After a week of scampering around the vastness of Mexico City, it was great to have a week in the much smaller and more relaxed city of Oaxaca to decompress a bit. Nearly 300 miles south of DF, Oaxaca is the calm, low-slung, cultural and historical yin to the capital’s busy, built-up, somewhat personality-less yang.
We caught the ADO GL bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, costing about $650/£30 each. We pre-booked the bus a few days before our departure day by visiting the ADO bus terminal near the San Lazaro metro stop in DF, though the bus was barely a quarter full in the end so we probably could have bought on the day. The bus was comfortable and spacious, but the 7 hour journey did feel very long and tiring. I think a flight, like we did on the last day to catch our connecting flight home, might be a better option.
You do get rewarded with some striking views about three-quarters of the way through the journey, as you rise into the mountains that frame the Oaxacan valley.
We stayed at Casa Ollin B&B. Of the top three on Tripadvisor this was the only one that had availability for our dates. It was really nice – decorated in a colourful traditional style, friendly and comfortable, and very well located just a few blocks from the Zolaco. I think it was geared towards people a bit older than us, but it was nice to have somewhere homely to relax in.
The best part was breakfast, which was a different freshly home-cooked Mexican treat every day, and taken on a communal table so we could chat to the owners, chef, and other guests as we ate. We had tamales, quesadillas, and even huevos con chapulines (grasshoppers – eek – none of those for me though!).
The centre of Oaxaca is charmingly picturesque, almost like a Disneyland town. It’s compact and very easy to navigate – even I failed to get lost there! The main north-south street is pedestrianised and lined with stalls of local handcrafts: ceramics, clothing and so on. After some political unrest in 2006 Oaxaca has been working hard to tempt visitors back, and it certainly feels extremely safe and welcoming. I read somewhere that 75% of the population of Oaxaca work in the tourism business (!). You certainly feel welcome as a visitor here since a lot of local industry is totally reliant on tourist money to be sustainable. However I’m glad we visited at the edge of the high season since there weren’t other tourists everywhere yet.
There’s a bustling food and crafts market at the central Zocalo by the cathedral and there are two large covered markets just south of there with the usual assortment of produce, crafts, clothing, ceramics and so on. You’ll also find chocolate factory shops (the smell will hit you first!) as well as higher end boutiques and gift shops tucked into little courtyards off the main streets.
Those darn photogenic Beetles were everywhere!
There are several good museums – we checked out the textile museum and stamp museum which were both lovely.
For me Oaxaca was really best by night. The street lights are sparse so it gets all dark and atmospheric. Every evening there was something going on, from a parade to a protest to a brilliant school brass band striking up.
The markets and food stalls stay open, and with over 250 restaurants on top of that it isn’t at all hard to find something to eat.
Oaxaca’s famous for its cuisine and we did have some great food, though I seem to be lacking in the photo department here. My favourites were Los Dazantes, Zandunga, La Vieja Lira (a really nice Italian for when we were taco-ed out) and Itanoni – they’re all on my Google map.
Mezcal is not hard to come by either, whether to shop or drink. We did an amazing artisanal mezacal tour one day which I’ll write about later.
We even found a brill little microbrewery-bar attached to a deli, La Santisima, which did amazing mini burgers.
There’s excellent locally grown coffee (it’s grown about four hours’ south of Oaxaca towards the coast; we would have loved to visit a plantation) and lots of cafes that serve it well.
I think it would be hard to fill a week in just Oaxaca city as it’s so small. Taking some day trips into other areas of Oaxaca state is a must-do. From towns each with their own craft or cuisine speciality to the ruins at Monte Alban and natural wonder of Hierve Al Agua, they were some of the highlights of the trip. More on all those coming up next!