Dream of Oaxaca

My four days in Oaxaca last month are a fading dream. I was already starting to feel nervous about riding in crowded vans, as we did one day to get to the nearby ruins, and my hand sanitizer got a lot of use. But basically it was in the Before Times, when one could still move about freely, go into restaurants and shops at will, and travel on public conveyances, faces unobscured by masks.

Oaxaca, in a southerly crook of Mexico, is a lovely place, a city of fine neoclassical buildings and magnificent airy cathedrals set back on broad plazas. But the buildings that struck me most were the simple two-story attached houses, with ornate carved-stone door and window moldings, painted bright yellow, orange, blue, the sun etching sharp shadows across their fronts.

Some are used as inviting coffee shops set in hushed interior courtyards, where young folks with laptops while away the day. Some are mezcalerias, glitzy and cool or funky and old-school. Some are restaurants, many with steep staircases leading to rooftop bars.

And many are crafts shops — of varying quality, but mostly pretty high. Oaxaca has a number of specialties in that realm, including black pottery, textiles, filigreed jewelry, tinware. There are scores of shops large and small.

The city of a quarter-million centers on a zócalo, or central square. Unlike Mexico City’s barren one, Oaxaca’s zócalo is green and shady, thronged with people and surrounded by cafes. Street musicians, women selling textiles from bales slung over their shoulders, children playing, outdoor dance groups. It’s a lively place for sure.

We stayed at Las Golondrinas (“The Swallows”), below, a hotel a little ways from the center, secluded behind a gate. The garden setting is lush, our familiar houseplants grown to Audrey II size. Outdoor breakfast under an arbor was a little disorganized the first morning, because it was a national day of support for domestic violence victims. Women were staying home, and men were cooking and serving. Chaos ensued.

I loved my pink room but for one thing: the glary light from the compact fluorescent bulbs. I spent part of the first full day in Oaxaca on a quest for warm bulbs (I’m exquisitely sensitive to bad lighting), which took me to a large electrical supply store near the central market. Once again, I surmised, the women who normally work the front counter were absent, and the men, who I’m guessing work in the back somewhere, though very kind, didn’t seem to know where anything was or how to ring it up. It was adorable.

The Mercado Juarez is the phenomenal central market, bigger even than the one in Mexico City. I approached it cautiously, spending less time there than I might had I not been getting paranoid about crowds. It’s everything to everybody, aisle after aisle, from meat and produce to pet lizards, bunnies and fish, bolts of floral-patterned fabric, cut-paper decorations, woven bags, colorful clothing, floor to ceiling and overflowing onto surrounding blocks.

Everything’s so cheap to an American vacationer. At one of the high-end restaurants, Casa Oaxaca, it was all we could do to spend $40 apiece, including tip, on an incredible multi-course dinner — salsa made at the table and served with crisp green tacos sprinkled with cheese, a striped bass entree, a beet salad, a fancy dessert and two glasses of chardonnay from Baja’s renowned wine valley. That was by far our priciest meal. Most other full-on dinners in very nice restaurants, half indoor-half outdoor, ran $16-$18. Huge portions everywhere. Sorry to go on about prices, but for me one of the chief pleasures of a Mexican vacation is not feeling stressed about overspending.

At Las Quince Letras, I had a giant squash with chocolate mole sauce (strange), and a pepper stuffed with mushrooms in a different mole. There were seven moles in all, brought on a tray for sampling. At Marco Polo, a more casual place filled with locals, it was snapper baked in a wood-fired oven and for dessert, mamey ice cream, my new favorite flavor.

The tour of Oaxaca City’s botanic garden, above, on the site of the Santo Domingo monastery, is two hours long, a leisurely pace for a six-acre space. Offered in English three times a week and very popular, the official tour is the only way to visit the garden. It’s all native Oaxacan plants, and naturally beautiful, of course, but not a masterpiece of garden design. It’s called an ethno-botanic garden, so the aim of the tour is to tie the plants in with the native people, which was fascinating, though the guide shared way more botanical information than even I needed to know.

We easily arranged a half day small-group bus trip to Monte Alban, below, the Zapotec acropolis, through the hotel desk. That cost $15, inclusive of the services of our personable and well-spoken guide. The extraordinarily impressive site was in existence for 1,200 years, from 500 BC-800 AD. The reasons for its decline remain a mystery, but one theory is that getting water up to the elites who lived on the high ground became a problem when the peasants in the valley, who had been carrying it up there for who knows how many generations, got tired of doing so and moved on to other regions. Excavated and opened to the public only for the past couple of decades, Monte Alban is the partially reconstructed remains of a broad plateau of pyramid-shaped temples to various gods, their construction based on astounding astronomical calculations. It was good to get out of the city, which is sited in a valley, and take in the surrounding topography from on high.

Wrapping things up on our final day entailed a walk around Los Arquitos (“The Arches”), a quiet neighborhood, built around the remains of an old aqueduct, with good-quality craft stalls where artisans sell jewelry of their own design and making. Of course, I wish I had bought more. At the magnificent Museo des Culturas Oaxaca inside the Santo Domingo cathedral complex, we sought out the tomb treasures of Monte Alban, a hoard of beaded and hammered gold jewelry which rounded out the picture of the culture we’d gained from visiting the temple structures the day before.

Four days in Oaxaca was a bare minimum. A visit there could be pleasurably stretched to months. Will I ever go back? I really don’t know. I’d like to. In any case, I’m glad I got there at least once.