Times & Places: If you can only visit one place in Mexico, make it Oaxaca

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Oaxaca, pronounced “wa-ha-ka” was our final destination on our five-week long Mexican journey last winter. We had meant to spend the last five days in Mexico City but because my knees weren’t in good shape, we saved this daunting city for our next visit to Mexico.

We have discovered a country full of music, dance, local cultures, symphony orchestras, marching bands, marching pilgrims, protests by working classes and villagers cut off from services, friendly, helpful locals, and wide, leafy plazas with shops and restaurants galore — in every city we visited.

Oaxaca seemed to have it all so it was a fitting place to end our journey. It’s a thriving, cultural city with a strong indigenous presence, a long way from the stereotypical beach resorts.

We arrived on a comfortable, first-class bus from Puebla and sought out the hotel we had booked for one night. Alas, it had problems with no wi-fi in the room, no CNN (to which we had become addicted to learn about the latest Trump fiasco), and its location — many blocks away from the central park, called Zócalo, as it is called in most large cities.

That first evening we walked to the Zócalo and found the hotel where we stayed for 10 days, the Hotel Marqués Del Valle, the only hotel in the square, where we dined each morning looking out at the vendors, musicians, and gatherings that make this Zócalo so lively and lovely. Children are everywhere, in their parent’s arms (no strollers here) or wrapped on moms’ backs or sides, or the older one looking after her siblings.

Too many children selling stuff

Alas too many are working as vendors selling everything from scarves to bracelets. Four children selling woven bracelets, ages two to eight, was a sight I can’t forget. Irwin commented that my giving them each a bit of money would compromise their entrepreneurial spirit. At that age, it should be compromised. How many of these kids do or will go to school? Certainly not the two sitting with their mom, begging on the street, one a babe in arms and the other a toddler. No, it’s not India, but only because of the numbers. Still it’s a stark contrast to the multitudes of tourists and well-off locals who enjoy the cafés and restos lining the Zócalo. Unfortunately, you can’t eat breakfast on the terrace facing the square without being accosted by a number of vendors and beggars. One older woman was glad to get our breakfast rolls filled with jam.

We chose an upscale room on the fourth floor, facing the Zócalo, which had its delights and disadvantages. We could hear every band that played and every tune they belted out, sometimes two or three of them, including Paul Simon’s “If I could,” his adaptation with new lyrics of the Peruvian, El Condor Pasa, and “Sound of Silence” could be heard five or six times daily, played on pan flute, pan pipe, accordion, guitars, and drums by a variety of groups, or solo by a guitarist who plays the pan pipes simultaneously.

Our room was quite luxurious, old-fashioned with modern amenities, and we decided to firmly plant ourselves in Oaxaca for the duration of the trip, to see the sights below and explore the streets, which all seemed to converge at the Zócalo. It was fun to get lost along the way and take refuge in a quiet café for a green juice or a coffee. Green juice, as I learned from our friend, Lynn Moore, is a blend of, well… green things… such as kale and spinach but I have a feeling it varies depending on what’s available. It’s usually 30 pesos or $2.25cdn.

Wonderful array of museums

The first few days, we visited art museums, archeological museums, basically any museum we found in our Lonely Planet guide. Happily, they were all within walking distance, and not so happily, some were closed for renovation or to change the exhibition. I won’t go into details about these galleries and museums except to say they are all worth a visit and all listed in any guidebook. The sheer variety and quality of Mexican art dazzled the artist in me. Cafés and restaurants also house paintings and other artisan crafts.

La Biznago, one of our favourites, is situated in a open courtyard, with a fountain in the middle, and was usually full whenever we arrived. It’s on Garcia Virgil St. one of the quietest streets leading away from Zócalo with several restos, bars, cafés and boutiques to recommend it. Biznago is a favourite for senior Western tourists and we chanced upon four Montrealers one night who recognized us from our Senior Times columns.

La Popular is another popular place for visitors and locals alike serving up some mean mushrooms and other vegetarian dishes, as well as the odd chicken breast, which is nothing much to write home about. Biznago is far more gourmet and its atmosphere can’t be beaten.

But enough of restaurants. The thing about walking around Oaxaca is that you are likely to discover the best places, food, and music on the fly.

Such was the case on a Sunday when almost everything on Garcia Virgil was closed and we went to the parallel Porfirio Diaz and heard a jazz band sound coming from one of our lunch spots, Hierba Dulce. We had eaten here a few times, happy with their fare of organic, Oaxacan ingredients, all of it vegan and gluten-free. Jicama, a watery root that is eaten raw is one of my favourites, and it comes with carrot sticks as a free appetizer to be dipped in a spicy powder and salt. And this resto has given me new hope about the benefits of eating corn. Another ingredient in many of the recipes is Huitalcoche, a corn mushroom, also known as Mexican truffle, that produces a metabolic process that enhances the nutritional value of corn, creating a high amino acid content. It has antioxidants and is low in fat and high in fiber. Hierba Dulce and its Sunday Jazz concert is a must for vegans and non-vegans alike.

Exploring on foot is the way to go

We avoided the free walking tour and the sightseeing buses, finding it more fun to explore on foot, as much as my knees would allow. Why? Because the best is to be chanced upon, whether it’s the excellent brass orchestra playing in Zócalo on a Sunday afternoon or the dancers in full costume, some on stilts, giving us a colourful spectacle of Oaxacan culture on a Saturday.

Art is everywhere, whether it’s in the hundreds of boutiques and cooperatives that sell Oaxacan embroidered clothing, weavings that include baskets, handbags, and carpets, leather products, jewelry, silver, gold and beaded, or at the more formal galleries and museums that feature contemporary Oaxacan paintings and sculpture.

The Mercado el 20 de Novembre or the “November 20th Market” a few blocks from Zócalo, was a memorable experience. We wanted to treat Irwin to a grilled meat session in the resto/market. First you buy the raw meat, sliced thin and then the vendor who is not the same guy who offers you a table, grills it and brings it to you in a large basket on top of tortillas.

We ordered ½ kilo at $7 and Irwin could barely finish it. Before it arrives, the owner of the resto who offers you seats at a long table, assails you with a myriad of small salads including cactus and avocado and of course salsa picante. These spicy sauces come in all colours and many consistencies in Mexico and you can never tell how spicy the salsa is until you’ve tasted it. Finally, for this vegetarian, there was a dish of tomato soup I ordered from yet another menu of a nearby restaurant, with three or four pieces of thick white Oaxacan cheese and black beans thrown in. To this I added the avocado and other condiments to make a hearty soup. During the process, we were seated with other couples and families at our booths and enjoyed the company of other diners. Few tourists seem to venture into the market, with everything from soup to nuts. Who needs 20 bread shops? We asked where to buy cheese and were answered with directions and a smile.

Eating Italian, with Charles and Dorothy

Our last dinner was at a pricey Italian eatery on a Sunday night not far from our hotel. We met up with our new friends, Charles Mallory and Dorothy Levine who reside both in Montreal and Ottawa. Irwin and I shared a sumptuous plate of grilled seafood and a tomato and mozzarella salad. Charles and Dorothy had penne with seafood and an appetizer of octopus. They were spending a month here in an apartment hotel and couldn’t say enough about Oaxaca and the surrounding villages. There are archeological sites and indigenous villages, which they visited by local bus. You can also take a taxi.

Our last day was spent getting last-minute gifts of blouses and scarves in the markets surrounding Zócalo. Bargaining is the name of the game, and prices vary for the same item in different markets. It’s all about colourful wares in street markets, folk music, and Oaxacan delicacies.

But the friendly smiles of the locals are what I will remember most and what I will look forward to when we return to Mexico to explore some of the towns and cities that Dorothy and Charles recommended.

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