Way back in 2005, Denae and I worked together at a kayak and whitewater rafting outfitter in Eugene, Oregon. I’d worked there all through college and was about to graduate from school, and had big plans for a long solo trip through Mexico and then on to a “job” ski bumming in Utah. At that point Denae and I were work friends and nothing more, but literally the night before I left on my trip we went on a date and both realized that there was a lot of potential between us. Over the next few months while I was traveling we emailed back and forth a lot, and I somehow managed to convince Denae to take a leap of faith and fly out and meet me in Mexico City at the end of the summer. It was our second date!
We hit it off in a big way, and spent two and a half blissful weeks traveling together seeing a few wonderful places in Mexico. When Denae ran out of money and bought a ticket home, I decided the smart move was to call an end to my trip also and go back with her. It proved to be the right choice; we’ve been living together ever since, and been married for almost four years now. And that first trip set the tone for the way we’ve lived our lives ever since.
Probably the most memorable place for us during that trip was the city of Oaxaca (pronounced “wah-ha-kah”), in southern Mexico. We were blown away by the beautiful, gracefully aging colonial architecture, the friendly people and festive atmosphere, and some of the best food Mexico has to offer, which is really saying something. It was a special place for us, and ever since then those wonderful memories of the city have been intertwined with equally wonderful memories of ourselves, at a fun point very early in our relationship.
So you might understand why, almost seven years later, we were more than a little excited to finally return to Oaxaca. We rolled into the bus station in the predawn hours on an overnight bus from San Cristobal, waited for first light in the bus station, walked past the line of taxis (we almost never pay for such frivolity!), and trudged our way downtown. Everything was still closed and for a while nothing looked familiar, but when we got close to the Zocalo (Spanish for “base”, Mexican Spanish for “town square”, with interesting etymology) the memories definitely started clicking. It was so cool to be back!
We figured we’d stay for a couple weeks so Denae could get her dentistry done (the dentist ended up recommending we just let it be), but didn’t have any accommodation booked yet. With a little luck and an internet connection that isn’t a problem these days. Finding a coffee shop with WIFI was easy, and we checked craigslist for short term apartment listings. A phone call and three hours later we were meeting our new landlord at Al Sol Apartments, one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed at while backpacking. At close to $20 a night for the two week rate it was more than we usually like to pay, but Mexico isn’t really that cheap anymore and this place was deluxe! Our room was a giant studio with a nice kitchenette and bathroom, with quality furnishings and actual decor; a serious step above our normal accommodations where we’re satisfied with things like having only a few cockroaches in our room, instead of a lot. There was also a big rooftop to hang out on and some very nice common spaces, and free WIFI. Highly recommend, and the owner Veronica speaks fluent English and is very nice.
First off, let me say that Mexico is a wonderful country, despite what you’ve been hearing. It’s been having some real problems with the drug violence and it’s heartbreaking, but most places an adventurous tourist would want to go- away from the border cities- are still pretty safe. We felt fine walking around after dark (being smart about it of course) in Oaxaca and even in much of Mexico City’s center, something I can’t really say about Xela and some other places in Guatemala and further south. There’s a heavier police presence in Mexico, and more prosperity in general, making a tourist stick out a lot less. And even though Mexico isn’t super cheap anymore, it’s a fantastic value. Like our $17 USD/night apartment, or the best $4 lunch you’ve ever had. Those prices are halved in Guatemala, but the quality is probably only 25% or less. Mexicans are super friendly and like seeing foreign tourists, and there aren’t too many of us around these days so you can feel like a pioneer.
Oaxaca is a beautiful city, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a city filled with art and museums and has a long tradition of craftsmanship. It must have dozens of colonial era churches spread all throughout the historic center, which is big and fantastic to wander around checking out the old architecture. The center of it all is the Zocalo, filled with benches and shade trees and kitty-corner to a second plaza fronted by an ornate cathedral. It’s surrounded by restaurants with outdoor cafe seating that are a fantastic place to grab a beer and people watch for a while. There always seems to be free public music events in the evenings, maybe a parade or two, and hundreds of people out strolling.
We were in town for Easter, which is a week-long event in Mexico called Holy Week (Semana Santa) and is a very big deal. They stage all kinds of religious events in the streets that are fun to see, and there are lots of vendors and musicians and street food around. There were tons of Mexican tourists in town, and during processions some of the pedestrian only streets were packed wall to wall with people. It made for a really fun atmosphere, and we spent most of free time just wandering around with everyone else.
Oaxaca is also a city of food. Moles of all different colors and flavors, enchiladas with the most perfect green sauce, tacos and tlayudas, chillied grasshoppers (great as a beer snack!), perfect Oaxacan cheese, hand ground chocolate mixed into the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had for $1, mescal… That’s just the basic stuff. It’s one of those places with a perfect spring climate year round, so the produce selection and flavor is unreal. There are lots of high end restaurants that are reputed to churn out some of the best food you’ll ever taste, but we stuck with the cheap market stalls which were always stellar. There are no bad cooks in Oaxaca, I think it’s a law or something.
One of my favorite things about Mexico is the Tortilleria, more omnipresent then 7/11’s in the States and always making wonderful fresh tortillas that sell for next to nothing. Lots of them also sell cooked beans and salsas, and for literally $2 I could walk down to the corner tortilleria and buy all the fixings for a giant dinner of quesadillas for the two of us and cook them up in our apartment in a couple minutes. We’d buy fresh limes for mescal margaritas made with hibiscus infused simple syrup, and drink them on the rooftop overlooking the city…
Maybe our favorite lunch was heading to the asada market, where a long smoky corridor was always packed with people buying freshly grilled meat from a dozen or so stalls. You buy tortillas from someone else, salsas and grilled peppers and fixings from someone else, and for $10 or so you ended up with some of the best barbeque imaginable.
We took it easy in Oaxaca, enjoying the sights and our comfortable apartment. I did our taxes online. We strolled and explored, saw some great museums, and met some nice people. The Oaxaca valley is filled with villages and markets that are supposed to be very interesting, but we were lazy and only made it to Santa Maria del Tule, a village famous for its giant cypress tree with a diameter of almost 40 feet! We never did make it back to Monte Alban, a cool archeological site just out of town that we’d visited on our previous trip. Seven hours from Oaxaca by bus are some of the best beaches in the world, but we didn’t make it back to them either. We were pretty content, eating too much world-class food and feeling like expat elite.
It was a nice re-visit to a city that will always hold a special place in our hearts. Two weeks went by quickly, and before we knew it we were taking the six hour bus to Mexico City.