Thursday, November 28, 2013

Time in Oaxaca

We've decided that either Oaxaca has managed to get its tourism mix just right, and/or that we are the tourist demographic they're aiming for. Oaxaca attracts just enough tourists so that the facilities and services you need as a tourist are available (information, easily accessible day tours, a range of different foods) but not so many that you feel as if the tourists have swamped daily life for the locals.

So what did we find so attractive about Oaxaca? Of course there were the textiles of the last post, and the opportunities for wonderful shopping they provided. Top of the list, absolutely. But there were other attractions.

First, the charming streetscapes. Oaxaca is a low-rise town. As for medieval cities in Europe, the highest structures are the steeples of the churches.

Oaxaca Streetscape and Santo Domingo

Few buildings are higher than two storeys, so the streets have a regularity of scale that's pleasing and very human.

Oaxaca, Alcala

Then there's the colour. While there are a few grander buildings in rather austere stone, most of the buildings are painted in colours it would be impossible to replicate in other contexts - soft orange, sky blue, occasionally pistachio green, and my favourite, a golden, mustardy yellow.

Oaxaca street-scene

Secondly, if you're interested in, but not obsessive about archeological sites, the splendid Monte Alban is only a twenty minute drive from the centre of Oaxaca. There's more than enough history, myth, grandeur and the sense of a lost civilization to keep you deeply interested for hours, without leaving you overwhelmed. Monte Alban was the foremost centre for Zapotec politics, society and economy for close to a thousand years, from around 500BC to 600AD when the habitation of the site petered out.

Monte AlBan - Gran Plaza

A hilltop was levelled to create a grand plaza - about 200 x 300 metres in size - and then surrounded by pyramidal buildings with different ritual or social purposes. As always with such evidence of past grandeur you are struck by the skill, strength and sheer hard labour that were needed to achieve such an impressive structure with only the most basic construction technologies.

Monte Alban - altar (foreground) and Platforma Sur

Third, if you are a fancier of old churches, Oaxaca will satisfy your fancies. At almost every corner there is a glimpse of steeples or church roofs with colourful tiled domes.

Oaxaca Santo Domingo towers

Most of the churches were built in the sixteenth century and are a reminder of the power and wealth of Spain and its colonial impact upon Mexico. The most imposing of the churches is the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman whose every millimetre is richly covered in decoration:

Templo Santo Domingo

Just when you think you have seen the most elaborate church decoration ever, you turn to the side chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary and discover the already elaborate decoration is covered in what must have been kilos of gold leaf:

Oaxaca Templo Santo Domingo - Rosary Chapel

The churches are still in use - we happened upon a christening in the Rosary Chapel, and an ongoing mass in another church I visited - and they are clearly cared for and valued (though there are reports of gold and other effects being stolen in recent years). But the catholic church in Mexico is quite separate from the state and I was left with the impression that religion is a private affair and the churches are seen equally as part of their heritage as they are places of worship.

Fourth, there are some interesting museums, if you're a museum fan. We'd had rather a museum splurge in Mexico City and missed some of the recommended Oaxaca museums. But apart from the inspirational textile museum of the last post, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art that displays exhibitions by well-known local artists. It's located in one of the grand old buildings of courtyards and colonnades and balconies, with rooms opening one into another to provide views of how the works you've just seen relate to those still to come.

Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art
Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art interior

When the old building was adapted to its new purpose the painted decoration around some of the doors was preserved so that you are reminded that the building had had a history other than the spare, contemplative spaces that now exist.

The Jardin Etnobotanico was a different kind of museum. The space and buildings that are now a large garden had originally been the monastery for the Templo Santo Domingo and then, in the nineteenth century, a barracks and parade ground for the military. In the early 1990s there were plans to convert the space to a luxury hotel, but some of the famous local artists led a successful campaign to create a special kind of botanical garden - one that focuses on the plants of the Oaxaca region. The garden is now almost twenty years old and apart from being beautiful, it's fascinating, with special sections for plants for medicinal use, for food, for dyeing and other practical uses.

Oaxaca Jardin Ethnobotanico

Oaxaca Jardin Etnobotanico

And the fifth and final reason - the food. Yum. I thought I wasn't a great fan of Mexican food, but clearly my exposure to it had been very limited. Between recommendations from a colleague of my daughter, and a remarkably well-informed edition of the Lonely Planet we had some wonderful meals (and drinks). The restaurants we tried used local foods in modern ways.

Oaxaca foodOaxaca - saladOaxaca - sangria, blue tortilla, chilliOaxaca risotto

We had lots of mole sauces (the traditional bitter-chocolate based sauces that in Oaxaca come in black, red or yellow versions); beautifully soft, slow-cooked pork; local herbs; and the inevitable tortilla based accompaniments, including the blue tortillas topped with soft local cheese in the bottom left-hand photo. I even had risotto topped with foam! The risotto, by the way was wonderful with pumpkin, pumpkin flowers and caramelised pumpkin seeds.

Clearly, we've enjoyed our visit to Oaxaca. Wonderful. Highly recommended.


Kate B said...

Hi Lyn. Lovely to see Oaxaca looking much as I remember it when visiting with Devleena about 10 years ago. K

Knitdra said...

I'm trying very hard Lyn to not let my green eyed monster out the bag with you wonderful experiences in Mexico. more flashbacks of my time there than I can handle from 19 yrs ago. I am wearing my silver bangle still! Enjoy the rest of your trip!

DrK said...

OH MY GOD. i must find a conference in mexico IMMEDIATELY!!! what a beautiful place, i am totes their demographic too :)