The bus wound down the mountain from the tiny Zapotec pueblos where I’d spent the past week. Cool, evergreen forests gradually gave way to heat, traffic, and congestion. To the valley floor where the city of Oaxaca sprawls in a dusty bowl surrounded by mountains.
Outside the bus station, a mosh pit of taxis and buses milled in homicidal confusion. Buses hurtled through streets as the “assistants hung out the door yelling its destination. The contrast from the cool, quiet Pueblos Mancomunados was a jolt to my system.
Gathering up my luggage, I plunged into the melée to find a hotel room.
Most people know Oaxaca as the place that gave us molé and chocolaté. And it is indeed a foodie paradise.
The city of Oaxaca is at the confluence of three valleys and two mountain ranges, and it is also at the confluence of a region with a rich, diverse, and still vibrant indigenous heritage that goes back 4000 years.
Scrunched as the region was between the Aztecs to the north and the Maya to the south, Oaxaca developed a distinct puddingstone of tribes. The Zapotec, which tended to settle in the mountains, and the Mixtec, which tended to settle in the valleys, were and are the dominant and most advanced cultures, but there are 15 other groups, each with its own language and culture. Almost half the people living in the state of Oaxaca are indigenous, more than any other state in Mexico except the Yucatán.
The city at its center, also called Oaxaca, is the beating heart of the region through which the cultures with their foods, dance, dress, and artesans flow. This melange of tradition is what makes the city so colorful and fascinating.
Although the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and tourist destination, it’s big enough (population 225,000) not to feel overrun by tourists. In the mercados and on the zócalo, the central plaza, tourists, families, ancianos,and vendors mingle in a colorful, mostly happy jumble. Locals, not just tourists, shop in the markets, and the place has a layer of authentic grunge. It isn’t a pampered and precious jewel, like Guanajuato. It’s a place where ordinary people try to get by, sometimes by making extraordinary things.
Its indigenous character also makes Oaxaca a political hotbed. Some protest or other is always happening around the zócalo, which sometimes erupts into violence.
In Oaxaca, exuberant parades pop up willy-nilly, usually with beautiful traditional dress and music.
You can inhale the aroma of glistening lumps of molé or fresh-ground chocolate at the market. You can sit at a food stall in the Benito Juarez market for an early morning hot chocolate with either water or milk and a traditional roll for dunking. Chapulines, a Oaxacan snack of fried grasshoppers with lime, garlic, and chili, are sold on every corner. I tried it once, but the little grasshopper leg stuck to my tongue made me swear off bugs forever. To break the afternoon heat, there are aguas frescas made with fruit juice and water. My favorite was jamaica (hibiscus), but they’re all lovely.
Even though lots of women wear traditional dress in Oaxaca, I’m always afraid of buying something impulsively that will just look too native and weird back home. One day, however, I was walking behind a woman wearing the traditional long tunic, called a huipil, with a flouncy skirt peeping out beneath. It looked so fun and attractive that my search was on for a huipil that might “pass” back in the north country. Eventually, I bought two. (And, yes, I’ve worn them. They’re comfortable and celebratory and not too weird.)
Of course, hand-in-hand with traditional dress comes traditional dance. Again, in a country that celebrates its regional dances, Oaxaca is a region on steroids. In fact, it holds a festival in July celebrating the various dance traditions in the state. The guelagetza (gay-la-GETZ-a) brings together dance traditions from across Oaxaca. While the official celebration happens at a traditional site on a hill above the city and draws thousands to the city, tourists can get a sampling of traditional dance at two venues in the city every night. At Quinta Real, the performance takes place in an cavernous stone room over a buffet dinner. I went to the “other” one at a hotel/retaurant near the Zócalo, and it was an entertaining taste of what must be an incredible festival.
You can’t talk about Oaxaca without mentioning the artesans. Wherever you turn in Oaxaca, people are making things, and the sheer quantity and diversity of handmade stuff is mindblowing. I spent three weeks walking the streets, and I did not plumb the depths of the shops and markets featuring Oaxacan-made products at all levels of price and quality.
As in other parts of Mexico, certain villages or clusters of villages have come to specialize in a certain products. Oaxaca is known for handwoven wool rugs and textiles, embroidery, pottery (black and green), fantastical carved and painted animals called alebrijes, mezcal (a tequilla-like drink made of agave). In a country full of artesans, Oaxaca stands heads above the rest.
Next, we’ll take a couple field trips to these artesanal villages.