On your way either to or from Coyotepec and Ocotlán, you’re in for an unusual treat if you stop at the small demonstration cochineal farm and museum Rancho la Nopalera (Km 10.5 Carretera Oaxaca–Puerto Ángel, Calle Matamoros 100, tel./fax 951/551-0030, info [at] aztecacolor [dot] com, www.aztecacolor.com), just off the highway at Santa María Coyotepec just north (Oaxaca side) of San Bartolo Coyotepec, a few miles south of the Oaxaca airport.
The farm, officially called the Centro de Difusión del Conocimiento de la Grana Cochinilla y Colorantes Naturales, is the labor of love of retired chemical engineer Ignacio J. del Río Dueñas and his son-in-law, engineer Manuel Loera Fernández. They graciously welcome all visitors—schoolchildren, visiting scholars, neighbors, tourists—to their ranch for the purpose of breathing life into the ancient Oaxaca tradition of cochineal dye, the source of the bright reds in many of the Oaxaca weavings.
Cochineal (cochinilla) is a prized rich scarlet dye, long cultivated in Mexico before the conquest. The Spanish, immediately seeing its export value, expanded production, especially in Oaxaca, where it became a major source of cash for native Oaxacans faced with increasing tribute demands. The rise of the textile industry in England, the Low Countries, France, and Spain further propelled demand for Oaxacan cochineal, renowned as the most brilliant, richest red dye in the world.
The word spread, and, by its peak during the 17th and 18th centuries, Spain’s cochineal trade extended as far as China. Although largely replaced by cheaper synthetic dyes by 1900, cochineal is still locally cultivated in the Valley of Oaxaca.
The actual source of the dye, so intensely scarlet that it is sometimes known as the “blood of the nopal,” is the female of a type of scale insect, Dactylopius coccus, which feeds off a variety of nopal (prickly pear) cactus. Typically, families or village cooperatives own patches of nopal, from which they brush the female beetles during the fall harvest. The beetles are then dried, ground, and boiled in water. The resulting dye suspension is filtered and evaporated leaving pure crimson cochineal crystals, still preferred by many Valley of Oaxaca weavers.
Others besides Señores Dueñas and Fernández believe in cochineal and support its use as a natural dye. Precisely because cochineal is a natural, non-synthetic, product, it’s gaining favor as a food and cosmetic (lipstick) coloring. The small amount of cochineal that the farm produces sells for about $200 per kilogram (compared with silver, at about $100), and requires the processing of about 600 nopal leaves.
They will be happy to show you around their cactus cultivation house and demonstrate how the insects are harvested, and explain their several interesting museum exhibits, which illustrate the history and uses of cochineal.
Get there by bus from the camionera central segunda clase in Oaxaca City, via regional buses Estrella del Valle, Oaxaca Pacifico, or Estrella Roja del Sureste, or more local Choferes del Sur buses.
By car, turn right, southbound, at the small roadside sign Grana Cochineal Tlapanochestli at the southern edge of Santa María Coyotepec village, on Highway 175, 4.7 miles (7.5 km) south of the Oaxaca airport. After a few hundred yards westbound on a dirt road, another sign directs you left to the ranch.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition