Joanne and I spent a week on vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico, in February, 2014. We stayed at a small (eight room) hotel about 5 blocks from El Zocalo, the central square in old town Oaxaca. It turns out that February is the ideal month to visit Oaxaca - the weather is typically fair, it’s not too hot, and is just pleasantly cool in the evening (it got down to high 40s in the early morning). The old town of Oaxaca is laid out in a square grid of one-way streets, and is quite pleasant for walking, and is not over-crowded with tourists.
It was a very comfortable hotel, with a genial and helpful staff, and scrupulously clean rooms. The rooms were arranged around an open central courtyard on two floors. There was also a terrace on the second floor where we got together with several of the other hotel guests for beer, mezcal, and snacks under the stars. I would certainly stay at this hotel again, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Villa Vera1 Oaxaca to anyone.
El Zocalo is nearly always crowded - the “living room of Oaxaca”. There are restaurants and shops on two sides, a government building on the south side, and a cathedral on the north. It contains a bandstand and fountain, lots of benches, plenty of shade, and is altogether a nice place to spend a morning. Most of the restaurants have lots of shaded outdoor seating, and offer excellent breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The only downside, and it’s minor, is that if you sit in the outdoor areas you will be constantly approached by an unending stream of street vendors all selling roughly the same things (beads, cloth, small handmade toys, tooth picks and fruit picks). I have no idea how they can make any sort of living from that, because the supply so heavily outweighs the demand, but I do hope they manage.
There are lots of vendors in El Zocalo, in stands at the south end, rolling carts with ice cream, and shoe shiners. Here is myself getting a shine from a man named Benito Juarez.
El Zocalo is also the natural place to have a demonstration, and during our stay there were at least four, all peaceful, well organized, and well attended. It was really good to see that people can still make their voices heard in Mexico, without the terrifying police violence that is unleashed against even the most peaceful demonstrators here in the US. On the other hand, there was a huge police presence in the area: city, state, and federal police were pretty much camped out all over the east side of the plaze. Whether the demonstrations actually accomplish anything is another question, of course. Apparently the group FALP (Frente Amplia de Lucha Popular) has been occupying the arcade at the government building more or less continuously for months, but it seems that their demands have not yet been met. Another organization (whose name I don’t recall) has been co-occupying the arcade for some time, as well, demanding such luxuries as potable water, electricity, basic road maintenance, health care clinics and so on for the rural areas of Oaxaca state.2
Just south of El Zocalo is a large public market, El Mercado 20 de Noviembre. It’s a full square block with shops of nearly every kind, from fish to chilies to flowers to clothing to mezcal.
Oaxaca is easy to get around in by foot, but vehicle traffic can be a bit snarled, particularly in the area just to the northeast of El Zocalo. Fortunately we chose not to rent a car and so got around exclusively on foot or tour van or, in this case, on a sort of open air tour bus which took us around the perimeter of the old town. Narration was entirely in Spanish, and my realtime translation skills are none the best, so we probably missed a good deal of fascinating historical information.
While you are walking around the old town, be sure to stop into the museum at the former convent Santo Domingo, located a few blocks north of El Zocalo. We were fortunate to have been approached by a guide as we entered - well worth the roughly $20 that he charged for a one hour tour. It’s a large museum, so don’t try to see it all. The museum is in the former convent attached to El Templo Santo Domingo - a large complex with both interior and exterior courtyards, and an extensive botanical garden.
The main street going north from El Zocalo has been turned into a pedestrian only mall, lined with restaurants, shops, and artisan workshops. Amate books is a pleasant bookstore with a nice selection of books in English, French, and Spanish. Just up the street is an excellent coffeeshop with a relaxed vibe. There is also a topnotch restaurant nearby called Los Danzantes, featuring nouveau Oaxacan cuisine - it’s well worth a stop for dinner.
We took van tours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Most of the participants were staying at our hotel, so we became fairly well acquainted. The tour guide, Jose Maria, was well informed and entertaining, and pleasantly opinionated on a variety of subjects. Though I’m not a very social person, I was quite happy to meet our fellow Villa Vera residents, all of whom were interesting and friendly.
It turns out that Joanne and I are not terrifically good at getting our pictures taken, but we had to rather insist, since otherwise it would have looked as though we took separate vacations. Here we are, about to enter the vast complex of Monte Alban, and looking every bit the gringo tourist couple. Which, of course, we were.
Monte Alban is an enormous complex, with about a dozen large quasi-pyramids, what seems to have been an astronomical facility, a large pelote court, and a spectacular, commanding view of the valley of Oaxaca. Founded around 100 C.E., it was abandoned by the 11th century, for reasons unknown. Still, 1000 years is a pretty good run.
The Zapotecs at Monte Alban were not to be messed with - they were serious people who meant serious business. This carving was originally named “Los Danzantes”, the dancers, because at first glance it looks like two people dancing. Closer inspection, however, revealed that in fact the two figures are not dancing. The carving shows what is clearly meant to be blood running down their legs. They screwed with the wrong people and were made to pay a heavy price. They may or may not have lived, but it is certain that they would never father any more children. This carving, and the many more like it, would have served as a warning to anyone wanting to challenge the existing power structure.
Naturally I walked up the steps at the far end of the plaza, a decision I began to regret about half way up. But after catching my breath and narrowly averting a coronary, it was certainly a nice view.
The tours were a combination of visits to archaeological sites and trips to artisan workshops where, of course, there were goods for sale. Not being an especially acquisitive person, I wasn’t too thrilled by the commercial aspects of the tour. But on tours, as in life, you take the good with the bad. I will say that the rugs at this place (Teotitlan del Valle) were quite impressive, and watching the man working the loom made it clear just how much labor goes into making a rug of that size.
Mezcal is a very big thing in Oaxaca - there are mezcal distilleries around every bend. I don’t believe I had ever had mezcal previously, and always assumed that it was just like tequila, but in fact it’s quite different, with a relatively strong smoky flavor that I found much to my liking. You drink it straight with a little fruit and sal de gusano - salt and dried worm with chile. I’m definitely a mezcal fan now, with or without gusano (though I do have a bottle of sal de gusano on my liquor shelf).
At the end of the Monte Alban era a number of outlying towns became power centers in their own right, including the one at Mitla. This is a much smaller complex than Monte Alban, but interesting enough. The stone work is phenomenal: large stones carved and placed without mortar, with not enough space between them to slip a business card. And there were extensive geometrical designs carved into the stone in the interior of the building shown above. Amazing skill, and what must have been very difficult labor.
Some miles from Oaxaca city is the small town of Tule, famous for an enormous cypress tree. To give you an idea, the trunk has a diameter of approximately 45 feet, and is about 120 feet tall. There is reason to believe that it’s about 1400 years old, though it could be much older, and is certainly not younger than that. It seems to be in terrifically good health, though apparently there is reason to fear it may not have much longer to live, owing to drought, pollution, and damage to its roots caused by vibrations from the heavy traffic on a nearby highway. We can only hope that the Mexican government will take steps to preserve this magnificent tree.
I liked this church for its simplicity, the whitewashed front with the painted decoration. In the grounds in front of the church there is a collection of really entertaining topiary which, unfortunately, I did not get very good pictures of, owing to the lateness of the day and my reluctance to use a flash. So just take my word for it: it was really excellent topiary.
One of the sites we visited was a church with a large sort of galleria where priests baptized the local population en masse, apparently with some compulsion involved. Our tour guide was quite indignant about this (being Zapotec himself), and with good reason, though this all took place 400 years ago. Nonetheless, it was quite a stunning church. Oddly, the chapel was never completed and was never given a roof.
I’ve posted a few more photos on Picasa. We had a great time in Oaxaca, met a lot of interesting people, had great food and drink, and saw some amazing places. We would certainly go back.
The name has since been changed from Villa Vera to Casa Divina.↩︎
Of course, the lack of a violent police response is a likely indication that the protest was no threat to the existing order and could safely be ignored. In retrospect, my comment that people can “make their voices heard” in Mexico seems incredibly naive.↩︎