It is March, the Jacaranda are in bloom, and I am in Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah), the capital city of the southern Mexican state of the same name. To get oriented in Oaxaca, I have walked all over town, found its many museums, tasted its famous foods, figured out the transportation system, and ventured out into the surrounding countryside.
To start, I located Plaza de la Constitución, the heart of Oaxaca, where people come to meet throughout the day. On my long walks, the plaza is like a magnet inviting me to sit with a cold drink on a shady park bench, and watch the world go by.
As I observe life in Oaxaca, I have seen a lot of foreign English-speaking residents and visitors. Like me, they probably came for the warm dry winter weather and plentiful educational travel opportunities. Oaxaca is widely considered the most gastronomic, and biologically and culturally diverse region of Mexico.
Gastronomically, Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles”, not a pack of blind rats, but sauces made from roasted ingredients ground together and slow simmered. The local food and drink includes all sorts of herbs and spices, meat and vegetarian dishes, white stringy cheese, homegrown coffee, chocolate, and mescal, and even native grasshoppers and grubs.
Biologically, verdant Oaxaca is home to the most endemic plant species in Mexico. For an introduction to the plants of Oaxaca, I followed an excellent two-hour English language tour of the Jardín Etnobotánico, the only public botanical garden in the state of Oaxaca.
Culturally, Oaxaca includes 16 separate indigenous groups, mostly of Zapotec and Mixteca heritage. Due to its indigenous and rural character, and corresponding illiteracy, unemployment, and lack of basic services, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states.
Surrounding the state capital of Oaxaca, the small towns and villages scratch out a living. I visited weekly markets at Tlacolula and Etna, where the villagers trade their local goods and handicrafts. The overflowing produce and foodstuffs are fresh and tempting, and the quality of the artistic handmade products is excellent.
As an independent traveler, reaching these small villages required some trial-and-error. The more comfortable method of transport is by second-class bus. These buses come with all the basics, including a maniacal driver, blaring music, squeaky brakes, and worn-out shock absorbers.
To get to the smaller villages I had to use the collectivos, a hive of beat up taxi cabs with their destinations printed on the windshield. The driver doesn’t leave until he has squeezed at least five passengers into his tiny car. On my first ride, this 6’3” (1.90 meter) tall gringo had to straddle the stick shift.
Oaxaca is the hub of the Central Valleys region, where three valleys come together in the shape of a large capital “Y”. For an overlook of the three valleys, and to absorb the ancient history of the area, I visited the nearby archeological site of Monte Albán. Here on a mountaintop high above Oaxaca, the Zapotecs built one of the oldest and most important cities of Mesoamerica.
After my first week here, I have walked all over the city, visited many interesting museums, tapped the madcap transportation options, traveled to several small surrounding villages, and even munched on a few grasshoppers. So far, I am alive and well, and enjoying the area’s personality and charm, as I get myself oriented in welcoming Oaxaca.
Feature Image: Twin Domes of Santo Domingo de Guzman