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Exploring around Oaxaca: Mitla, Hierve del Agua and Mezcal

Written on: Sunday April 27th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

We decided to make a day trip from Oaxaca, to explore some of the fascinating valleys, craft towns, pre-hispanic ruins and bustling markets of the Zapotec indigenous people living in the region. Our first stop was the town of Mitla, well know for its unique ruins with stone mosaics. We decide to hire a guide at the entrance and found the history account and details that he provided quite worthwhile. Six massive vertical solid stone pillars supported the terrace of the largest building, the Salon de Columnas. Inside, what at first appears to be beautiful carved wall is actually a mosaic, and every one of the millions of pieces were hand cut to size and placed in their positions. We were also able to enter one of the many tombs. After descending a very small staircase at the end of a large concrete patio we entered a dark, cool and very humid tunnel on our hands and knees. Once through this small tunnel we were able to stand and follow a narrow corridor, up some steps and arrive at a roped-off junction. Each direction ended after about 5 meters, which I suspect meant that three people were once buried here, one in each direction. Nothing remained in the tomb, although the guide indicated that at one time it would have been full of treasures, before it was discovered and pillaged.

We left Mitla and headed for a spectacular site called Hierve del Agua, about another hours drive away. We had heard good things from our Mitla guide about the mineral springs set in the side of a mountain with panoramic views. As the water bubbles out of the ground and cascades down the mountain side, the minerals crystallize and create beautiful frozen waterfalls. The cherry on the cake was that the large pool at the top of the springs was great for soaking and swimming. There was one small dilemma however. Only two roads lead to Hierve del Agua. One was a poor and slow dirt road. The other was mostly paved, with gravel for the last 5 km. However, owing to an ownership dispute between local villages, our guide warned us that the good paved road was roadblocked. We would have to leave our van at the roadblock and walk the last few kilometres. The dirt road would take us all the way there, except for that if it rained, the road would likely wash out and we would be stuck in Hierve del Agua until it dried out again. Hmmm?. roadblock and angry villagers or dirt road with the potential of getting stranded. Based on the consistency of afternoon showers that we had seen over the last few days we chose the roadblock. Up into the mountains we headed, not knowing what to expect. It was quite interesting to drive through some of the peasant villages and see this rural part of the country side. We knew we had arrived when up ahead we could see several vehicles parked along the side of the road. Sure enough, large boulders had been placed in a line across the road preventing vehicles from passing. A small hut has been built beside the roadblock but it was empty. At first I was a little nervous about leaving our van parked at the roadblock, but when a small tour bus arrived and they hopped out and started marching down the road towards the springs we quickly decided that it should be safe. Off we went, bathing suits in hand.

The mineral springs were absolutely breathtaking and the water very refreshing. The views from the bathing pools were some of the best panoramas that I have ever seen. After an hour or so we decided to head back to the van and this time found a group of women ?guarding? the blockade. They were extremely friendly, asked us how we enjoyed the swimming and wished us well on our way.

Driving home, we decided that we should really stop at one of the derelict Mezcal shops. Mezcal is a cousin to Tequila and is produced mostly in Central Oaxaca. It is made from the maguey plant (as opposed to the Tequila agave). We decided that the true way to test and experience Mexican mezcal would be to check out one of the roadside breweries. This particular wooden shack also had a small restaurant (with the most delicious quesadillas ever) and with our meal we each received a very large liquid sample. Rob and I could hardly tell the difference, but the shop owner showed his bicep and told me that they were the same except for mezcal was ?mas fuerte", or stronger.

We were welcomed into the dark hut where they brew the liquor. It felt as though we had walked back in time. A large hole in the ground was used for building a fire where the manguey cores (or pinas) are first roasted. From there the pineapples are moved to a medieval-looking circular pit. A very large and heavy volcanic rock wheel was attached to an axle pivoted in the center of the pit. To crush the pinas, they attach a donkey to the outer axle and have him walk the perimeter, pulling the rock wheel and crushing the pinas in its circular path. The juice and pulp are extracted by hand and placed into a large open wooden fermentation tank. Fermentation occurs over the next three days as natural occurring yeast finds its way into the tank. The liquid is then hand bucketed into a home-made copper still heated by a wooden flame. The still passes the vapour through a submersed copper coil and condenses the liquor into a small plastic jug. When the jug is full, a new one is put in its place. The mescal is ready to drink or can be aged in oak casks, from 60-90 days.

In a commercial distillery, tight temperature control and equipment design is used to ensure that methanol produced during fermentation is not entrained with the ethanol. Rob was scratching his head trying to figure out how they would accomplish this with their little wooden fire and sketchy looking equipment. We finally tried to ask as we didn?t want to end up blind. I?m sure it had part to do with my poor Spanish, but he had no idea what I was talking about. ?I guess it?s a good thing that he isn?t blind?, Rob said to me as we went back to the restaurant to buy a bottle. The woman asked us if we wanted 1 or 1.5 litre, than proceeded to pull out a plastic coca-cola bottle out of the recycling bin, clean it out and filled it up for us.