Before coming to Oaxaca City, I had never heard of the Tree of Tule. Nor have I heard or seen pictures of the widest tree in the world or a tree in Mexico that is over 2,000 years old.
But then I moved (temporarily) to Oaxaca de Juárez and quickly discovered the Tree of Tule, which, to me, looks like a cross between the Hometree in Avatar and Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas.
In any case, the Tree of Tule looks just as magical as it is ginormous. This tree is truly jaw-droppingly humongous! You have to see it with your own eyes to believe—and feel—its historic and mystical existence.
In this guide, I will share all about the El Tule Tree; how you can visit it on a day trip from Oaxaca City, fun facts you should know about it, and what to see and do in the town of Santa Maria del Tule.
How to Visit the Tree of Tule in Oaxaca
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What Is the Tree of Tule?
Before we get into the Tule Tree, let’s first talk about the origins of the word. What does tule mean?
Tule is a Zapotec name derived from the Náhuatl language for tulle or tullin which is the name for the bulrush plant (cattail)—a reed-like sedge that grows in marshes and swampy ecosystems. In Náhuatl, it is called ahuehuete or sabino.
Tule grew and thrived in the wetland that once dominated the area which dried up and is now covered over with the town of Santa María del Tule.
The Zapotecs, like the Mayas or Aztecs, were once a thriving indigenous group of Mexico who lived particularly throughout the southern part of the Oaxaca state. Once the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, however, the Zapotecs, much like other indigenous populations and civilizations of Mexico, disappeared or were destroyed by the invaders.
As for the Tree of Tule, it is a single Montezuma Cypress tree that is over 2,000 years old. It got its name from the reed which thrived in this area, but it is not a cattail plant that grew tall. In Náhuatl, Montezuma Cypress is ahuehuete which literally translates to “upright drum in the water.”
How to Get to Santa Maria del Tule from Oaxaca City
So, where is El Árbol del Tule and how can you get there from Oaxaca City?
You can find this gargantuan tree 10 km (6 mi) east of Oaxaca City in Santa María del Tule, a town named after the patron saint of Santa María and the tule plant.
Getting to Santa María del Tule is quite easy by public transport, taxi, or bike!
Here’s how you can go there:
- Driving: Head west in your rental car on Heroes de Chapultec/Carr. Internacional (takes 30 minutes).
- Bus: Hop on a local bus on Bvld. José Vasconcelos, Highway 190. Cost is only $8 MXN pesos one-way.
- Taxi: Download the Didi app for secure taxi rides. The cost to go to El Tule from Oaxaca City is about $165–$200 MX pesos last time I checked.
- Bike: Book Ivan’s Airbnb experience ($17 USD) and bike to Santa María del Tule following an old railway track out of town. It’s an easy and breezy 45-minute ride.
Fun Facts About the Tree of Tule in Mexico
Here are some cool facts and stories I learned about the Tule Montezuma Baldcypress tree—Mexico’s national tree—during our visit!
El Tule Is Sacred
First, El Tule, as you can imagine, was considered a sacred tree to the Zapotecs and is even a part of their creation myth. It’s for this reason that the Spanish, in desperation to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism, that they built the Catholic church right next to the tree.
Second, the Tree of Tule is nicknamed the “Tree of Life” because of the visible animal shapes found in various spots of the trunk and branches. You can see a deer, elephant, jaguar, anteater, and other animal shapes! Our guide Ivan explained that, as a child growing up in Oaxaca, his school class would go on trips to El Tule and the teachers would point out the animal figures hidden in plain sight in the tree.
Is El Tule One Tree or Several?
Another fun fact about El Tule is that scientists actually ran a DNA test to answer the theory that Tule was actually several trees that grew together. The results are that El Tule is definitely just one tree, but there are speculations that one tree could have multiple trunks.
How Wide Is the Tree of Tule?
The official girth of the El Tule tree measures 42 meters or 137.8 feet. Its circumference makes it the widest tree in the world and its diameter from its two widest points measures 14.05 m or 46.1 ft.
Once, the community of Santa María del Tule came together and held hands around the base of the tree. It took 45 people to make it around completely!
How Has El Árbol del Tuel Lived 2000 Years?
El Tule is known as being the widest tree in the world, but it is also the oldest tree in Mexico at 2,000+ years old. There are other Montezuma Cypress trees that grow in the community of Santa María del Tule. So why did El Tule grow so big and so old?
It is said that El Tule grew right above a rich aquifer, which would explain where it gets its intake of water and nutrients to grow so tall, wide, and old!
However, due to climate change and pollution, the tree is at risk of slowly dying as resources become scarce.
What Kind of Tree is the Tree of Tule?
The Tree of Tule is a Montezuma Cypress tree. Some mistake it as a tule plant that grew huge! Tule is a reed-like cattail plant that grows in wetlands. You can actually see a tule plant in the curated garden right next to the tree.
Who Were the Zapotecs?
The Zapotecs, the “Cloud People”, thrived in this area for thousands of years before the Spanish invasion. Monte Alban, which you can visit on a day trip, served as their capital. The Tree of Tule to them was so sacred that they worshipped it like a supernatural god. They believed their ancestors turned into people from jaguars or trees.
Other Things to Do in Santa María del Tule
Of course, while El Árbol del Tule is the main attraction of the town, there are a few other things to do on your mini day trip from Oaxaca City!
- Mercado Gastronomia — sprawling food hall with cheap eats and drinks!
- Los Cinco Sabinos — a garden of other Montezuma Cypress trees (albeit smaller, nevertheless less pretty!).
- La Calera del Tule — a hiking area outside of the town leading up to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the valley.
- Mercado de Artesanías — colorful outdoor market selling artisan souvenirs, textiles, clothing, bags, and more.
- Mezcalerias — Visit the El Sabor de Oaxaca bar in town or the Fábrica de Mezcal Oro de Oaxaca to learn about the process and taste artisanal mezcal.
Mercado Gastronomia del Tule (Food Market)
After your visit to the ancient tree of El Tule, head across the curated gardens to the nearby food market. This spacious food hall is where you can fill up your belly on cheap and delicious Mexican and Oaxacan food and drinks!
In fact, if you are familiar with Oaxacan mole, then you’ll be delighted to know that it’s in this town of Santa María del Tule that yellow and green mole (mole amarillo y mole verde) originated! Even better, you can try them in a simple yet yummy empanada (not the same empanada you think of from Argentina or Colombia).
These empanadas are more like quesadillas but without quesillo (stringy Oaxacan cheese). We ordered one of each for only $25 MX pesos.
Next door is the Mercado de Artesanías — the outdoor textile and clothing market. This is where you’ll also find public restrooms (cost $5 pesos).
Is Visiting El Tule Worth It?
There’s nothing like seeing the majesty of the earth with your own eyes. If I could, I would sit under the shade of El Tule all day!
Whether you’re in Oaxaca for a short or long trip, make sure to carve time out to visit the community of Santa María del Tule and its sacred and ancient tree.
As always, please visit these communities responsibly; dispose of your trash, respect the environment, and support local businesses.
Please leave your experiences, comments, and questions down below!
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