travelog 63


Oaxaca always was one of our dream destinations. 10 years ago, on our first trip to Mexico, we visited this city for the first time and were fascinated. Many things have changed within these 10 years but the city is still fascinating. That's why we're not the only tourists sightseeing in and around the city. With the car it's hard to make progress in the narrow streets because people double-park, passengers get off busses, taxis wait for customers, goods are loaded and unloaded, or there's just a protest march of some indigenous tribe from the mountains of Oaxaca. Most people bear it calmly and wait patiently, only a few honk their horns, something officially forbidden in the city of Oaxaca. It's best to park the car and go on on foot. The hotel search turns out to be easy for us, especially because we own the Moon Handbook of Mexico. Admittedly, the two hotels we choose for our stay with visitors from Switzerland are marked completely wrong in the guide books map and at least one doesn't look like it's in our price range anymore. Nonetheless we risk an attempt and are rewarded. The hotel CasAntica changed its name but is still owned by the same family under whom it underwent a thorough renovation likely up to its best possible, but this also was reflected in the room prices. When we ask about the old name of the hotel, the young lady disappears shortly and offers us the room for the former prices, please note for half of the current price. That's another "OIM" (only in Mexico)!

The zocalo with its huge shade trees and the pretty pavillion is a good starting point for exploring the city by foot. No matter in which direction you go, there's always something interesting out there, be it one of the several markets, stalls with craftwork from the surrounding villages, or just a little street with colorful houses and green patios. You can stroll along past countless little shops in the pedestrian area until you can't resist the beautiful handicrafts anymore. The houses here are generally renovated and painted in bright colors. Daring color combinations and loud contrasts capture the eye. Blooming bougainvilleas, palms, the lovely smell of citrus trees, and wonderfully planted patios and roof terraces fill us with enthusiasm. In the colorful mass of indigenous people, students, workers and housewives the tourists don't stand out too much. Besides, they're concentrating on strategic points and most don't dare to venture off the beaten path.

Around the corner from the zocalo you'll find the Mercado Juarez. Street traders offer fruits, vegetables, sweet breads and chapulines outside the market. We're especially interested in the latter, the roasted grasshoppers that are sold in many different sizes. We heard that the small ones are the most tasteful and we purchase a little bag for 10 pesos. Another advantage of the small sized chapulines is that you don't see the wings and legs very easily when eating the little critters. Bravely we sample a handful - and are disappointed. The chapulines taste like dry grass with a little bit of chile and limejuice. The vendors only allow us to take pictures after we have bought something. The market itself is divided into sections, as is usual all over Mexico. White cotton dresses and colorfully embroidered blouses, hammocks, black pottery, wooden ladles and spoons, woven baskets, but also the usual kitsch is sold here. Next to this you can stock up with Mexican chocolate, various mole pastes, curd cheese, vanilla, coffee and cocoa beans. In the dark heart of the market we find bright plastic bags with different decorations. Particularly popular right now seems to be the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. But you can also buy interesting fruits and vegetables and at the southern end you'll even find fish, meat and poultry. If you change to the other side of the street, you'll get to the food stalls, united under one roof. To battle your way through this covered market requires some patience. Women and girls bark loudly from every stall and rattle off their products. They actually all offer about the same for about the same price. That's why they have to outdo all the others through their yelling. As soon as you decided to stop in one place, the street traders line up and offer you jewelry, crocheted table-clothes and much much more. There's no way that you can sit here in peace and quiet.

On Saturday, the big market day in Oaxaca, the Mercado de Abastos is worth a visit. On the huge grounds it's easy to get lost and it's always exciting to see at which corner of the market you reach daylight again after you've explored many different lanes in the semi-darkness inside the market. Of course everything's divided into sections, but in between, market women break up the picture, selling vegetables, chiles, tortillas, or unfamiliar fruits and spices which they bring from their villages. Particularly fantastic is the area where they sell pottery. You can't take your eyes off the simply beautiful bowls and dishes and flowerpots. But also the incredible variety in the chiles section is tempting every time we pass it. In the middle of the market, where your nose leads you sooner or later, chocolate is produced right in front of your eyes and there's always a little piece to sample. Right next to it vendors offer huge loaves of bread. Opposite you'll find stalls that are set up like delicatessen counters. In Zurich you would pay a fortune in stores like Globus and Jelmoli but here you can get the delicacies for little money. Especially interesting for us is always the area where they sell flowers and plants. Shortly before Christmas this section is paricularly worth a visit because people from near and far away villages come here to sell plants used in nativity scenes. Baskets full of tillandsias, their inner leaves spraypainted with red color, bags full of Tillandsia usneoides that is used like moss. Next to it also different cacti, amongst them mostly "biznaguitas", mammillarias. From time to time we can also spot different echeverias and even a tiny little Sedum. Nature conservationists are outraged about the decimation of the Mexican flora, of course caused mostly by foreigners, but they should be looking in their markets during Christmas season.

If you've had enough of shopping, you can give your attention to cultural things. You'll be busy for a while seeing all the churches and former convents. Absolutely worth a visit is the ex-convent of Santo Domingo. The church with its gold ornamentation and the ceiling decoration is already stunning. Next to it, however, is the former convent that was transformed into a museum. You'll stroll through the library and climb up the stairs to admire the treasures from tomb number seven from Monte Alban. The works of art are beautifully presented and thematic exhibits in every former chamber, every room, give insight into life before and after the arrival of the Spaniards. Again and again the views into the simply wonderful convent's garden, with mostly succulent plants are splendid sights. Certainly you could spend an entire day within the comvent's walls if you wouldn't be worn out after a few hours of walking. Then just step outside into one of the many pretty cafes, some with rooftop terraces, where you can refresh yourself with freshly squeezed fruit juices. Just around the corner there is another former convent which today accommodates what is probably the most expensive hotel in Oaxaca, the Camino Real. But even people who can't afford such a fine accommodation are allowed to enjoy the simply beautiful hotel complex with magnificiently laid-out gardens and patios. If you still want to see more cultural treasures, you absolutely have to visit the Museo Rufino Tamayo. The private collection of pre-hispanic artifacts of the Mexican painter is exhibited according to his guidelines. To him, dates and periods of origin didn't matter too much, he was more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of the objects. Unlike in the ex-convent of Santo Domingo you'll probably be the only visitor in this museum which makes the exhibition even more beautiful.

The surroundings of Oaxaca have many things to offer too. On day trips you can visit various temple ruins and cities of the native inhabitants of Oaxaca. The probably most famous and also biggest complex is Monte Alban. At eight in the morning Monte Alban opens its doors to visitors and that's exactly the time of day when we arrive there. For more than half an hour we have the entire complex to ourselves! After that the first tourists arrive, a few young early birds. Well after nine o'clock the first tour busses unload masses of Frenchmen and Americans. Monte Alban is stunning in its size but you only realize how gigantic the complex is when you wandered from one end to the other. On both sides the mountain stretches and it's probable that there are more ruins hidden under the dirt. Again and again we're astonished by the huge stairs that you have to climb to get to the area of the altar on top. How did the much smaller indigenous peoples manage to deal with these huge steps? But not only Monte Alban is worth a visit. If you like it less touristy we recommend you visit Yagul for example where the guard doesn't have any change because there's nobody visiting. Here too, the native population chose a strategically ideal place on a hill from where they were able to see the entire valley. Apart from temple ruins many of the small villages surrounding Oaxaca are worth a visit too, particularly on their market days. Almost every village has its own specialty. One village produces only green glazed pottery, the next one carves colorful animals from wood, but also carpets, black pottery, baskets etc. are available. For plant enthusiasts a visit to the Sierra Juarez is absolutely essential. We linger for one entire day und can't see enough of the plant diversity and the spectacular landscapes that start just a few kilometers outside of Oaxaca. Many different echeverias are in flower along the side of the road. Tillandsias and orchids transform the woods into a fairytale landscape. There are many little dirt roads leading away temptingly deep into the mountains. Hierve al Agua, place of boiling water, is another must for nature enthusiasts. Though the water doesn't boil anymore, it still bubbles out of the ground. Light blue pools flow seamlessly into the dark horizon. The water and the minerals it contains built fantastic terraces over the past centuries and you can marvel at "petrified waterfalls" in three different places. On well-kept paths you can hike around the entire complex but to do that it's best to arrive early in the morning. Not only do you have the place all to yourself, but it can get pretty hot around noon. If you look a little closer you can also discover some crassulacee, next to them century plants and palm trees that try to make a living in the barren rock, and we even stumble over a pink flowering terrestrial orchid. After the hike small palapas, palmleaf covered shelters, tempt you to enjoy your picnic with spectacular views deep into the mountains of Oaxaca.

It's best to end the day comfortably under the arcades of the zocalo with a cold beer. As soon as you seat yourself, the peace and quiet are over. Street vendors try to sell you bright carpets, ponchos and hammocks. Traditionally dressed indigenous women offer wooden combs and animals. Following them are the girls with jewelry. Then come the cute kids, either begging or at least giving you some chewing gum for your money. Young men play marimba music and collect money for it. A drunk plucks a guitar and sings so absolutely wrongly that we're tempted to give him money just to make him stop singing quickly. Parents buy colorful balloons for their children, ballons that are sold under every tree around the zocalo. Restaurants with delicious mole and other typical regional dishes tempt to have dinner. Or you can eat with the locals at one of the food stalls where they serve tlayudas and gorditas besides other things.

Tlayudas are huge tortillas that are baked crisp and topped with bean puree, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and avocado. According to taste you can also have them topped with chorizo, spicy sausage, or grilled meat. Gorditas are also huge in Oaxaca and are served filled with different mole sauces. Another experience is a visit to the "grill station" of the Mercado Juarez. From far away you can smell the grilled meat and soon you'll also see the smoke rising from the building. Inside you first have to get accustomed to the smoke and steam. For the lazy ones there's a "restaurant" just at the entrance where you can sit down and they conveniently serve you everything. The insiders, however, buy a bunch of scallions, radishes and avocadoes, chiles de agua, water chiles, and tortillas at the entrance to the market. Then they stroll down the aisle and decide from which place to buy meat and sausage. Then and there the men behind the counters barbecue their meat and the various vegetables. The only thing they have to do is to find a place at one of the narrow tables. We belong to the lazy sort of people and prefer to receive attentive service. The chiles de agua are insidiously hot, the tortillas huge and handmade, the meat barbecued to perfection and tender. It's so delicious that we order a second serving right away!

Oaxaca is a world of its own with its colors, forms, tastes and smells, and sounds - a world that is so unknown but all the same so familiar to us. It will always be a pleasure to return here.

July-October 2004

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen