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.

First Timer in Mexico City

SIX DAYS AGO, I got back from two weeks in Mexico. It was supposed to have been a three-week vacation, but fears of the U.S.-Mexico border closing suddenly and the possibility, if flights were cancelled, of having to rent a car and drive cross country from Baja California to NYC (38 hours – I checked), caused my holiday to come to an abrupt end.

When a friend and I left JFK on Tuesday, March 3, there were a couple hundred coronavirus cases in New York. I had heard about it, and checked three drug stores for hand sanitizer before I left (to no avail), but it wasn’t something that would cause me to change my long-arranged travel plans, for gosh sakes. When I got back to NYC on Tuesday, March 17, the number of cases was in five digits.

I hadn’t ever been to CDMX (the new official acronym for Mexico City, for Ciudad de Mexico). I expected chaos, noise, maybe a little danger. Instead, I found it as rich in art and architecture as a European capital and cleaner than New York City, with parks full of jacaranda trees in purple bloom. Our two-bedroom, two-bath Air B&B was ridiculously inexpensive and more luxurious than my normal lifestyle, located in the Roma neighborhood, just around the corner from where the movie of that name was filmed.

Roma and Condesa, the adjoining nabe, about 3 miles from the Centro Historico, are both terrific, but Condesa is where I’d live if I lived in CDMX. It was built in the 1920s and ’30 around the jungle-like, oval-shaped Parque Mexico, on the site of a one-time racecourse. I wandered around, taking in the Art Deco architecture that flowered in Mexico City after the devastating economic effects of the 1910 Mexican Revolution had resolved.

All this wonderfulness was enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t paying much attention to the news.

My main goal was to see the murals of the great social realist Diego Rivera, with visits to his monumental works at the Palacio National (nothing less ambitious than the history of Mexico from pre-conquest times to the 1930s); the futuristic “Man at the Crossroads” mural at the Palacio des Bellas Artes, which also has towering murals by Orozco, Tamayo and Siquieros, and another at the Diego Rivera Museum, a personal and political riff on Seurat’s painting “Sunday on the Grand Jetté,” at the head of lovely Alameda Central park.

And we weren’t about to miss what is surely one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions, Frida’s Kahlo’s famous “blue house” in the Coyoacan neighborhood, a 20-minute taxi ride from the center, as well as the extraordinary modernist home and studio built in the nearby San Angel neighborhood for Rivera by his friend and neighbor, architect Juan O’Gorman. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they astounded.

A street food tour with Eat Mexico was a highlight. It satisfied my curiosity about the famous Mexico City street food stalls without my having to risk digestive upset. The small-group tour took us to a central business district, Cuahutemoc, where there are tall glass office towers. It’s mostly office workers and construction workers who find these carts, set up in the morning and broken down at night, some that have been in the same family for decades, so convenient.

The food we tried at a dozen stops, ably guided by Ariana Ruiz, was uniformly fresh and delicious, and incredibly high in carbs. There was atolle, a warm sweet rice drink; samples from several tortillerias (of 65,000 in the city), round discs of corn dough, salted and eaten as a snack; cemitas poblanas, another bready thing, with string cheese, avocado and an herb called papalo. I also tried chamoy, a sweet/salty salsa, Asian- influenced, with tamarind, papaya, pineapple and other fruit; pombazo, a way to use day-old bread by soaking it in salsa and frying; shrimp burritos and a seafood tostada, Veracruz- style. It’s cooked ceviche, basically, sushi-fresh and delivered daily from both coasts, each 5 hours away by truck.

Food in general was a highlight of CDMX. We ate everywhere from a retro lunch counter in an 18th century Baroque building entirely clad in blue and white tiles, to the vegan cafe down the block where we sat outside one evening under string lights, to Dulce Patria, a fancy restaurant for which we had made advance reservations, that took us into Mexico City’s poshest neighborhood, Polanco.

We did many of the things you have to do your first time in CDMX, including the 14th century Templo Mayor excavations and museum, dating from when Mexico City, called Tenochtitlan, was on an island linked to the mainland by causeways, and the dizzying, world-class anthropology museum. I’m not sure one of the things you have to do is take the subway, but we did, as an adventure. It was impressively efficient. But Ubers are too, and hardly more costly.

Five days in Mexico City was perfect for must-dos and a bit of wandering, with guidebook in hand. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to carry one around.

By the time we left for Oaxaca March 8, the coronavirus news was casting a pall. We encountered worried Americans there, which we had not in MCDX. Mexicans, too, were conscious of it and big on the hand sanitizer.

Oaxaca, sleepy by comparison to CDMX but of great charm and interest, will be the subject of another post. I’ll have plenty of time to put that together, from quarantine here in brownstone Brooklyn.

Hope you are all doing well in your seclusion during this weird, anxious time. I have faith it will eventually be over, and we’ll get back, not to the old normal, but hopefully better. After our enforced staycations, we’ll be well-rested and well-read, less crazed consumers, more appreciative of the low-wage workers who keep us going, less frenetic, more introspective. We’ll have caught up with old friends and cleaned out our closets. And I, I hope, will have revived my dormant blog.

Tough Life: A Week in the Yucatan


LAST MONTH, I SNUCK IN ANOTHER VACATION, this one a weeklong mother-daughter event. Destination: Tulum, Mexico, on the Caribbean edge of the Yucatan peninsula, a place I’d first heard of years ago when it was a laid-back beach town known for yoga retreats and lack of electricity. It’s no longer quite as laid back, with development proceeding apace, and I had the feeling we got there in the nick of time.


We flew into Cancun and taxi’d south, spending the first two nights in Akumal, about half an hour north of Tulum. There, we could afford a hotel right on the calm, crescent- shaped Bay of Akumal, top, above and below, known as a sea turtle habitat and very popular for snorkeling (to the detriment of the turtles).


We stayed in a stone bungalow, below, at the Hotel Akumal Caribe, a circa 1970 all-inclusive resort that was the first-ever in the area.


Now, the sole highway between Cancun and Tulum is lined with much glitzier hotels, but we loved the funkiness of the Akumal Caribe, and the convenience.

For two days, we found all we needed on the hotel property, including a yoga studio, below, and good food in several on-site restaurants of varying degrees of casual, all with views of the water.


There’s a scuba dive center on the hotel grounds, and my daughter, Zoë, a scuba pro, went out to the coral reefs one day; another day, she dove at Dos Ojos, a nearby cenote, or cavern, of interest mainly for its geology. See her spectacular photos, below.


On Day 3, we decamped for Tulum, a $20 taxi ride due south, and settled in for the next few nights at Posada Luna del Sur. We loved our studio apartment with its own lush garden, and the breakfast served on the hotel’s rooftop each morning.

The charms and limitations of Tulum immediately became evident. The seven-mile-long strip of beachfront, justifiably renowned for its beauty, is lined with low-rise resorts, architecturally modest and nearly hidden in jungle foliage, but with prices commensurate with their waterfront location ($400-500/night).

Like many visitors, we stayed instead in the pueblo, or town, where the real folks live, about three miles inland. The pueblo definitely has its own appeal and a slew of inviting open-air bars and restaurants. The main drawback is that one is beholden to taxis. They’re plentiful enough, and the drivers are polite and trustworthy (the hotel provided a helpful list of official prices). But the beach is just too far away to walk.


Tulum is known, too, for its superb Mayan ruins, below, 800-year-old remnants of indigenous culture right at the water’s edge. Once painted bright colors, with fires atop the main structure to signal passing boats, the buildings are now weathered and populated mainly by iguanas. It’s a must-do in Tulum, and we did, on the first morning.


We spent much of our remaining time at the beach clubs lining the sandy rim of the sea. All the beaches are public; each hotel has its arrangement of chaises and palapas (thatched umbrellas).


You can settle in at any one of the beach clubs for the day, ordering from young waitstaff who run hither and thither to bring you towels, drinks, snacks. For lunch, we’d go to one of the many more or less interchangeable beachfront restaurants, to gaze out over the water while consuming our cocktails and shrimp fajitas.


Had we not had our swimming and snorkeling time in the tranquil Bay of Akumal, we might have been more disappointed that the waters were too rough and the days too windy for us to swim in Tulum.

We got a lot of reading done and walked on the beach and along the boutique- and cafe-filled beach road, below.


Our most special meal was at a restaurant called Kitchen Table, below, on the jungle side of the beach road.


We left relaxed, satisfied, fulfilled. Yay for the Yucatan. Yay for vacations.