As the flight from Mexico City descends into the central valley of Oaxaca, all the passengers rush the windows on one side for a close-up look at the ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Albán. From our bird’s-eye view, the magnificent ruins—situated on a moonscape plateau—look like a landing strip of the gods.
In the valley below, the long shadows of the afternoon fall across an endless patchwork of wheat and alfalfa fields, their textures soft and inviting, like those of the rugs that have been woven for a thousand years by descendants of the people who built the ruins we had just passed.
Perhaps the best all-around vacation spot in Mexico, Oaxaca (pronounced “Wa- ha-ka”) offers perfect weather, an abundance of sights, reasonable prices, and delicious food. The city sits between two mountain rangers at an elevation of five thousand feet, and its weather is pleasant and moderate year-round. Winter is the most popular tourist season, but summer here is much cooler than in Texas, with refreshing daily rain and highs occasionally reaching the 80’s. Springtime is a riot of greens, and in the fall the surrounding hills erupt in millions of marigolds, grown for Day of the Dead celebrations. Although the city has a population of 220,000, the state of Oaxaca is largely rural, with seventeen indigenous groups, making up one third of its 3,000,000 inhabitants. More important, these people are not as economically disenfranchised as the Indians who rebelled in and around the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, 260 miles away, and they continue to welcome tourists to their villages and markets with open arms.
The music at the airport faded away as I buzzed off in a VW colectivo (“van”) with several other passengers. Five blocks from the zócalo, I was left standing in front of a set of purple doors on a lonely street with no hotel in sight. After ringing the bell, though, I was greeted by name and escorted into the charming courtyard of the Casa Colonial, a comfortable American-owned guest house. The traditionally decorated rooms surround a large garden complete with parrots, and the library-sitting room is stocked with travel books and fat novels.
Once settled in, I wandered out to explore the zócalo, the main plaza and the focal point for activities in the city. My first dining adventure was at the newly opened Hostal de la Noria, a classy hotel and restaurant located two blocks east of the zócalo at Hidalgo and Fiallo. The restaurant, with soaring ceilings and hand-stenciled walls, is owned by Mariana Franco, who—in the spirit of the best-selling book Like Water for Chocolate—is cooking dishes from her grandmother’s recipes.
I could not pass up the sopa de cuitlacoche, a true Mexican delicacy. Slightly reminiscent in flavor of its more famous cousin, the truffle, cuitlacoche is an inky black fungus that grows on the corn in the region. At first glance the dish looks like black bean soup, but a closer inspection reveals what seem to be billions of tiny black specks suspended in a clear broth along with pieces of onion and corn—a truly delicious soup.
The next morning, stuffed from Casa Colonial’s excellent breakfast, I set out early to see some of the city’s sights. Luckily, I was just around the corner from one of the loveliest, La Soledad Church, which houses a statue of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgen de La Soledad (the Virgin of Solitude), splendorously adorned with a four-pound gold crown, six hundred diamonds, and a pearl large enough to have an oyster inside.
Six blocks northeast, adjacent to the Santa Domingo Church, is the impressive Museo Regional, which contains the Mixtec treasures of gold, silver, turquoise, jade, and pearl found in the fabled Tomb Seven at Monte Albán. Other museums that bear visiting are the Graphic Arts Institute, with ever-changing exhibitions, and my favorite, the Museo Rufino Tamayo.
Located in a lovely colonial house built of massive cut stone, the museum exhibits Tamayo’s collection of spectacular Mayan, Aztec, and other pre-Hispanic artifacts. I was particularly taken by the universal artistic motifs of these forms. A small statue of a seated woman with a mysterious, all-knowing smile looked like a Mesoamerican Mona Lisa. One figure was posed like Rodin’s The Thinker, and another resembled a laughing Buddha.
Since his death two years ago at age 91, Tamayo’s mantle as Oaxaca’s most celebrated native artist has perhaps been passed to painter and weaver Arnulfo Mendoza, who hails from a long line of rug weavers in the nearby town of Teotitlán del Valle. Mendoza’s wife, Canadian-born Mary Jane Gagnier Mendoza, runs an art gallery in Oaxaca called La Mano Mágica (the Magic Hand), on Avenida Macedonio Alcalá. It features excellent folk art and other more classical pieces.
If you can’t afford the rather steep prices at La Mano Mágica, you can spend days ducking in and out of small shops all over town, looking for the perfect rug, clay pot, hand-carved animal, or painted-tin Christmas ornament, all at prices that will have you carrying massive bundles on the plane back to the States. I found some of the best goods and prices at Artes Oaxaqueños (Avenida J. P. García) and at Aripo (García Vigil 809).
The most interesting shopping, however, is in several outlying Indian villages, each specializing in a particular craft and holding its own market on a different day of the week. Sunday is market day in Tlacolula, and with two new friends from the Casa Colonial, I caught a cab from town to check out the major sights in that direction. Our first stop was El Tule, a monstrous Montezuma bald cypress tree with a trunk measuring an astounding 150 feet in circumference. Said to be two thousand years old, and certainly one of the oldest living things on earth, the tree completely dwarfs the church that has rested for centuries in its shade.
Vendors at several nearby stands sell Mexico’s best mescal crema in hand-painted bottles that are themselves fine folk art. Mescal, for