This article was first published in the People's Guide Travel Letter #5, winter '96-'97. Oaxaca resident and writer Stan Gotlieb was kind enough to review and update it for us.
Hi Lorena & Carl,
I am a high-school English teacher in the Lynn (MA) Public Schools where I teach in an experimental program called The Environmental School. This summers trip was my first to Mexico, but definitely not my last.
We just spent the past seven weeks in the State of Oaxaca in Mexico and thought we would write you about some things that did not appear in your guidebook that you might want to include in the future. Here goes:
1) We studied Spanish at a wonderful school in the Oaxaca City called Becari. Its on M. Bravo near Garcia Vigil. The phone number is: 951-46076. The teachers/owners of the school were exchange students in the U.S. years ago and speak fluent English and Spanish. They teach Spanish to tourists and English to Mexicans. Very professional. The program is tempered to student needs so beginners get more grammar, and more advanced students do grammar and conversation. They can also set up housing accommodations.
Stan says: Marta Conseco Benets, the duena, is also a very good and cheap dentist. Many of my friends and acquaintances have at one time or another, taken Spanish courses there, and everyone has had good things to say.
2) A wonderful little (4 tables) restaurant with an open kitchen called La Olla (the stewpot) on Reforma between Constitution and Morelos. The food is very fresh and carefully prepared and tourists do not have to worry about eating salads or raw foods. The comida corrida is about $2.50 (15 pesos) and generally consists of homemade soup, freshly squeezed fruit drink, main course, tortillas, desert and coffee or tea.
Stan says: The comida is up to 40p. In Oaxaca terms, this is on the top of "average" prices. The family also owns "Las Bugambillas", a bed and breakfast behind the restaurant. The restaurant has greatly expanded, adding a second floor. The food tends to be on the bland side, but the home-made breads and the special sauces are quite good. This was one of the first restaurants in town to pay attention to hygiene, but now almost all the restaurants in the center do so.
3) Tacos and Retacos Roy on Pino Suarez and Morelos. This restaurant doesnt even open until about 6 pm, but its crowded with locals all night. You geta choice of quesadillas, beef tacos or pork tacos and they also serve a good pozole which is a corn and beef broth soup which is a regional dish. Great guacamole and homemade salsa. And cheap - tacos are between fifty cents and a dollar each.
Stan says: They also have another place on Tinoco y Palacios.
4) Some Oaxaquenans took us to their favorite restaurant for mole: Alameda-on Garcia Vigil and Hidalgo. This is a pretty restaurant with nice tablecloths. Big portions of food, deliciously prepared, and lots of typical cuisine such as Sopa Seca (a rice dish made as a soup and the water is boiled off) all different kinds of mole, enchiladas and other tortilla dishes with delicious salsas. There is a comida corrida for about $2.50 as well. This restaurant has limited hours, I believe its 1-6pm only. We spent about $25 for 4 people with drinks and it was well worth it.
Stan says: Sorry, don't know this one. I will try to check it out in the next few days.
5) Just north of the city, about 15-20 minute bus ride up Calle Benito Juarez is San Felipe El Agua. This is a very picturesque town and theres lots of affluence here. But there are also just plain folks living here too. Take the bus to the dirt parking lot at the end and walk under the bridge (at this writing theres a sign that says road closed, bridge under construction. Follow it, cross the 'river' and up the other side is a path that leads to the awesome mountain San Felipe. Its a good day hike up and back, but well worth it.
Stan says: The bus comes DOWN Calzado Benito Juarez, but otherwise the writer is accurate. Hikers should go in groups for security if they want to walk through the "nature reserve". There is a "road to nowhere" up there, which was built to be part of a periferico system around the city. It never got connected because local environmentalists shut it down. It's great for bicycling.
6) Hierve El Agua (boiling water) is an incredible town in the Mixe region. To get there, take the bus past Mitla on the road to Ajutla and get off at the crossroads at the town of San Lorenzo Abr. Its 9 km from here to Hierve El Agua but its pretty easy to hitch a hide halfway to Sn Lorenzo. From there, its about an hour walk in spectacular scenery to the cabins that dot the cliffs. The water isnt hot thermal water anymore, but it is beautiful and people do go swimming. There are restaurants serving tacos here, so you dont need to worry about bringing food. Many people come just for the day, but its worth the $5 per person to stay in one of the cabins. Theyre quitenew with running water and you can reserve one at the Tourist Information Office in 5 de Mayo in the Oaxaca.
Stan says: Well worth the effort. There is now daily bus service from the 2d class station to the site. The schedule is subject to change, so check the day before or ask at the information office when you reserve your Yu'u (cabin).
7) San Felipe Pacifico on the road from Oaxaca to Pochutla on the coast is also spectacular. Here youll see many clear cut areas in the mountains, but there are new wooden cabins for rent that overlook the whole valley and have woodstoves for those chilly nights. The elevation there is about 9,000 feet. San Felipe is a decent sized town so youll find restaurants and little grocers all over.
Stan says: I always have heard it referred to as San JOSE del Pacifico, but otherwise,
it is correct as written.
8) If youre looking for a really relaxing place on the Pacific Coast, theres a wonderful beach just north of Puerto Escondido (its a 20 minute walk) called Playa Carrizalillo. Its a cove and the waves are pretty tranquil. There are a few thatched roofed cooking shacks set up on the beach and they serve wonderful fresh fish. We stayed on a cliff overlooking this beach in a villa called Chalets Carrizalillo. Great views and a staircase to the ocean. We were not there in season, but it was about $20 per night for 2 bedrooms, nice bathroom, outdoor kitchen and porch. This is a very low key kind of place and not appropriate if youre looking for a wild time. We got our villa simply by going there.
Stan says: Carrizalillo is not quite the tranquil paradise beach described here, but it is probably the best of the reachable-by-foot beaches in PE. It is unlikely that the accommodations described can be had for twice the price. If interested, insist that whomever you talk to put you in contact with the manager. We had a "resident" turn us away because (we later found out) we were not Canadian as he was; later we heard that there had been plenty of space available.
My beloved, Scott Kennedy, also wanted to contribute some information:
In the Restaurant line: I would like to add that a marvelous vegetarian restaurant opened up while we were down in Oaxaca. Its called the Manantial Vegetariano and it's at 303 Tinoco y Palacios. They have an excellent comida corrida and do great breakfasts. The portions are medium sized, the service is great and the presentation of the meals is very tasteful.
Stan says: Correct. When we want Vegies, we go there, or Los Olivos, out by the traffic circle for the road to Mexico. Specially good: the Sunday buffet.
In the tourist information line: We found Ernesto Morales, Jefe del Dpto. de Logistica, at the tourist info office at #305 Calle M. Bravo to be a wealth of information on what to do and where to go in the state of Oaxaca. He is an avid hiker and backpacker, an amateur naturalist and a collector of rare orchids. He speaks excellent English, is very friendly and was an enthusiastic informant as to where the best off the road traveling in Oaxaca was to be done.
Stan says: Don't know him.
For anyone planning an extended stay in Oaxaca there seem to be some excellent opportunities for meaningful volunteer work available. We found a number of environmental organizations which are very active in the city of Oaxaca and through out the state. In the same building where the Becari language program is located there are three excellent organizations who can always use interns and other forms of volunteer help. So, if you are going to take a Spanish language intensive course at the Becari School, why not continue with your Spanish practice by doing some volunteer environmental work at one of the organizations next to the Becari School? The organizations are:
1) CODE, the Commission Oaxaquena de Defensa Ecologica. This group is the umbrella organization for a group of Oaxaquenian environmental NGOs. CODE coordinates the activities of these various NGOs and also works to translate their concerns into legislative action. Juan Jose Consejo is the director. They are located upstairs from Becari at M. Bravo 210-D.
Stan says: There are green offices upstairs, but I can't say that they are the ones listed. Certainly it is a good place to start inquiring.
2) SASO, Suelos, Agua y Semillas de Oaxaca. This group works with a consortium of Oaxaguagricultural practices. Currently they have a soil erosion control program up and running, and are working on program to assist native farmers in the preservation of the biological diversity of indigenous varieties of important food crops. They are located in the offices next door to Becari at 210-AM. Bravo. SASO shares offices with another group which does appropriate technology work in the small farming communities around Oaxaca. I mislaid my note which had the name of this organization, so I cant pass that along. I can say that the people in the office were very nice. There were lots of Europeans hanging around who seemed to be volunteering with this group, so it is also a great place to meet fellow travelers.
3) World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, has a large presence in Oaxaca and is doing excellent work. One program which I found particularly interesting is their People Centered Forest Conservation and Development Program. WWF is located at 217 Jazmines in Col. Reforma, not too far from the first class bus station. They have an active internship program and, if you hit them at the right time, are very happy to discuss their on going work in the area for you.
4) Finally, there is the Albergue Infantil Josephina orphanage where Suzanne taught English to the kids during part of our stay in Oaxaca city. This place has a great group of kids and the nuns and priests are always looking for help in teaching them English.
Stan says: While this is true, I have been informed of late that they are looking for longer term volunteers (3 months or more), so that the children get some continuity in their studies, and are not much interested in someone who will only be in town for a week or two. The investment in orientation, etc., just isn't worth the payoff for them...
For a real nice out of the way place to go, we would recommend the small town of Pluma Hidalgo. We went there because it is the site of the Union de Communidades Indigenas Cien Anos de Soledad, an organic coffee growers cooperative we were interested in visiting. The town has a population of about 300 people and can be reached by a bus which goes there once a day from the second class station in Oaxaca.
We stayed in a new wooden tourist cabin that had been built by the cooperative right in the heart of the coffee plantation. Beautiful views plus we got a very interesting tour of the plantation itself. We were told that more tourist cabanas are planned in the near future, but at the moment there are only two that are available to the public. There is also a hotel in town, but Im not sure as to the quality of that. The headquarters for the Cooperative and their packing plant is located on the coast not too far from Puerto Angel at a place called Rincon Alegre. I would recommend stopping there first to see if the cabins up at the plantation are available.
Stan says: This may be in the area that was so devestated by the quake and floods. Otherwise, sounds like a great idea.
Suzanne Strauss & Scott K. Kennedy