In Oaxaca, the town of San Bartolo is famous for its barro negro, black clay. The artwork made with this clay acquires its color through the pigments in the polishing process, which brings out the red color from inside the clay. There are some more recent techniques that bring out a mixture of the natural dark and light tones of the clay, which artists protectively keep to themselves.
The Oaxaca region produces some of the finest handicrafts in Mexico and two of the most unique and sought after items are black clay pottery and colorful painted animal carvings known locally as alebrijes.
Black clay, or barro negro, is a traditional Zapotec method of making pottery. The clay is molded and spun by hand, without the use of modern tools, then polished.
In the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec, just 12 km (7 miles) southeast of Oaxaca city, you can visit family-owned workshops where the traditions of barro negro have been passed down from generation to generation. The actual clay that’s used to make black clay pottery is found in the valley surrounding the village.
A favorite Mexican folk art, alebrijes are small animal figurines that are hand-carved from the wood of the copal tree and intricately painted by hand, often with paints made from natural dyes such as pomegranate and huitlacoche (corn fungus), an ingredient you may not be familiar with until you go to Mexico. Translating to "imaginary" or "fantasy", the word alebrije is used to describe the whimsical style of the colorful painted creatures.
One of the best places in Oaxaca where you can experience the art of alebrije making is the village of San Martin Tilcajete. Located 23 km (14 miles) outside of Oaxaca city, it’s one of just three small towns and villages in the region where the residents earn their living almost exclusively from the production of alebrijes.
You’ll have plenty of opportunities to shop for these beautiful handicrafts, while helping to support the local artisans, both in the villages where they’re made and Oaxaca city.