by Lisa Coleman
There’s a special magic to Mexico, a kind of enchantment that fills your soul and tugs at your memory long after you’ve gone back home. The state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) — with its laid-back beach towns and its exquisite colonial architecture — and its namesake capital city are precisely the kinds of places that embody this magic.
I was eager to return to Oaxaca after a five-year absence. The cultural magic and sensory delights of the capital city have fully returned after the headline-making teacher protests and federal police actions in the fall of 2006. I had been enchanted by its brilliantly restored colonial heart bustling with artists and galleries, its outdoor cafés and restaurants with exotic menus of sautéed grasshoppers (chapulines) and buttery escamoles (giant ant eggs), and the welcoming warmth of its people.
Known as “Tierra del Sol” (the Land of the Sun), the state of Oaxaca is blessed with mountains, lakes, and beautiful, untouched beaches. It is bounded in the north by Veracruz and Puebla, in the east by Chiapas, in the west by Guerrero and in the south by the Pacific Ocean. The stunning coastline is home to the quickly emerging beach resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, but the centerpiece of the state is certainly the romantic and alluring city of Oaxaca itself, with its magnificent historic center.
Oaxaca City has been one of Mexico’s premier colonial gems ever since the downtown was laid out in 1529. As I strolled down a cobblestone street on my way to the Zócalo (town square), I marveled at the exquisite colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. I quickly understood why the heart of this city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the local hotels are housed in unique structures, and are exceptional places to stop in to get a feel for the “real Mexico.” The five-star Cami-no Real Oaxaca, for example, was once a convent and has now been declared a historic monument by UNESCO. While the buildings may hark back to the days of Cortés, the amenities are very 21st-century.
On the north side of the Zócalo stands the Cathedral of Oaxaca, founded in 1535. Built of green stone and rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1714, its current design — especially in the front portal — features excellent examples of the ornate 18th-century Baroque style. As I stood in the back of the cathedral gazing at the massive walls and astonishing sculptures, the quiet murmur of prayer and the scent of incense filled the air. Five blocks north, the church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is an even more
impressive example of Baroque architecture, with its intricate inlays, breathtaking altar of pure gold, and extensive system of courtyards, cloisters and rooms now housing the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca. This museum includes an important collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, among them the contents of Tomb 7 from the nearby Zapotec site of Monte Albán.
Legacy of the Ancients
Located in the region to the south and west of Oaxaca City, the ruins of Monte Albán and Mitla — the state’s most famous archaeological sites, dating back to the 7th century b.c. — stand in mute testimony to the origins of the Mixtec and Zapotec cultures. These indigenous tribes inhabited the area for centuries and built mighty stone cities that flourished for thousands of years. The Zapotecs built the holy city of Monte Albán on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. As I looked down on the city, I knew there was no way to do justice to the view with my simple camera.
To the southeast of Oaxaca City lie the ruins of Mitla, often regarded as Mexico’s finest example of intricate stone masonry. Founded by the Zapotecs, but heavily influenced by the Mixtecs, this fascinating ancient city and ceremonial center is known for its precise and delicate repetitive geometric mosaics that seem almost Grecian in appearance. The city was still thriving when the Spanish arrived in 1521, and in order to impose their rule they built churches literally on top of the existing ceremonial centers of the indigenous people. The incredibly rich ethnology of these ancient peoples and cultures touches every aspect of Oaxaca and can be seen and felt most prominently in the traditional mercados (markets), artisan villages, handicrafts, and ageless, vibrant festivals that happen throughout the year.
Wanting to see this for myself, I ventured into the local mercado, the vibrant marketplace that takes over several blocks of Oaxaca City. This is the trading place bar none, the place to exchange not only food and basic necessities, but ideas, conversation, and news as well. Stalls overflow with every item imaginable, including the ingredients that make Oaxacan cuisine such a unique proposition. As I stood gazing at an improbably colorful display of hand-woven textiles, several women walked past me with flat baskets filled with the aforementioned chapulines on their head. They couldn’t resist offering me a sample, so I popped one into my mouth as they gazed at me with anticipation. Crunchy, a bit gamy, I wouldn’t put them in my salad every day — but when in Mexico …
The state of Oaxaca is home to some of the richest, most inspired food dishes in Mexico — a combination of pre-Hispanic traditions and the concoctions of the colonial table. Known as the “Land of the Seven Moles,” Oaxaca’s every dish is a work of art. Life centers around food, so complicated and labor-intensive recipes such as tamales and mole merely mean a morning or afternoon of pleasant conversation and companionship in the warm, colorful kitchens — the heart of every home. Oaxaca is also known for its excellent cheese, its tasty atole (a thick drink made of chocolate), café de olla (dark coffee with a cinnamon aroma made in a pot), and many other mouth-watering treats.
After two days in the city, I took a short flight to the coast to visit the impressive Bahías de Huatulco, a 52,000-acre development with 70 percent of its land set aside for ecological preserves by the Mexican government agency FONATUR. Expected to be complete by the year 2020, only three of its nine bays targeted for development are currently ready for tourists. But these three bays boast 36 lovely beaches. Snorkeling here feels like taking a dip in a massive aquarium — scores of fish in a dazzling array of colors dart to and fro just inches from your mask.
Blessed with a soft, temperate climate at its higher elevations (Oaxaca City is 5,000 feet above sea level) and a spectacular piece of Pacific-front real estate, Oaxaca is an ecotourism paradise as well. Each year, thousands of sea turtles make their way to its balmy shores to deposit their eggs. In fact, when the early inhabitants of the area settled here, the turtles were one of their basic food sources — and no part of it was wasted. In time, a turtle processing plant became the main source of income and livelihood for the community. This was repeated far and wide along the coast, and over the years the turtle populations were driven close to extinction. Then in 1991, the Mexican government created the National Mexican Turtle Center in the small community of Mazunte. This center coordinates the operation of satellite stations for the preservation of important beaches in the state, while biologists, veterinarians, and research groups study turtle behavior and strive to rebuild the populations.
Oaxaca is a land of extraordinary contrasts, and is a must-see for travelers in search of an adventure for the senses. Its vibrant images, amazing diversity, unique experiences and unexpected possibilities make Oaxaca an unforgettable trip. I left with my camera filled with images of Mexico’s enthralling past and the unspoiled beauty of its unusual landscapes, a suitcase brimming with the handiwork of talented artisans, and a heart overflowing with the joy of rediscovery.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on all-inclusive and customized packages to classic Mexico, contact A Closer Look Tours — www.acloserlooktours.com; 877-938-0951; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
OAXACA — Travel Tips
• The Oaxaca airport is served by Mexicana Airlines, Continental, Azteca, Aeromexico, and Aviacsa. Regional flights are available to the coastal airports in Huatulco via commuter or smaller aircraft on Aerotucán.
• The highly varied topography, elevations, and life zones in the state of Oaxaca result in major climatic variations from place to place. Lower elevations near the Pacific tend to be hot and dry in all seasons. At higher elevations, including Oaxaca City (at more than 5,000 feet), the climate is temperate (afternoons averaging in upper 70s to 80s F. all year, with spring the warmest season). The long dry season lasts from November through April; occasional rains take place from May through October. The evenings get cool enough for a jacket in winter.
• Most hotels and restaurants in Mexico take major credit cards — including Visa, MasterCard and American Express (and possibly Discover — ask first).
• You’re a guest in their country and that means adapting to the pace of their lives. Mexicans, unlike Americans, aren’t enslaved to clocks. “Mexican time” is slower and more relaxed. So expect delays and maybe a frustration or two, but understand and appreciate the beauty of a more laid-back society.
• Hotels can charge $8 (or more) per minute for phone calls. Your best bet is to find a TELMEX pay phone, found on practically every street corner and sometimes in hotel lobbies. You can purchase a Mexican telephone card from almost any pharmacy or grocery store and dial the U.S. directly. A 50-pesos card should get you a 5-minute call home.