Along the Pan American Highway from Oaxaca City to Mitla and Hierve El Agua, two popular tourist destinations, lies the seldom visited Yagul archeological site. We know that as the taxis, cars, and vans pass, a guide might point to a faint cave painting on the cliff wall as testimony to an ancient Zapotec group that lived here. Don’t blink. You might miss it.
You can see the restoration of this site from the highway. Tucked into the hillside is the outline of a once proud city-state fortress guarding the trade route between Central America and what is now the southwest USA. The ochre colors of the plastered stone walls stand out against the desert landscape and hills beyond. This is not a large site, and it does not have the attraction of neighboring Mitla that boasts extraordinary carvings in ancient stone. It is not as impressive at Monte Alban, the vast city atop the hill outside Oaxaca city, center of Zapotec power noted by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as the most important city-state in Mesoamerica.
We take the Esprit Travel + Tours group there with special guide Eric Ramirez from Zapotrek. We drive on a dirt road to detour the main entrance and arrive at the foot of the cliffs to get a closer view of the glyphs painted on the face of a stone wall. A few years ago, during an earthquake, the wall face sheered off, exposing a painting in what was once inside a cave.
Eric, who grew up in nearby Tlacolula, and whose ancestors have been farming the land for centuries, tells us that the agricultural crop of agave to make mezcal is changing the landscape and the environment. So many growers are now using herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers. This is changing the quality of the soil and prohibits anything else from growing. It is even having an impact on locally grown non-GMO corn. The explosion of the mezcal culture in Oaxaca is having a negative impact on traditional crops — the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash. It used to be that the bean and squash plants would wrap their tendrils around the agave leaves and replenishes the soil with nitrogen.
This is a key reason why so many of us take issue with mezcal tourism, which promotes drinking and overall does not educate visitors about the related environmental impact. I am now meeting the party generation in Oaxaca who fly in for four or five days with little interest in cultural history, archeology or artisan craft. How can we influence this for the better?
An important fact to note: Yagul is the mother source for the hybridization of corn, beans and squash. A World Heritage Site, geneticists have tested seeds found in the caves and determined they are at least 10,000 years old. This site is key to the development and distribution of this essential protein-carbohydrate source of food energy around the world.
This is a photo essay of our experience at Yagul. I hope you will consider making a stop there. I know you will not be disappointed.