OAXACA: A HELL OF A TOWN!
My wife and I have just returned from an unbelievable two week trip to this fascinating country where at 7.85 pesos to the dollar this place is paradise. While the week in Mexico City was interesting, nothing in this beautiful country, in my experience, compares with the fascinating colonial city of Oaxaca. It may be only a 40 minute flight from Mexico City but it is light years away from the noise and pollution of Mexico's capital city. What to do there?
The valley of Oaxaca has been lived in for thousands of years and perhaps the most interesting of these sights is Monte Alban - a short 60 minute trip from your hotel. Although home to over 25,000 people beginning in AD 300, the city was abandoned well before the conquistadors arrived. Today the ruins represent only 10 % of the actual city (the rest remains to be excavated) but what is there gives a clear indication of the sophistication of these people. Also extremely interesting is Mitla, which flowered rather late and was home to about 10,000 people, reaching its apex at about AD 1350. Although small, there is beautiful stone work here and tombs to be seen. Each of these sights can been visited in half a day and can easily be combined with tours of fascinating arts villages (see below).
ARTS and CRAFTS:
The Mexicans, along with the Balinese and Haitians, have to be one of the most artistic and creative people on the face of this earth and no where in Mexico is this better demonstrated than in Oaxaca and its valley. If you are a shopper, this is the place to be - and the prices! Each little village outside of the city of Oaxaca seems to specialize in a particular craft. As an example, Arrazola is famous for carved animals which are both fanciful and whimsical; beautiful woven blankets are made in the small village of Teotitlan; and Coyotepec is famous for its black pottery, which may not be to everyone's taste, I suspect. Of course, all these goodies can be bought right in the heart of Oaxaca city at a slightly higher price but it's much more fun to hire a car and driver (see below) and to spend two or three days visiting these artistic centers.
Like many Mexican cities, Oaxaca has a beautifully restored Historic District which is closed to all traffic - obviously much easier to shop this way! There are beautiful baroque churches here, my favorite being San Domingo. One could easily spend two days or so just wandering around this fascinating city.
There are many hotels in which to stay here and we decided to spend our week at a hotel at the lower end of the scale, but, to be fair, we did have a tour of the most expensive hotel in the city: this was a very interesting comparison. We stayed at the quiet and comfortable "Las Bugambilias" which is located right in the center of the Historic District : it's so close to all those irresistible craft stores and art galleries. This six room B&B hotel is operated by the Cabrera family and you'll feel like a member of that family there as we certainly did. Our well appointed room (with good reading lights, no less) included a complete modern bathroom, and cost all of $ US 22 per night and there was a great breakfast thrown in as well. But the best part of staying there was being invited to participate in family celebrations and activities. My wife and I were taught how to make that elusive and uniquely Mexican dish, mole, and we were fortunately asked to join the family in celebrating an important 30th birthday of one of its members. And as if all of this were not enough, the family operates one of the best restaurants in the city. "La Olla" serves nothing but local Oaxacian dishes and our all time favorites were Enchiladas Oaxaquenas (corn tortillas rolled with chicken and topped with home made mole sauce) and Tamale Oaxaqueno (cornmeal, chicken, and mole stuffed in a banana leaf and steamed).A complete meal and a bottle of good Mexican wine here set us back a grand total of $ US 22.00. Pilar Cabrera, the chef at "La Olla", is an inventive cook and gives cooking lessons in the restaurant so if you want to learn more about really sophisticated Mexican cooking this is indeed the place. The B&B can be reached by e mail or through their www page and search accommodations for Oaxaca.
We then visited the "best" hotel in Oaxaca : the famous Camino Real. The manager, Peter Maxwell, arranged for us to have a complete tour of this 90 room hotel built right into a 17th Century convent. The setting is magnificent but the rooms are small and cell like and would only appeal, in my opinion, to those with a monastic inclination. At $ US 150 a night, this is hardly a bargain by current Mexican standards but I guess one pays for the prestige of staying in the "top" hotel in town. The choice is yours but I'd rather stay with the Cabreras and have something left over for just one more purchase, perhaps that beautiful ceramic by local artist Luis Valencio.
If your only experience of Mexican food is Taco Bell, you are in for a BIG surprise. Oaxaca is one of the best places to eat authentic Mexican food and we tried just about everything (except grasshoppers) in a different restaurant every night. Our favorite was "La Olla" (see above) but one cannot eat in the same place each night, although I must say that we were tempted. Another place we enjoyed was La Casita on the Zocolo; and ,yes, we did eat one night at the Camino Real but that was a big mistake. The buffet was strictly Western and while we were out in the buffet line pondering the limited dessert choices, our table was given to another couple! So much for the "top of the line". If you really must have international food, try Del Vitral, located in a beautiful old home.
TOUR GUIDE SERVICE:
You will meet what may appear to be thousands of so called "tour guides" as you step off the plane in Oaxaca but beware-- check their English carefully. Thanks to the Cabreras, we met Juan Ruiz and what a find he was. After many years of encountering guides whose second or even third language was not even remotely related to our own, Juan was a great asset. Not only did he speak English well, he also knew what he was talking about and he had a modern, air conditioned 7 seat van which he did not drive as if he were in the Grand Prix! He can be reached by phone or fax at 91(951) 10042 and I suggest that you reserve with him in advance as he is justifiable busy.
Get down there as soon as you can and let me know what treasures you personally find.