Handmade Roadwork in Oaxaca

A parade of laborers rebuilt the road from our apartment in Oaxaca to the central zocalo this month – or at least two blocks of it. Like many of the roads here it is paved with stone blocks, and almost entirely by hand they removed the old worn rocks, dug and shaped the new utility accesses and roadway alterations, and laid new mammoth volcanic tiles and bricks.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

So many chisels and hammers. Men standing swinging sledgehammers at arm-length chisels; sitting holding onto plastic pipe fashioned into a chisel handle, offset to save their hands from the ringing clanging rhythms returning from the earth on each swing. Men kneeling with smaller tools to plane the rough edges. The sidewalk lines are moving, new bikepath lights and streetlamps and pedestrian benches are set to rise up from the cobble pavement, so although not all the stones are being replaced several neatly shaped swathes are being carted off a stone and fragment at a time. In the parkside nearby where new stones wait for their place, another team of men is shaping and smoothing the characteristically gray-green slabs with neatly criss-crossed chisel strikes until no mark remains.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca Sidewalk stones Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

So much shoveling, sorting and sifting and lifting. The old stones are carted to the street corners, piled eight feet high wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow. Later they will pitch these above their heads into waiting dump trucks. The dirt and stone fragments form other mounds, sifted through screens shovelful by shovelful into waste and fill and mortar-bound piles.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

The work continues into the nights to avoid the worst heat of the afternoons. Each evening we walk through shifting cordons on makeshift bridges over trenches as the construction progresses, looking up the road every job is taking place, sitting and standing and swinging and sweating. Now the chiseling stops and mortar is mixed, stones are stacked near the leading edge of each effort – the curved curb segments, the smooth sidewalk panes, the rough cubes laid into the street surface in a diagonal grid across the future flow of traffic.

This road seems likely to last another 100 years.

Enjoying Good Beer in Oaxaca

For years ordering a beer in Mexico has for us meant a refreshing light lager, almost always served as a michelada in a cold mug with lime juice or spicy clamato juice as accent in the heat of the afternoon. The narrow variety of brands to accompany the house michelada mix, from pale pilsners to dark vienna lagers, all come reliably from one of two giant conglomerates. (For the record, our favorites are Indio, Pacifico, and Bohemia Oscura.)

But I like small breweries – and especially since starting to brew my own beer a year and a half ago, my appreciation for the details of a brewery and of the breadth of beer styles has grown even deeper. Until this trip, seeking out beer in Mexico was never a focus – a real rarity a few years ago, here craft beer (“cerveza artesanal”) came later than craft liquors and we put our energies into trying good tequila and mezcal. This trip in Oaxaca that all changed as we enjoyed some truly good beer by three local cervecerias (and a few more).

The highlight of these is only a year old, La Santisima Flor de Lupulo (“The Holy Hop”), at the corner of Allende and Porfirio Díaz near Santo Domingo. Run by brewer Jorge and bartender Miguel, this is a tiny brewery that keeps three rotating taps run from 15 gallon batches in corny kegs upstairs.

La Santisima Flor de Lupulo

On two visits we tried five different beers, all excellent examples of their style: a mid-malty APA with piney Simcoe hops, a Mango-Wit (a better combination on my tongue than most orange wheat ales), a fantastically nutty Brown Ale, a bright Cream Ale, and a smoky Porter. Jorge was kind enough to show off the backroom as they were brewing a new batch of the Mango-Wit in their homebrew-esque pumped cooler-and-chest-fridge setup. I wish it were feasible to have a similar business at home in Georgia – La Santisima shares space with a neat bakery/deli next door, and Jorge and Miguel are clearly enjoying themselves.

Jorge & crew brewing at La Santisima Flor de Lupulo

Two other breweries in Oaxaca are staying relatively small as well but doing a great job of distributing bottles to many local bars and restaurants: Tierra Blanca (since 2012) and Teufel Cerveceria (since 2011). Tierra’s Ahumada is a distinctly Mexican take on stout, with chile pepper and coffee evenly balanced with the dark base, while their Dorada golden ale is nicely light and hoppy. Teufel’s Chica Mala is probably best described as an imperial red ale, but with plenty of coffee and complexity – I look forward to trying Tierra’s Grana red ale to compare approaches.

Cervezas at La Santisima: Porter, Cream Ale, and Cucapa Chupacabras (Pale Ale), Insurgente Nocturna (Black IPA)Cervezas Tierra Ahumada y Insurgentes La LupulosaCerveza Jabalí Cerveza: Teufel Chica Mala (Red Stout-ish)

As a closing honorable mention, our favorite outside-of-Oaxaca craft beer so far is Insurgentes (from Baja) Nocturna, a Black IPA that is a great blend of bitter porter with a strong hop finish. A happy surprise to find craft beer on such a strong trajectory in Mexico this year!

Diego’s Pyramid of Art: Anahuacalli

The sun is closer here, walking across this dark volcanic square. Rhythmic footsteps set to laughter spill from a dance class in a low building at one corner. We catch our breath and a glug of water on two incongruous wooden deck chairs, a respite under this shade umbrella we swung our way. In front of us rises the modern black towering pyramid that houses Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic collection, Anahuacalli.


The climb inside begins in the cool dark; shadowy stone god-animal figures rest on outcroppings from the walls and floor between abstract obsidian objects, mosaics in the ceiling form swirling images in shades of dusk. Even the windows down here appear to be stone, a murky ochre stained glass against the shadows. Following the roughly hewn galleries through low temple doors, passing from one god’s domain to the next, the brightly lit cases multiply, walls filled with organized yet unlabeled stone and pottery artifacts found nameless.

The staircase to the next level reaches up, narrowing sharply at a halfway landing at ceiling height and marching up single-file to more rooms of pottery, figures, characters large and small engaged in every human activity. The narrow windows are brighter, even moreso on the next level as the ceiling murals too grow in colorful enthusiasm. Animals, less god-like, and faces of the old, of caring and of fear. Long galleries down either side open up to the outside greenery originally hidden downslope from the edifice.

Head massage Seated figures Birds and mugs Fear

In the great middle of this pyramid we remove our shoes to join other stockingfooted visitors on a vast satellite image of the city laminated across the floor of this open ballroom and its vestibules, overlaid almost entirely with the black lake of prehistory, and the temples of antiquity outlined as sparse tiny wooden walls we step over gingerly as giants. Vertical windows stretching three stories above us illuminate the room brightly, and above our heads stretch Diego’s sketches for murals to be. Our socks slide noiselessly across the smooth floor to see the immense humanscapes from new perspectives. The unfinished work of this world reflects in the featureless ceiling.

Diego Rivera's sketches

The final course of narrow steps opens to a large stone terrace open to the sky: the mosaic murals are now beneath our feet, and the city is visible in all directions beyond the hilltop’s green preserve. We soak in the sun until we must wind our way back into the rock and seek that shade and water.

Emerging from Anahuacalli pyramid

Xochimilco and Museo Dolores Olmedo

A week ago our morning began with a walk to the nearby light rail trolley stop, on a line that starts from our corner of Coyoacán and terminates further to the southeast at the center of Xochimilco, a bustling market square, colonial churches, and the last remaining section of city canals and island cropland (chinampas). The canals are well known for the brightly colored flat-bottomed boats that launch from near Xochilmilco’s town center, and on weekends they are a jumble of punters with groups of frolickers seated along the covered central tables of the boats plied with food and drink by passing boats.

Canal boats Tying up

We disembarked the crowded two-car trolley (rides are half the price of the Metro system, and extend beyond its reach) a few stops before this hubbub and climbed the stairs across the tracks and up a short hill to briefly stop outside the former home of anthropologist Isabel Kelly, an engrossing personality from Stephanie’s research. Her private home’s facade is well-maintained and recognizable from the archival photos. The neighborhood becomes even more hilly here, and we followed the curves and dips of the side streets towards the former home of the much more widely known Dolores Olmedo, patron and friend of Diego Rivera.

Isabel Kelly's former home

Now a sprawling grounds and museum of the extensive collection of Rivera and Kahlo works which once filled her personal rooms, the initial impression is of a lush walled hacienda with strutting peacocks everywhere. Once the most flamboyant birds blocking your path are circumnavigated (rotating their arcs of feathers to follow your progress), you see them down each grassy corner, atop the hedges, atop the roofs and steeples. Finally as you approach the extravagant central dwellings and courtyards, you encounter Diego’s favorite breed of hairless dogs playing next to a bronze statue of their own kind (yes, all but one of these dogs is alive).

Peacocks on everything Roof peacock One hairless dog statue

Such a large collection of Rivera’s work forces you to confront the wide range of styles and experiences in his art. From early adult years in France and impressionistic to cubist still life and portraits, realistic to swoopingly abstract nudes, brightly colored bundled sledding children from a later visit to Russia, and the flowing strength in the human shapes of his industrial and historical memorializing murals, here represented by wall-sized paper-and-branch outlines and sketches. Olmedos house crows with an earlier era of wealth, even as Rivera’s art draws you into a folkart, indigenous, and communistic future.

A house full of Rivera So much ivory Oaxacan Tree of Life Celebratory Skeletons

Manifestación, José Clemente Orozco

The remaining walk to Xochimilco Centro is alive with today’s pseudonymous spray-painted murals. On a slow day like this there are taxis waiting two train stops away with placards for the canal boats, hoping to find misplaced tourists. As expected, the market and street stalls boomed and spilled into the hot street, bringing traffic to a snail’s pace as we wove alongside buses and between perfect stacks of oranges and mangoes. The boatdocks hidden down alleyways towards the canals were full of empty boats and quiet, waiting for the weekend.

Skate park art Street art Gecko street art
Street art Revolution or death
Canal boats at rest