In the heart of Oaxaca, Mexico, stands a natural wonder that has withstood the test of time for nearly 2,000 years. It is a living legend, a symbol of awe-inspiring grandeur, and a testament to the profound connection between nature and culture. Known simply as “El Árbol del Tule [the Tule tree]," this majestic giant commands attention with its colossal presence and storied history.
The Tule tree's claim to fame is not only its remarkable age but also its colossal trunk, which boasts one of the largest circumferences in the world. Imagine 10 midsize cars parked one in front of the other. Well, that’s only the circumference of this royal tree.
El Árbol del Tule, named after the town of Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, where it is located, is a massive cypress tree, known as ahuehuete in Mexico (Taxodium mucronatum), a word which means "old water" in Nahuatl. While Mexico boasts many large and majestic ahuehuetes, this one has something special that would astonish anyone standing before it. Want to know why? As a must-visit stop in your travels around Oaxaca, let us tell you everything about it, including the beautiful legends that surround its conception.
El Árbol del Tule has the largest trunk diameter of any tree in Mexico, measuring almost 145 feet in circumference. It stands at over 130 feet tall, with a crown circumference of 190 feet, a volume of 28,846,044 cubic feet, and it weighs 636 tons. According to locals, it takes about 30 people holding hands to encircle the tree; talk about inspiring sights!
To this date, there are no studies that verify the age of this tree, but estimates place it between 1,400 and 3,000 years of age, making it one of the oldest living trees in the world.
One of the peculiarities of El Tule is that it we were to stand next to it and pay close attention to its trunk, we would be able to notice various shapes, such as an elephant, the head of a lion, a crocodile, a deer, a fish, a pineapple, the Three Wise Men, and even a gnome's house. Finding the shapes hidden there has become an attraction in an of itself. However, the real reason people visit it is for its spectacular size and the stories that revolve around it.
Legends of El Árbol del Tule
For the Zapotec indigenous populations, Tule means 'Tree of Illumination' or 'old water.' According to their oral legends and cosmovision, they believed that humans originated from trees and celebrated a ritual known as the Mixtec dance of the cypress, offering offerings and ceremonies to the ahuehuetes.
There are two legends about the origin of El Árbol del Tule. The Zapotec people recount that this great ahuehuete was planted 1,400 years ago by Pechocha, a priest of Ehécatl, the god of the wind.
The other legend tells of King Condoy, an ancestral leader of the Mixe region, who ruled over the Cempoaltépetl hill. The king and his followers embarked on a journey to build the city of Mitla to prevent another king from seizing those lands.
The construction of this new city required much effort and work; one night, everything changed when a rooster crowed, signaling bad omens. The king was so frightened that he ordered the work to stop, which is why the palaces of Mitla remain unfinished.
On their way back to their lands, the king and his followers passed through a swampy area where a water plant called "tolin" thrived. Condoy felt tired after a long journey and decided to rest, burying his heavy staff. To his surprise, it began to sprout, giving birth to the great Árbol del Tule, which means "tree of illumination."
A settlement was established next to the tree, and today, El Tule is part of the atrium of the Santa María temple, standing tall alongside other smaller and younger cypresses. As we mentioned before, this giant is located in the atrium of the church of Santa María del Tule, a few kilometers from the city of Oaxaca, so it is definitely a stop worth making during your visit.
The tree is so revered that every year on the second Monday of October, the residents of Santa María del Tule celebrate Árbol del Tule Day in grand fashion. During this day, you can enjoy a traditional festival with live music, fireworks, delicious cuisine, dances, and much more.
Finally, it is also important to note that El Tule is not the only ancient cypress tree in Mexico. In Los Peroles, San Luis Potosí, there is a population of cypresses, among which at least four trees are ancient. The most famous of these trees has been named Maximina, and it is estimated to be close to 1,600 years old. Another group of cypresses that surpass a thousand years in age can be found in the Barranca de Amealco in Querétaro.
Also, among Mexico's famous cypresses, there are also youngsters who have not yet reached their first millennium. Among these, examples include the cypresses of Chapultepec Forest, planted by the Mexica emperors, which are around 800 years old; the Árbol de la Noche Triste [Tree of the Sad Night], where it is said that Hernán Cortés mourned the defeat of the Spanish army and reached an age of 600 years before being consumed by a fire; or the cypresses of El Contador National Park in Texcoco, which are over 500 years old and are said to have been planted by Netzahualcóyotl himself.
However, the reason el Árbol del Tule is so famous, besides its majestic view, legendary tales, and grandiose size, is because it has been recognized as the largest ahuehuete in Mexico, and in 2003 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
So, here's one more reason to want to visit Oaxaca! It seems like the list is endless, right? Tell us, do you know about the Árbol del Tule? Have you explored its wonders? What other sights would you like to read about? Share your thoughts in the comments, and let's discover Oaxaca together.
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