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Oaxaca, Mexico

Janet Zinn

My husband and I spent Semana Santa (Holy Week, April 17-23, 2003) in Oaxaca, Mexico, spurred on in great part by an earlier post on the Slow Travelers message board. Oaxaca is a beautiful, friendly city and very easy to navigate, even though we speak only the most minimal Spanish. Because of the holiday week, the city was thronged with tourists, mostly Mexican, but there was a huge presence of Policia as well as very helpful tourist police (every time we stopped to consult a map, a tourist policeman or woman would come over to ask if we needed help!). We always felt safe, even walking around late in the evening; the streets were full of people at all hours. Several streets around the Zocalo (town square) are pedestrian malls lined with shops and restaurants.

Photo by Janet Zinn

Accommodations

Although there are a few larger hotels on the hill above the city, which provide amenities like air conditioning and swimming pools, I strongly recommend staying right in the central historical zone, where everything is within easy walking distance and one can experience the charm of the city in the (cooler) early mornings and evenings. Most of these accommodations are B&B's or small inns, without a/c but with authentic Mexican ambiance. Avoid hotels right on the Zocalo, unless you are a very sound sleeper!

We actually stayed at two B&B's, not entirely intentionally. We had booked a week at Las Bugambilas, a charming and comfortable B&B with incredible breakfasts and a fantastic location two blocks from the Santa Domingo church, easy walking to everything. Our room (Iris) was spacious, with antique furniture, a modern bathroom, and plenty of scalding hot water. Large floor-to-ceiling windows opened onto an interior courtyard and it was very quiet.

Due to some renovations, we were moved for the last few days to another property, Casa Los Milagros, owned by the same family. While it was a bit of an inconvenience to move (for once we thought we'd actually be "Slow Travelers" and stay in one place an entire week -- it just wasn't to be!), the new place was even more special than the first. Our room (Angeles) was very large, with a small garden/fountain (water running over rocks and angel cherub overlooking!) right in the room.

Both premises were decorated with traditional crafts and artwork, and served the same fantastic Mexican breakfasts: fresh fruit, pan dulce, granola, fresh yogurt, and each day a different delicious hot dish. The location for Casa Los Milagros wasn't quite as central, and we missed having "La Olla" restaurant adjoining (see dining section below) so that we could have our nightly pre-dinner margaritas on the roof terrace. But we'd highly recommend either accommodation. I think first-timers might prefer the more central location of Las Bugambilas. Casa Los Milagros felt a bit out-of-the way, even though it was only a few blocks in another direction; the nearby streets were less-traveled and a bit less populated at night.

Rates at either of these establishments are very reasonable, about $75 with breakfast. Information on both can be found at the website www.mexonline.com/bugambil.htm

Dining

Oaxaca is justifiably known as one of the culinary centers of Mexico. It is especially famous for its seven "moles". There are many great restaurants (many of which offer cooking classes) and we didn't have any bad meals. It is generally safe to eat salads in the better restaurants (some, like El Naranjo, state "organic" or "sterilized greens" on their menus.)

Drink only bottled water -- even most Mexicans do. Although there are many delicious smelling stalls and street vendors around town, especially during holiday times, we were cautious and did not partake. They are probably fine for cooked foods, but we just didn't want to risk getting sick since part of the trip's appeal revolved around eating!

Recommended Restaurants

La Olla: Adjoining Las Bugambilas and owned by the same family. We had our best moles (both Negro and Rojo) and Sopa Azteca here, as well as a superb chocolate cake with Mexican chocolate sauce. The rooftop terrace is a wonderful spot for drinks in the evening. All ice was made with purified water, so one could enjoy margaritas on the rocks. Delicious home baked bread and sandwiches at lunchtime. The chef, Pilar Cabrera gives cooking classes.

El Naranjo: Well known for its modern take on Oaxacan classics, they highlight a different mole every night of the week. We ate here twice to sample several dishes. Organic (safe) salads and refreshing gazpacho and other soups are also specialties (try the pecan/chipotle soup!). The chef here, Iliana de la Vega, is also know for her cooking classes. They have a website: www.elnaranjo.com.mx

Casa de Oaxaca: This secluded restaurant (housed in a boutique hotel) requires a reservation and you must ring the doorbell to be let in. More "continental" than purely Mexican, but with Oaxacan touches. Excellent for fresh fish and ceviche. The most expensive place we ate at, but still under $50 (plus drinks.)

Casa de Abuela: You should eat at least one meal overlooking the Zocalo, and this is a good choice. Very very simple, but good authentic Oaxacan home cooking, and very inexpensive. Try to come early or reserve a table by the window.

Other: Lunch, breakfast, or snack at any of the open-air cafes lining the Zocalo. Linger as long as you like and people watch.

Shopping

Food

Chocoholics absolutely must go to Mina Street (just below the main markets), where the major chocolate purveyors are located: Mayordomo and Le Soledad. The smell of chocolate wafts through the whole street. We preferred the variety at Le Soledad. Mole Negro and Rojo are also sold in containers which you can bring home.

The Benito Juarez market is a must for chilies and spices. Look for those not easily purchased at home. I brought home Pasilla de Oaxaca, Chile Amarillo, and Canela (like cinnamon bark but not quite). Chocolate, cheese, breads, and mole are also widely available but remember you can't bring home the delicious Oaxacan quesillo cheese. Mole at the market is usually sold in plastic bags, a little messy to bring home, so we opted to buy it at the chocolate shops.

For the adventurous eaters, there are Chapulines -- heaps of the toasted crickets sold by vendors around the market. Don't mistake them for chilies, look closely and you'll see the little legs. We passed on this!

A non-food favorite in the market: look for the plastic tote bags which advertise the different food stalls. We saw Mexican women carrying these all over town. The bags are colorful with great pictures of anything from chilies to cows to baked goods to fruit. I asked the hostess at the B&B where to buy them and she told me they were given as gifts to the vendor's customers, and not generally sold; however, I did find some for sale at the market for about $5. A great conversation piece!

Crafts

The villages around Oaxaca specialize in several different craft items. The most famous are the weavings of Teotitlan de Valle, the carved wooden animals of Arrazola and San Martin de Tilcajete, and both black and green pottery. Pressed tin is also ubiquitous. The best places we found in Oaxaca city to buy crafts were Mano Magica Gallery, on Alcala, and the Mujeres Artesanas de las Regiones de Oaxaca (MARO), on Cinco de Mayo. The crafts market (Mercado de Artesanias), a few blocks from the Juarez market, has everything.

If you're interested in buying rugs or carvings, however, your best bet by far is to hire a car with guide and take a day trip to the outlying villages mentioned above. You can also do this on your own but we found it very helpful to have the guide who will literally drive down the back streets of the villages and knock on the doors of people's homes, revealing their workshops/galleries. We would never have found these hidden gems ourselves. Avoid a group tour, which will only take you to the bigger shops.

Guides

Every hotel can arrange a car and driver, but I'd highly recommend the guide we used, Roque Antonio. He happens to be a birding guide first and foremost, and we'd hired him for a couple of days of birding, but he also does guided bike tours, horseback riding, hikes, or the craft villages; essentially he'll customize whatever you like.

He speaks English very well and is very accommodating (and patient as we dragged him into about 10 rug shops before we found what we wanted!). His cost was $35/day per person for about a 6-8 hour day. Other guides were charging about $12/hour for car and driver, so about the same. To contact him, email roque_antonio740@hotmail.com

Other Miscellany

Internet access is readily available at cyber cafes for about $1 an hour with high-speed access.

Don't miss:

  • The majestic ruins at Monte Alban, a $6 taxi or $2 bus ride (15 minutes) from center city. Go when they open (8 a.m.) to miss the tour buses and the heat.
  • The museum of the church of Santa Domingo which houses the treasures of Tomb 7 from Monte Alban, among other things. You could easily spend several hours here.
Time your visit with one of the many festivals, if at all possible. Here are the major events:
  • Holy Week is a very special time in Oaxaca. Processions begin Holy Thursday and there are observances and events through Easter Sunday.
  • Guelaguetza is a huge dance festival, celebrated the last two Mondays in July. Traditional dancers from all over the state of Oaxaca come to perform in an arena above the city, all dressed in native costume. Reservations for this event should be made months in advance. It is popular not only with foreign tourists, but with Mexicans from all over the region.
  • Food of the Gods festival is a recent addition, held the first week in October. A celebration of the culinary heritage of Oaxaca. There are restaurant tours, cooking events, market tours, etc.
  • The Day of the Dead festival is held November 1st and 2nd. Altars are set up all over town: in shops, restaurants, homes, markets, and of course, the cemeteries. Contrary to the what one might expect, this is a very festive time, not at all somber. This is a very important holiday in Mexico, celebrating the continuity of life, and Oaxaca is known for its grand celebration.
  • Christmas is a magical time in Oaxaca. Posadas (traditional pilgramages) begin December 16th and last through the month. The Night of the Radishes takes place December 23rd. Local families sculpt huge figures and scenes out of radishes and  they are displayed in the Zocalo. This culminates in a final contest for the best sculpture! The city is wonderfully festive; Christmas is a great season to be in Oaxaca.

Resources

www.jczinn.com: Photos from this trip are posted on Janet's site.

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3040: Photos from this trip are also on Slow Travel.

www.oaxacaoaxaca.com: This site has a wealth of information; the most complete site on Oaxaca.

www.oaxacalive.com: Another site with good information.

www.oaxacalive.com/askmaria/: The "Ask Maria" forum on this site is very useful for getting direct responses to questions concerning Oaxaca. Maria lives in Oaxaca.

groups.yahoo.com/group/oaxacacity-streets-shops/: There is a yahoo! group on Oaxaca city, small but growing.

www.tomzap.com/coaxaca.html: Another good site with lots of information, including information about the Oaxacan costal areas of Puerto Angel, Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, etc.

www.food-of-the-gods-festival.com: Food of the Gods festival information.

www.christmas-in-oaxaca.com/night-of-radish.htm: Christmas in Oaxaca.


www.jczinn.com

© Janet Zinn, 2004

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