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A Feast for the Senses in Southern Mexico

Post image for A Feast for the Senses in Southern Mexico

Story and photos by Betsy Marvin

Colorful and festive in all seasons, the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca delights the senses and tantalizes the mind. Infused with pre-Columbian flavor in the arts, the foods, the rituals and celebrations, Oaxaca provides immediate stimulation and memories for a lifetime.

We flew from Mexico City, an hour’s ride over barren mountains, a smoldering volcano, valleys littered with villages, finally spotting a small airport surrounded by green grass and palm trees, a marked contrast to the brown landscape we’d seen en route. Everything went fine until we saw the ‘system’ for collecting luggage, including the bag with our laptops, which we’d had to surrender because of the plane’s small size. The belt was about twenty feet long with fifty-some passengers crowded three deep to claim bags, in a room with perhaps 150. And ours didn’t come out anywhere near first, so there were tense moments and several sharp elbows before we had our possessions in hand again.

Typical hotel in the center of Oaxaca, decorated with flower pots on the roof.Typical hotel in the center of Oaxaca, decorated with flower pots on the roof.

Slow taxi progress through the Oaxacan evening rush gave an overview of the city, flatter than I’d imagined, with low buildings and narrow streets. The hotel, the Hostal de la Noria, well-situated only two blocks east of the Zocalo (main square), is a traditional building around a charming once-open courtyard. Today’s covered top does not diminish an airy outdoor feeling. Lacy umbrellas at each patio table provide shade at noon, and large plants contribute to the al fresco atmosphere.

One of the many fiestas that took place while we were there. One of the many fiestas that took place while we were there.

Soon we ventured out to the brightly lighted streets bustling with people. At the Zocalo, we were astounded by December gardens full of thousands of poinsettias; every bit of ground in the broad plaza was filled with brilliant red. Large trunks of leafy trees wrapped in white lights and countless vendors of snacks and souvenirs added to the fiesta air. We are assured there’s always some kind of fiesta!

We found a casual plaza-side restaurant, where we sat outdoors and ordered the local specialty of dark mole, the savory sauce made with chocolate. Rich and unctuous, it elevates a simple chicken leg to gourmet paradise. Restaurants ring the plaza, and we learned to discern the quality, ranging from mediocre (as this one) to fine and delicious.

Early the next day, we set off and the relatively flat terrain made the hike easy. We were entertained en route by buildings, shops, people and street construction. Many streets are being rebuilt using the beautiful and expensive cobblestones manufactured by the governor’s company. The impressive workers, industrious and cheerful, took obvious pride in their labor. When I asked one of them whether they’d finished a nearby street (I saw the porta-potty being removed that morning), he gave me a big grin and said, “Si! Muy nice, eh?”

In the mornings we enjoyed the brilliant sunlight, but by mid-afternoon, the temperatures had risen by some 20 degrees, so we sought the shady side of the streets.

We discovered that a marvelous museum, fairly new, sits in an old building just across the narrow street from our hotel. Actually I saw the door open one evening, and went in to examine the building, soon realizing it was a shop and exhibition space. The Museum of Textiles featured a spectacular show on Guatemalan textiles, and several rooms were filled with hangings, articles of clothing and other lovely embroidered or hand-woven fabric, some obviously very old. Several of the colorful works were stunning.

A small shop at the front displays beautiful hand-made crafts, textile and otherwise. The quality is high, and the prices appropriate, but I believe that some of the profits go toward maintaining the museum.

Textiles at the street market.Textiles and…
Jewelry at the street market.…jewelry at the street market.

Shopping for textile souvenirs and others is its own story. You can go into boutique-style places with sophisticated sales personnel and see elegant displays of fine hand-made blouses, huipiles, scarves, shawls, . . . and pay top dollar, er, peso. You can find tiny hole-in-the-wall shops with elderly proprietors, crammed with goodies from embroidered shirts to handmade dolls to the bright fancifully painted wooden animals to black pottery, and not only do prices seem reasonable, but sellers seem to expect to haggle a little. And you can go to the markets, or even find a vendor on the street, where goods are plentiful (if not so desirable sometimes) and cheap, and low prices are often cut at any nibble. Quality varies widely, and authenticity of ‘hand-made’ pieces can be questionable. But in general, if one is interested in bringing back souvenirs, there’s a broad range of selection.

I’d noticed with a photographer’s eye, nothing more, a woman selling gorgeous woven wool scarves near a restaurant whose garlic soup we found irresistible. One day she murmured something as we went by, and I paused and was lost! The colors completely seduced me, and like a hawk, she attacked. A velvet hawk. Sweet and persuasive, she suggested a price, quickly lowered it, and when we mentioned an even lower amount, she grinned, assented, and crossed herself. So I have a lovely shawl for an unbelievable cost, and another delightful experience.

Churros (fried bread with sugar) for sale!Churros (fried bread with sugar) for sale!
Large painted-wood animal at a street market.Large painted-wood animal at a street market.

We soon learned our way around the center, crossing the Zocalo several times each day. Vendors never tired of trying to sell us shawls, candy, toys, balloons, little fruit picks with painted tops, bark paintings, necklaces and an endless supply of other items. At stands there was corn on the cob, hot dogs, ice cream, tlayudas (tortillas with toppings), crunchy chapulines with chilies (peppery grasshoppers) and more sweets. From a woman who balanced an enormous tray on her head, we got some pumpkin seed brittle and permission to snap her picture.

And my husband’s big adventure one day was availing himself of the services of a shoe-shine man. We counted around 35 of them in the Zocalo, professional guys with high seats shaded by canopies and a case of waxes and cloths and even plastic guards to cover socks. Once they started the polishing, their hands were a blur of activity, fun to watch. His shoes soon shone like mirrors, for about a dollar and a half! We learned that every vendor in the city must be licensed, and we think they must have locations staked out, too.

Artisan/merchant at the ZocaloArtisan/merchant at the Zocalo

Oaxaca depends on tourists, and a huge population makes its living from visitors. These include not only hotel and restaurant workers, and the vendors and shops, but buskers and beggars as well. An accordionist spent every day from mid-morning until late at night on the sidewalk near our hotel. What shocked us was that his wife and three small children were there, too. They sat together, the children sometimes sleeping, sometimes sucking on candy. There are also elderly men and women who roam the streets and squares, murmuring, “Algo, algo” (something, something) or “Caridad” (charity), or told us they were hungry.

People with “good” jobs, like street laborers and hotel waiters, have incredibly long days. We started noticing that our favorite waiters at 7:00 breakfast, Tomás and Miguel, were still there when we returned after evenings out, around nine or ten. And never a hint of siesta. They worked holidays and throughout the weekends, no doubt grateful to have jobs. Street reconstruction began around seven in the mornings, lasted until about eight at night, and continued on weekends.

Santo Domingo Temple, front elevation.Santo Domingo Temple, front elevation.

We wandered through the center, exploring recommended restaurants and coffeehouses, going through museums, looking at galleries, venturing into the beautiful churches, especially the Cathedral (on the Zocalo) and the Santo Domingo Temple. The most impressive museum, was the large art and anthropological collection in the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, attached to the church and former convent, which was begun in 1572 and not completed for 200 years! The Regional Museum of Oaxaca there houses a massive collection of historic artifacts of the local area, highlighting archaeological finds from Monte Albán, the Zapotec city of pre-Aztec times, above Oaxaca.

From the first days of our sojourn in Oaxaca, people urged us to go to Monte Albán, and so we booked a half-day van ride. We had other options; we could have taken a taxi there, or hired a private driver, or even taken a bus, but as we’d delayed reserving because of bad weather, this seemed easiest.

The van picked us up at our hotel, and spent the next 45 minutes collecting other passengers. Finally, we thought, we were on our way, but alas, we stopped at a modern hotel at the edge of town, and were ordered out. Reassigned to vans depending on our itineraries (many were taking full day tours of nearby villages), we set off, through interesting neighborhoods, gradually uphill, until we found ourselves on a narrow winding road, no guard rails at all, with a steep drop-off on my side of the vehicle. To make matters even more interesting, we frequently met other cars, vans, motorcycles and large tour buses, and I closed my eyes and thought of chocolate. After some fifteen minutes we reached the summit, or at least as far up as the road went. For the last bit, we could see the lovely sandstone pyramids on the flattened mountaintop, and a stir of excitement rippled through the van.

Monte Alban guide and ball game field.Monte Albán guide and ball game field.

Negotiating our way into the narrow parking lot, we arrived and then walked up to the museum and ticket building. The guide (our driver) proved knowledgeable and linguistically skilled as he lectured to us (in both English and Spanish) about the history of the place, the hieroglyphs and architecture and art and sociology of these ancient peoples, who lived more than a thousand years in this mountain city beginning around 500 B.C.

The huge plaza around which many pyramids lie, also contains ceremonial areas, and we learned about the ritual sacrifices made by these people. A large I-shaped playing court sits in the broad plaza as well. Like those in Teotihuacan near Mexico City, they also played a form of the Juego de Pelota, a ball game using balls of latex wound around itself to make it bouncy, astonishing the first Europeans, who thought it was inhabited by spirits!

The monoliths at Monte Albán.The monoliths at Monte Albán.

The pictographs are found on steles, tall stone monoliths, and some are collected and placed together near a pyramid. The sun beat down on us, and we didn’t linger very long, grateful to have remembered our water bottles.

The journey down was more direct, quicker and less “picturesque,” and I thanked the ancient gods. We hopped out at the Zocalo, walked up to El Che, a restaurant we favored for its delicious garlic soup. We found other places to eat, all quite reasonably priced, and each completely delicious. We tried the grasshoppers, and enjoyed sampling moles, the famous sauces of Oaxaca. Several varieties of flan were offered at most restaurants, and a cake we found one evening, Pastel de la Noche, moist and fragrant, would have been my favorite if I’d ever seen it again.

Evening in the Ethno-botanical gardenEvening in the Ethno-botanical garden.

One most impressive place was the Ethnobotanical Garden. Located on the grounds of Santo Domingo Church and museum, the garden is available only on tours, in English as well as Spanish. We wandered through the extensive plantings, which, our guide informed us, comprised only local varieties. Exotic trees, strangely formed shrubs, familiar-looking vegetables were placed between green limestone walkways. Soon we came upon an astounding mass of cacti and agave plants, some impressively towering over most other species. An amazing array of uses, therapeutic and otherwise, was attributed to the spiny gray-green organisms. We could have roamed through alone, botanical guide in hand, taking our own time, but they are very protective of this precious collection.

Oaxaca, a beautiful destination for the gourmet, the plant lover, the archaeological hound, the language learner, the history buff. Muy simpatico!

If You Go

Where2Stay

Hostal de la Noria
Av. Hidalgo 918
Centro
Oaxaca, Oax. 68000 México
www.hostaldelanoria.com

Popular restaurant bar with many types of mescal.Popular restaurant bar with many types of mescal.

Where2Eat

Los Danzantes
www.losdanzantes.com/web/restaurantes/oaxaca

El Asador Vasco
on the Zocalo
www.asadorvasco.com

Los Pacos
Abasolo 121
Centro (closed Sundays)
www.lospacos.com.mx

Great assortment of mole sauces are offered here.

El Che
5 de Mayo 413
Oaxaca City
Tel: 951/514-2122

The place with our favorite garlic soup.

What2Do

Museum of Textiles
Hidalgo 917
Centro
www.museotextildeoaxaca.org.mx/

Regional Museum of the State of Oaxaca
Located in the Ex-Convent of Santo Domingo on Alcala between Gurrion and Berriozabal.

Marvelous archaeological and historical exhibits, overlooking the Botanical Gardens.

Rufino Tamayo Museum
Morelos 503
Centro

Contains the great artist’s own collection of archaeological art, in an interesting palace.

Ethno-botanical garden
Behind Santo Domingo
www.oaxacainfo.com/oaxaca/story-plants.htm

The Instituto Cultural Oaxaca
Avenida Juarez #909
(corner with Calzada Niños Héroes de Chapultepec)
Centro
951/515.3404
www.icomexico.com/

A Spanish language school that we attended during our stay.

Monte Albán
www.sacred-destinations.com/mexico/oaxaca-monte-alban.htm
Archaeological marvel!

Top photo: A party? A wedding? A prom? Who knows? But they were happy to pose!

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