Revisiting Oaxaca, Into The Nose of the Squash

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oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash
oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash
oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash

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oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash

oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash
oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash
oaxaca-nose-of-the-squash

How could I not like Oaxaca?  Everyone told me they loved the city; many people I knew favored it over any place in Mexico. 


Tony Cohan wrote in Mexican Days: Journey Into the Heart of Mexico that when he first visited Oaxaca in 1992, the place felt like the end of something, not a beginning.  When he went back in 2002, he left convinced that the city was at the cutting edge in everything that makes an area desirable.


Yet in a ten day visit in fall of 2005, I had the impression I had walked into a large store for English-speaking tourists, and my reception was based on how much we were willing to open our wallets and max out our credit cards. 


Seven months after my husband and I visited Oaxaca, a massive teacher’s strike hit the city in May, 2006.  The ensuing demonstrations and bloody protests took over the evening news all summer and fall. 

  

oaxaca-2006

oaxaca-2006

  TV Azteca and Televisa paraded violent confrontations, building takeovers, club-wielding police, and screaming protesters by their viewers daily.  Not exactly what toursits want to see when they visit.
oaxaca-guelaguetza
Oaxaca’s signature fiesta of regional folk dancing, the Guelaguetza, was cancelled that July, and a free-lance journalist from New York was killed in October 2006. 
The usual throngs of tourists that packed the stands to see the spectacular folk dances of the region disappeared.
oaxaca-guelaguetza
oaxaca-guelaguetza

A counter, protest Guelaguetza was staged, but there was no way to draw tourists to a city that took on the image of a war-torn area.

Friends living in the city decided to pack it up and leave.  They had insisted during all the months of the violent disturbances that they planned to tough it out and stay put.  The two had taken early retirement and sold their home in Idaho and taken off around the world to find a place with the right mix…good climate, interesting surroundings, stimulating conversations, great food and wine.  I considered this a noble goal and became especially interested when they seemed to have found their dream in Oaxaca.  Then at the end of the year, they changed their minds and left.


Oaxaca’s appeal remained an enigma. 
 

There had to be a chispa, or spark, that spurred writers like Graham Green, Malcolm Lowry, and D. H. Lawrence before Tony Cohan to venture south into what the Aztecs called in Nahuatl, Huaxacac, or The Nose of the Squash.

oaxaca-zocalo
oaxaca-zocalo

It wasn’t the best of times for Oaxaca.  More than two years of bad press had left hotel staff either laid off or twiddling collective thumbs.  El Crisis, still in its baby stage, had started teething on Mexico’s tourist industry.  The U.S. and a number of European countries had issued travel advisories for Mexico due to the country’s increasing violence and kidnappings.
The opportunity to take a week-long travel seminar in Oaxaca in November gave me the impetus needed to check out Oaxaca once more.  Besides, we needed an excuse to get back on the road after Paul’s recent brush with death.


It was impressive to see the difference in a city saturated with tourism and one recovering from one of the worst industry hits ever suffered in Mexico.  A number of hotels had closed permanently.  Some, closed for almost two years, had reopened but no where, except the most popular backpacker spots, could you find anywhere near full occupancy.


Just the appearance of a tourist was enough to spark interest in Oaxaqueños, a situation worlds away from 2005.

oaxaca-zocalo

We arrived November 3, at the tail end of the Día de Muertos celebration, a huge event in Oaxaca.  Generally high season begins a week before November 1-2 and ends a week after, and visitors jostle each other mercilessly.  However, this last year, tourists were still a fairly rare sight. 

But the city had started to recover its chispa.

This situation puts the traveler in the enviable spot of negotiating the price of a room.  A number of owners are willing to deal just to have some currency coming in and movement around their establishment.  A week’s stay is bound to get a visitor almost half price on the rack rate.  Chat up the manager or owner and see what he or she is willing to knock off the price even for a shorter stay.


Lodging at the lower end backpacker haunts stays at the same price, however.  It was in the swankier digs where we found the discounts, making our stay a luxurious one for little more than the cost of a much more modest hotel.    


We liked Casa Gigi with its super-clean, attractively decorated yet simple rooms.  A double is priced about the same as a private room with en-suite in a hostel but comes without the residual backpacker noise.  Breakfast is served in the dining room of the owner’s house.  A pleasant garden area provides a great spot to relax, chat, or eat a take-out meal.  Internet access is available. 


The owner is friendly and helpful, although she has limited English.  The only other catch is the B&B won’t open again until mid-January, 2009 and then only in a limited capacity.  It’s still worth checking out, though, at www.casagigi.com
       

There was no TV so we had to change hotels to watch the election coverage.  We ended up luxuriating in the spiffy, newly refurnished rooms of Casa Los Cántaros… www.hotelcasaloscantaros.com .  
oaxaca-hotel
oaxaca-hotel

Here it was definitely worth our while to chat a bit.  The owner wants to have clients and is willing to negotiate. 

As we left, I gave her the card for the web page, and she volunteered a price of 510 pesos for a double (not during holidays or peak season) for readers of Mexico…in small bytes.  It’s quite a bargain.  Check it out.

You can always upgrade to the super-luxury suite shown to the left here, but we found our double was more than comfortable.

 

The Colonia Reforma, north of the city center, and is a great place to establish a base.  It has the homey feel of a real neighborhood.  We especially liked the restaurant Las Rosas for its full-value mid-day comidas…four courses of tasty, well-prepared food with portions ample enough to keep a traveler fueled for the day.  It comes with a fruit agua, but beer and drinks are also available. 

oaxaca-restaurant
oaxaca-restaurant
oaxaca-restaurant

A nice added touch was Oaxaca’s signature huge, crisp tortilla sprinkled with cheese and accompanied by an excellent hot sauce.  Another little extra was butter spiced with oregano, garlic, and sea salt.  This and a soup could well provide a full meal.


In all these years of traveling, I had yet to see breakfast offerings like Swiss chard and quesillo or spinach and potatoes.  A rare find indeed and delicious.

oaxaca-restaurant
oaxaca-restaurant

I love exploring a city by foot, and Oaxaca is fun for walking.  It’s a good plan, however, to watch out for cars whose drivers are bent on winnowing down the pedestrian population.  Just because a semaphore has the green moving feet is no guarantee that cars turning right or left into the intersection will respect the signal. 

oaxaca-parque juarez

Parque Júarez, sometimes known as El Llano,is one place where the pedestrian is safe from cars.

Formally, a city park, each of the four corners is still guarded by a lion.

It's a great park away from the hustle and bustle of the Zócalo in the city center.

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Besides cars, it’s also a good idea to watch out for surprises in the street and sidewalks.  One evening, I took an extra step to ask the cabby a question and suddenly found myself sitting on my butt on the pavement.  My foot had gone straight through a storm grate followed by my leg.  It could have been a nasty situation but caused only a few scratches and bruises and a lot of bystander surprise. 

Paul didn’t even realize I had disappeared as he and the cabby had become involved in intense conversation.  At least my shoe didn’t fall off when my foot went through the metal bars.  That could have been tricky.

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Maybe that's why I liked Parque Júarez so much...no cars or sidewalk surprises.

There always seems to be an event of one kind or another, and every Friday, a huge market appears along with a wide array of food stalls.

oaxaca-parque-juarez

 

oaxaca-fig tree
oaxaca-fig-tree
The massive higo del valle tree at the north end of El Llano was planted by José María Morales in 1812 and is the oldest tree in the city of Oaxaca. At one point, it was in danger of being cut when a group decided it produced too much shade on the adjoining church.

If the relaxed atmosphere of El Llano gets you too stressed however, you could always head to Jacobo Dalevuelta, half a block north of the park and a block west, and drop in at the Casa del Angel for a class in tai-chi or yoga.  There’s a small vegetarian café on the premises so you can sip an herbal tea while you look over their brochure.    

oaxaca-casa-del-angel
oaxaca-casa-del-angel

Oaxaca’s tourist attractions could easily fill another web page for Mexico…in small bytes.  Not only is the city filled with activities, it’s a great base for explorations into the surrounding craft villages, the magnificent tree in Tule, and more adventuresome tours into the northern sierra. 


All these attractions were available pre-2006.  What has changed, is the climate of the city’s welcome and a renewed feeling of safety and optimism.   
 

oaxaca-grafitti
oaxaca-grafitti
The angry grafitti is generally gone, although many of the same problems that caused the riots in 2006 remain. There is more a playfulness to "wall art" nowadays.
oaxaca-doors

The serenity and chispa of Oaxaca have returned to make the city an appealing tourist destination.

Of course, in these troubling times, there is no guarantee, they will continue, but if you are a seize the moment kind of person, this is a good moment for Oaxaca.

oaxaca-zocalo

Warm wishes from Mexico...in small bytes for a fantastic 2009 filled with many memorable travel adventures.

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