Oaxaca | Mexico

Posted by on March 29, 2008

Oaxaca is hard to pronounce, but easy to take.  (It’s Wah-Ha-Kah, by the way.)

We spent ten days at Christmas there; it was a lovely mixture of holiday fiestas, ancient ruins, delicious food and gentle people.

We arrived late, as you will remember if you read the last column, but just in time to get to the Zocolo for the Fiesta de los Rabanos.  Luckily, due to the suggestion of a Millbrook friend, we had booked a table at the Asador Vasco, on a balcony overlooking the Zocolo.  This is a major festival, among many others during this season, with huge crowds passing in long lines to see the Radish carvings which are the centerpiece of a serious competition.  These giant radishes are carved into the intricate scenes of the Nativity, the Wise Men, the Crucifixion, and other complicated tableaux.  The huge crowds were also awaiting the late night fireworks which were the climax of this stupendous December 23 celebration.

Even though we were three hours late, we finally got our table in time to see the spectacular display, after enjoying the first of many margaritas.

The next evening, Christmas Eve, was another celebration, with all sorts of local floats, created on pickup trucks, populated by young Oaxacan angels, winding their way through the streets toward the Zocolo. This was another parade of bands and throngs of happy holiday makers enjoying the cool evening and the holiday spirit, which seemed to last for all of our ten days.  Oaxaquenos certainly know how to “party” (in the current jargon.) They even have marching bands and parades for funerals.

The Zocolo, or town square, is rimmed with outdoor cafes, which were almost always full of people, and seems to draw people like magnets. It certainly drew us, time and time again, to the “action” in which families were enjoying the holiday, filling the air with balloons and spoiling their children in the nicest way, by spending hours playing with them. The atmosphere was infectious, and the large pyramidal shapes of hundreds of poinsettia plants added to the colorful celebratory ambience. In addition, the “laureles” trees, of which the Oaxacans are justly proud, protected the crowds like huge umbrellas.  Souvenir sellers were colorful and ingenious with their wares, making polite, friendly overtures, but never becoming offensive.

We were very pleased with our hotel, which was called the Parador San Miguel, just two blocks from the Alameda (another square, leading to the Zocolo.) We had done lots of research, and I took the time to look at several other hotels and inns while we were there.

It was our unanimous opinion that we’d chosen the best. This charming small inn, with two floors of rooms around a central courtyard, a small restaurant, and an alert and helpful staff, made our stay as comfortable as possible.  Outside the doors of our rooms, we had a lovely patio, with two chaises longue and an umbrella table with four chairs.

(As an aside, for anyone contemplating a trip to Oaxaca, I checked out the “best’ hotel, the Camino Real. It has several rather lovely quiet courtyards, but it is a busy, impersonal place, unattractive in its public spaces, with indifferent personnel and poor service. Don’t waste your money.)

Many mornings we began with a trip to the Zocolo to check out the day’s happenings, to get the daily paper, and a very inexpensive, but  excellent, shoeshine.  Choosing a lunch and/or dinner venue was also a great pleasure, since there are so many choices.

Among the most important places to see are the Templo de Santo Domingo, a 16th Century Dominican Church, which commands a lovely open space up the hill, next to the Botanical Garden and the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures.  This whole area was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997. The Museum is very thorough in its coverage of the ancient peoples who lived in the area, and is extremely pleasant to walk around, housed as it is, in the former cloister, with amazing treasures inside, and sun-sharpened views out the vaulted windows.

Another must-see in the historic center is the Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art which was donated by Rufino Tamayo to a museum bearing his name.

Six miles outside the city, and higher up at 8000 feet, the massive Monte Alban is the site of an ancient Zapotec culture.  This was our first venture into ancient ruins in Mexico, and it was truly staggering.  It was built between 250 B.C. and 750 A.D. – and there are many descendants of the Zapotec still living in the area.  Monte Alban is a very mystical place to visit in the long shadows of the late afternoon, as we did.  One could spend many hours there, as well as at the other ruins we visited.  Mitla is a much longer drive south of Oaxaca city, where the Spanish destroyed some of the ruins to build another Dominican church.  On the way back, we took a slight detour to Yagul, yet another ancient ruin.  This was probably my favorite of all such places we saw, since there was almost no one there, and the site, way up high on the side of a long valley, afforded long views over the mountains all around.

We wandered various streets just to drink in the local culture, (and the margaritas,) stopping along the way at several churches, street markets and art galleries.  There are two huge markets in Oaxaca, which could take up most of a day. Many of the people who come to the market to sell their wares come from very poor mountain communities, so buying their wares at good prices is a win/win situation.

There is much that could be said about the Oaxacan food, which is different from other Mexican food, and justly famous.  However, people have very strong and differing opinions about which restaurants are the best. I will only say that I finally figured out what all the brouhaha is about the mole negra.  I only had what I would call the “real thing” once, at a simple place called Maria Bonita. Our hands-down favorite restaurant was La Biznaga.  There we had at least three meals, all contemporary Oaxacan cuisine and all memorable – as was every single one of the 10 days we were fortunate enough to spend there.

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