Housed in a restored 16th-century Dominican convent once called the Santa Catarina, Oaxaca's Camino Real is one of those rare hotels that you wish you could live in forever. Faint music--an ethereal choir of female voices--floats through quiet stone corridors. The guest rooms, arranged around courtyards filled with bougainvillea and hibiscus and tidily clipped trees, are a haven of peacefulness. But as I unpack, the silence is broken by what sounds suspiciously like gunshots in the street.
Now, I'm not in the habit of investigating gunplay in strange cities. But I've discovered over the years that in order to experience Mexico fully, you sometimes have to set itineraries and assumptions aside.
As it turns out, this is especially true in Oaxaca (pronounced "wa-hah-ka"), where there seems to be a different fiesta or celebration almost every day. Those gunshots were actually fireworks: a block from the Camino Real, on the pedestrian Alcalá Street, is the most bizarre parade I've ever seen. Eight dancers, mostly young boys, are wearing costumes that make them look 10 feet tall. Wooden frames on their shoulders support tall papier-mâché heads and torsos clothed in outsize garments, either garish prints or silver lamé. The heads, painted a sickly pink, are topped by blond, red, or black wigs; the arms swing out as the dancers spin around. To see where they're going, the boys peer through an opening just above the costume's waist-- usually where a few buttons have been left undone. Below is a long skirt or baggy pants; one dancer is missing the pants, so I can see his skinny four-year-old legs in his own shorts, as well as his hands holding up the torso frame.
The parade, a banner explains, is to celebrate Saint Francis of Assisi. A few boys are dressed as brown-robed Franciscan monks; other kids are in cat costumes, with blackened noses and painted whiskers; and a handful of friars are also in attendance. Members of a ragtag group play trumpets, guitar, a drum, and cymbals.
Suddenly, the parade is moving. As if in a trance I fall in at the end of the procession, along with several dozen women who are holding sugarcane stalks decorated with paper flowers. The friars reach into the baskets they're carrying, draw out bunches of candies, and hurl them to onlookers-- adults and children alike-- who scramble gleefully.
After circling for several blocks I realize we have landed in the zocalo, the main square. The late-afternoon sun is golden, and finally I leave the parade to look around. Wherever I turn, there's something delightful: a marimba band playing, teenage girls strolling arm in arm, a rainbow of woven vinyl baskets, a vendor surrounded by a mountain of balloons, a woman selling bouquets of heady gardenias for pennies. The city seems almost surreal-- a reminder, in case I needed one, that no matter how peaceful your hotel room may be, in Mexico there's always something intriguing, something serendipitous, something wild going on outside.
A half-hour later I'm sitting behind a beer at a sidewalk café, watching the zocalo pulsate. The crowd is a mix of Indian families, some with barefoot children in tattered clothes; more prosperous groups of Mexicans; young European backpackers; and a few Americans who seem to be Mexico aficionados. Though it's not much farther south of Mexico City than San Miguel de Allende is north, Oaxaca feels far more removed, more authentic, more Indian. As I sip my beer, a bold little girl, around eight, sidles up to my table. "Rebozos?" she asks, flipping expertly through the shawls slung over her shoulder. "Where you from?" she follows up, looking me squarely in the eye and smiling in what she must know is an appealing way. Though I decline the shawls, within minutes she's helping herself to the spicy peanuts on my table, companionably squirting on lime juice. Why not? I ask myself, and enjoy her visit.
But however much you relax into the moment, a place like Oaxaca can easily induce a sense of panic. Unless you've come for, say, three weeks, you may feel overwhelmed by the choices: you can concentrate on the colonial city's stunning churches and outstanding museums, study the nearby archaeological sites in depth, or dive into the wealth of markets. The city itself has a half-dozen marketplaces worth seeing, but the shopping doesn't stop there. All along the valleys are towns whose inhabitants have developed a distinctive craft.
I make a simple plan: I will start in town, exploring a few churches and museums, and then do some shopping on Saturday, when the big Abastos market is in full swing. That done, I'll venture out of town. I resolve to be open to chance at every turn.
Though poverty is evident in Oaxaca, a surprising number of buildings have been beautifully restored in recent years. The most amazing efforts have gone into Santo Domingo Church and the adjoining convent that is now the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo (the former Regional Museum of Oaxaca).
I enter an austere cloister, serene except for a fountain splashing in the center; no plants, just pale shades of stone and the remains of ancient frescoes. I have no choice but to put my fresh resolve into effect and surrender to whatever comes next: there's no map and all the labels are in Spanish. I stroll down long halls, passing gradually from pre-Columbian times (some 12,000 years ago) through the Spanish conquest and right up to contemporary culture. One display, Tesoros de la Tumba 7, shows the fortune in gold rings, necklaces, and earrings, as well as turquoise, pearls, coral, and carved bone, that was unearthed in 1932 from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán. A film clip reenacting the discovery shows our archaeologist-hero, Alfonso Caso, wearing Groucho Marx glasses.
All the while, the sounds of hoes and pickaxes echo down the museum's halls. Workers are planting an immense walled garden, due to open to the public this month. Cacti, some of them hundreds of years old, have been transplanted from all over the state.
The church next door, Santo Domingo, is beyond ornate. White-and-gold walls are covered with statues and carvings gilded to a fare-thee-well. Molded figures in the ceiling depict the family tree of Félix de Guzmán, who founded the order-- interestingly, the family was able to sustain itself with very few women. At night the floodlit, tiled domes look like a fairy-tale palace as they rise above this part of the city. (Of Oaxaca's 29 churches, two others deserve special mention. The Cathedral of Oaxaca, overlooking the zocalo, has a cavernous, crumbling charm; it's almost spooky. The imposing Basílica de la Soledad presents a dazzling array of stained glass, chandeliers, trompe l'oeil painting, and statuary, amid the heavy scent of flowers.)
The next day, I lose myself--literally--in Oaxaca's Abastos Market. It doesn't take long: this may be the largest outdoor market in the Western Hemisphere. Booths have low roofs of plastic or canvas tarps, and ropes crisscross everywhere. Workers wheel dollies in and out of the crowd; the air is strongly scented with chocolate, cilantro, peppers, tortillas, incense, smoke, raw meat, and straw. Women in one area hold huge flat baskets of garlic; others display white onions artfully set on end, green stalks poking up. On the outskirts, live animals are for sale: goats, calves, and piglets snooze in the shade or squeal pathetically. I come across a man with two canary cages. For 10 pesos ($1), a bird will tell your fortune by choosing three folded papers from a box; a seed is its reward. Part of my news: "Forget your sad past; think only of your future, for you will live many years."
Reassured, I head back toward the zocalo. (Even if your Spanish is less than rudimentary, you can get yourself pointed in the right direction by asking "Dónde zócalo?") There are more markets to investigate: the 20 de Noviembre and the Benito Juárez, side by side only a few blocks from the zocalo. With less meat and more crafts, the Benito Juárez is the better bet for out-of-towners. I'm besieged by two boys who, sensing weakness, pursue me until I agree to buy a bark painting from each.
The shopkeepers are patient, and most can produce a calculator on which to indicate prices. Handy, since I tend to get flustered when bargaining in a foreign language, and make an offer that's twice the asking price, rather than the suggested half. I try to keep in mind that $5 means a lot less to me than 50 pesos does to them. In the end, I'm more than satisfied with what I've paid for two Guatemalan vests, some plastic tote bags, a dolphin rug, and two made-in-China robot-transformers for my kids (what can I say; they have American tastes).
It's Saturday night. Policemen direct cars on busy corners, whistling in a varied repertoire, sounding like inventive birds. The wail of a single trumpet floats out over the zocalo. On the cathedral plaza, children play with the 12-foot-long cylindrical balloons that are sold there. Again and again they launch the balloons into the air, watching them cast odd shadows on the cathedral's floodlit wall as they drift back to earth.
Perhaps the most fulfilling day trip from the city heads east as far as the ruins of Mitla. (You can rent a car and drive yourself, but you'll save time finding your way around if you hire a car and driver through your hotel.) My first stop is 10 minutes outside the city at El Tule, a massive Mexican cypress believed to be 2,000 years old. A village has sprung up around the tree, with quesadilla stands and stores selling camera batteries. Even more important, the hamlet of Santa María del Tule has created a formal corps of guides, all girls aged eight or so, who dress in green sweat suits with crests on the back that designate their official status.
Your guide, should you choose to accept one, will escort you around El Tule, pointing out knots and growths and bumps and branches shaped like "the lion," "the wise men," and "the bottoms" (also called "the bums"). Though my guide does speak English, her pronunciation indicates little comprehension. To aid recognition, she catches sunlight with a mirror and aims a beam at the formation in question.
Turn off the highway a little farther down and you're riding a bumpy road into the dusty town of Tlacochahuaya, past impenetrable cactus fences. Here stands a 16th-century church with frescoed walls and a ceiling painted with huge flower arrangements, vases and all, interspersed with cherub faces. For two pesos the caretaker lets you climb into the choir loft, up an almost impossibly steep and narrow curving staircase whose stone steps have been indented by centuries of feet. Besides a closeup of the ceiling, the climb gives you a look at an antique German-made pipe organ in which every pipe is painted with a different face, the openings serving as mouths.
Since it's Sunday, the Tlacolula market is up and running. Though at first I see the usual assortment of dishpans and nylon underwear, by now I know there's no point in searching out more tempting goods; I simply wander until they come to me-- odd herbal teas, Mexican cassettes, wide cotton hammocks for $10. Many of the women are dressed in richly layered outfits: embroidered blouses, striped skirts, shawls wound round their heads and waists.
After Tlacolula, the road passes ranches dedicated to the manufacture of mezcal. Agave plants are baked for several days in pits in the ground, crushed in a stone mortar by actual horsepower, fermented in barrels, and distilled in a ceramic vat. You can belly up to a counter for a shot, accompanied by a pinch of salt and chili powder, then invest in a bottle (with or without worm). The "bartender" confirms that the drink is hallucinogenic, but so far I've suffered no flashbacks.
The landscape becomes more rugged as you approach Mitla, an ancient place where Zapotec and Mixtec Indians once worshiped the dead. Elaborate fretwork mosaics decorate its buildings: carved chunks of stone form intricate patterns, assembled centuries ago without any adhesive.
Like most Mexican ruins, Mitla guards its secrets: no one knows who was buried in the tombs, or how many chambers remain undiscovered. I clamber down narrow stone steps and squeeze through an opening in the rock to examine one of the tombs-- a move not recommended for anyone with a fear of live burial. Up above, a guide uses a mirror, much like the girls at El Tule, to direct a sunbeam down into the depths and point out the rock carvings and traces of ancient red paint on its rough-hewn walls.
The best way to wrap up this day trip is with a visit to Teotitlán del Valle, 90 percent of whose inhabitants make their living by weaving. Throughout the town, fences and walls are hung with rugs large and small, some in traditional Indian patterns (geometric designs, the tree of life), others not (butterflies, dolphins, Miró knockoffs).
Restaurant Tlamanalli, right in Teotitlán, is the place (perhaps the only place) for lunch. American foodies discovered its authentic Zapotec cooking some years ago; as a result its proprietors, the six Mendoza sisters, have been able to construct a handsome new building filled with brick pillars and arches and tables set with pink linens. The menu varies little: a delicious soup of squash blossoms and greens comes with a tostada; the chicken in black mole is rich and satisfying, with a subtle mix of many flavors in its inky sauce. Across the street, the four Mendoza brothers sell their weaving. One of them, Arnulfo, has elevated the craft to an art form-- no butterflies for him.
Get an early start for your visit to Monte Albán: whatever the time of year, its vast plaza collects the heat of the sun. The state's prime archaeological site, Monte Albán covers some eight square miles on a high ridge only six miles west of Oaxaca. Zapotec Indians started building here in about 500 B.C., and over the centuries more tombs and temples, pyramids, palaces, and ball courts were constructed.
You need a knowledgeable interpreter to explain what's known of this site, and it's easy to find one: licensed guides lounge about as you climb the steps to the entrance. I wind up with Benito Hernández, an unusually tall Zapotec with a movie-star profile and a startling command of English. As we scramble up and down the pyramids, he enthusiastically recounts how the top of the mountain was sliced down to the bedrock before construction began (the work of some three centuries; probably done to protect against earthquakes), how buildings were oriented to the positions of the stars, how parts of the ingenious drainage system still function. In one spot he claps his hands to demonstrate the uncanny acoustics: despite the enclosing walls, there's not a trace of echo.
Archaeologists believe that the network of secret tunnels was used to convince the peasants of their leaders' supernatural powers: a priest would appear on top of one temple and then vanish, only to reappear minutes later (after having scuttled underground) on top of another. At that time the city was painted crimson, and during special ceremonies the priests are believed to have worn robes encrusted with mica that gave off an eerie glow when sheets of mica or polished obsidian were used to reflect sunlight onto them.
Not far from Monte Albán are several other crafts villages worth exploring. Almost everyone who lives in Atzompa is involved in making the green pottery used in many area restaurants. Families exhibit and sell their wares either in their own houses or in the town's Casa de Artesanías, where room after room is filled with pitchers, plates, mugs, figurines, vases, whatever. For sentimental reasons, I buy a vase that matches the one holding a tiny rose in my bathroom at the Camino Real; still, I'm more taken with the black pottery made in nearby San Bartolo Coyotepec. Those pieces, whose almost iridescent finish is produced by polishing the fired pottery with quartz, are consistently more sophisticated.
Any day trip to this area should include lunch near the town of Zaachila, at La Capilla, which is proud to call itself a "tourist restaurant." You'll soon figure out that the tourists referred to are Mexican; a wall of photos reveals dignitaries, TV stars, and other people you won't recognize. Rows of wooden tables are arranged outdoors beneath long thatched roofs; you sit on broad wooden plank benches. Don't be embarrassed to order the "platón turístico"--it'll give you a generous taste of chiles rellenos, enchiladas de pollo, tasajo (salty strips of beef), and the local mild white string cheese, quesillo. And since the kitchen is wide open, you can watch the cooks flattening balls of dough in the same blue metal tortilla presses you saw in the Tlacolula market.
There's one more stop before heading back to Oaxaca. Just down the road, in Cuilapan, is the ex-Convent of Santiago Matamoros, started in the mid-1500's by Dominican friars. Though partially restored, the crumbling walls and faded frescoes still speak volumes of the past. It doesn't seem to matter that the caretaker who shows me around speaks not a word of English. I don't need a guide to admire the view of the whole valley, and the dim high-ceilinged rooms with the haunting presence of the fathers who once lived here.
During my visit, a torrential shower surprises us, and the caretaker and I sit down on a stone bench in the echoing Gothic cloister to wait it out. I can't remember the last time I simply sat and watched the rain-- but Oaxaca does that sort of thing to you. For half an hour we gaze out while the water gushes from the roof's downspouts into the courtyard. I'm overcome by a feeling of utter peace-- and grateful that such an eloquent beauty, such a rich sense of the layers of history, exists in a ruined monastery in the heart of Mexico.
Oaxaca is in Mexico's deep south, but since it's up high the weather is good (that is, not too hot) all year. Go for at least four days-- and pack an extra bag for your purchases.
Hotel Camino Real 300 Calle Cinco de Mayo; 52-951/60611, fax 52-951/60732; doubles from $185. The 91 rooms are done up in dark Mexican carved-wood furniture and fuchsia, orange, and crimson fabrics. Despite the ancient feel, there's air-conditioning, cable, even halogen bulbs in the bathrooms. (Light sleepers should ask for an interior room.) A breakfast buffet has eggs made to order, pastries, and fresh juices-- beet, pineapple-celery. Dinner is less successful.
Casa Oaxaca 407 Calle García Vigil; 52-951/44173, fax 951/64412; doubles from $124. Open a year, this exquisite six-room inn provides its guests with style and seclusion (you ring a doorbell to get in). A high-ceilinged 200-year-old villa has been transformed with skylights, black marble baths, and stunning rattan furnishings. The pool has deep-blue tiles against a terra-cotta wall. If the service doesn't always live up to the panache, smitten guests don't care.
Hotel Victoria 1 Lomas del Fortín; 52-951/52633, fax 52-951/52411; doubles from $67, villas from $85. Though the 150-room resort is showing its 40 years, it is the best family choice, with landscaped grounds (on a hillside overlooking the city) and an inviting pool.
Las Golondrinas 411 Tinoco y Palacios; 52-951/43298; doubles from $24. A modest 27-room hotel in a not-so-modest setting. Three patios-- lined with blue, yellow, and orange walls-- are strung with hammocks and surrounded by masses of banana trees and bougainvillea.
Try the markets for a breakfast of sweet rolls. Many dishes begin with the inevitable tortillas, and can be eaten with a drink called chocolate-atole (it tastes vaguely like creamed corn). Cooked foods in the markets are generally safe to eat--barbacoa, by the way, is not barbecue but goat or lamb baked in a sealed pit with avocado leaves--but skip the fresh parsley or cilantro. No telling what it's been washed in.
María Bonita 706 Calle M. Alcalá; 52-951/67233; dinner for two $8. One of the top choices for Oaxacan cooking. Many specialties include mole sauces, the local cheese called quesillo, and pumpkin flowers (it's a wonder a single gourd reaches maturity around here).
Catedral Restaurant-Bar 105 Calle García Vigil; 52-951/63285; dinner for two $32. An elegant place with a fountain courtyard and several spacious rooms. The menu lists regional dishes and a wide variety of steaks and chops.
El Asador Vasco 10A Portal de Flores; 52-951/44755; dinner for two $25. The decoration is Spanish (white stucco, dark wood beams), the food Mexican and excellent at this second-floor dining room overlooking the zocalo. Mariachis will serenade you.
Los Chapulines Hotel Parador Plaza, 104 Calle Murguia; 52-951/41977; dinner for two $20. The unusual Oaxacan dishes include chicken stuffed with huitlacoche, a corn fungus, in squash-blossom sauce.
Restaurant Tlamanalli 39 Avda. Juárez, Teotitlán del Valle; 52-952/44006; lunch for two $30. The required stop on a trip to Mitla, for authentic Zapotec dishes.
La Capilla Zaachila; 52-952/86115; lunch for two $20. An outdoor restaurant that seats hundreds but still feels simpatico for smaller parties.
La Mano Mágica 203 Calle M. Alcalá; 52-951/64275. Quality crafts from all over.
Aripo 809 Calle García Vigil; 52-951/44030. A showcase for the state's most inspired craftspeople.
Liis Laah-Di 119 Avda. Juárez, Teotitlán del Valle; 52-952/44132. Demonstrations of wool-making and weaving, plus heaps of rugs for sale.
Pepe Santiago 12 Álvaro Obregón, Arrazola; 52-951/71394. For alebrijes (copal-wood carvings).
On the Web
Oaxaca Tourist Guide (oaxaca-travel.com/tourism/home.php3?)--Event listings, audio music clips, articles about the region, and travelers' accounts of their trips. -- Emily Berquist
The Museo Rufino Tamayo (503 Avda. Morelos; 52-951/64750), a collection of pre-Columbian clay and stone artifacts, some more than 2,000 years old, that are as fresh as if they'd been created yesterday.