Oaxaca, Oaxaca: So Good They Named It Twice

Updated: Oct 18

Oaxaca was one of the destinations on our shortlist when we were researching Mexico. I knew it was up in the mountains - about the same elevation as Guadalajara - had a warm, steady climate (apart from rainy season) and was set in a beautiful mountain valley. The state has a high proportion of indigenous residents; at least a third, perhaps half of the 3.5m inhabitants speak a pre-Hispanic language, and many don’t speak Spanish at all.

Getting here… Wow. It’s even more beautiful than we expected.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leaving Guadalajara

We’d planned to stay in Guadalajara for 3 months or so, while Mrs Wench looked for a job in a school. Two months or so in, we booked a trip to Guatemala over Easter to see some of that country, and to renew our tourist visas.

Coronavirus put paid to all that. We ended up staying in GDL for seven months. It’s a fantastic city, with beautiful tree-lined avenues, culture, music, history, bustling tianguis (markets)... of which we were almost unable to take any advantage.

Our apartment in Guadalajara. Beautiful, comfortable, and a home-from-home during the pandemic

And that’s before you consider the wealth of archeological sites such as Guachimontones, just on the doorstep.

All closed.

We were in a beautiful apartment with a sun terrace, but the cost of living there wasn’t making sense. On top of that we were going stir crazy, and I was becoming borderline agoraphobic.

After a lot of discussion we decided that a change was as good as a rest, and if we had to spend most of our time at home, we should do it somewhere smaller, quieter and cheaper.

We booked a pair of one-way tickets to Oaxaca and set off.

First Impressions Of Oaxaca

An 0400 wake-up is never a recipe for an energy-filled day of positivity, but the journey was uneventful and we got to our Airbnb around 1030. Our host greeted us happily, showed us in, and took us up to the roof to get out bearings. As we were up on the side of the mountains, our first views over the city were breathtaking.

I was tired and wanted to unpack and grab an hour’s shut-eye, so I firmly but pleasantly ushered the host out the door - not before mentioning the very poor internet speed. More on this anon.

As always when we move, we took a few days off work to get settled in, sort out any problems with utilities and so on, and get a first look around the new environment.

Teatro Macedonia Alcalá, Oaxaca. Credit Nsaum75 (see Credits page)

The best way to get the feel for a new city - especially a smallish one like Oaxaca - is often to take a walking tour. We got in contact with Free Walk Oaxaca, and met up with Gesenia at the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá, in the centro.

After telling us a bit about the history of the city and state, we took in a few landmarks and sights over the following couple of hours. Obviously, because of the virus, the trip was a bit curtailed and amended - but it was still a good way to get a feel for the place.

Oaxaca is sometimes referred to as “La Verde Antequera” - the original Spanish name was “Nueva Antequera” - due to the ubiquitous use of the local green volcanic stone as building material. It’s quite striking, especially when wet. (The original Antequera is a town in Spain’s Andalucia, and is twinned with Oaxaca).

The indigenous inhabitants of the area, mainly the Zapotecs and the Mixtec, have been living here for thousands of years. The world-famous city of Monte Albán prospered for almost a millennium between around 500 BC and 500 AD; by 750, the city had been more or less abandoned.

The locals continued to live in an on/off state of intertribal warfare, until their new imperial overlords arrived in the 15th century. No, not the Spanish - the Aztec, who were intent on protecting the trade routes from their heartland around Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), down to Central America. They established a base on Cerro del Fortín overlooking the city, and quickly subdued the locals.

Maybe ‘subdued’ overstates it; when the Spanish arrived in 1521 - accompanied by 400 Aztecs - the Mixtec and Zapotec were at each other's’ throats again. This time there was no agenda, other than conquest.

Funnily enough, the Spanish who first settled here were an independently-minded bunch. Hernán Cortés didn’t like the way they were running the settlement, and it took 10 years of arguing - including mass evictions, appeals and interventions to the King of Spain, to settle the matter. Oaxaca was granted the status of city, which - notionally, at least - meant Oaxaca was under the direct authority of Charles V of Spain, rather than Cortes.

From its very founding, Oaxaca seems to have been an independently-minded kind of place. But walk around its gorgeous centro, admiring its range of architecture (from Colonial, through Mexican Baroque, to Neoclassical), its beautifully painted walls, the wide open squares with mountains towering in the background, and you’ll forgive it some of its chequered past. This is a gem of a small city; trees and small gardens everywhere; art and crafts out on every corner.

Walking with Gesenia we took in the San Felipe Aqueduct, which brought the main water supply to the town from about 1750 to 1940; the Stone Cross on Plaza Cruz de Piedra; a walk around Xochimilco, the oldest part of town. We also dropped in on the house of a local weaver who had been working here making traditional cloth for decades.

Benito Juárez. Mexico's first indigenous President; scourge of France; lawyer, diplomat, reformer

Next we stopped briefly outside Benito Juaréz’s house. Born into a peasant family in 1806, he was an native Zapotec who spoke no Spanish until his teens. Nevertheless, he went on to become President of Mexico during a politically turbulent time; I can’t even summarise all that took place, but let’s say he was another Oaxacan who, despite his successes, some view as a troublemaker. I guess that's the fate that befalls all who try to fundamentally shake things up!

The final stop was at one of the political art and printmaking collectives. Oaxaca’s sense of defiant ‘otherness’ continues to the present. It’s impossible to walk more than a block without seeing some kind of street art, pasted posters or grafitti referencing recent political events. While all appears calm, it also feels like there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of this town.

(Gesenia was an excellent host and speaks good English. Due to the pandemic, we were the only clients she’d had in 3 weeks, and the first English-speaking ones in 3 months. The tour was free, donations are appreciated; we paid MX$250 each for 3 hours or so. I heartily recommend contacting them if you want to help the local economy at this time.)

Back To The Apartment

Two or three days on and we still had no usable internet in our Airbnb. Because we both teach online, it’s critical for us to have stable and reasonably fast connectivity, and I make this clear to every potential host before booking. Although we were (inconsistently) getting between 3 and 8Mbps download speed, our upload speed was stuck, hovering down around 0.3-0.4Mbps.

The host was extremely helpful to our face, but every time he promised to get something fixed it didn’t happen, was delayed, or something else came up. One day we had no water. Another we had no hot water.

When I woke up one morning with no electricity, other than the lights in the kitchen performing some kind of crazy Mexican disco, I’d had enough and we had to move:

Our first day off in Oaxaca: Takes me back to my teens in the Coconut Grove

Honestly, the apartment was beautiful, and we never got tired of the views. We just couldn’t live there.

Luckily, we found a nice, modern apartment about 10 minutes away, and over the Sunday I made a few trips up and down with our stuff. Pretty decent internet, water and electricity (!), and a lovely rooftop garden. All up, including cleaner, £300 a month. Cheaper than an Airbnb as it’s on Mexican rates.

Oh, and apart from the ever-present canine chorus - if you don't like dogs, Mexico really isn't the country for you - it’s in a really quiet neighbourhood. We love it.

Oaxaca - Second Impressions

After being in Oaxaca for 2 weeks or so, we hadn’t seen much - between work, moving, stressing about moving and everything else. It was a lovely sunny morning, so we headed out towards centro again.

First stop was Jardin Conzzati, a small, typically Mexican urban garden with towering trees, fountains, and benches. A group of young musicians were playing what sounded like local folk music. Kids and parents chilling out in the shade, relaxing with the black squirrels:

On one side of the square is Sergio’s traditional barbershop. Open during the crisis, albeit you may need to leave and come back as he’s only allowed one customer at a time. For MX$100 I had my first haircut in about 7 months. It was - literally - a weight off my shoulders. I’ve no aversion to the ‘Mad Professor’ look - I’ve even found it useful, at times - but there’s a limit to how long even I can tolerate looking like a scarecrow.

We carried on down Diaz Quintas towards the Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, despite Google’s claim to the contrary, they were closed. Sad face. This former convent and its grounds host a wide range of regional flora, and it looks like it’s really nicely laid out. Something to look forward to when the emergency eases.

Ambling down towards MACO - the Museum of Contemporary Arts, and the only museum open in town at the time of writing - we were surrounded by paintings, sculpture and ceramics made by local artists.

Oaxaca is rightly famous for its artisans, from the most traditional of indigenous styles to the modern avant-garde. Back home, I’d be buying so much I’d need to make space for some of the pieces. It’s so hard having to leave them behind - one of the real problems of living out of a suitcase.

MACO - Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca

As the only museum open in Oaxaca at the moment, it was a bit of a no-brainer to visit MACO. It’s housed in a beautiful building, one of the oldest in the city, called Casa de Cortes - although it was built after his death. It’s not that old.

MACO from the upper floor

It has two floors set around two courtyards, and a range of exhibits: from fairly ‘traditional’ painting, photography and mixed media, through to a sound installation in the rear courtyard (“Dark Matter”) and in a front gallery upstairs. The building is in great condition and has clearly been lovingly preserved; some original (or at least, archaic) paint and plasterwork is on display at various points.

It’s a fairly small place, but well worth a visit due to the range of work on show. As well as that, it’s central, and at the moment, if you’re looking for culture you’re not exactly spoilt for choice!

Entry is a very modest MX$30.

Recent Oaxacan History

I’ve mentioned - more than once - how Oaxaqueños seem to consider themselves a stubborn and fairly independent people. This may have been partly the cause - and partly reinforced by - events that took place in 2006.

The recently elected State Governor, Ruiz Ortis, was unpopular for a number of reasons. Teachers were demanding higher wages (and higher investment in education, in general). This led to a sit-down protest in the Zócalo (city square) in May. Ruiz Ortis refused to negotiate, declared the demonstration illegal, and eventually, in June, sent the police in to remove the protesters by force. They were repelled.

Other groups joined forces with the teachers to show support, as the situation escalated. Newspapers went on strike. Support for the teachers and aligned groups grew, as did calls for the Governor’s resignation.

There are reports of summary arrest, assassination and disappearances surrounding these events. The situation was clearly spiralling out of control, and in October the Federal President, Vicente Fox, sent 10,000 troops into Oaxaca to regain control of the streets. Many were killed. The violence spilled over into Mexico City, when in November a series of bomb attacks were orchestrated as part of demands for Ruiz Ortis’ removal.

The teachers finally ended their strike and left the Zócalo in December.

This is only a sketch summary of the headline events. I can't pretend to understand the background or the inevitable, interconnected motivations that must have been involved. But as an outsider, walking through the tranquil streets of Oaxaca today, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for those involved - only 15 or so years ago.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the political street art makes it clear that many people here feel they are still actively struggling for their rights - for decent wages, against femicide, and for the benefit of the indigenous people.

Oaxacan streets are alive with art - political, contemporary, artistic and more

Is Oaxaca Safe?

Google tells me that one of the most common things people ask about the city is, "Is Oaxaca safe?" I'll be honest and say that I've never once felt threatened or in any danger in the almost year I've been in Mexico.

Oaxaca has one of the lowest rates of crime in the country. Sure - tourism took a hit 15 years ago in the aftermath of the political unrest. But things are quiet now, and if anything the pandemic feels like it's playing a part. The streets aren't so crowded, people are further apart and a little more wary. In a perverse way, a side 'benefit' of Covid is that while it's much harder to get to places, the places themselves are calmer and easier to enjoy.

Take the usual sensible precautions as for any city anywhere - don't flash cash or jewellery, don't walk around drunk after dark, don't get involved in drugs or crime - and you'll be grand.

Oaxaca Summed Up

I’ve travelled a lot, and while I love the thrill of exploring a new country or city, it’s rare I find somewhere I just instantly fall for. Too old, too cynical, maybe: or maybe, partly, a career in corporate beat a lot of the wonder out of me.

Covid too, has had an effect. The last few months have been tough for everyone, everywhere. We’ve all lost people, worried for people, watched people fall ill. For me, the thing I hate most about Covid is the way it steals the joy out of everything. Sure, you can visit a park or gardens, if they’re open; but everyone feels tentative, masked and side-eyeing anyone who gets too close.

But here in Oaxaca, even as new arrivals, even with the pandemic, something in me has woken up. Maybe a change is, indeed, as good as a rest. But I think there’s something more. This city has charmed me in a way I haven’t felt for a long time.

Standing on the side of the mountain, watching the mist in the valley, or the sun play over the forests on the other side, I begin to understand why so many people seem to relax and let their shoulders drop here.

It’s very affordable, people are chilled, the streets are a joy to walk. The location and views are stunning.

I don’t know how long we’ll be here, but weeks or months, this is a city I’ll always be happy to come back to.

Road through the aqueduct, Oaxaca

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Mexico Travel Blog | marco@jocksaway.com