Highlights of Mexico (7): Oaxaca

Outside of Mexico City, the southern-most Mexican states are the poorest and those with the largest indigenous populations. We were now to visit three of these states: Oaxaca, Chiapas and Yucatan. First off was Oaxaca, the birthplace of two famous figures from Mexican history: Benito Juarez, president for most of the years 1858-1872 (which came to be known as the Reform Period), and his former protege Porfirio Diaz, president for the incredibly lengthy period 1884-1911 (which provoked the Mexican Revolution).

So Day 4 (Easter Saturday) was an early start: alarm at 5.30 am, departure from hotel at 7.30 am, and drive to Mexico City’s airport. On the way, we had an unusually clear view of the two snow-topped volcanoes that overlook the city. One is extinct but the other was dormant for centuries before erupting back into life in 1994. Our flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca – in an Embraer 190 aircraft – was short at just 45 minutes.

Oaxaca – pronounced ‘we-hah-ke’ – comes from an Aztec name referring to a type of tree which grows locally. The state has the country’s largest Indian population with two-thirds of citizens coming from one of 16 ethic groups and speaking one of nine languages. The city of the same name is located about 300 miles south of Mexico City at an elevation of 1500 metres (5,000 feet). Once the centre of the Mixtec and Zapotec civilisations, today Oaxaca – a city of about 300,000 – is a mixture of pre-conquest, colonial and modern periods and is the state capital.

We were met at the airport by our local guide Jose who explained that our rooms would not be available until mid-afternoon, so that he would take us on a walking tour of the city before we went to our accommodation in the afternoon. This was not what we were expecting but we adjusted to the new situation.

So the minibus dropped us off downtown around noon. It was hot (33C/91F) and two of the five in the group had their hats in the locked suitcases on the way to the hotel. Fortunately we immediately came across a covered market of local artesian products and Vee was one of those to buy a new hat.

The city of Oaxaca was a revelation: narrow cobbled streets lined with low-built shops, hotels, cafes and restaurants with walls in beautiful pastel colours such as pink and blue and green. It reminded Roger and Vee of several other wonderful Latin American towns of colonial heritage such as Antigua in Guatemala and Trinidad in Cuba. What was different though – and explained by the timing of our visit – was the frequent use of purple sashes or bunting which marked the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion.

The first real destination of the walking tour was the large Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman. This was built mainly between 1570 and 1608 as part of the city’s Dominican monastery and it is named after the founder of the Dominican order. The exterior is quite plain but the interior is sumptuous in its colour and glitter.

The next destination was just next door to the church: the State Museum of Oaxaca which only opened in 1998. The greatest treasure was the Mixtec hoard from Tomb 7 at Monte Alban (the site we were visiting next day). The exhibits included objects in gold, silver, jade, coral, amber, pearl and even a skull covered in turquoise.

It was time for lunch and Jose took us to a restaurant serving traditional Oaxacan food called “Azucena Zapoteca”. We sat in a pretty little courtyard and noted the guidance on the menu: “Please be patient with your order, our products are cooked at the moment”. We all went for traditional Oaxacan dishes: Vee had chicken, red mole and rice, while Roger had pork and potatoes stewed in a sauce of beans and chillies.

After lunch, we strolled down to the main square which, like that in Mexico City, is properly called Plaza de la Constitucion but known to everyone as Zocalo. The square is traffic-free and surrounded by trees and arcades. At this time, it was full of families with young children enjoying the Easter weekend with lots of vendors of balloons, bubble guns, and various toys. We wandered through various markets, some open and two large ones covered. The covered markets had grouped sections for every kind of product: breads, meat, fish, chillies, herbs, vegetables, alcohol, hats, dresses, bags, belts, toys …. There was even a stall selling various types of fried grasshoppers.

It was around 4 pm when we arrived at our accommodation. Although located in the downtown area in a busy street, it could not have been more different than our hotel in Mexico City. Hotel Parador San Miguel is a beautiful, colonial-style building which only has 23 rooms that are spread over three floors and around a central courtyard. In the courtyard, a set of ornate cages house exotic birds who sing a variety of distinctive songs. In our room we found two pages of detailed instructions on what to do in the event of an earthquake.

As lunch had been quite filling, Roger and Vee chose to have a light dinner of salad and dessert in the restaurant called “El Andariego” attached to the hotel. When Roger paid by credit card, the waiter could only obtain a signal for the authorisation machine by leaning out of a window.


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