ruins in Oaxaca. Monte Alban was never discovered by the Spanish, so the Mitlans made a smart decision here.

Hierve el Agua

After a touristy but surprisingly good lunch, we had a longer drive up into the mountains to reach
Hierve el Agua, "the petrified waterfalls". According to our guide this is the only such formation (known) on Earth. The main attraction here looks like a waterfall from a distance, but up close it's all rock that's formed in the shape of a waterfall from centuries of calcified groundwater bubbling out of the mountains and cascading down. It's basically the stalactites and stalagmites of a cave in the form of a spectacular cliff-side waterfall.

We parked at the top near the tourist center where we had a few minutes to go to the bathroom and enjoy a sweeping view of the Oaxacan valley. There's a large swimming pool here that was drained, but must be amazing when it's filled because it goes right up to the edge of the cliff.

Even on cloudy days it's hard to take a bad picture in the Oaxacan hills

On the way to the base of the waterfall

Our guide advised us multiple times as we approached that there are two options here: a short easy hike that takes you to the natural pools near this cliff, with a bit of a view of the waterfalls, or a longer, steeper hike that goes down to the base of the falls for the best views. He stressed several times that people with health conditions shouldn't really do the longer hike, but since we're somewhat young and healthy we chose that one.

A local guide from the mountain villages took us down the trail. It was pretty steep down, with lots of large, broken stone steps embedded into the trail. The biggest challenge was the time though since we didn't have too long on this five-part day tour. We made it to the base without issues and were glad we did because you see much more of the waterfalls from this angle than is possible from the natural pools up top.

We finally see the petrified waterfalls

The main "falls" from the real base

The other "falls" with natural spring pools on top and a killer view

Footpath to the base of the primary falls

One of the "sources" of the falls. This rusty fence is all the security around this little spring that's still building the falls.
Not exactly Old Faithful.

The climb back up was certainly harder for cardio but we made it with enough time for me to go check out the natural pools on the shorter hike. These were impressive, large circular limestone pools of greenish water, some going right up to the edge of the cliffs again. Some of the features here look like ripples in water, but it's all calcium deposits. A few small fenced off areas marked where the remaining water now bubbles up to fill the pools and continue building this feature.

Many visitors brought swimsuits to wade into the pools and get pictures on the edge of a cliff with the Oaxacan valley in the background. I wasn't so prepared and didn't have the time so I tested the water temp with a toe and headed back to the van for our final stop.

Mezcal Distillery

The entire day, and especially the legs to and from Hierve el Agua, we'd seen tiny independent mezcal distilleries, or fabricas, alongside the roads and advertised in the mountain towns. Our tour went to a larger distillery at a major highway interchange, but these smaller fabricas helped give us a sense of how pervasive and largely independent mezcal production in Oaxaca is.

We stopped at El Rey de Matalan, which was right next door to Don Agave, the distillery we were recommended to in San Cristobal.

We split up into a Spanish group (almost everyone) and an English group consisting of only Melissa, me, and an Irish guy we'd befriended earlier that day. For once we got the better end of the deal because we had a distillery employee give our tour while the Spanish group followed the tour company guide.

We started out by visiting the little agave garden they had on the grounds. If you don't know, agave is the family of plants that are used to produce tequila, mezcal, cometeco, agave syrup, sissal, and more. It looks a bit like aloe, but for most of these applications, it's not the leaves that are used but the "trunk."

The agave garden

A fire pit that's resting before reuse, lined with mountain stones

"Cooked" pinas piled up ready for the next stage

A "clove" of cooked pina. Darker in color, and a little moist and sticky from the sugars that the heat developed

Our distiller/guide, who learned English in the US, explained that while tequila is made from only one type of agave, the blue agave, mezcal is produced from dozens of different varieties. Some varieties aren't even farmed, but must be found and harvested wild. Subsequently, bottles of mezcal from wild varieties are more rare and expensive and have a range of wacky tastes.

One of the most popular agave varieties used for mezcal is espadin, which in Spanish is a small sword. Looking at a picture of an espadin agave it's not hard to see where the name comes from. We were both surprised by the range in appearance of this family of plants: some leaves are broader, flatter and shorter, others more spiked. Some plants had a dense arrangement of leaves, others more sparse. We asked about the stalk that was growing out of some of their plants, apparently this tree will eventually grow on all agaves, although the age at which it appears differs. It's kind of a signal of maturity, but I don't think they let the tree grow on production plants.

Speaking of maturity, we learned that raising agave takes a while. I knew that a good grape vine for wine took a long time to mature; similarly the agaves we saw reached production maturity between 8 and 12 years after planting, depending on the varietal. And unlike a grape vine, once it's ready, the plant is completely used rather than producing berries every year.

Because of the long time periods involved in producing the agaves, it's clearly the hardest part of mezcal making to scale up. The actual mezcal production process was really small; we could see the entire production area easily in what we assumed was just a demo spot. In fact, our guide told us that one of the key differences between mezcal and tequila is that tequila production is often modernized and scaled up, whereas mezcal is always small scale, made by hand by small producers.

After leaving the demo garden, our guide walked us through the process beginning after a plant is harvested. The leaves are cut off and the "trunk," called the piña or pineapple, is collected and cut into quarters. The piñas kind of do look like pineapples so I can see why they're so named, although they're several times the size of even a large pineapple.

After being cut into smaller pieces, the fabrica builds a fire in a pit in the ground lined with large mountain stones. They keep this fire going until the stones are glowing red; our guide said that they can't use river stones for this because they'd explode from the heat. With the stones sufficiently full of heat, the piñas go in to the fire pit and the entire thing is covered with dirt and left to sit for up to a week.

Grinding the cooked pinas to pulverize and extract the agave syrup base. There were horses nearby on site for pulling this.

The result of grinding the pinas

This is where mezcal's most distinct characteristic comes from: its smokiness. The piñas roast and cook in the slightly smokey, very hot environment for a while, and when they come out the sugar in the piñas has developed and the material is much softer and juicier. We were able to visit a fire pit in use that was already covered up with earth, if you put your hand on it and feel through the dirt a bit, you can feel the heat on the inside. It's remarkable because I'm pretty sure dirt is a really good insulator.

After the producers determine that the fire pit is ready, they uncover it and move the now cooked piñas to a resting area. Almost every stage in the process seems to involve a rest of the material before the next. Luckily, they had cold, roasted piñas sitting in a pile on the ground that we were able to pick up and taste. They kind of oozed a bit of agave syrup that you could try - it was a bit sweet and not too smokey, basically the same as agave syrup you'd get in the store.

After their rest on the ground, the piñas ground in the iconic stone rings with a giant, several hundred pound stone wheel that's pulled by a horse. The result of this is a shredded piña pulp that is moved to a large fermenting tank with water and (mostly) covered to develop alcohol. The timing here depends on the weather conditions, more or less heat and humidity can shorten or lengthen the fermenting time needed. I was surprised to learn that the process doesn't use any specific yeasts, unlike modern beer production. The natural yeasts in the air do the job, and the distillers don't add anything.

After some time in the fermenting tanks, they'll drain off the liquid that's collecting into the bottom and move it to the stills. These really aren't any different than any still that's ever existed, although they're a lot more rustic than I imagine most distilleries use today. What we saw was a clay stove, a brass still, a giant clay tub of water and the condensing tubes next to it, with the end result draining into a jug sitting on the ground.

The still itself wasn't too exciting unless you're really into that kind of thing, but we learned some interesting facts while standing around it. Many distilleries produce some special types of mezcal that are altered at the distilling stage. You can buy bottles of pechuga mezcal, which will probably be a bit pricier, because for these bottles they put a raw chicken breast in the still to filter and change the flavor of the final product. It sounds pretty gross, but remember that the vapors going through the still are very hot and are mostly alcohol. In the end, the chicken breast is black and beyond fully cooked when they take it out.

A second specialty bottle is called conejo, and it similar to pechuga, but instead of a chicken breast they use a rabbit body. Pechuga and conejo are spanish for "breast" and "rabbit". I tried both of these varieties at the tasting area, nothing was off about it but they do have a slightly different, unique flavor. Nothing you'd think was weird if you didn't know what you were tasting. Apparently this process and these varieties are traditional, not something invented by modern mezcal marketing.

In addition to the conejo and the pechuga, seemingly every distillery produces at least a dozen flavors of mezcal crema, which are flavored, low alcohol drinks similar to Baileys. Most cremas are a fruity or creamy flavor, although coffee is quit popular as well. Not all cremas have dairy in them, but some do and are kept refrigerated at the tasting areas.

The production still, dripping out liquor, fire pit and garden in the background

Three of the wild agave mezcals on offer. At least two of them tasted like no more than cigarettes.

We'd seen and tasted many of these before the distillery tour but learned here that the cremas are made with the product of the first distillation, rather than a watered down finished mezcal like I'd assumed. Each distillation with liquor further refines the product as other vapors are lost and the alcohol content concentrates. Most mezcal is distilled a few times to reach at least 80 proof, and they are often bottled at or near the strength they come off the still with. Still, it's interesting that what we're drinking in the cremas is technically a different distillate than what we get in a bottle of anejo.

After reaching the desired strength, mezcal is barrel aged before bottling. Unlike high end whiskies, mezcales max out at twelve years for the anejo bottles, with reposado being a few months up to one year and joven being no more than a few months. These are pretty much exactly the same as the tequila standards, and like tequila, the older bottles are a lot darker and smoother.

I usually prefer the younger jovens because I like something with a lot of bite and flavor. Fortunately we were able to try as much as we wanted from the wide selection at the tasting bar. Predictably, Melissa didn't like any of the straight mezcals although gamely tried many of them, even some of the truly challenging ones.

As I said before, the wild agave mezcals had some off the wall flavors, I thought two of the three wild ones were so smokey and strong that they basically tasted like cigarettes. I didn't get much nuance in flavor or enjoyment for those; I may have considered bringing a bottle back for shock value and because of its uniqueness and rarity (only a few dozen bottles produced a year) but we had a while to go on this trip yet.

We tried the pechuga and conejo, which were a bit more savory but not that different; I think these command a small premium in price. Another premium bottle is extremely common: most distilleries offer at least one line of gusano mezcal. Gusano is "worm" in Spanish, and these bottles come with a maguey worm drifting around the bottom of the bottle.

These worms grow on the agave leaves, and in their larval stage they are added to some bottles to improve and alter the taste. Similarly to the pechuga and conejo, these bottles taste a little different and a little richer but it's not a huge difference to me. This is where mezcal and tequila get their reputation from as being gross and having worms in it.

I remember that our distillery guide said that it's impossible to get a hangover on mezcal, especially the wild varieties because the agave plants don't grow anywhere near the pollution from the highway and cities. I've long thought that tequila and mezcal are better options for avoiding a hangover, but wouldn't go so far as to say that it's impossible to get one.

I ended up buying an airplane sized bottle of pechuga and tasting many bottles before we headed back. On the return to centro Oaxaca our day's guide played some Guelaguetza music for us and sang some contemporary songs for us in the Zapotecan language. It was entertaining but he did not get better as all the mezcal tasting took effect.

Overall we liked this tour. It was a long day, and I wish more of it had been in English, but we learned a lot, especially on some topics that we never would have sought out individually. After the distillery, it made perfect sense why that comes last; you wouldn't want this before the hike down to Hierve el Agua. The one kind of odd thing was that entrance to almost every attraction was a la carte: we had to pay extra to see the tree, for lunch, for entrances to Hierve el Agua and Mitla. I'm not sure why they don't do it all under one price, but in the end it wasn't too expensive for a full day tour.

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