Posted by: lianadevine | 28 August 2008

The Big O

We never really realized how much we missed the beach until we had left it. But the beach at Huatulco was literally and figuratively a long way from Xcalacoco and we found out you can never really go back. We treasured our days at the beach, but it was time to turn inland in search of more temperate climate. With spring approaching, it would only get hotter in the south of Mexico.

Oaxaca was planned to be the first stop on a route that would take us back into central, colonial Mexico. Though it’s only a few hundred kilometers on the map, experience told us it would be a long hard drive through the mountains, slow going because of traffic and the need to keep our engine cool. We’d heard the most direct route was also very sinuous, so chose to double back to Tehuantepec, then take the road more travelled to Oaxaca.

We set out early the Saturday before Palm Sunday so we would be safely to our destination before the start of the Semana Santa traffic. But the 38C+ heat proved to be too much, for us, for Spike and for our bus. We stopped many times along the side of the road, waiting for the temperature gauge to drop to a safe level, showering Spike with cool water to quench the heat. As a last resort, after crawling uphill in first gear, we unhooked the Thing and I drove separately for about 50 km.

By mid-afternoon, we decided we couldn’t continue to drive the steep inclines in the heat, so we parked on the side of the road at Totolapan, across from an all-night military checkpoint and their favourite diner.

At least he's on the right side of the road

At least he's on the right side of the road

It was a steady stream of soldiers, semis, buses and burros that night, so 6AM came early. A short 80 km drive brought us into Oaxaca, seesawing up the last 2000 ft, watching the sun rise over the hills we approached. We actually climbed up to 6600 feet, and dropped down into the Oaxaca valley, blanketed in agave cactus. Stands and shops selling mezcal made from the blue agave clustered along the highway from Matatan on, while the entrance into the city was lined with jacaranda trees cloaked in purple blossoms.

The Oaxaca Trailer Park had been rumoured not to exist anymore, but we found it where the guidebook led us. It was about half its former size, a newly-opened office building taking up one corner with another building going up beside it. We had been here eight years ago and had a few haunts in the city we wanted to check out. We also got some advice from our friends Dawn and Noe, who had lived here after we last visited and have now moved on. So we set about to rediscover Oaxaca, and have not been disappointed.

Through Dawn and Noe, we met Andrea and her family and Shoshana and Alejandro, who have been kind enough to show us around, and with whom we have shared several pleasant mealtimes. We renewed our acquaintance with Cafe de Olla, still an excellent restaurant near the Santo Domingo Church and museum. We dutifully discovered Itanoni, as recommended by Dawn and Noe, enjoying a typical Oaxaqueno brunch, and a dinner at La Biznaga was a frugal gourmet delight. We’ve been to Nueva Babel to hear Alejandro’s band play, and one morning went with Shoshana to nearby Santiaguito to see their property and meet some neighbours, Tom and Elaine. It’s as though we have inherited a circle of friends, through Dawn and Noe but in their absence.

We’ve also met a wide variety of travellers in the RV park. We’ve seen many Europeans, mostly from

If ours is a bus, theirs is a...?

If ours is a bus, theirs is a...?

Germany, with a variety of mobile living quarters, some Americans and a few more Canadians. At times we’ve had a regular United Nations here: France, Austria, US, western Canada, England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, eastern Canada. English seems to be the universal language of travel, and even if someone’s Spanish is limited, we can usually share our experiences in English. Calvin enjoys meeting “new neighbours” as they pull in and we’ve become a fountain of tourist information regarding routes and potential campsites along the way.

Since Oaxaca is not on the regular tourist track (read:beach) it is often bypassed by northamericans on their way somewhere else. Oaxaca sits at the crossroads between east and west, north and south, so it is a stopping-off place, a spend-the-night-and-move-on place, not a destination in itself. This is a shortsighted misconception: Oaxaca and area offer endless possibilities.

The city sprawls along the Atoyac River and has crept up the hillsides ringing the valley.

Leanne takes a breather

Leanne takes a breather

To the southwest, at Monte Alban, three such valleys meet, their confluence crowned by Monte Alban’s commanding temples. We visited Monte Alban on Good Friday, which was also the Spring Equinox this year. Though I climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid, I can’t say I felt the mystic vibe of the ancients.

Each of the three valleys contains a number of small villages, whose residents have perfected a local craft: San Bartolo makes unique unglazed black pottery, Santa Maria Atzompa specializes in green-glazed pottery, you’ll go to Teotitlan to find woven wool rugs, and artisans in Xochimilco produce tinwork of all descriptions. The fanciful animals from Arrazola, carved from wood and brightly painted, defy description. All of these towns have their special market day, so you could easily spend a week or two visiting each town in turn. Or do as we did, and find them all under one huge roof at the Central market in Oaxaca.

View from Cerro Fortin

View from Cerro Fortin

Before the summer rains, the hills are dry and dusty; low scrub and cactus, along with feathery pines, make up the majority of the visible vegetation. But the city itself is fertile and green, fed by the waters of the river, and the numerous dams located in the hills beyond. There are the ubiquitous laurel trees that indicate onsite water, palms and rubber trees, citrus and tropical fruit trees, bugambilla and plumeria and other flowering trees I don’t even know the names of. I can only imagine it becoming more lush and green with daily summer showers. Our spring days are warming up, but the evenings bring a slight breeze and cooler temperatures, so it is more comfortable to sleep.

We wake to the sound of birdsong in the park, then at 6:30, when the bells of a nearby church ring, Spike can finally have his breakfast. Tuesdays, there’s a street market set up just outside our park walls, so it’s handy to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables, even shoes, clothing, cosmetics and audio- and visual entertainment. We enjoy the outing as an excuse to eat pork tacos freshly made “on the street.”

There are many museums, art galleries and cultural events to enjoy in Oaxaca – we’ve only just begun to explore. Stay tuned for part 2.

PS this post was originally written in March



  1. You seem to be havingh a good time. I’m envious.

    You wrote: “English seems to be the universal language of travel”, but I’m not sure that this is true all over the world.

    Have you ever thought of learning Esperanto? Take a look at

  2. Hi, Leanne and Calvin.

    I check Ventana Vistas regularly, but I hadn’t seen any updates for a while—until this morning, that is. What a treat it was to get new installments of your relocation saga!

    Oaxaca sounds wonderful, and it’s obvious that you’re well pleased to be there. I just took a look at a fascinating website, Oaxaca’s Tourist Guide, and I was captivated by the amazing history and cultural diversity to be found there.

    I greatly look forward to reading more as your saga continues to unfold!

    Very best wishes—

    Dennis in Phoenix

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