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 those who have never acquired the taste, is the sharp-edged tequilalike potion with the legendary worm in the bottle. Mescal crema is a first-class variation—very smooth.
We piled back in the cab and headed for the thousand-year-old Zapotec ruins of Yagul, where, miles from the nearest village and with no other cars in sight, we paid off our cabbie and sent him away, trusting the ancient gods to bless us with our next ride.
Though Yagul is not as impressively preserved or restored as Monte Albán, the location has a charm all its own. I climbed to the highest point of the hillside ruins, where the haunting silence was broken only by the whisper of the wind and the call of a circling hawk. Then from the stream bank below came the sound of someone whacking on a piece of bamboo with a machete, followed by the notes of a flute under construction. A few more whacks and the tuning improved, singing out a melody of lost Zapotec music, here and then gone again across the mountains.
After a while, another car arrived at Yagul, and out stepped two visitors from Mexico City who had flown down for a friend’s wedding. Connie, an elementary school teacher, and Luis, a lawyer and bodybuilder, graciously offered us a ride. Our next stop was the town of Mitla, with pre-Hispanic ruins consisting of entire walls of incredible inlaid stonework forming the intricate geometric patterns still found in the pottery, clothing, and rugs of the area. This highly detailed ornamentation distinguishes where the Zapotecs performed what have been referred to as “heart-wrenching” human sacrifices.
Connie and Luis later dropped us off at the rug weavers’ village of Teotitlán del Valle. The Oaxacan rug craft has shown a strong resurgence in the past few years, with the best weavers once again using natural dyes made from wood moss, leaves, and tiny scarlet cochineal insects. We wandered from house to house, watching the weavers at work and looking through vast piles of beautiful rugs. The best ones are not cheap—averaging $250 for a three-by five-foot throw rug.
After more shopping, it was time to eat, and we naturally chose Tlamanalli, a small restaurant in Teotitlán that the New York Times has called one of the ten best culinary destinations in the world. Run by Abigail Mendoza, the sister of weaver Arnulfo Mendoza, Tlamanalli serves traditional Zapotec food in a big airy room with an open kitchen at one end.
The following day I found an even better restaurant, perhaps my favorite in all of Mexico. A short cab ride from Oaxaca, the Nuu Luu, in the northern suburb of San Felipe del Agua, is a picturesque outdoor spot perfect for a Sunday afternoon repast. Beneath a lovely flower-shaded patio, Guadalupe Salinas Gómez serves a veritable feast. Welcomed like family, we were each handed an aperitivo consisting of mescal crema, grenadine, and orange and lime juice in glasses whose rims had been sprinkled with spicy salt laced with powdered gusano—the worms that come in bottles of mescal. There is no menu at Nuu Luu; the food just arrives: roasted chapulines (“grasshoppers,” a Oaxacan specialty that tastes like hot salted peanuts with legs), nopales (“cactus pads,” finely sliced and sautéed), guacamoles, fried pig skins, tiny boiled red potatoes, and savory cheese-filled quesadillas. The sopa ranchera was followed by chicken with mole amarillo, calabacitas (“squash”), chicken in banana leaves, rice, black beans, and a large bowl of incendiary chipotle sauce.
We washed this dinner down with cold Bohemias. Over lunch I struck up a conversation with a charming one-toothed gentlemen named Beto Palacios Gonzales, a famed local tour guide better known as Mr. Oaxaca. He was staging a banquet for some visiting Mexican businessmen, and he invited is to watch the entertainment: a guelaguetza (a traditional folk dance in spectacularly colorful costumes), then a large marimba band, and finally a weaving demonstration. Two and a half hours later, my companions and I rolled out of the place, having spent the paltry sum of $13 each, including the cervezas.
You can eat wonderful food in a different Oaxacan restaurant every day for a month, but I recommend the oaxaqueño food at El Topil (near Hotel Stouffer Presidente); the goat barbacoa spareribs at La Capilla in the town of Zaachila (a beautiful drive on the way to the ruins of Cuilapan); and the pre-Hispanic food at Yumenisa, which serves armadillo, iguana tacos, and other rare delicacies for the brave of heart. Finally, even if you can’t afford the rooms at the Presidente, you’ll be welcomed at their dining room (try the big Sunday buffet) or the poolside bar in the courtyard for a two-for-one happy hour with complimentary appetizers.
What with shopping, touring, eating, and taking long siestas, my visit to Oaxaca began to blur into one long happy memory. One experience, however, stands out. My visit coincided with a full lunar eclipse, and I was determined to see it from the ruins at Monte Albán, which from the plane had seemed like a natural observatory. At its peak, from A.D. 300 to 700, this Zapotec city had 25,000 residents and was the capital of two hundred settlements in the area. By the twelfth century, the Zapotec culture had fallen into ruins and the Mixtecs had moved in, reusing old tombs to bury their own dead.
I tried to persuade a couple of cab drivers to undertake this journey by celestial navigation, but the first said I was borracho (“drunk”) and the second said I was crazy. I could hardly blame them. The site—which lies at the end of a perilously steep and winding road—closes at five-thirty and the eclipse was booked for midnight.
At last I gave up and headed to the zócalo, where I took a seat at an empty cafe and leaned back for a better view.
“¿Sabe usted qué es?” asked my waiter nervously, pointing at the vanishing sliver of moon. (“Do you know what it is?”)
“La sombra de la tierra,” I told him. (“The shadow of the earth.”)
He didn’t seem to understand. I held up two coins from the table to the streetlight—a five-peso piece for the sun, a two-peso coin for the earth—and had him hold a fifty-centavo piece for the moon. When I moved the earth, its shadow fell on the moon.
“La sombra,” I explained.
He whistled low in understanding.
A short time later, I noticed my waiter inside the cafe holding up two coins for the pretty girl running the cash register, who seemed delighted by his demonstration.
“La sombra,” I heard him say to her. Then he looked over his shoulder and gave me a glorious smile.
If You Go
Hotel Stouffer Presidente, Cinco de Mayo 300, (52) 951-6-06-11. The swankiest place in town. Double $145-$160.
Hotel Victoria, Lomas del Fortín 1, 951-5-26-33. Bungalows amid gorgeous tropical landscaping. Double $100-$145.
Hotel Monte Albán, Alameda de León 1, 951-6-27-77. Located in a four-hundred-year-old building. Double $38.
Casa Colonial, Miguel Negrete 105, 951-6-52-80; U.S. reservations 800-758-1697. Special tours this summer include the annual Guelaguetza Festval (July 25 and August 1). Rooms $35 per person, including a huge breakfast.
Mr. Oaxaca can be found at nine every morning at the Café Bar del Jardín.