For a half century if not longer, the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca has been known in the US and further abroad for its high alcohol content, agave based spirit, mezcal. The region’s pre-Hispanic ruins, colonial architecture, cuisine and craft villages have been noted in travelogues and guide books for some time; but recently the iconic Mexican drink has taken center stage, and hence the arrival of mezcal tourism. It has gripped Oaxaca, and along with it, a revival of the chango mezcalero.
Chango mezcalero is a clay receptacle in the shape of a monkey, generally a liter in size or smaller. Traditionally, and arguably dating back to the mid-1800s, it was used as a bottle to market and sell mezcal. It was a natural, since the primate has been associated with drunkenness for eons. In the second of three articles authored by the writer, its history was dated to the 1930s based on uncovering a chango mold dated July 12, 1938, owned by the late Juventino Nieto of the Oaxacan town of San Bartolo Coyotepec. In a cardboard box alongside it was a somewhat larger undated chango mold of the same vintage. Don Juventino was the husband of the late Doña Rosa Real of black pottery fame. However, an alternate theory of the inventor of the chango, from the same village, has been put forward by members of his family.
Many of the old chango mezcaleros found today have written on the back, Recuerdo de Oaxaca (souvenir of Oaxaca), some have a couple’s first names on one side or the other (celebrating their marriage), and most but not all are multi-color, painted with the gloss in various stages of decline.
For the past couple of decades, and likely longer, vintage chango mezcaleros have become highly collectible, mainly by Americans interested in one or more of Mexican folk art, non-human primate imagery, and mezcal and its associated appurtenances. “Old” clay monkey bottles are available on ebay, and on other websites specializing in the purchase and sale of vintage Mexicana and what are otherwise known as “smalls” from Mexico and the southwest US. Prices can be as low and $50 and as high as $500 USD.
It’s very difficult to discern whether or not a chango mezcalero was indeed made in the 1930s or earlier as some are represented. Antique dealers and aficionados know best how to date collectibles. Most in the general public, however, do not have a clue, and if it looks old to them, it is.
There are currently at least three pottery workshops in the town of Santiago Matatlán which have been producing chango mezcaleros for decades, and continuing to date. Matatlán is known as the world capital of mezcal, boasting the globe’s highest number of artisanal (and at least somewhat industrialized if not more so) small family owned and operated distilleries, or palenques as the traditional ones are locally known. Some of these contemporary changos are upright, others are sitting on a log, and all are formed with the monkey in different poses. Until recently, if the changos were painted, and most of the time they were, they were glossy. The older ones, both tucked away gathering dust in the back of a palenque, and in local purchasers’ homes having been used, often show nice wear.
As of early 2016, or thereabouts, vintage looking changos have begun to appear in the marketplace in Oaxaca. They have been spotted in at least one antique shop and one mezcalería. The coloring and patina is matte, and exquisite. There are at least two sizes. Most likely they are coming from the same workshop, using the same or similar molds as the shiny bottles, as is easily borne out by anyone who places the old and the new vintage side by side.
It is not suggested that the retailers noted above are motivated by misleading or defrauding the buying public, despite the fact that some are for sale in an antique store. On the contrary, of those found in the latter outlet, some but not all are marked with the date 2015.
Visitors to Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, collectors surfing the net, and retail shoppers in the US and further abroad , should all be vigilant, and not be misled by the outward look of years of use. Oaxaca’s chango mezcalero has now come of age as a much more popular collectible than previously. Congratulations are indeed in order to the workshop which has identified the market.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). Alvin has been collecting chango mezcaleros for the past decade. He has been a permanent resident of Oaxaca since 2004.
Can Mezcal in Oaxaca Elevate the State's Tripadvisor Tourism Rankings Relative to the Rest of Mexico?
Oaxaca is known for mezcal. For decades the southern Mexico state has also been known for its beaches, craft villages, pre-Hispanic ruins, cuisine and colonial architecture. Oaxaca had three hotels ranked in the tripadvisor.com 2016 Travelers Choice Awards in the category of top 25 bargain hotels in the country. But for a state which relies almost entirely on tourism for its very existence, that’s not enough, relative to the Tripadvisor rankings for Mexico as a whole. And if it were not for the beach resort towns of Mazunte and Huatulco, Oaxaca would have been almost shut out entirely. Tulum, by contrast, has come out of nowhere to rank first of the top 25 world destinations on the rise. Can mezcal turn Oaxaca’s tourism fortunes around? Certainly its other attractions have not kept the state a force to be reckoned with in the rankings, where it arguably should be.
Tripadvisor.com is the world’s largest and most respected international travel website. Annually it publishes Travelers Choice Awards for the world, individual countries and regions, in several categories ranging from different classes of lodgings, to restaurants, to museums and other attractions.
At least in the city of Oaxaca, mezcal tourism has taken off since about 2014, with a dramatic rise in the influx of visitors seeking out the spirit. They come from the US, Australia, other states in Mexico, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere. They are represented by:
Oaxaca failed to rank at all in the categories of Top 25 Best Hotels (number one spot taken by Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen), Top 25 Luxury Hotels (top 25 number one spot taken by Rosewood Mayakoba once again), and Top 10 Fine Dining Restaurants (number one spot taken by Bravos Restaurant Bar in Puerto Vallarta). Surprisingly, internationally respected Oaxacan chef Alejandro Ruíz’s Casa Oaxaca restaurant failed to place in the rankings. It’s fairly safe to assume that the vast majority of tourists seeking out mezcal in the city of Oaxaca dine at Casa Oaxaca, yet the restaurant did not rank in the popularity contest.
Perhaps mezcal aficionados do not use and are not registered members of tripadivsor.com, to the extent of other tourists with more generalized travel and vacation motives.
While mezcal tourism cannot be expected to raise the reputation in all categories listed by tripadvisor.com, the entire state’s malaise is evidenced by virtue of the fact that Oaxaca fails to rank at all under Top 25 Family Hotels (number one spot taken by Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Esmeralda), Top 25 All Inclusives (number one spot taken by Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun) and Top 10 Beaches (number one spot taken by Playa Paraiso Tulum).
While top spot in the bargain hotel category was taken by Hotel La Quinta del Sol in Punta de Mita, Huatulco hotels ranked numbers two and 23 for Misión de los Arcos and Hotel Villablanca Huatulco respectively. Posada Ziga in Mazunte was number 21, rounding out the state of Oaxaca’s respectable showing in the category.
What’s interesting about these coastal resorts relative to mezcal tourism, is that one often hears complaints that it is difficult to find a good diversity of mezcal anywhere along Oaxaca’s Pacific shores Most mezcal aficionados who visit Oaxaca in fact do forego a beach portion of their vacation regardless of whether the visit is entirely for pleasure, or for business; though some in the former category combine culture and beach.
Mazunte shone as well in the category top small hotels, taking number seven spot with Casa Pan de Miel (top spot went to Hacienda de Los Santos in Alamos, with number 12 going to Hotel Casona de Tita in the city of Oaxaca). Mazunte took second spot for romance hotels with OceanoMar, losing top spot to Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun. Nearby Huatulco ranked number 20 in the category top 25 hotels for service with Misión de Los Arcos, with, yet again Rosewood Mayakoba taking top spot. That’s three top rankings for Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, for best overall, luxury and service! Yes, Hotel Casona de Tita is a quality lodging in downtown Oaxaca, but it’s not very often that visitors interested in learning about mezcal stay there; only one high end hotel in the tripadvisor.com rankings for the city does not really impact anything.
Rounding out the lodging categories, Oaxaca ranked number 12 out of 25 for best B & Bs and inns, for Casa Kei in Puerto Escondido, with top spot going to The Diplomat Boutique Hotel in Mérida. The state also had a showing in the museums category with the capital’s Museo de las Culturas taking number six spot, with naturally top spot going to Mexico City’s world acclaimed National Museum of Anthropology.
The implication of the foregoing is that the state of Oaxaca has a lot of catching up to do with the Yucatan Peninsula. The latter boasts Tulum, Puerto Morelos, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Granted, aside from hurricane season the Gulf of Mexico boasts better and more predictable weather than the Pacific. But that is no excuse for travelers’ choices in quality, especially when one considers mezcal tourism. And while Oaxaca’s civil unrest of a decade ago still weighs on the minds of some prospective visitors to Mexico, this should only reduce the numbers, and not significantly impact rankings relative to other tourist destinations in the country.
Visiting Oaxaca? I suppose travelers should head to either Mazunte or Huatulco, at least for a southern beach-style vacation. But as suggested, Oaxaca’s coastal destinations will not get you much in the way of quality mezcal. The city must do a better job of promoting the spirit on the international stage. With at least 15 mezcal bars in a city of about 400,000, and aficionados converging from all corners of the globe, surely something is amiss. Let’s see if there is a change in the rankings for the 2017 tripadvisor.com Travelers Choice Awards.