Photo Essay: The Abandoned Monastery of Cuilapan

by Ekua on December 10, 2011 in captured on memory card,Mexico

Not far from Oaxaca city, in the town of Cuilapan de Guerrero, is a monastery that bears many similarities to the often lively church and monastery of Santo Domingo. But Cuilapan’s Convento de Santiago Apóstol took on very different fate. Before it was finished being built, it was abandoned.

While Cuilapan is now a quiet pastoral town, before and during the colonial era, it was an important settlement. In colonial times, the Spanish started the construction of the monastery there as a place to convert the indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec people of the region.

It became an elaborate, expensive, and of course, exploitative endeavor. The construction of it was halted in the 1570s.  No one is fully sure why, but common ideas are because it violated the Spanish mandate for modesty and authorities stopped it, not enough funds were available to complete it, there were disputes over who should pay for it, or a decline in the indigenous population resulted in fewer hands to build the church. Or maybe some combination of two or more of the above.

What was built of the the formidable Convento de Santiago complex still stands, but time has taken its toll:

Fading murals.

Mexico had a president of African descent almost two hundred years before the United States did. Vincente Guerrero, a man of mixed races, helped liberate Mexico from the Spanish. When he became the second president of Mexico in 1829, he abolished slavery in the country. He was essentially assassinated at the Convento de Santiago less than two years into his presidency. This is a memorial to him.

The stairs have become warped. It’s really easy to trip on them if you’re not paying attention.

The courtyard of the monastery looked almost exactly like Santo Domingo’s, but without upkeep.

A small outdoor section has been turned into a garden.

I’m glad I found my way to the roof where there were beautiful views of Oaxaca’s Valles Central region.

The bucolic surroundings of the church were a nice change of scenery for a day. Here, a barefoot man is herding goats.

The row of arches in the forefront stops abruptly on the left side.

In some parts of the complex, you can see some Mixtec elements incorporated into the design.

A row of arches contrasts with a line of unfinished column bases and creates unintended asymmetry in the roofless basilica.

The entry way to the basilica.

The complex.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

This Battered Suitcase December 11, 2011 at 11:11 pm

You are making me want to go back to Oaxaca so badly! There are so many things I didn’t see while I was there…

Beautiful photos as always!


Ekua December 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Thanks, Brenna! I was surprised at how much I hadn’t seen given the amount of time I spent in Oaxaca last year. I found out about this place through looking at some pictures that a friend I made last year took. It’s not too far from the city, but it’s not mentioned very much in Oaxaca tourism info. There were only 3 other people there the whole time I was there!


Terri- Try Anything Once December 12, 2011 at 7:40 am



Ekua December 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Thanks 🙂


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