|Many people travel to Oaxaca, often repeatedly, without really understanding why, as if commanded to do so by some force they cannot see. At the beginning of the year I made my fifth trip to the city of Oaxaca and I am asking myself, "Why?" I have given the question some thought and have come to the conclusion that I really do not enjoy this city anymore.
Only once has the city been my destination. On each of the prior visits it was on my route to, or from, somewhere else. This was true when I stopped there in January. On my way from celebrating the start of Y2K in a small fishing village along the Rio Papaloapan in the state of Veracruz, bound for stops in the Mixteca Alta, the Costa Chica and Acapulco, (before returning to the Federal District), I stopped in the city for three days.
It had been two years since my last visit and I was interested to see what had changed, for better, or for worse. I arrived in town by second-class bus from the East. The first noticeable, and significant, change I observed was the increased military presence in the state of Oaxaca and at the entrance to the city. Gaining access, by many routes, means stopping at military checkpoints. The Mexican government says that the military is engaged in "drug interdiction." People I spoke with on the bus called it government intimidation. Both the rebel and paramilitary movements have spread beyond the state of Chiapas, into the states of Campeche, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacan. Federal elections are slated for this summer, and many feel that the incumbent government is sending a "message" to people. Mexico has, historically, used its military as a means of maintaining domestic control.
Like others, I use the Internet to search for travel information. We all look for accurate and current information on which to base much of our travel planning. But, accurate information is hard to come by. Questions such as: "What mode of transportation should I take?"; "What hotels fall within my budget?"; "How are road conditions?"; "Which restaurants are hot, and which are not?"; and "What are weather conditions?" are frequently posted to the various message boards. Unfortunately, my experience has been that much of the information posted is not accurate, often it is lacking objectivity, and sometimes it is deliberately misleading. I found this to be true on the subject of road conditions during my recent visit.
The road system throughout the state of Oaxaca is a disaster, with little effort being made to correct the situation. Some roads are in dangerous and life threatening condition. Yet, contributors to various message boards (who are natives of Oaxaca and employed in the travel industry) continue to report that everything is fine. Accurate information was important to me because I was traveling by bus, and I was considering several possible routes of travel. I am a seasoned traveler in Mexico, accustomed to "roughing it".
Had I known the dangerous condition of the route I eventually chose, I would have traveled on a different one; it was that dangerous. Foreign currency brought in by tourists is crucial to the lifeblood of the state, one of Mexicos poorest. The state government is careful to paint a happy face on everything so as not to discourage tourists. The streets of the city are generally in good condition. Getting to the city, however, may be a different story for many.
The city offers many lodging choices in all price ranges. Being a budget traveler, I search-out the bargains (or, Id like to think so) in the US $10-$15 per night price range. My needs are actually very simple, I want a clean room, comfortable bed, hot water in the morning and proximity to places I will be visiting. Looking for a hotel while walking in the neighborhood between the Zocalo and the second class bus station/central market area, I came across Hotel Jimenez, at Mier y Terán 213, (tel. 4-05-15, fax 4-79-60). The rooms are clean and quiet, with comfortable beds, hot water limited to mornings and evenings, and without telephone or television ($140 Pesos/US$15 per day). English is not spoken here. This was my first stay in this particular hotel and it exceeded my expectations.
Heading out of the hotel, as if on autopilot, my feet took me to the Zocalo and adjoining Alameda Plaza. At once it came back to me, the reason why I do not like this city anymore. . . . . there are more foreigners than Oaxaquenos, or so it seems. As the years go by, and my knowledge of Mexico increases, I find myself avoiding most destinations popular with foreign tourists. This was my first visit during the Christmas/New Years holiday season. The Zocalo absolutely beautiful, like something out of a Disney movie. Colored lights and decorations were strung overhead, with the kiosco (kiosk) being the spoke on the wheel from which the lights and decorations spread. A large Nativity scene was constructed at one corner.
The late afternoon weather was a bit cool, but the crowds of tourists were huge. Passing a tour group from Germany, I overheard several people complaining, in German, that they were having difficulty locating a restaurant that served "decent" food. "After all," one woman observed, "Mexican food is dirty." She wondered aloud "Why isnt there more Western food here?" Later, while I was speaking with several local high school students standing in front of the Cathedral, I overheard an American couple standing behind me sternly lecture a street vendor selling crafts, telling her, in English, "If you spoke English you would sell more." The woman vendor, smiling at the couple, did not have a clue what the couple was talking about. These overheard conversations reminded me of a trip I took to a very remote area of China twenty years ago. On that trip, one of the fellow travelers complained about the quality of the toilet paper. We were 3,500 miles from Beijing and lucky to have a toilet, not to mention the toilet paper! I have never gotten over the embarrassment of being present when these types of comments are made.
It was getting late, and I was hungry. Restaurants in and around the Zocalo are overpriced (for Mexico) and offer food that most locals scoff at. You will not find many local residents eating in these restaurants. Having lived in Mexico for six years, I do not consider myself a typical foreign tourist. Wherever I travel I eat what locals eat, in restaurants where locals eat, and pay what locals pay, something I find difficult to do in this city. So, I headed for the Central Market, where there are about 50 or so small family run restaurants, most seating only 10 12 persons each at a handful of tables. Some, but not many, foreign tourists eat here. Most never venture very far into this market. For me, these restaurants offer some of the best food at the best price anywhere in town. Over the years, I have developed a fondness for chicken breast smothered with mole sauce. Oaxaca offers some of the best mole sauces in all of Mexico amarillo (yellow), rojo (red), negro (black), etc. I love them all. I walked among the restaurants looking for one that appeared clean and that had a lot of customers, one that offered the food I was looking for.
Choosing a location run by four rather robust sisters, I selected a table covered with a red and white checkerboard patterned oilcloth with a small vase of fresh-cut yellow flowers set in the middle, a table where several Mexican military soldiers were seated. Having been admonished by their superiors to keep away from the tourist areas, many off-duty soldiers mill around the market in late afternoon to pass the time.
Eating my chicken breast with mole negro, the soldiers, sisters and I talked about many things. The sisters wanted to know if I wanted to go dancing with one of them later that night, or if I was in town to look for a wife. The soldiers were interested in why I had chosen to live in Mexico, and about the life of a soldier in the U.S. military. As for me, I wanted to know what was happening locally, political issues and about the increase in military presence in the state. Mole eaten, beers drunk and questions asked and answered all around, I excused myself and wandered through the market, as the vendors prepared to close for the day.
The archeological ruins at Monte Alban and Mitla (together with the smaller sites in the Central Valley) are reason enough to visit Oaxaca. Many North Americans will spend a small fortune traveling to Egypt to see a pyramid, but will not even consider traveling South into Mexico (for a fraction of the cost of the Egypt trip) to see sites equally, or more, spectacular. I did not have time to visit both sites on this trip so I headed for Monte Alban. The ruins have been designated by the United Nations as one of the most significant cultural zones on the planet. People go to the ruins to look, climb and explore. For many, it can be a powerful experience.
Arriving at the site at 10 oclock in the morning, with camera loaded and water bottle full, I expected to spend the better part of the day climbing my way through the ruins, exploring and revisiting areas old and new. Autobuses Turisticos, located in the Hotel Meson del Angel at Mina 518 (tel. 6-53-27/4-31-61), has the franchise to transport tourists up to Monte Alban (they also offer trips to many of the Central Valley market days, to the tree at Tule, and to Mitla). A bus departs every 30 minutes from early morning until mid-afternoon. For $16 Pesos (US$1.70) they will transport you there and bring you back. Admission to the ruins is additional. The trip is a short one, only about 15 20 minutes, and some people take a taxi.
It was a mistake. I should not have gone. After paying the entrance fee and walking into the site I quickly saw that most of the ruins had been cordoned-off with yellow tape warning of danger. One could look but not climb or enter the structures, as I had done in the past.
In October, 1999, a strong earthquake rumbled through the state. The ruins at Monte Alban were seriously damaged. Heavy rains fell later in the year compounding the problems. Much of the stonework construction of the ruins has separated, and the water damage further compromised their structural integrity. Damage to many, maybe most, of the tombs may be irreparable. I spent an hour at the site, mostly speaking with archeologists and construction supervisors involved in the ongoing repairs. The quality of the repairs, which are likely to take several years, was not very good. Had I known of the seriousness of the situation I would not have gone there. If you have been to Monte Alban, and are coming to Oaxaca in the near future and plan to visit once again, I would take a pass because I think you will be disappointed. If you have never seen the ruins and are going to be in Oaxaca then by all means visit the site, if for no other reason than to see what is there.
Disappointed, and a bit angry, that the news of the damage to Monte Alban had not been widely reported (or undiscovered in my search before arrival), I returned to the city, sought out one of the several wonderful steam baths in town (the kind that have all but disappeared elsewhere in North America) and let the vapor (steam) relax me and soak away my tension. Lying in the steam for a couple of hours always refreshes me, this time was not different. In Mexico City there are more than 200 such steam baths, making the city a bit more bareable.
I am a walker, so I know most of this city by exploring it on foot. When I have the time, and the team schedule permits, I prefer watching a professional baseball game in the comfortable, modern, stadium to hanging around the Zocalo. No such luck this visit. The balance of my visit was spent walking through the various colonias (neighborhoods) as far from the Zocalo and hordes of foreign tourists as I could get.
For many Americans, the experience of visiting this city is not dissimilar to a trip to Taos or Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they arrive wide-eyed seeking to ride the positive vibes and looking for an encounter with an Indian. The Zocalo, Alameda Plaza, Santo Domingo Church, Casa de Juarez, The Guelaguetza, Monte Alban, Mitla, the tree at Tule, and the weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, are all worth seeing. But, for me, the first (maybe a second) visit would have been sufficient. I have come to accept that most foreigners, eyes glazed over, speak of this city as if describing a romantic fairy tale, more fiction than fact. Other areas of this state and Mexico, hold greater interest for me.
Will I come back here to visit? Probably not. But, I will have to pass through on my way to other destinations, elsewhere in the state of Oaxaca, and south of here into the state of Chiapas. I do not expect to spend any more time here than it takes to change busses. For me it is an evolution. I have begun to focus more and more of my attention on the mountainous region that starts a couple hours northwest of the city and extends to the Pacific Ocean. The Mixteca Alta is an area little visited by foreigners, save the anthropologists who continue to study the past and present lives of the indigenous groups there. It is an area in which I am very comfortable. In the coming year, however, I will most likely concentrate my explorations to the states of Zacatacas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi and Hidalgo. Tlaxcala, the smallest Mexican state and unknown to most tourists, has a rich cultural and artistic history equal to Oaxaca, in the opinion of many, including myself.
We each travel in search of different and distinct experiences known only to ourselves. There is nothing wrong with marching to the beat of a drummer that only we can hear. My preferences may seem as uninteresting to others, as the preferences of others may seem to me. Mexico is a country rich in culture, languages and beauty, and much of this amid truly dire poverty. With so much yet unseen it seems, to me, to be a waste of my time to repeatedly visit such a tourist Mecca as is this city.
My trip into the mountains, and along the Costa Chica was everything I had hoped it would be, I quickly forgot about the city and the things about it I do not like.
To those of you who visit Oaxaca often, or just once, enjoy yourselves. But, do not forget that there is so much more out there. Explore, and enjoy!