Oaxaca, Mexico:  a trip to the Zaachila market

Two things I loved about Zaachila: the hidden pyramid and the market. Marco and I headed to Zaachila for class on Thursday, its weekly market day.

This small town is about 6km south west of Oaxaca. It is possibly the last stronghold of the Zapotecans and was named after the royal family (Zaachila). The town has been continuously occupied since 1400BCE. And it possibly flourished between 1100 and 1521 after many local wars and consolidation of power by the ruling family and prior to the arrival locally of the Spanish. Its elevation no doubt followed the political and social demise of the nearby Monte Albán.

Their script was developed sometime between the 3rd century BCE and the 19th century CE. It’s thought to have lasted some 1300 years. Pretty amazing for a writing used on stone! Or does that ensure, and prolong, its continuity? Could everyone read or, just an elite?

Wikipedia suggests little is known about its past is because people live on top of the ‘archaeology’. Clearly this is not quite true. On a small hill overlooking the town and the adjacent valleys between the Sierras Norte and Sierra Sud, and beside the site where the tombs were found, a temple is clearly buried and unexplored. The shape of the hill and its collocation make it obvious. 


  Anyhow, archaeologists had wanted to explore this part of the site too but were not given permission. By whom is not clear in ‘Zaachila y su historia prehispánica’ by Cruz & Santiago (eds., 2014), the archaeological text Marco lent me on Zaachila. The book focuses on the little that is known about the site, particularly from the discovery of two tombs there 50 years ago. Interesting, albeit challenging, given my knowledge of Spanish!
 I demurred at the opportunity to pay to explore where the two tombs were discovered as the site is small and wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Yup, the book is better than the tombs in this case!

But, the adjacent buried (?temple) is interesting. Yes, the shape is clear but how far it extends etc is not fully known. When was it built? What happened there? And when you walk around it and look down there is a very interesting large rock or something, like a natural bath.


Apparently once in their lives the local children were each dipped in it to ensure their future health and well being. Sort of a baptism. You have to think this type of tradition could easily date directly back to the original Zapotecans, an important action with a deeper and extended historically important meaning. Who knows but it’s not hard to believe in a continuing linkage of that sort, extended across time and readily integrated into the practices and requirements of the Catholic Church.

Cruz & Santiago (eds., 2014) say that the area between the church and a clock tower, near the market, is where the elite lived. Also, much of what was built there previously was incorporated into the church. 

  And yes, church is very much alive in Zaachila. Many people were in it at lunchtime on market day with no priest was present. No, the church was open and busy. It’s very much real and alive and even more interesting given its continuity, and physical contiguity, with important bits of the past!



 As usual in Mexican portrayals, Christ clearly had a hard time. Look at his feet and at his head and hands. This time the blood and damage show through from under his clothes. What is more interesting, this town uses Christ as its patron. Other towns use saints, not this one. This one has a very strong sense of its own importance.
 Near the church was a wonderful smell, that of coca beans being ground. Hmmm. The results are used for mole in particular. A lovely rich spicy addition to a meal.

Zaachila Mercado

The weekly Zaachila market is on Thursday. The local schedule of markets is well known. 

Marco and I caught a group taxi. I was in the back, with him on my right and a nurse on my left. She wouldn’t say much but the driver, who’d spent the n the USA and spoke an execrable english did. He kept on using english despite the fact that Marco and I were using Spanish. Guess he also needed practice! He’d lived in the USA for a number of years but it was clear he’d not been to school there and my guess is he had limited contact with english speakers in the USA.

So you know some of what I bought: dinner tonight was the same starchy vegetable you eat with honey that I bought at the Ocatlan market two weeks ago, broad beans with mole and, fried bananas.  



The market had a very good selection of fruit and vegetables. I chose not to go to see the animals for sale or the meat section.  I did see a few well packaged chooks and turkeys. 

 We had a few snacks at the market. I liked today’s chapulines, the grasshopper-like insect that’s fried and has chilli or garlic or lemon over it. Much fresher than at the other market. And no, I wasn’t keen enough to buy any! 

We had mesiilas for morning tea. A maize based small, chapati like bread cooked on a hot plate. It’s thicker than tortillas. A layer of retried beans and crumbed cheese is spread on it, heated and it’s served flat on a plate. I like it. Maize based flour tastes very different from a wheat flour.

Lunch was a tortilla with a BBQ.


 In case you missed the detail, yes, BBQd goat. 

  Why did we buy that type of tortilla? The woman serving gave us a taste earlier and we went back as I’d liked it. The tortilla needed a layer of salsa (thin green picante), guacamole (also, thin, a little less picante and green) and, best of all, the juice of a lime/lemon over it. Even with all that it was still a bit gluggy. 

Bought the usual at the market: avocados and onions as well as the bananas and the freshly podded broad beans. Would have liked to buy some of the beautiful peaches but knew the trip back could be problematic.

The trip back? Three of us in the back seat. Luckily the third was a not very big woman. She seemed to enjoy listening in as Marco and I chatted. He was in the middle this time. She threw in a comment or so. In Spanish of course. Which I enjoyed. A woman was on the front passenger seat. We stopped and she was then sharing, closely, with a guy. A good transport system, group taxis.
Great little town, Zaachila. The stall holders were happy to talk to me. One couldn’t slow down but, I was so happy as I got the gist of what she said. So, a successful and fun day. 
More about Zaachila

A very interesting town. A bike was casually leant against the church. This is not a usual sight. If it’s not locked down everything could walk. Apparently the town is very close, one that regards itself as significantly more important than the country! 

Near the church was a wall with many of the traditional pictures. 

Zaachila:  a world unto itself. And if history guided such decisions this claim might be justifiable. 

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