I woke up before dawn to find my bus stranded on a mountain pass in Southern Mexico. Traffic was backed up for miles in fog so thick it was impossible to see more than one car length ahead. When I heard that an overturned trailer had closed the highway, I began to have doubts about the wisdom of this spontaneous trip.
Not two days earlier I was planning the last minute getaway from my apartment in Washington, DC. I'd heard about a United E-Fares International offer for travel to Mexico City. A long weekend was coming up, and I figured I could hop on an overnight bus in Mexico City to adventure in the quaint southern region of Oaxaca. But on the side of the mountain, I was wondering if the whole thing was worth it.
My hopes were lifted when the bus started moving again just after dawn. As we slowly rode down the slope, we passed a beautiful landscape of lush green shrubs and crops with eroded gorges revealing the region's deep red earth. Less than two hours later, we were entering the outskirts of Oaxaca -- capital city of the state by the same name. The sprawling low-rise city completely filled an arid valley ringed by high mountains.
Relaxing on the Zócalo
We took a taxi from the bus station to the center of town, and were delighted to find a beautiful park with shady trees and a gazebo in the center. Gently curving sidewalks pass through the square, with abundant park benches to sit and relax. Around the outside, colonial-style buildings framed the setting, as artists and musicians roamed around to entertain visitors. We couldn't resist the opportunity to grab a sunny table at a café on the north side of the square. We stashed our bags behind a chair, and enjoyed coffee and a huge Oaxacan breakfast.
Fans of Mexican food will find much to like about Oaxaca. The region arguably has the most sophisticated cuisine in the entire country. Complex mole sauces come in wide varieties ranging from rich and sweet to intensely spicy. Many dishes are augmented by Oaxacan quesillo, a mild string cheese similar to mozzarella but with a great texture and richer flavor. More adventurous eaters will enjoy trying chapulinas, fried grasshoppers with garlic and lime. Locals consume these snacks in enormous quantities, and vendors hawk baskets full of them in markets and on street corners across town.
Oaxaca also draws visitors as a major arts center. Wander in any of the countless shops in town and you will instantly recognize several styles of folk art sold in upscale boutiques across America. The traditional crafts of the region are the source of these styles, and the artisans have adjusted their products to cater to the international market. One of the advantages of coming to the source is that you can find countless treasures perfect for your tastes, yet not mainstream enough to catch an exporter's eye.
After checking into a hotel near the Zócalo, as the square is known, we had a brief rest before heading out to explore the town. Knowing the main market is one of the best places to shop in any Latin American town, we walked to the west side of the city and entered an immense open-air jumble of covered stalls and winding alleyways. The stands stretched for as far as the eye could see -- at least a half mile from the point where we entered.
This market was an absolutely a local affair. The vegetable stalls were beautifully arrayed with color, and the butcheries had a fascinating variety of freshly-slaughtered meat, including all the parts you don't expect to see in an American supermarket. There were only a few handicrafts for sale, near a central area devoted to "commedor" lunch counters. Amongst these, old ladies with baskets of deep-red grasshoppers wandered around, calling out., "Chapulinas!"
School march, Oaxaca City
We found a better variety of souvenirs at the handicraft market a few blocks south of the main square. There was a fantastic array of products, including rugs, clothing, black pottery, and brightly painted wooden animals. Items had marked prices, and the shopkeepers seemed completely unwilling to haggle. Given the great deals, I wasn't going to complain.
With the sun setting, we returned to the Zócalo to hear an outdoor concert going on in front of the cathedral. We stopped to enjoy it while looking at the old cathedral beautifully illuminated against the evening sky.
More upscale shops lined the main street heading north from the Zócalo, with very high quality items but still quite reasonable prices. Most impressive were the life-sized hand-carved wooden skeletons and jaguar masks decorated with thousands of tiny colored beads.
We looked in several of these shops before arriving at the most spectacular church in Oaxaca, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The 400-year-old structure was brightly lit, and a peek inside the doors revealed a beautifully gilded interior. It had a wide cobblestone plaza in front, where people congregated to enjoy the nighttime view.
Mariachi Band , Oaxaca City
Unable to ignore the delights of Oaxacan cuisine much longer, we returned to the Zócalo and took a seat at an outdoor restaurant on the eastern side of the square. It was a fantastic venue for people watching. Various artists strolled around, some in festive attire, and a xylophone band played at the restaurant next door. A dozen Mexicans were celebrating at a table next to us, and they hired a roaming mariachi band to play a few tunes. The crowd cheered after each song, and this evolved into a battle of the bands when the xylophone players started alternating with the mariachis.
Planning to take the morning bus to the coast, we called it a night so we'd have time in the morning for another breakfast on the square. The morning meal was quite enjoyable, but was unfortunately cut short by the need to get in a taxi for the bus station.
About 15 minutes after the bus departed, I realized something was wrong. We were headed west, meaning that were taking a less direct route that would drag us halfway to Guatemala before making a U-turn down the Oaxacan coast. After a few minutes fretting, I decided to sit back and enjoy the scenery. At least we'd be at our destination by nightfall.
At the end of the central valley, there were a number of agave plantations. The yucca-like plants were set in neat rows up the hillsides. Nearby, there were roadside stores selling the Mescal Tequila made from the plant's fleshy heart. The plantations gave way as we started ascending the mountains, where spectacular cactus forests covered the hillsides.
The sun started to set as we neared the Los Bahias de Huatluca, a resort development targeted toward all-inclusive package tourists from Europe and the United States. We considered staying here, but decided to keep going to the more rustic beach community of Mazunte.
The bus dropped us off at the junction town of Pochutla, and we took a taxi to get the final 10 miles to Mazunte. The driver left us in the middle of the village, but it didn't look like there was much around. Mazunte was dark. Really dark. There were few street lights in the town, and after walking 100 yards from the center we couldn't see much of anything.
We found a restaurant on the side of the road, and ducked in to ask for lodging recommendations from a group of English-speaking tourists. Hungry after our long ride, we decided to eat at a pretty Italian restaurant -- the only other place that was open on the main road. We sat at a nice candle-lit table underneath a tree, and had a delicious meal of fresh fish cooked in a diablo sauce of oil and dried chilies.
The only lodging to be found at this late hour was the Hotel Ziga, a collection of dingy rooms on the east side of the beach. The room was barely adequate. It had a fan caked in dust and a run-down shared bathroom. Unable to find anything better in a town with minimal nighttime electricity, we accepted the room for the night.
When I woke up in the morning, I was thrilled to see a fantastically beautiful beach ringed by lush green palms and tropical vegetation. The top of the broad beach had a handful of restaurants with tables facing the sea. None of these places had been visible in the evening -- apparently none have electricity after dark.
On each end of the beach the land rose quickly to create rocky coves, and the early morning light enhanced their beauty. How could such a shabby hotel be in such a wonderful place?
Fortunately, we found a much better place to stay on the other end of the beach. The Alta Mira had a series of bungalows on the side of a steep hill overlooking the sea. Our new room was a very pretty 1?-story cabaña with white plaster walls and a terra-cotta roof. The windows had wooden shutters that matched the furnishings. The red-tile patio had a hammock and chairs for looking out at the great view of the sea and the beach.
View from Alta Mira Cabañas
Finally settled in, we enjoyed a relaxing day on the beach. The water was comfortably warm, and the surf intensity varied enough to allow body surfing on the south end of the shore, and gentle pools for swimming on the north.
We had a tasty lunch at one of the outdoor cafés lining the center of the beach, then joined the afternoon tour of the turtle research station just east of the Hotel Ziga. Mazunte beach, we learned, is a major turtle nesting ground. The lack of lights on the beach at night is, in part, an effort to maintain their habitat.
The center had three large outdoor tanks with quite large specimens, some with shells as much as four feet across. There were hatcheries and an indoor aquarium with turtles in environments resembling their natural habitat. The center was surprisingly large and professional, given its location in a tiny village on the Oaxacan coast.
We returned to the beach for the remainder of the afternoon, and were treated
to an amazing sight. A little boy -- no more than 8 -- was fishing in the ocean.
He had a roll of line in his hand, and would run along the beach throwing the
hook in the water, each time catching a medium-sized. He did this over and over
again, like magic.
This seemed incredible enough until one time he pulled out a whole school of small fish. His mother and sisters followed behind him, picking his catch up in buckets as he went about his fantastic work. We watched the fishing savant with fascination for at least 20 minutes before heading uphill to our cabana to enjoy a beautiful sunset.
Before we could leave for dinner, we were surprised to find that our cabaña had no electricity. It had only recently been constructed, and though fully wired, and the electric hookup had not been completed. The caretaker had left a gas lantern and candles, and we realized that this was actually a quite romantic way to stay in this beautiful setting.
We grabbed a cab to Puerto Angel, where we planned to have dinner. We found a line of beachside restaurants with a beautiful view of the bay shimmering with the lights of the city. It was Saturday night, but the restaurants were empty. No customers. No waiters. Nobody. We wandered around a bit, until a man toward us from a street soccer game and offered to seat us.
We reluctantly sat down and ordered appetizers and drinks. We were quite hungry, but the appetizers seemed a bit stale. This experience, combined with the restaurants' general lack of customers, led us to be concerned about the freshness of the food. We decided to cut our losses and head back to Mazunte for dinner.
We ended up returning to the Italian place we'd enjoyed the evening before. We had another delicious meal in the restaurant's garden as we befriended a cat and a puppy with our table scraps. The town's children, meanwhile, played joyfully in the quiet street out front while the beautiful evening wore on.
There was no moon, and it was incredibly dark as we carefully made our way back to our unelectrified room. There was enough starlight once we got to the beach, but I could only find the narrow path to our cabaña by feeling for the bordering corn stalks I remembered seeing earlier.
We had to resort to lighting matches to go any further. We'd light one, look around, and then be able to continue several steps up the path before my mind's picture of the surroundings faded. The caretaker, ready with a flashlight, eventually led us the rest of the way to our room. We lit our candles and enjoyed a fantastically natural setting.
This was the last night we got to stay on the beach before heading back home by bus and plane. It had been a short stay, but so much had happened that my need for adventure was thoroughly satisfied. Looking back on the experience, I realized that little had gone as planned. It didn't matter -- things worked out anyway. One of the thrills of spontaneous adventures is seeing where they take you when things finally do work out. And things always do seem to work out in the end.
David G. Young and Lee Ann Westl toured Oaxaca and Mexico City over Thanksgiving weekend 2000.
See the complete set of photos from this trip.