When you live in Texas and talk about traveling to Mexico, most people choose to visit more familiar places than Oaxaca (pronounced “wah-hah-kah”), the name of both a city and southwestern state in Mexico that is, perhaps, the best kept secret destination in the country. On my flights to and from Oaxaca, the plane was half empty. But I found Oaxaca as THE place in Mexico to visit for real Mexican culture … for those who want to go beyond the typical beach visit or who want to escape the pulsating intensity of Mexico City.
Oaxaca has it all and it’s inexpensive. But if you particularly like mountains, forests, beaches, markets, great food, artisan handiworks, modern art, beautiful churches or ancient indigenous ruins many of which pre-date Christ, you must learn about and visit Oaxaca. You can fly direct from Dallas to Oaxaca City, population 255,000, and arrive in less than three hours. You won’t even need to reset your watch as Oaxaca is on the same time as Dallas. The airport is very easy to navigate. A “TAXI” stand is clearly placed; the taxis (here and throughout Oaxaca) are cheap and will take you from the airport to whatever hotel you’ve arranged. I elected the lesser expensive shuttle-type taxi (collectivo) that stopped along the way to discharge passengers. I wanted to get the lay of the city as the collectivo went from hotel to hotel. But, alas, it had left the airport by the time I exited, because I stopped for a bite to eat, so I got a regular taxi for the price of the collectivo.
Oaxaca State borders Guatemala. Despite the bad publicity that part of the world has recently had, Oaxaca is probably the safest part of Mexico, free of drug lords and violence. So, despite my general inclination to follow the advice of the U.S. government to steer clear of Mexico, Oaxaca is a great destination. There are 10 different indigenous cultures over 10,000 in population, each with its own language still spoken alongside Spanish. This contributes to the colors, cultural diversity and famous foods of Oaxaca.
I intend to write extensively about the sights in and around Oaxaca, but given the space limitations of this column, I will, instead, dwell a bit on the pleasures of staying put while touring. I realized that my eight-night stay in Oaxaca is the first time I have stayed in one hotel for that extended time. I had the luxury of unpacking my bags just once and relaxing while taking in the city.
My hotel did not have a swimming pool, but the temperature when I visited in early summer was so mild that you didn’t need one to cool off.
Oaxaca is a great place to slow down the tempo and chill. If you haven’t traveled much, it is a great place to start, as it is easy on the budget and there’s little not to like, yet it is still very foreign.
When you visit Oaxaca, you will inevitably visit the Zocalo, the main, central plaza of the city. There, you can sample various flavors of Mezcal, agave liquor, traditionally bottled with a worm. Next to the Zocalo are two indoor markets. One is called 20th of November (it’s a food market) and the other is called Juarez Market (a hard goods and clothing market). Between these three sites, but especially in the main plaza, you will see throngs of people just sitting, anytime of day. You wonder, “Don’t these folks have a job?”
So, you, too, feel like slowing down. Everyone around you is in no hurry to get anywhere or do anything. As a tourist, you will, nevertheless, get exhausted taking in all the many attractions. Allow yourself to sit and do nothing. After all, you’re on vacation!