words and photos by Leah Pellegrini for Thread Caravan
A proper trip to Oaxaca begins before you’ve arrived. In the moments leading up to your flight’s descent, you paste your nose to the window (travel tip #1: choose a window seat), captivated by the staggering view of southern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. Each passing peak wears a poncho of fleecy clouds, surrounded by ripples and folds of brown terrain like a soft blanket, embroidered with the shimmering silver threads of miniaturized streets and small houses. You sense instinctively that Oaxaca will be different from other places you’ve traveled — that you’re about to encounter a kind of earthly grandeur you haven’t experienced before.
You confirm this suspicion when you take your first steps in Oaxaca de Juarez, the state capital, immediately noticing the many ways the local culture embraces a particular reverence towards nature’s sumptuous magnitude. Every cafe and cultural institution revolves around a courtyard that’s laced thick with leafy vines and other foliage, its ceiling peeled wide open to the sky. Building heights are restricted to a few stories tall (as if knowing they could never compete with those mountains anyway), so sunsets and cloudscapes are always smacking you sweetly in the face when you round a corner or peek down a new alleyway. Along every sidewalk, diverse varieties of trees hang heavy with limes and papayas or bloom in fireworks of yellow and pink and purple.
Mother Nature is both seen and celebrated as generous matriarch and as collaborative partner in all creative acts. This region is known for its traditional craftsmanship, which includes tote bags and baskets woven from strips of dried palms; serving spoons and children’s toys and molinillos (special whisks used to whip up warm drinks like atole and chocolate caliente) whittled from wood; and pottery in sanguine shades of clay, each piece softly thumbed into its own unique shape. And then, of course, there are the intricately patterned rugs, their hand-spun yarns tinted with natural materials — pomegranate rinds. Crumbled walnuts. Tiny cochineal insects that turn to vibrant crimson when crushed.
Particularly when witnessed from a visitor’s perspective, each of these items are forms of art, and you find them displayed and peddled throughout markets, shops, and museums. But they are also basic practicalities and everyday tools, just like the street sweepers’ brooms that are finagled from crisped fronds and grasses. Nature’s organic elements are intrinsically braided into the fabric of everyday life here, and you are always in contact with them, surrounded by them, stained by them, soothed and startled by their forceful presence in the city and neighboring countryside alike.
The result is a bone-deep sense of grounding, and with it, true awe. You begin to notice the way the dappled shadows interact with the street art, shifting in the span of mere minutes. You find yourself intuitively drawn to particular colors you’ve never craved before, like watery blues that offer antidotes to the perpetual fierceness of the sun. You start to wonder whether it's possible for plants to outgrow all of humankind. If you’re lucky, this feeling of fascination lingers even as you make your way back home, admiring those mountains as they scroll past your plane window for the second time, but now with a new perspective…and a suitcase stuffed with handmade Oaxacan wares as tangible reminders.