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Walkin' in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a different place. This is old Mexico, pre-Spanish, home of ancient Monte Alban which rivaled any continental city of its era. Modernity nibbles at Oaxaca's edges, but the character of the people prevents it from taking bigger bites.

What beautiful souls these Oaxacans are! Economically, Oaxaca is Mexico's poorest state, but I didn't see a single homeless person while I was there. I watched children giving coins to beggars. I was never greeted with anything less than a friendly smile, including by a pre-teen schoolgirl who was delighted that I spoke English and was eager to practice hers with me. If this is poor, then world should be so poor.

Despite being fastidiously clean, Oaxaca is a graffiti'd place, only the graffiti isn't the scrawled tags that deface highway signs and the sides of buildings here in Seattle, it's colorful and masterful art, speaking to Hispanic mythology and modern concerns. Painted on a patch of rough concrete wall, a kneeling, anthropomorphic coyote in a smart white suit offers the world the gift of maize, newly-hatched from a giant egg. His lines are crisp and the patterns of his fur are geometric shapes blending organically into his canine form. Next to him, an anime catgirl makes a rude gesture with her fist, while in a piece worthy of Banksy, a human skeleton squats within the outline of a rat.

Another surprise are the indigenous peoples. They make up a good percentage of Oaxaca's population. Here, they are treated with respect, especially at the Sunday market in Tlacolula. The market that would be perfectly at home in Marrakesh or Bangkok. What do you lack? A pasta strainer? A live chicken? Worm salt? Fresh tomatoes? Giant heads of garlic still pungent of the earth they were just pulled free of? Perhaps some agua fresca in 12 different flavors (but mango is the best)? Chapulines? You must try our Chapulines! Spicy and crunchy and strangely addictive; a handful of pesos buys you a plastic bag full: crunchy fried grasshoppers coated in lime salt and chili.

Listen to the languages spoken at each stall: the familiar Latinate Mexican Spanish, but also a dozen different tongues that were native long before the Spanish staked their claim to this place. These indigenous speakers are small people, often hunched from a life of hard labor, but on market Sunday they parade in their most colorful attire. Shocks of red and green, violet and blue, daffodil yellow and obsidian black stand out gem-like against the flood of blue jeans and dark shirts worn by the local Mexicans and tourists like myself.

This is still their land, and Oaxaca accepts this truth with respect.

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PART II:

In this market, awaiting those with carnivorous appetites, is the famous Hall of Smokes. If it crawled over the Earth on the Fifth Day, it's for sale here. An edible anatomy lesson hangs from hooks in each stall: tripe, intestines, hearts, liver along with meatier cuts of flank steak and sausage draws flies and the hungry. Make your purchase by the pound and someone will be along shortly to slap it on one of the charcoal grills. Go and purchase your tortillas from the old women around the corner, then come back and your meal is ready. Wrap it up, and eat!

And then eat some more: Oaxaca is famous for its food. There's street tacos sold from carts, and high-end restaurants serving refined versions of peasant food, but my favorite meal was a simple quesadilla of Oaxacan cheese and fresh mushrooms. My arrival coincided with the half-day off that Oaxacan workers enjoy on Saturday afternoon. It's time for shots of mezcal -- deliciously smokey and as complex as any single-malt scotch. It's time to laugh boisterously and enjoy a plate of tacos. My meal came by way of a waitress who spoke no English and this poor traveler who spoke only a polite few words of Spanish. Between the two of us, we were able to figure out lunch. Perhaps because it was seasoned with the effort of procuring it, the stretchy, vaguely-sweet Oaxacan cheese cocooning the funky fungi inside a wrap of gigantic fresh tortilla was a worthy competitor to any meal I've enjoyed in Europe.

I can't imagine my first experience of Mexico being Cancun or Tijuana. I can't imagine a tourist's Mexico of cheap tequila and over-packed beaches. Oaxaca is Mexico, at least the way Mexico used to be, ancient and more recent. I'm sure it will soon be overrun by tourists now that it's a Unesco World Heritage site and every foodie with a Youtube channel and an Instagram account is shouting about its wonders, but I hope it can resist change the way it always has: just by being itself.

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Practicalities:

Getting there: There are no direct flights from Seattle, so we flew American into DFW (the less said about either the better). We stayed overnight in a cheap hotel and caught a morning flight out to Oaxaca. Next time we will fly into LAX and take a direct flight from there.

Weather: We arrived during the rainy season (late September). The days were clear and dry, but once the sun set, the rain appeared. Most of the time it was light showers, but one night a the heavens opened up and we got caught in a real frog-drowner -- without an umbrella or raincoat. The lightning show was neat, 'tho. As far as temperatures go, think low 70s with cooler 60s at night (all temps in F). Apart from the evening rain, I'd call the weather perfect.

Food safety: The water is absolutely unsafe to drink in any form, including in showers. I know people who've said, "Oh, I drink the water all the time and I've never had a problem..." I admire their gut biome, but I ended up in the hospital after drinking some tejate from a street vendor. Drink only filtered or bottled water to be safe. Other than the water situation, I never had any problem with the food, including eating grasshoppers (a few, anyway).

Language: English is common, but we did run into a few occasions where no habla espanola was an issue and Google translate wasn't of any help. Know enough Spanish to be polite and maybe how to ask for common food items -- and filtered water.

Money: The exchange rate on the peso is high and things in Oaxaca are very affordable. We splurged on meals, guides and tours and never went over maybe $150 a day. Our lodging in a fantastic B&B in the Centro district came to ~ $1,000 for a week. Also, always carry some coins for the washroom. If you don't have any, there's usually a woman outside the door who will sell you some, as well as TP.

Speaking of guides: We retained a local guide who brought us from the airport to our B&B and drove us around the city, as well as to the aforementioned market and Monte Alban as well. Best money I've ever spent on a trip. We booked through https://shenictoursoaxaca.com/ on the recommendation of a waiter at our local Oaxacan restaurant. I can fully recommend them and I owe that waiter big-time!

MEZCAL: Yes, you must! Avoid the corporate mezcal sites and go straight to the source with Mezcal Educational Tours ( https://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com/ ). Alvin takes you to the local producers where you can sample way more mezcal than you can imagine. I was unable to go due to being sick (see above), but my wife and traveling companions enjoyed it immensely.

Safety: As an older couple, my wife and I never felt unsafe ('tho it was interesting to see every highway petrol station being guarded by a serious-looking man in full tactical armor and toting what appeared to be a M-16). We got a little lip from some kids when we were walking down a dark street, but I've had worse in Amsterdam. I didn't see any gangs and the only "criminal" activity that impacted us was a student strike that blocked a main intersection forcing us to go the long way around the city.

Driving: Unless you're familiar with Mexican roads and driving mores, avoid it. There's an order to the anarchy, but woe be unto you should you not understand how it work. Avoid driving if you can. We did.

If you're thinking of experiencing Mexico for the first time, go to Oaxaca. It's a little more challenging than the all-inclusive beach resorts, but the pay-off is worth it. Just don't drink the water.

-- Mike Beebe

Posted by
2905 posts

Thanks Mike for a great trip report. And reminding us that there is more to Mexico than the border problems we constantly hear about.

Posted by
884 posts

Bravo! A thoroughly engaging reflection of a magnificent destination.

Posted by
3987 posts

Thanks for the trip report.
Mexico has been on my radar for awhile now, but I would add Mexico City. Maybe we’ll try and get there early next year.

Posted by
465 posts

Great report! Beautifully written. I have been wanting to go there for years. I have seen many other parts of Mexico, but not Oaxaca.

Posted by
425 posts

I also want to recommend En Via day tours, because if Mike’s trip appeals then this may be of interest. They run a language school in the city and do these day trip to villages outside of town (with transportation) to raise money for their real purpose- granting no to low interest loans to women for businesses and helping them make it a sustainable income, and reinvesting interest into the nonprofit. The day tours give you a chance to see yet another side of Mexico and talk to some of the women working with En Via whose husbands are sometimes working in the US. And you can buy their wares if interested but it’s definitely not required. It’s a nice complement to the city.

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170 posts

Thank you for posting this -- I'm seriously considering spending several days in Oaxaca myself, probably this May (it's not definite yet), so the appearance of this report was very timely for me -- it nudged me a bit closer to making that trip. I actually did visit Oaxaca once, but it was several decades ago, and it was a short visit; another, longer visit is called for. Anyway, at that time Oaxaca impressed me as being intriguingly different, and I'm glad you had the same impression today. I'm in total agreement with the paragraph that begins "I can't imagine my first experience in Mexico being Cancun or Tijuana." I'n fact, I can't imagine any of my Mexico experiences being Cancun or Tijuana. Though I'm not much of a "foodie," few of the trip reports I've seen on this forum have otherwise zeroed-in on my personal travel interests as well as yours did -- I'm glad you posted it when you did.
A few comments: First, I was pleased to learn of the several indigenous languages that you heard. Not that I would understand any of them, but it is a further sign that Oaxaca could be what I'm looking for. At the same time, I was a little disappointed by how easily you seemed to encounter English -- I would actually like to get away from English altogether, but of course that is getting hard to do anywhere in the world these days.
I was also pleased about what you said regarding the weather. While I don't mind if it gets warm, I seem to have a harder-than-average time managing humid heat. I did some research on the internet (a convenient site called "weatherspark") and found that for the past several years, May in Oaxaca has been "dry to comfortable" in terms of humidity, and I hope that proves to be the case this year as well. Your comment "clear and dry" was encouraging, allowing for the fact that you were there earlier in the year.
A final comment, regarding that mural image that reminded you of Bansky: I haven't seen it yet, and when I do, I may well find myself in agreement; but for now I'm wondering whether it might also have been inspired by the Mexican artist José Posada, (early 1900s), whose sharply critical social and political cartoons often featured leering, animated skeletons.

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6669 posts

Thanks for this, Mike. I've been to Oaxaca many times and you really captured what's most wonderful about it. My cousin has lived there for 30+ years and loves it also. I didn't know you could fly there direct from LAX, I've always gone through Houston or Dallas or Mexico City. The Houston route has worked well for me, including beautiful views of the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Can you share where you stayed there?

A very different Mexico from Tijuana or Cancun, or Cabo. Many more indigenous people (Indians in our lingo), whose faces you can see in the ancient sculptures at Monte Alban and in the museum. Birthplace of Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, the best and worst of Mexico's leaders. At 5000+ feet, the climate is pretty comfortable through the year. May is the driest month, and probably has the least tourist activity because of that. I've experienced brief heavy rains in August but haven't been there in September.

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472 posts

Horsewoofie: Absolutely -- Oaxaca was the complete opposite of the Mexico portrayed in (some) American media.

Blue: Thanks!

Barbara: Do it! Do it do it do it! So many reasons to visit, and adding Mexico City could make for an interesting compare-and-contrast.

Pete: Thanks! I'm so glad Oaxaca was my first taste of Mexico; maybe it's ruined the rest of the country for me!

KC: I'm going to look up En Via for my 2025 return trip. Sound fascinating!

Faedus: There were many different inspirations for the street art: not only Posada's skeletons (so many skeletons!), but anime, lucha libre, traditional folk art, Mucha -- more than I can really name. You can also easily get away from English by leaving the Centro district. Once you're away from the tourist areas, the use of English falls off quickly.

Dick: I stayed at El Diablo Y La Sandia Boca Del Monte B&B ( https://www.eldiabloylasandiabm.com/ ). It's located on a quiet alley in the Centro, and within walking distance of the main square and a lot of fantastic restaurants. Also, the breakfasts were amazing: local foods and local ingredients, and every one was delicious.

Thanks to all and I wish you happy and adventuresome travels!

-- Mike Beebe

Posted by
631 posts

Gracias Mike, for this excellent TR. Definitely one of the better ones that we travelers have read recently here or on other travel forums. Useful, insightful, informed and worthy of a traveler's time.
Too many TRs seem to be LOOKATMELOOKATME, wherein the writers mention themselves too often and the local culture not enough.
My wife and I have bookmarked this fine TR of yours.
cheers
I am done. los endos

Posted by
3350 posts

We were just recently in both Mexico City and Oaxaca and loved both. Our time was too short there! Glad you liked it and that you recovered from your illness! Yikes!

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33 posts

We toured Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca in Feb. 2024. All three were amazing. Ruins, History, Artisans, Museums.,Food and the wonderful people of Mexico. We were comfortable guests in their country. Had no worries. On a tour. Lots of time on our own.
About Oaxaca....Go there for a great experience.