San Martín Tilcajete
San Martín Tilcajete (teel-kah-HAY-tay), about 21 miles (37 km) south of Oaxaca City (not far north of the Hwy. 131 fork), is a prime source of the alebrijes, fanciful wooden creatures occupying the shelves of crafts stores the world over. Both it and Santo Tomás Jalieza (south of the Hwy. 131 fork), a mile or two farther south, can be visited as a pair on any day.
The label alebrije, a word of Arabic origin, implies something of indefinite form, and that certainly characterizes the fanciful animal figurines that a generation of Oaxaca woodcarvers has been crafting from soft copal wood. Dozens of factory-stores sprinkle Tilcajete town.
Start on the front main street, but also be sure to wander the back lanes and step into several cottage workshops, whose occupants will be happy to show you what they have and demonstrate how they make them. You’ll find lots more than funny animals. Artisans have branched out to plants such as purple palm trees and yellow cactus.
Some items, such as imaginatively painted jewel boxes and picture frames, are practical, while others, such as miniature sets of tables and chairs, are for kids 3–90. Find some of the most original examples at the back-street shop of Delfino Gutiérrez (Calle Reforma, tel. 951/524-9074), who specializes in free-form elephants, frogs, turtles, armadillos and much more.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition