Wow, Oaxaca has become mainstream! In case you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years there's this place called Oaxaca (wa-HA-ku) in southern Mexico about the same latitude as the country of Belize that has great food, great people and great ruins. It also seems to have been discovered. In the first 15 minutes of being in the zocolo I've seen more tourists than ALL of Mexico City. We came into Oaxaca llate last night, got signed into our Hostel and went out to eat. Credit cards are not used that much here and our hostel charged us 10% more to use my card so I chose to pay for one night and I'll go to the ATM to get cash to pay for the other nights. I've found this to be the case everywhere including restaurants. The money thing is a bit out of control because the exchange rate is 12.5 to one. That means I paid 2,500 pesos for a hostel for 4 nights. It's not hard to pay 2000 pesos for bus tickets or 600 pesos for dinner. Each peso is worth less than one dime so it's like you're paying for everything in dimes. What's more interesting is the lack of ability to make change for anything over a 20 peso bill. I remember the last time I was here I went into an ice cream shop and tried buying four ice cream cones with a 50 peso bill and they about fell over. Not understanding how cheap things were I though $5 USD would cover it. I ended up digging through my pockets for change 10 pesos in change. Another time I tried buying an antibiotic and band-aids from a pharmacy with a 500 ($40 USD) and the girls eyes about popped out of her head when she saw it. My daily budget for 4 people is roughly 1000 pesos or $80 for food and accommodations.
So first day in Oaxaca and I've already seen changes since the last time I was here. Before it was more common to see tourists than Mexico City but not overwhelmingly so. This time every third person was a tourist from somewhere and there were plenty of Americans as well which you rarely ever see in Mexico City. I wish prosperity for the Oaxacenos but at the same time hope they don't turn into Cancun because a beautiful city will have been destroyed. It will be difficult for Oaxaca in the future to remember who they are so many tourists that it will be more profitable satisfying the demand for Nachos and Burritos. Italy has had so much tourism that it's all but been dissolved into Disneyland and I pray that Oaxaca doesn't suffer the same fate.
Our plan for day one of Oaxaca was to get our bearings, wander the streets, eat good food and figure out how to get to Monte Alban. We've been to Monte Alban before but we took a tour which had an excellent guide but only left us 15 minutes of personal time. Monte Alban is a lot like Machu Picchu in that you're best memories may be just sitting under a tree imagining what this once great city may have been like. This is what we planned on doing and in order to do that we needed to just find transportation alone.
Oaxaca is famous for several things - chocolate, cheese and black pottery. South of the zocolo a few blocks is "chocolate corner" where you can get a cup of chocolate caliente at every corner or there about. Mayordomo is becoming the Starbucks of Oaxaca in putting a chocolate cafe on every block. I've had hot chocolate before and I've had mexican chocolate before (Mayordomo) but I've not sat down and ordered a hot chocolate from a chocolate cafe so that's on the agenda. The cheese they sell in the markets in the form of giant balls that are wound of long flat "noodles" of cheese. I bought one kilo of cheese to eat as snacks while we walked around. It's good cheese that resembles a salty mozerella more than anything. The last item is something special to this region. They hand make the pottery without the use of a pottery wheel, cut out designs in the sides then bury it underground cover it with green leaves and build a fire on top. The smoke impregnates the pottery making it a very deep charcoal black. The best part is they sell it for next to nothing. It really is beautiful and unlike anything you'll see anywhere else.
The indoor market in Oaxaca City is possitively large and sells everything from handmade scarves to meat. I'd love to to have access to the mounds of chiles, chocolate and cheese not to mention the spices and other raw ingredients.
We also planned on getting off the zocolo to eat some great food at cheaper prices than we enjoyed before. I believe I used the Moon guide on our first trip to Oaxaca and this time I brought the Let's Go which is great for budget travelers and not so good for those who want to spend their childrens inheritance on Oaxacano cuisine so we just had to wing it a bit.
Before I go on I'll tell you a bit about Oaxaca the state and Oaxaca the city. Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ku) the state is populated by many different indigenous groups which make up nearly half the populus. The most common is the Zapotecas followed by the Mixtecas. The former built Monte Alban, the latter build Mitla and eventually ruled Monte Alban. The difference between Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico is that the native people didn't mix with the Spanish so technically they live in Mexico but aren't Mexican. A lot of the people in the
state don't speak Spanish either and stick to their original language. This brings a surprising diversity to the area and you'll notice that the people don't even look the same if you travel around the state. Oaxaca city has become very popular with tourists because it's a very pretty city with cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture. The zocolo is one of the prettiest anywhere with gardens, an art nouveau gazebo, hundreds of planted poinsetias and two story Spanish colonades lining all four sides. Because I've never been to Spain it reminds me a great deal of Bologna Italy which has somewhere around 70 miles of porticos lining the street. The zocolo is in the same style. Two of the four corners are anchored by 450 year old churches and the area is mostly for pedestrian use only. The restaurants lining the zocolo on both first and second stories are mostly white table cloth fancy places with excellent traditional Oaxacano food. The exception to this being the one Basque restaurant which seemed to have gotten lost and ended up in southern Mexico. I'm not sure how that happened but a Spanish galleon and shackles may have been involved.
I think I mentioned the hostel (Paulina Hostel) yesterday but I wanted to reiterate that this hostel is only about 3 blocks from the zocolo, is incredibly clean, is a Let's Go thumbs up and has a very tranquil inner courtyard with attached open eating area, free Internet and free breakfast. We rented all 5 beds in a 5 bed dormroom so we'd have a private room. There's wifi access just about everywhere except the room full of computers (ironically) so I can get on the Internet in our room. My only real complaint is the lack of power outlets in the rooms. I'm sure it's to discourage people from plugging in electric weed eaters or toasters but still I'd like to use my computer in my underwear which I currently can't do without shocking a bunch of German and Korean backpackers. I've only found four power outlets in all of the hostel – one I have to reach over a pool of water to access, the second has a christmas tree plugged into it, the third is in the dining room and the fourth the computer room. Each one of these places only has ONE outlet so I can't charge my laptop at the same time as my camera batteries. Today I'm going to go find a power strip of sorts.
Before we left the hostel we handed over our clothes to be washed which cost us 75 pesos or about $6 which was fine. So in search of food we wandered the pedestrian street leading from the zocolo to the nearly 500 year old church of Santa Domingo
We ran across the Catedral restaurant which had an inner courtyard. They had several mole entrees including Mole Almendrado (almond) which Natalya wanted. Overall the service was decent and the food average. The Mole Negro Tamale in banana leaf was the best thing there. Piper had squash flour soup with cubes of cheese and plantain molettas filled with meat neither of which she was impressed with because either the color or the texture was off. Jade had chicken breast with squash flower sauce which was decent. He didn't have any problem finishing it off. We were also reminded that if you can't speak the language and you didn't want something don't mention that you don't want it because they will only hear the part that they recognize (the item not wanted) and bring it to you. I ended up drinking both bottles of mineral water with gas. We made the mistake of saying no gas. No gas gets translated to gas which is what you get. We've learned this lesson before so we have no excuse. Sin gas is the secret password to water without bubbles or still water as the Brits say.
During dinner we heard an American couple at the next table and before leaving I asked them where there where from to which they responded Boulder Colorado. Boulder? That was my response because usually the travelers I encounter are from California, Florida or New York. I bet their reverse culture shock after returning home is greater than ours. Anyway there names were Audry and Jeffery and seemed to be a very nice couple. She'd been to Oaxaca 30 years ago and I can only imagine how much it's changed in that amount of time. It's changed in the last 3 years so 30 years has to be a big jump. She asked me about San Miguel de Allende and Puebla too so apparently she'd either been to them or had been doing some reading. She was also aware of the hot springs, the big tree and Mitla. There's a slight chance we may run into them tomorrow since they too decided to go to Monte Alban via the bus. I hadn't researched how to do that yet but I know it's possible.
Mexico does Christmas a lot different than the States. Since 97% of the population identifies themselves as Catholic they celebrate Christmas from December 25th to January 6th. Even now near the first the zocolo is going full swing with bands, decorations and many many people. Thankfully our hostel is a couple of blocks away so we can get some sleep.