A compulsion to climb out of our comfort zone, dust off stagnant Spanish skills and sidestep the usual tourist stops took us to Oaxaca (Waa-HAH-ka) for two weeks of travel this spring.
After doing due diligence, aka online research, and seeking advice from a college friend who has lived there for seven years, we signed up for a two-week Spanish class at the Becari language school and rented a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment. Our goal: to relearn some Spanish and reclaim the spirit of adventure that punctuated the youthful versions of ourselves, before job responsibilities, adulting and exhaustion won the day.
We went with open minds honed by 40-plus years in journalism. We came home completely enchanted, most of all by the open-hearted people and their kindness, art, cuisine, music and history. How enchanted? We dumped our bags in our bedroom just before midnight on a Saturday. By noon on Sunday, we had booked a return visit for late October, in time for Oaxaca’s best-known celebration, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Here are just a few reasons why, and a few things we learned:
Flying from Myrtle Beach to almost any foreign airport is a flight-change challenge. After searching for departures from here, Florence, Wilmington and Charleston, our best deal was about $500 each for round-trip seats on Delta from Myrtle Beach-Atlanta-Mexico City-Oaxaca. We left around 8 a.m. and got in around 4:30 p.m., a thoroughly civilized ETA thanks to the two-hour time difference.
You’ll need cash, i.e. pesos, to pay vendors at most local markets, cabs, buses and some restaurants. We got about $60 worth from an ATM the airport in Mexico City, although the exchange rate wasn’t great, just so we had some when we arrived. ATMS are available at banks around town, and also in grocery stores.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am mathematically impaired. So the idea of computing pesos into dollars was enough to make my already language-challenged brain explode. Especially when the sign for the Mexican peso looks like the American dollar sign.
A menu listing $120 as the price for your pollo mole (chicken mole) dinner sounds like a lot until you crack out your trusty smartphone calculator and multiply it by .05, the peso-dollar rate more or less. Then move the decimal two spaces to the right. That turns a $120 peso dinner from Heimlich-worthy to an entirely digestible $6.
Our first two nights were spent in a lovely, and reasonable inn, La Betulia, for $82 per night, including breakfast served in a delightful courtyard, complete with French press coffee, fresh fruit, granola and a hot dish that differed each day.
Then we moved to a one-bedroom apartment rented via Airbnb in the neighborhood known as Xochimilco. (Sho-chee-MIL-co — the X is pronounced as an “sh,” for future reference). It was out of the hustle of the more touristy El Centro, but a quick walk to everywhere we wanted to go.
In addition to getting out of our comfort zone, we also wanted to stay somewhere within our fixed-income zone, so the $34-a-night apartment with a refrigerator, gas stove and washing machine, plus access to a lovely rooftop garden, was perfect for us. Still, there are plenty of fancier, and pricier, housing options including plenty of hotels, even a Holiday Inn Express.
The residential neighborhood was quieter than the main part of town, but quieter is a relative term, especially in a region where open windows are a necessity if you want a breeze. Our first night, we were jarred by what sounded like an excited/panicked police officer on a loudspeaker.
Turns out, it was a tamale vendor, whose route brought him through Xochimilco each evening sometime around 10 p.m. or so. What was he saying? We’re told it was “tamalestamalestamalestamales,” though I couldn’t swear to that. Sadly, we were always in bed by the time he came by, so I can’t swear to his wares, either. But did I mention we’re returning in October?
In recent years, Oaxaca has become a foodie haven. As Travel & Leisure noted: “The state of Oaxaca is home to about 500 edible herbs, nine microclimates, and over 60 agave varieties. With its complex moles, its encyclopedia of corn-based antojitos (street foods), and a baroque layering of Spanish and indigenous traditions, the region has a centuries-old legacy as a center of Mexican culinary culture.”
We aren’t foodies, but we do love our food and we had many excellent dining experiences all at reasonable prices, thanks in part to the Yelp app, which highlighted restaurants near wherever our afternoon wanderings had taken us.
The state is known for its production of chocolate and mezcal. You can find plenty of spots in the central district where you can try samples and watch as they grind and prepare cacao for hot chocolate drinks and moles (pronounced MO-lay, a distinctive sauce used in many traditional dishes). We stocked up on 60% cacao tablets for hot chocolate. They make handy, and easily packable, gifts for the folks picking up your mail while you’re gone.
Mezcal comes from the agave cactus and most is produced in Oaxaca. It is also generally served straight, sometimes preceded with a bite from a spice-covered lime or lemon slice. Vendors also offer samples of mezcal in a variety of flavors including coconut, cinnamon and banana.
Another specialty? Chapulines, aka spicy fried grasshoppers. It is said that if you eat one, you’ll return. We did. We will. I can’t say I’ll eat them on the next visit, but they were mostly just crunchy and slightly spicy. The only downside was having to dig the tiny legs out of my teeth.
And how about drinking the water? The short answer: No. The longer answer: Don’t drink from the tap; don’t rinse your toothbrush in the tap (the hardest habit to break); and don’t open your mouth in the shower. Today’s water might not call forth the full force of Montezuma’s revenge, but not even the locals drink it because it tastes awful. And who wants to risk turning your vacation posts into a catalog of public restroom facilities.
What to see there
You could spend every day and evening people-watching at the Zocalo, a shaded traffic-free gathering spot surrounded by shops, restaurants and historic sites. Street musicians and sometimes full-blown brass bands provide a free soundtrack to the all the activity. Parades of all kinds often begin and end here. One day, enjoying a late lunch, we had a balcony seat for a cavalcade of caballeros on horseback as part of a celebration to mark the start of spring.
Begun in the late 1500s, the Templo de Santa Domingo serves as a landmark for those seeking directions and is considered the most beautiful of the city’s many remarkable religious sites. Its 18th century Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario (Rosary Chapel) is aglow with candlelight during evening masses.
The surrounding countryside is home to archeological sites that testify to the region’s civilizations that flourished long before the Conquistadors arrived. Monte Alban, where the Zapotecs once ruled the valley, is considered one of the most significant in all of Mexico. You can explore on your own, but a guided tour will give you a better understanding of its beginnings and its ultimate demise.
Our favorite excursion was with En Via, a non-profit that empowers the indigenous women in the mountain villages surrounding the city through micro-finance no-interest loans. The daylong tour cost $50 each, the priciest thing we did, but the money funds the program and it was worth every peso, including what we spent to purchase their work, and the donation we made on our return.
The trip gave us a chance to get into the Oaxacan countryside, which has the largest indigenous population of any place in Mexico. Indigenous there means the same thing it means in America: those who thrived before the European explorers arrived. The Zapotec civilization dates to the 6th century B.C. Today, they are the largest of six indigenous populations in Oaxaca.
Each village speaks its own its own dialect of the Zapotec language. For them, Spanish is a second language. Each village also has its own artistic specialty. They say that in the village of Teotitlan (te-o-tet-lan), behind every door lives a weaver. In San Miguel del Valle we met Hortensia, whose skills create the colorful aprons worn by the women of this village.
After explaining all that goes into her work, she talked about En Via’s help, and what our visit meant to her. “Ustedes estan un milagro.” (You all are a miracle.) “Dios le envió a nosotros.” God sent you to us. For more about En Via, go to www.envia.org.
Getting around there
Within the city, there are sidewalks nearly everywhere, unlike many of our neighborhoods. But they aren’t built to the standards of U.S. zoning laws. So think comfort, comfort, comfort. If you can’t travel without multiple pairs of sexy (i.e. spike-heeled) footwear, you are going to the wrong place. Road and sidewalk surfaces are not friendly to wobbly shoes, no matter what their designer label. Seeking treatment for a broken ankle, or worse, may not be the best way to dust the rust off your high school Spanish skills.
On the other hand, taxis are cheap. For example, it cost a whopping $2.50 to go from an eye clinic (for more on our adventures in Mexican laser surgery, click here or go to http://tinyurl.com/lyho7af) about 10 miles back to our apartment.
If you’re going to take one, however, get your host to write down your address so you can show it to the driver. Also, ask the price at the beginning of the ride.
As you would expect, everyone has something they want to sell, especially to the touristas.
Shops and sellers are everywhere, but don’t miss the Casa de Las Artesanias de Oaxaca, a market featuring all manner of work by local artisans and craft organizations where you can find everything from rugs and tablecloths to jewelry and artwork.
On the streets, the constant barrage from vendors quickly became an annoyance when we visited Cancun several years ago. In Oaxaca, vendors will try to sell you things, whether you are in an open-air market or people-watching in the Zocalo.
But rather than repeating “no, gracias” ad nauseum as we did in Cancun to little avail, our resident friend advised us to hold up a hand as you would if you were directing traffic, smile, say “muy amable” but shake your head no. It translates to “very nice,” and is less a hard-and-fast “no” and more of a “maybe.” They are more likely to leave you alone if they believe you like their work and might buy something later.
It worked so well and we got so good at it, that when a one-legged man approached Tom with his hand out, Tom reflexively held up his hand and said “Muy amable.” Uh, well, no, it’s not really so nice that you’ve lost your leg. But in keeping with the generosity of the people, the man didn’t crack Tom in the head with his crutch. We’re counting that as a win.
Staying safe there
Our friend presented us with woven wallets the first night of our visit, along with some advice: “Local women tuck their money purses in their bras.” I settled for wearing mine under my untucked shirt.
In addition to cash, we carried a debit card in case we needed more pesos, which are available from ATM machines found at banks and inside stores. Getting cash from a machine in a store, especially after dark, cuts down on the possibility that someone might be watching a bank ATM for potential victims.
We also carried copies of our passports, leaving the real things locked safely back in our room.
As we would anywhere, we were cautious about our surroundings and about flashing around our wallets. I hasten to add that never once, even when our untrustworthy internal GPS systems led us far outside the tourist zone, did we ever feel uneasy or unsafe.
Speaking the language there
We spent three hours every weekday morning in class at the Becari (http://www.becari.com.mx) language school, then headed out to explore the city, enjoy a late lunch and test our fledgling language skills. The reaction to our butchery of their language was uniformly gracious, whether we were trying to ask a pharmacy clerk for cough drops or directions from a random person on the street.
They always smiled broadly and did their best to understand what we were trying to say. Sometimes it was a Monty Python-esque pantomime (on our part) but they never failed to try to help, they never laughed (at least to our faces) and they almost always asked where we were from in los Estades Unidos, then shared their own stories of visits there, or relatives there, or dreams of going there.
We look forward to improving our Spanish enough to hear more of their stories, and continue our explorations into their culture, art and celebrations.
Hasta Octubre, Oaxaca.