By Alice Friedemann
I’ve wanted to go to Oaxaca, Mexico for over 40 years – ever since a college roommate came back from an archaeology dig with the most gorgeous rugs and carved wooden animals I’ve ever seen. Flying in in the dead of winter this year, seeing this beautiful warm city with amazing native people, its gorgeous colonial architecture – and then later, the postcard-perfect beaches, the origin of the amazing Day of the Dead parades and altars, the best mole sauces — and cuisine that’s so good that people fly to Oaxaca just to eat or take cooking classes – was so eye-opening!
Now I can’t believe I waited so long to explore this magical place!
Oaxaca is one of the 31 states in Mexico (about the size of Indiana), and also is the name of the main city. At least half the population is indigenous, mainly Zapotecs and Mixtecs, but there are at least a dozen other native peoples as well. About a third of them speak only their native language.
Oaxaca has it all — everything from the fabulous beaches along the Pacific coast to the 12,200 foot high mountains inland. It is the most biodiverse state in Mexico, with 8400 kinds of plants, 738 species of birds – overall Oaxaca has half of all bird species found in Mexico. We only had two weeks to spend there, so we stayed within the triangle bounded by Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido, and Huatulco – with a few forays within 80 miles of Oaxaca city.
Our friend Michael Woods, who has been going to Oaxaca for over 40 years, came along with my husband Jeffery Kahn and me.
The first thing we learned after landing in Oaxaca is why the guidebooks say not to drive at night. Driving from the airport to our hotel at 2 am, we could barely see the speed bumps. Nor are there always signs for these “redactors” — perhaps called that because if you hit one at full speed, your car is likely to be reduced to tiny pieces. By the time we arrived at the hotel, we were not the least bit sleepy!
The first striking sight we saw on our first morning was a teacher’s strike… and a major one. There were several miles of protestors marching south on all three lanes of the main road leading into Oaxaca from the north. Also present were many trucks of federal police in their dystopian black booted uniforms with shields and machine guns, because the teachers are notorious for their violent and disruptive protests. These marches have happened nearly every year since the late 1970s, paralyzing parts of the nation and causing millions of children to miss an average of 50 out of 200 days of school.
This day we were driving to the small mountain town called Santiago Apoala, two hours northwest of Oaxaca city, the last half on a rough gravel road that a passenger car can do if it’s not raining. This Shangri-la won’t be unspoiled for long though. We saw that the road is being paved. Meanwhile, few travelers seem to venture there. We found ourselves to be the only ones staying at the single lodge available for tourists, despite this area being National Park beautiful.
We sat on our porch below 2,000 foot high cliffs sporting lovely agave and other foliage.
Below ran a clear river under dawn redwoods.
Directly in front of us was a huge green lawn. Sheep and goats grazed there, herded by a National Geographic cover cute three-year-old girl.
We hired a guide to take us on a walk to a beautiful waterfall about 160 feet high, where we swam in the turquoise water below.
The guide then took us on a hike to a Zion-like narrows where the cliffs are trying to kiss one another.
And after that, to a cave with wonderful ancient legends.
Equally charming were the dogs that befriended us and followed us around town.
And just about every donkey we came near brayed until they exhausted themselves, happy to see friends perhaps!!
A very short old woman invited us into her simple, dirt floor home to show us the hats and baskets she’d woven. She wouldn’t take more than 50 cents for a basket she must have spent hours making.
We were invited to the wedding of a local couple, but spent most of our time playing with the children. They adored looking through our binoculars, giggling with excitement at familiar sights brought so close.
Santiago Apoala has a beautiful church with a statue of Jesus riding a donkey.
Jesus on a donkey is a fairly common saint seen in other rural churches as well.
There are other saints you may not have seen before in Oaxaca churches. This poor saint with an axe in his head comes from a church south of Oaxaca in Santa Ana Zegache.
Visitors find that in Santiago Apoala, there is only one place to eat and one place to sleep, both of them very inexpensive and non-luxurious. But if you’ve had as much fun as we did exploring all day, the food will taste fine, and the bed is plenty warm and comfortable, you will wake up excited to spend another day in this forgotten paradise. Getting around? Well, we found that there is no need to drive – you can hire a taxi or take a local bus from Nochixtlán. . . feeling more a part of the local scene as well!
We wished we could have stayed longer, but after the cool 6500 foot high valley, we were excited to be heading for the warm tropical beaches of the Pacific coast, Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.
And that will be the story for another day.
After 25 years, Alice Friedemann managed to escape her day job as a systems engineer and architect. When she’s not traveling, throwing dinner parties, reading non-fiction, baking, volunteering to take 4th and 5th graders on hikes at Audubon Canyon Ranch, gardening, or walking, she’s in the back yard with her husband Jeffery listening to the birds and breezes, watching redwoods sway, and enjoying the cats, squirrels, scrub jays, skunks and other wildlife that roam our back yard. She’s been baking with whole grains for ten years, and spent the past three years making many batches of chips and crackers, which resulted in her cookbook “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers.”