Traveling Through The Basque Country

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 Traveling Through The Basque Country

“The goal of my life is to tie adventure to my feet, stock memories in my pocket, hold imagination in my palms like fairy dust and sprinkle it on my tales.” Mitali Meelan

The best way to explore the beautiful Basque coastline is by car,  ferry, train and bus. We ride the bus to Hondarribia which is on the Spanish border with France.

It is the first settlement pilgrims will come upon as they follow the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago from France  on their way to the final destination of Santiago de Compostela.

We walk through the cobblestone streets of the Parte Vieja past medieval stone palaces and traditional Basque wood-beamed houses.

 Later, we take the seven minute ferry ride to Hendaye which is on the French border with Spain.

It is a seaside town.

You know you are on the Basque Coastline when you see huge rocks gushing from the Ocean, a rugged terrain with steep and sharp cliffs and very cold water.

We return for a late lunch in Hondarriba. Throughout Basque Country, pintxo bar chefs strive to outdo one another, and formal pintxo competitions up the ante.

In recent years, Hondarribia bars have competed against San Sebastián’s with favorable results, earning regional and national recognition for their tiny masterpieces.

In fact, demand for quality cuisine at reasonable prices means that some of the best places for are surprisingly low-key. 

 The next day, in a seventeenth century farmhouse,  we see the famous Basque breed floppy eared pigs (Euskal Txerria).  The Basque pigs unlike many of their pink cousins have a good life.

Afterward we had a not light lunch at the farmhouse and got to try some of their delicious cured ham.

I am usually disconnected from the process of where my food comes from.  Being brought up in a supermarket, It is hard to understand that death is part of a process of food production.

  I try now, as best I can to make ethical food choices. It helps to know where the animal comes from and how it was raised.  

 The Wednesday market in the town of Ordizia has been happening for over five hundred years.

The market takes over the town plaza centre which is a Roman or Greek looking Parthenon type structure.

We are lucky to be here on a Wednesday for this  authentic market with a great selection of local produce and products.

The most popular food item that you will find in Ordizia is the Idiazabal cheese, a hard white cheese, strong in flavor and high in acidity, made according to centuries-old family recipes (available in both smoked and un-smoked varieties.)

You can still buy the cheese directly from the shepherds who make it from the milk.

We have a lunch on our last day in Basque country at Komentu Maitea a converted monastery in Gordexola. It is Spanish Independence Day and  the restaurant is filled with local families having a large midday meal.

The food is fresh and delicious.

Nearby is the city of Guernica (Gernika in Basque). We stop at the  Assembly House and the Tree of Gernika. For centuries the Lords of Biscay met under an oak tree in this very spot to discuss the issues of the day, eventually building a more solid shelter (for those wetter days) in the form of The Assembly House.

The tree is one of the best known symbols of freedom for the Basque people.  Gernika was devastated by the Nazi Germany bombings in1937 with unprecedented consequences (made famous by the Picasso painting). Both the Assembly House and the traditional oak survived. This strengthened the tree’s already symbolic value to the Basque people.

The scenery in the Basque country is breathtaking.

The cities are picturesque and the food is  amazing and there will always be some rain – even in the summer. 

I appreciate the efforts of  the  Basque people to protect their culture, identity and language.

It is a wonderful place to visit  especially if you like food. I have to thank to Jim Kane  and Cultural Xplorers for another excellent trip.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Pinxtos In San Sebastian, Spain

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“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Irish Proverb

San Sebastian is one of the best eating cities in the world, it has more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else.  If you are a foodie, San Sebastián is utter food paradise. The quaint, narrow streets of its Old Town (Parte Vieja)  are home to a countless number of bars serving pinxtos. 

Luckily we have Imanol from Cultural Xplorers to organize our first night of pinxtos and recommend other bars.  Imanol grew up in San Sebastian. There are over fifty pinxto bars in the Old City and trying to narrow them down and find them can be daunting. 

The fare at traditional pintxos bars is pretty straightforward, and heavy on meat, cheese and seafood.

Items like: gildas (a spanish chili pepper wrapped around an anchovy and olive, speared with a toothpick), tortilla (Spanish-style frittata), jamon (Spanish cured ham), fried croquettes stuffed with salt cod, anchovies (in many forms), and grilled shrimp with ham, can be found in almost every pintxos bar.

It is tempting to just grab a seat or a place standing at the bar and feast away, but you should fight the temptation. Pintxos culture encourages people to bounce around to different establishments all night, sampling just a few bites from each. Since most of the best pintxos are found within the compact Old Town section of San Sebastian, you never have to walk more than a few minutes to your next destination.

Our first pinxto  lesson  came at Astelehena. It quickly seemed to me that the best pinxtos were made to order in the kitchen.  We ate Duck Magret with corn and pineapple sauce, octopus with a cream of avocados & potatoes and ‘Gilda’ composed of tuna, olives, anchovies and guindillas (local green peppers).

We drink Ribera de Duero which  is a red wine from the neighboring region. I don’t really like anchovies but after having this dish a few times, my life is not the same. 

Our next stop was Haizea for codfish (Brick de Bacalao) with leak and carrot and scallop and shrimp brochette.  Bacalao is a word you should learn when traveling to Northern Spain and Portugal. There is always bacalao. Haizea is the bar that Chef Arzak  (of the three star Michelin restaurant) takes Anthony Bourdain to on No Reservations in 2008. We had our first glass of Txakoli (pronounced chock a lee) -the light local white wine. Yes it is another Anthony Bourdain day.

Mendaur was our third stop. We had boiled egg with truffles and parmesan cheese, mushrooms and crispy Iberian Ham.

But my most favorite pinxto was the European squids with caramelized onions and three sauces (mustard and honey, chimichurri of Txakoli and black garlic). I have no words for how good this was.

We were full and I thought I couldn’t eat any more but I was wrong. We went to Urola where I was about to have what turned out to be one of the best desserts of my life.  It is called ‘Torrija’, and is similar but not to bread pudding, served with coffee ice cream and caramel.

We did a few nights on our own of pinxtos as well but since I told the chef in my bad Spanish to give us his favorites and they were crazy busy, I don’t know what they were called. It involved shrimp, meat, fois gras  and risotto -all were delicious.

We also found our way back to Astelehena for duck breast and anchovies. (which involved a lot of walking in circles).

If you are looking for a romantic, relaxing night out, pintxos bars are not for you. They are all about socializing, eating, and drinking in small, confined spaces. The more cramped, the more frenzied, the more you have to fight your way to the bar, the better.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Bilbao, Spain

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Bilbao, Spain

“On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.” Unknown 

Bilbao  is our first stop in the Basque Country. The city has its own personality. It is quite small which makes it easy to walk around and enjoy the Basque culture. The Basques have their own language which is different and unrelated to any other language in the world.  If you are linguistically obsessed, this is a good place to be. There are also several different dialects of Basque, so the Basque that people speak in Bilbao is different from the Basque that is spoken in San Sebastián. You will notice a lot of k’s and tx’s.

We meet our guide Kyle from Cultural Xplorers. He is carrying three umbrellas -just in case.  As we were to learn, some days, it seems like all it does is rain in the Basque Country. They even have a word for that light, misty rain that seems to never stop – txirimiri.

  We start with breakfast at a pinxto bar and have a  potato and egg torta and a cortado coffee.

Walking through the beautiful city, we head to the train station. There is a large stained glass window depicting Basque life.

There are lots of architectural gems  scattered all over the city,.

We enter Casco Viejo (Old Town). At its heart are Bilbao’s original seven streets, dating back to the fourteen hundreds when the city was founded.

There are many historic buildings like the Gothic Cathedral and tiny streets lined with quirky shops and bars.

I find an authentic hat store and  buy a Basque beret -ish.

I could have wandered around here all day – except we were getting hungry again.  That could only mean one thing in Basque country. It was time for pinxtos.

Pinxtos are foodie heaven.  Imagine sitting in a bar having a nice quiet drink and being able to steadily munch your way through a range of amazing food from wonderfully cured meats, steak, cheese, olives, rich foie gras, duck and fish in various guises. It’s overwhelming and Kyle helped us find the best ones.

They are in every bar so even if you just plan on going for a drink-you will end up eating. Kyle points out some of the better bars so we can come back on our own.

The truth is I don’t think you can find a bad meal in Basque country. It is known for amazing food. 

We continue eating in the nineteenth century Plaza Nueva.- full of pinxto bars which come alive between three and eight pm. 

It is a custom to go from bar to bar and try different pintos along the way. 

Refueled, we take a walk down the waterfront toward the Guggenheim Museum and our hotel.

The riverfront promenade has an eclectic mix of traditional and modern architecture and is buzzing with both tourists and locals. We see the La Salve Bridge and the big art installations outside the Guggenheim Museum.

There is Louise Bourgeois (Maman -spider),  Jeff Koons (“Tulips” and “The Puppy” which is a giant flowering topiary in the shape of a terrier).

There is Anish Kapoor (“Tall tree And The Eye” aka a stack of metallic balls)  and Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture, which is a unique sensory experience of a jet of fog emanating from the water in the moat surrounding the museum at every hour -odd to experience in the pouring rain.

We meet for a late lunch early dinner at La Vina Del Estanche. On a trip of best food ever, this meal rates very highly and was only the beginning of the food to come.

The next morning I go over to the new exhibit at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. It was their 110th anniversary and newly renovated and reopened the day I arrived. The exhibit was ABC including Spanish, English and Basque letters and words.

Through a selection of more than 300 pieces and 200 artists, they created an alphabetic story.in 31 rooms. Each room was a word. Arte (art), Bilbao, Citoyen (Citizen), Desira (Desire), Espejo (mirror), Friendship………( P was for Portraits- from many different artists)

It was really cool and the museum has some interesting pieces. (love this one – John Davies-Every War Memorial)

And then it was back to eating.  After a private tour of the Guggenheim we went to the Michelin starred Nerua. Nerua is an ancient Latin name for the Nervion River  where the restaurant in the Guggenheim museum is located.

Nerua,

The small restaurant is designed by Frank Gehry with white walls and tablecloths and his signature curvy chairs.

When we arrived it was pretty much empty.

Chef Alija’s tasting menu was a beautifull and artfully prepared take on Spanish flavors.

I did not know what to expect from my visit to Bilbao. A bucket list place doesn’t always live up to the hype. Bilbao’s enchanting mix of old and new with a focus on food and people makes it a wonderful place to visit.  Special thanks to Kyle for making us feel so welcome, comfortable and extremely well-fed in his wonderful city.

Fly safe

JAZ

Things I Have Learned In Jujuy, Argentina

Things I Have Learned  In Jujuy, Argentina

‘Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

~Annie Dillard

The Train to the Clouds makes up one of the most important attractions in this area because of its distinct building and engineering.

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It is now closed but you drive along this route of unique beauty where the mountains touch the clouds.

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The Puna is part of the barren high altitude landscape that stretches across the Altiplano in Northern Argentina. It is around 4000 meters high.

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The Altiplano (high plain) is the most extensive high altitude plateau outside of Tibet.

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You don’t see much except wild vicunas and guanacos.

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The viaduct at La Polvorilla is the last stop of the Tren A Las Nubes at 4200 meters above sea level.

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Las Nubes means the clouds. It is a word you quickly learn in Salta and Jujuy (between 10-14,000 ft. above sea level most of the time.) There is the train to the clouds,  restaurant in the clouds, farm in the clouds, gym in the clouds, winery in the clouds,  hotel in the clouds, store in the clouds, etc. In other words, you are very high up in the Andes.

San Antonio de Los Cobres is one of the highest altitude towns on the Puna and is known because it is one of the stops on the Train to the Clouds. That’s about it.

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The cold wind rips through us and it turns out that it is the windiest day in thirteen years. We are at our highest altitude of 14,000 feet. The altitude headache is kicking in and it is freezing.  But I have been in a cozy restaurant drinking fresh coca tea, eating llama and lentils, and talking about the rainy season and mine exploitation.

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It is not a good day for a drug test when you are at high altitudes in the Andes chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea. The test is for coca, not the chemicals that turn it into cocaine.

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It takes about three hours on an unpaved dirt road to go from San Antonio  to Salinas Grandes.  When someone tells you that you are taking the road alongside the train to the clouds, it sounds so exciting, but  why do they forget to tell you it is unpaved and very rocky?

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A stunning natural phenomenon, these salt flats took about 22 million years to form the current topography. Salt deposits from a since-disappeared body of water cover the ground here, forming a durable surface that appears snowy from a distance and almost fossil-like up close.

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Salt  can have a big glare, when not in a salt shaker and laid out in salt flats of 8,290 kilometers.

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The pueblos of Purmamarca, Tilcara and Huamahuaca are on the main highway to the Bolivian border. (Pucara of Tilcara-pre Inca fort)

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This entire area is the Quebrada de Humahuaca . a UNESCO site for its villages and natural scenery.

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The towns are more interesting in Jujuy than Salta.

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We see no tourists here from the United States but you can always find South Americans, a few Germans and Australians, and of course the British. They go everywhere.

The Tropic of Capricorn is the southernmost latitude where the Sun can be directly overhead.

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One of the markers of the Tropic of Capricorn is in Jujuy province in Northern Argentina.

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This beautiful church in Uquia is one of the many colonial churches in Jujuy. It has a fine collection of paintings from the Cusco School of Art . (the Incas were taught to paint for the Spanish and put their own symbols in the paintings)

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There are nine angel paintings. When the Indians were told to paint angels,  they did not know what they looked like. The Spanish told them that they look like us, but with wings. They painted soldiers with swords, spears and wings. The most beautiful wings that the Indians knew were the ones from the flamingos of the highland lakes and so the wings in the paintings on the soldiers are pink. The angels have very red cheeks from the wind in the northern Andes against the Spanish fair skin.  (no photographs please)

The seven colored mountain of Purmamarca pink, green, grey, purple, orange, brown, white) is pretty impressive as far as colored stone goes .

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It shows many geographical ages.

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The mountain is a backdrop for the village.  Everyday, there is a big handicraft fair in the main square of the village which adds even more colors.

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Purmamarca was my favorite place on this trip. Hiking in the colors of the mountain made me feel like I was in some amazing painting.

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I have so many beatuiful photos it was hard to pick just a few.

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Tilcara is a lively Andean village . There is an arts and crafts market and many restaurants around the main square. There are many gatherings in restaurants at night with live traditional music (sometimes from the guests) and local food.

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Indigenous cultures are very much alive in these mountain pueblos.

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Humahuaca is a pueblo in the Humahuaca Valley, 10,000 feet above sea level.   Many Bolivian immigrants sell traditional Andean crafts and coca leaves. The architecture, adobe houses, street lamps and cobblestone streets are all from another time.  The ancestral customs continue here.

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The historic Cabildo building (town hall) is the home of the main tourist attraction. There is a stellar performance by San Francisco Solano, a mechanical  statue with waving arms that blesses the audience of tourists and locals every day at noon. It comes complete with music blaring from the nearby Church of the Candelaria..

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Gauchito Gil is another folk saint. He was the Argentine Robin Hood who got tired of fighting in the Civil War  and protected the poor instead. He was found in the forest by a general and pleaded for his life. He said to his murderer, “Your son is very ill, if you pray to me, he will live.” This turned out to be true. Again the story spread. Today, small red shrines can be found on the roadsides of most northern Argentine motor-routes, and great pilgrimages are organized to his sanctuary in Corrientes.  Drivers believe that if they fail to acknowledge or leave offerings to the saint during their journeys, they may crash or breakdown. You can find red flags along the  route.  When I was checking the facts (yes, I do that) I found out that Gauchito Gil also has a facebook page.

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Traveling with Daniel Salazar from Cultural Xplorers is never boring.  His sense of humor, adventure, kindness, shopping skills, intelligence and knowledge of many things made this trip so much fun. I also have to thank him for being my personal photographer most of the time, and I hope we will remain friends.

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It is always good for a New York city kid to spend some time in small villages in Argentina. When you are young, it looks like just the kind of places to escape from, when you get older, you are not so sure.

Buen Dia And Fly Safe,

JAZ

Things I Have Learned In Salta, Argentina

Things I Have Learned In Salta, Argentina

“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms, you would never see the beauty of their carvings.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Salta is a province in Northwest Argentina. Matt Damon and Robert Duvall are married to women from Salta.

One of the most beautiful drives in Argentina is from Cafayate to Salta City   through Quebrado de Cafayate -especially if red is your color.

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The view is  breathtaking. It looks like Arizona but  it is much more accepting of Hispanic people.

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Stops along the way include the dis Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), IMG_1129

snacks,

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a musician-friendly natural amphitheater, IMG_1134

other natural rock formations that look like a frog, a saint and an obelisk.(frog)

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and shopping,

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Anywhere you’d like to stop and take a photo  is worth it. IMG_1139

The road from Cachi to Molinos is not so paved.

Cachi is quiet.

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San Carlos is quiet.

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Molinos is quieter.

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IMG_0705 The house of the last Spanish governor has become the Hacienda Molinos and is the place to stay in Molinos.  I  didn’t see any other places to stay so literally it is the place to stay.

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This is the library in Molinos. This is the address of the library. If there is anything you can send them –  Spanish and English books, they can really use it. Send books to Norma Susana Fabian, Pje 9 de Julio S/N, Molinos C.P. (4419),  Provincia Salta C.P. 4400, Argentina.

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The library is the size of this table and the small number of books are old and worn.  People come in and borrow books  and Norma writes  it down in her notebook. IMG_0884

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Dont go to Molinos expecting things like tourist attractions,  restaurants, shopping and internet.  Do go expecting quiet, few cars, natural beauty, clean air,  kids playing soccer and riding bikes instead of video games,  a sky covered in stars,  horses and a lot of stray friendly dogs.

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And more dogs.  Molinos and all of these pueblos in the north, have their share of stray dogs.  They are only too willing to give you a tour of their town.

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And llamas IMG_1099

and horses

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and goats

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And sheep. ( and a pig who thinks he is a sheep) IMG_0721 And of course meat

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Coquena is a vicuna refuge outside of Molinos. IMG_0746

Outside Cachi you will find chilis drying in the sun on the side of Ruta 40. IMG_0696

Difunta Correa  (Deceased Correa) a is one of the best known Argentine alternative saints. She died of thirst in the San Juan desert around 1845. She was trying to find her husband in the army. She was carrying her baby who was found miraculously alive by gauchos.  In 1898 a famous gaucho prayed to Difunta Correa  to find his herd of  500 lost cattle and she did.  The story spread and a sanctuary was built around her grave. Cattle ranchers and truck drivers have created roadside altars. People leave water bottles to calm her eternal thirst. You will also see water bottles just tied to the side of the road for her. (I think it says this is my sanctuary you can pray to me for help but no garbage)

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Salta City has  the best collection of preserved colonial architecture in Argentina. It is  named Salta, La Linda because of the beautiful architecture.

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It has oddly colored churches -baby blue, burgundy and gold and shell pink. It is best not to wear a hat inside the church, though opinion is divided on that.

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MAAM Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana de Salta.  houses the perfectly preserved remains of three Inca children “given” to the gods 500 years ago. They were buried at the top of  the volcanoe Llullaillaco (6700 meters high). There is one child on display at a time. They look like they are sleeping. The children were believed to have been buried  as part of the Capacocha sacrifice. The sacrifices were performed on children, as they were seen to be the purest of beings. A beautiful male and  female  child would be chosen and then married.  The children were taken to the summit of a mountain, given an intoxicating drink to make them pass out and then they would be strangled, hit over the head or buried alive. The three children found at Llullaillaco were believed to have been buried alive during their sacrifice and are estimated to have only been 15, 7 and 6 years of age. It is disturbing to have this insight into the Inca culture and see what was done to children from the conquered tribes in the name of peace and unity.

Salta is also home to a world-class symphony orchestra, the result of a successful strategy several years ago of recruiting Eastern Europeans, virtuoso trained in the communist era, to play alongside and mentor local musicians.

The teleflorico San Bernando is  a way to get a view of the city usually reserved for incoming airplanes.

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The top of the mountain has a restaurant, various lookout points, a playground, waterfalls, a downhill biking adventure and an outdoor gym for the newest in high altitude workouts.

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Faster internet is coming to the Calchaqui valley. (see this road -we are directly facing this truck going in the opposite direction)

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Ponchos have been made in the Andes for hundreds of years. Argentines value artisans and Arnaldo Guzman does beautiful work.

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Quebrada de las Flechas (canyon of the arrows) is  located in the Calchaqui valley. It’s inclined pointy rock  formations and narrow gorges make it an interesting tourist site on Argentina’s route 40. IMG_0973 IMG_0970

It is some of the driest topography in the world and home  to a number of UFO sightings. IMG_0986

Los Cardones is a spectacular national park located ain the Calchaquíes Valley. It covers 65.000 hectares of hills and gorges, with an altitude ranging 2.700 and 5.000 m. It is filled with cardone cacti.( my new Bolivian/Argentine hat)

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The cacti stand  like giant sculptures with blue sky and the Andes in the background.

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The cardone cactus is the world’s largest cactus. It is most common in Baja California. Im from Southern California yet I had to go to Salta Argentina to see them for the first time. They grow slowly and can live up to 300 years.

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Cardone cacti are a source of wood that is apparently as strong as iron, and used for rafters, doors, ceilings, window frames, furniture, and souvenirs.

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Northern Argentina is a place filled with mountains that continually change colors, ancient indigenous culture and traditions, pueblos that go back in time and landscapes that keep on surprising you with their beauty.

Our  local tour guide  on this Cultural Xplorers trip (www.culturexplorers.com/)  was Homero Kosiner. We traveled for almost two weeks. He was easy-going, always happy, very knowledgeable and proud of his city and Northwest Argentina .No question was too small for Homero to answer. We covered a lot of ground on this trip and it was confusing to keep track of. Homero answered my questions over and over and is still answering. I also have to thank our driver Vicente Coria. Between the unpaved roads,  river beds,  narrow hairpin turns, mountain roads, one lane roads, animals, and hours of driving, Vicente was superb and always smiling.

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Viaje Con Cuidado,

JAZ

Things I Have Learned In Oaxaca, Mexico

Things I Have learned In Oaxaca, Mexico

“Travel  offers  the opportunity to find out who else one is.”                         Rebecca Solnit

Oaxaca is pronounced Wa-Hoc-A. Except in the Mexico City Airport when they are translating into English and they say O–Ax-A-Ca. People who live in Oaxaca are called “Oaxaquenos’.  (Photo © Ben Goodman / licensed by Culture Xplorers)

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Oaxaca City is said to host a festival of some kind every week.    The most famous festivals are “Guelaguetza”, a native arts/dance festival, “Night of the Radishes” Christmas season celebration and the Day of the Dead.. There are always people walking around the city in costumes and native outfits. They are either going to festival, coming from a festival or rehearsing for a festival.

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This is not me.

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This is either a dress rehearsal parade for Guelaguetza or a celebration because it is Benito Juarez’s birthday today.

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Sixteen different indigenous groups are formally registered within the state. Oaxaca State is the original territory of the Pre-Columbian civilizations of the Zapotec and the Mixtec peoples. ( Photo © Ben Goodman / licensed by Culture Xplorers )

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Signs at Temple sites are in English, Spanish and Zapotec

The area was conquered in 1486 by the troops of Aztec Emperor, Ahuizotl, and named “Huaxyacac”. In Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), Oaxaca means “on the top of the Guaje (Acacia) tree.”

There are many fewer incidences of violence in Mexico now because the new President is with the drug cartels. In Colombia, the president has made a deal with the drug cartels as well. Mexico says their drug problem is caused by keeping up  with the high demand for drugs in the United States.

If you are at Ocatlan Market on Fridays you can buy turkeys, chickens, a goat,  souvenirs, a saddle for your donkey, native costumes, religious artifacts, medicinal plants, flowers and food.  Photo © Ben Goodman / licensed by Culture Xplorers )

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When things are good drink mezcal. When things are bad, the same.

By the third sip you start enjoying the flavor of mezcal.

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The code of arms in Oaxaca is a severed head.

The feathered serpents  was a prominent supernatural entity or deity, found in many Mesoamerican religions. The feathers represent its divine nature or ability to fly to reach the skies and being a serpent represents its human nature or ability to creep on the ground among other animals of the Earth, a dualism very common in Mesoamerican deities

Super jalapeño chips are a pleasant snack.

How to sell pants in Oaxaca.

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The term Mesoamerica refers to a geographical and cultural area which extends from central Mexico down through Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.( Photo © Ben Goodman / licensed by Culture Xplorers )

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Many important ancient civilizations developed in this area, including the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos, Maya and Aztecs. They all ate corn, beans and squash, had a calendar system, some form of writing, and played that game with the rubber ball. (Mt Alban  Photo © Ben Goodman / licensed by Culture Xplorers )

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Tiny bananas are much  sweeter than the larger ones.

Teotitlan Del Valle (Place of the Gods)  is a village east of Oaxaca City. It has about 5000 inhabitants and most homes have a workshops for weaving. The wool used today came with the  Dominicans and the Spanish as a replacement for the cotton that was grown there We had a full demonstration at El Encanto.

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The wool is washed with amole a root when mixed with water creates suds. The wool is carded and spun into yarn. They are natural colors. Some of the colors are created by mixing the different natural colors of wool  grey brown black and white. They had indigo and charcoal for blue, pecan shells for shades of brown, marigolds for yellow and moss for green. Cochineal which creates reds comes from an insect that lives on a cactus. Adding lemon will change it to orange and adding baking soda will turn it to purple. The weaving designs are inspired by traditional patterns from the Zapotecs.

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Hierve el Agua is a natural warm spring which contains air trying to escape, hence the name “Hierve el Agua”which means “the water boils”. The water is also full of minerals, so as it runs off of the edge of the nearby cliff, calcium carbonate and magnesium in the water create a petrified waterfall, and the sulphur ads nice yellow accents in places. There are only two such sites in the world, the other one is in Turkey. (  first two photos © Ben Goodman / licensed by Culture Xplorers  – frozen waterfall, “water”,  mineral pools,)

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San Martín Tilcajete is one of three main Zapotec villages where most of the residents earn a living from carving and/or painting colorful figures. Often generically called alebrijes, they are shaped from the branches of the copal tree. The other villages are Arrazola and La Unión Tejalapan. The carving alone takes up to a month. The figure is then left to dry for up to ten months, depending on its overall size and thickness.

Theories abound about the beginning of the modern-day manifestation of the art-form. Some say that because hallucinogenic mushrooms are native to this part of Mexico, drug induced revelations caused the imaginations of some to wander, ultimately becoming expressed in their carvings. The better explanation appears to be that knowledge of colorful, large, papier maché alebrijes or dragon-like forms that originated in the State of Mexico.

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Honey acts as a mordent, making the color permanent and a little shiny.  Powdered limestone, baking soda and lime juice changes the color base . Bases are made from natural substances like pomegranate seeds, indigo, corn fungus and cochineal.  A beautiful place to see and buy these pieces is the home workshop of Jacob and Maria Angeles. They both came from wood carving families and I noticed many collectors returning as I will. Once you buy one of these, you want more. http://www.jacoboymariatilcajete.org/

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Cultural Xplorers is a cool company to travel with.  http://www.culturexplorers.com/   (the tourist, local amazing guide/new friend  Pati Reyes, founder of Cultural Xplorers Jim Kane)

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Oaxaca City is a place of ever-changing light and colors.  It is a city for artists.

IMG_0008Viaje con cuidado,

JAZ

PS. Muchas Gracias Ben and Pat.