(Continued from “Vamos a México! Part IV: San Cristobal”)
DAY 11 – OAXACA, MONTE ALBÁN, ARRAZOLA, CUILAPAN AND COYOTEPEC
The darkness outside the bus was slowly starting to give way to subtle shades of grey when I woke up. Soon the eastern horizon had gained enough colour for the surrounding scenery to step into the limelight.
The state of Oaxaca looked different to Chiapas; wood-covered mountains and stretching valleys had replaced the entangled jungle. I remembered the curved night journey and figured we must have passed more dramatic altitudes along the way. I nearly fell off my seat a few times during those abrupt turns.
My first impressions of Oaxaca were mixed. Our morning entry into the city was met by a flow of heavy traffic in both directions. I got off at Oaxaca’s über-modern 1st-class bus station and walked about 30 minutes to my hotel, at all times accompanied by the roaring noise of the cars and city buses. The latter must have come all the way from the last century; rather cute, they looked like US-yellow-school-buses-turned-white.
Hotel “Aitana” was at the outskirts of downtown Oaxaca. I dropped my stuff there and immediately hopped on a tour heading to the main sights in the vicinity of the city – Monte Albán, Arrazola, Cuilapan and Coyotepec, in that order. It felt somewhat lonely inside the tour van where not more than three other people were sitting – a guide and an elderly Mexican couple. The latter was decidedly outside my age range. I wondered how much fun the ride would be, especially me being the only English speaker among us four.
The answer came quickly; Jose Luis and Lucia from Mexico City turned out to be young at heart and great fun. The first thing Jose Luis did when we had arrived at Monte Albán was asked what my favourite colour was. Hearing it was blue, he disappeared and soon came back – carrying two Mexican straw hats. One had a pink ribbon and was meant to be for his wife. The other had a blue ribbon. The rest is, as they say, history. Muchas gracias, señor Jose Luis!
The archaeological site of Monte Albán (located some 9 km from the nowadays city of Oaxaca) was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica. The Zapotec shapes of the pyramid-like structures looked different from the Mayan ones I had seen in such abundance in Yucatan and Chiapas. The setting atop a mountain in the middle of a valley was also unique. I climbed the steep steps of the Plataforma Sur in the southern part of the site for a panoramic view. Vast open space was stretching in front of me in beautiful symmetry.
The Zapotec site of Monte Albán; view from Plataforma Sur
The Zapotec site of Monte Albán
The Zapotec site of Monte Albán; Plataforma Norte
The Zapotec site of Monte Albán
In the background, Jose Luis was disputing every historic fact with our guide Lorena. Lucia was holding on firmly to her new hat to prevent it from flying all the way back to Oaxaca. I closed my eyes and smiled. It felt like being part of a family outing with most beloved grandparents.
The next stop of the tour was Arrazola – the village famous for the so-called “alebrijes” – hand-made painted wooden figurines. Arrazola was arguably the main reason I had booked the whole tour. Ever since reading the piece on Arrazola written by a person and traveller I deeply admire, I had wanted to visit the village. It appeared in my mind as a magic place populated by colourful little animals. Finally I could see it with my own eyes.
Our way went along a dirt road where two cars could barely pass side by side. Suddenly we saw a large group of people occupying the way. My heart sank. Another manifestation a-la Comitan? Thankfully, it was “only” a tour minibus identical to ours, whose left wheels got stuck in the mud. In a Good Samaritan’s gesture, we duly picked up the stranded passengers, carefully edged around the trapped vehicle, and continued our journey in a larger group. Needless to say that they were all Spanish speakers, and I needed to step up in my understanding of the guide’s (now exclusively) Spanish commentary.
Arrazola turned out to be a tiny village whose “centre” was indeed a short stretch of the Oaxaca-bound road. The few details behind the traditional craft were explained to us in one of the village’s large workshops. Interestingly, the wood carving of the alebrijes is only performed by men – while it is the women’s job to paint them afterwards.
I spent about an hour wandering around the store, which was literally bursting with alebrijes in all shapes and sizes. From life-size peacocks to tiny frogs barely the size of a fingernail, my eyes did not know where to stop. I ended up buying five smaller animals: two turtles, two piglets and one of unidentified origin. Some were meant as presents, but let’s see if I can find the strength to part even with one.
An alebrijes workshop in Arrazola
An alebrijes workshop in Arrazola
A rainbow-ful of alebrijes in Arrazola
An alebrijes workshop in Arrazola
Cuilapan was our next stop. I first had the pleasure of dining at “Hacienda Cuilapan” restaurant with Jose Luis and Lucia. Somehow we managed to communicate without having a single language in common. At the end I could understand about 80 per cent of what they were saying in Spanish; they, too, looked like my English was making sense. Truly languages are not really a barrier when communicating with such pleasant people.
My major discovery during the meal was the so-called “mole“. Often referred to as Mexico’s version of a curry, it is a sauce typical for the Oaxaca region and traditionally served with chicken and turkey. There were at least eight different kinds of mole on display, but I only had room for three, one of them being the most ubiquitous mole verde.
Cuilapan is famous for Danza de la Pluma (“Feather Dance”) originating from the village. It also houses the Dominican Ex-Convento de Santiago Apostol, an unfinished church building remarkable for its mixture of architectural styles and the odd absence of a roof over a vast pillared area.
Ex-Convento de Santiago Apostol, Cuilapan
The San Bartolo Coyotepec village some 13 km south of Oaxaca was the final stop of our route. An otherwise low-key destination, it is famous all over Mexico for the very peculiar black shiny pottery (“barro negro brilliante“), created by a certain Dona Rosa and dating back to the 1930s. We sat through a demonstration of the art technique performed by one of Dona Rosa’s descendants. An unprepossessing chunk of clay was elegantly transformed into a beautiful jug decorated by a flower. The show was squeezed into half an hour, but the process takes several weeks in reality.
Interestingly, the negro brilliante pots are not designed to contain water. In order to preserve the shiny surface of the pieces, they are only heated to the temperature of 80C degrees. Increasing it to 100C degrees would make them strong enough to prevent the water from leaking through; however, the famous shine would give way to rather bland grey texture. Now here is a fine example of beauty over utility.
Barro negro brilliante demonstration, Coyotepec
Barro negro brilliante demonstration, Coyotepec
You have been warned
In the evening, I had a few hours to run along Oaxaca’s geometrically planned central streets. My initial impression of the city as loud and unpleasant began to dissipate. I was slowly falling in love with Oaxaca; with its flourishing life, colourful locals and unobvious architectural gems. Every door and every window revealed a hidden chapter in the life of this exciting city. Things were happening in every single corner. Oaxaca was like a major metropolis in miniature.
So big was my sudden appreciation of Oaxaca that I decided not to embark on any tour the following day. There were quite a few points of interest around Oaxaca, but the city itself deserved dedicated attention. Some more attention than one evening could ever provide.
DAY 12 – MITLA AND OAXACA
It was still dark when I walked out of the hotel the next morning. The night before I was mesmerised by the La Soledad church literally a few steps away from where I was staying. I promised myself I would come back early in the morning to watch the sunrise light up its east-facing front walls. And there I was – alone on the still bluish grey streets awaiting the arrival of the new day.
The sunrise was spectacular. Because of the surrounding mountains, it took longer for the sunlight to reach the city, but it was well worth the wait when it finally did. I admired the peach-coloured La Soledad for a few blissful moments and wandered towards the zocalo to find my perfect breakfast.
Sunrise over the walls of La Soledad, Oaxaca
La Soledad, Oaxaca
Despite the waiters’ relentless efforts to lure me inside, I confidently walked past the touristy-looking restaurants on the zocalo. No, the place I was after had to have more locals inside. I did not have to walk too far; the 20 de Noviembre street opposite the market of the same name had several non-touristy looking venues. I settled at “Fonda Mexicana” and ordered my Mexican breakfast favourite – huevos a la mexicana, or scrambled eggs with tomato, onion and peppers, tortillas and mashed black beans on the side. Priceless!
A random morning detail of Oaxaca
View onto the street from “Fonda Mexicana” eatery
Oaxaca’s brightly painted walls
My major ordeal of the day was locating Oaxaca’s second(-class) bus station. It was meant to be diametrically opposite the first-class station across the city centre and took me a good 30 minutes to find. I then waited for another 20 minutes or so for a local bus to Mitla. Most visitors join tours which include Mitla in their itineraries covering the tourist sights east of Oaxaca. More adventurous types catch colectivos. I, however, decided to show some solidarity with the locals and take a local bus. Even compared to a colectivo, it looked like a good bargain.
The best I could describe Oaxaca’s second bus station is “organised chaos”. At least half a dozen of roaring buses would flock past the most crowded spots, a person usually hanging out of the front window and loudly announcing the bus’s destination. Front doors always remained conveniently open, and people were hopping on and off freely. Not forgetting to mind the speed of the constantly moving bus, of course. It was a fun experience.
The town of Mitla is situated about 45 km east of Oaxaca and is solely visited for it compact set of ruins. Experts disagree whether those have been built by Zapotecs or Mixtecs, but mere mortals like us come in flocks to admire and do not ask questions like that. I particularly liked the geometric designs of Mitla, which were more impressive than those at Monte Albán – even if the latter site decidedly won in magnitude.
Besides the ruins, Mitla gave a pleasant sight of a provincial town living its daily life in low tourism season. I was much entertained by the miniature three-wheeled vehicles serving as local taxis – like motorised versions of a rickshaw, they were fitted in well in a small town Mitla was.
One of Mitla’s funny vehicles
Church of San Pablo, Mitla
Mitla’s archaelogical site
Mitla’s archaelogical site with San Pablo in the background
After getting back to Oaxaca, I continued wandering purposelessly along the city’s streets and catching glimpses of its everyday life. I did not feel like seeing any museums or staple sights; it was the general atmosphere that I wanted to absorb, if only in a single afternoon.
Multiple memories come floating back as I think of Oaxaca. How I sat down to rest in a church (whose name escapes me) and was welcomed by a grinning priest; “you are not Catholic, but aren’t we all Christians”, he told me. How I asked a random passer-by where she had got her coffee from – and ended up following her to “Black Coffee Gallery“, Mexico’s best answer to Starbucks and a popular expat hangout. How I ran up the Cerro del Fortín hill in the northwest of Oaxaca for a panoramic view of the city and became the immediate favourite of a dozen construction workers putting up the new Guelaguetza amphitheatre. The details in my mind may be wearing off, but the photos are there to remind me.
The day was drawing to a close as I reached the Macedonio Alcala, Oaxaca’s main pedestrian shopping street. Heading north, the street led me towards one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque – the Santo Domingo Church. The elaborately carved interior simply took my breath away.
Black Coffee Gallery, Oaxaca. Who needs Starbucks, anyway?
Panoramic Oaxaca from Cerro del Fortín hill
The new Guelaguetza amphitheare on Cerro del Fortín hill
Santo Domingo Church, Oaxaca
Santo Domingo Church, Oaxaca
I finished my discovery of Oaxaca on the centre of the centres, the zocalo. Several groups of musicians were already celebrating – what exactly not being important at all. It seemed that one could always find something to celebrate in Oaxaca, regardless of the day of the week or time of day or night.
DAY 13 – THREE AIRPORTS IN ONE DAY
I was used to getting up early during my stay in Mexico – but my alarm’s activity at 5:30am in the morning was something unprecedented. Yes, I was leaving Oaxaca early. Leaving by plane from the city’s tiny airport. Hence the early awakening.
Speaking of air travel, I need to step back here. When planning my Mexican route, I had realised that getting from Oaxaca back to Cancun by bus would have been lengthy (I was looking at a 24+ hour journey), problematic and extremely exhausting. I had therefore booked a corresponding flight via Mexico City. A flight operated by Mexicana, Mexico’s (then) second major airline.
If only the story had ended there. A couple of days before departing to Mexico, I went online to check the status of my Mexicana flight. But Mexicana’s website looked somehow different to the previous time. Whatever there was before has all been replaced by a single front page. A front page announcing Mexicana’s bankruptcy and the resulting cancellation of all flights.
The resulting cancellation of all flights.
The resulting cancellation of ALL flights, and nobody had told me. I was raging. In case of a full-scale flight cancellation, it is customary for airlines to send at least a short email to passengers. Just in case those still decide to show up at the airport. Just to avoid delivering them the news face-to-face. A seemingly simple courtesy.
Not for Mexicana, though. I finally got through to the US hotline and was told that not a single Mexicana flight was operating. And that the soonest the flights could resume was November. Maybe. Actually, December was more likely. If at all.
There was little I could do, so I searched for flights with Mexico’s other airlines. Aeromexico, the nation’s flag carrier, seemed unaffordable for the whole Oaxaca – Mexico City – Cancun leg, but turned out a real bargain as a combination of Oaxaca – Mexico City and Mexico City – Cancun. Interesting! Perhaps they were giving people discounts for collecting and re-checking in luggage in person at D.F.
I was not even hoping to receive any compensation from a bankrupt airline, but was pleasantly surprised. A day before leaving Oaxaca, I logged into my online banking and had to nip myself to believe – Mexicana had fully reimbursed me for the unused flight. Bingo! In my eternal joy I even forgave the bankrupt Mexicans for forgetting to notify me of their financial problems.
And there I was on an early Friday morning, boarding one of Aeromexico’s daily air links between Oaxaca and the capital. Not forgetting to take a few snapshots of Oaxaca’s petit airport building. I managed to get a few beautiful twilight shots before being told by one of the guards that “no photography of the airport building was allowed”. Sorry, sir.
Xoxocotlan Oaxaca Airport at dawn
Aeromexico made a great impression of an über-punctual airline with a high quality of service and a generous 25 kg luggage limit. Even counting all the souvenirs, my backpack barely hit 14 kg, so I would have been safe even with Ryanair’s killer 15 kg “allowance”.
Some beautiful forest-covered peaks were lining our journey to Mexico City. You will remember that, with its population of over 20 million, it ranks the largest city in the world. It will therefore come of little surprise that the city’s outskirts began looming below long before we began our formal descent to the airport.
Initially low, the buildings underneath soon turned into full-scale skyscrapers. Those were so high that, at some moment, I feared we would surely crash into one. Especially when the pilot made a sharp left-wing turn around a massive rectangular building crowned with a tall spire.
The end of our flight seemed to see no end of wealthy looking residential structures. We were drawing lower and lower, and once again I was in fear – in fear that we would just land on top of those fancy flat rooftops, sweeping the satellite antennas and everything else off the face of the earth.
But out of nowhere suddenly appeared what looked like a runway; we had arrived at Mexico Benito Juarez airport. Indeed, the airport of the world’s largest city could not enjoy a more central location given the size of this megalopolis.
I had a few hours to spare before my onward flight to Cancun. My initial plan was to leave my backpack at the airport and venture out into Mexico City’s zocalo. It would reportedly only take me 40 minutes one way, or more than half the time the taxi would need for the same journey.
I seemed to have it all well planned – confirmed with a friend that the metro was safe enough to take (documents and valuable possessions securely stored at the airport, of course); checked which taxis to avoid; made a list of what to see around the zocalo; located the left luggage desk at the airport. I was ready to go.
And then I didn’t. Perhaps it was the fear to miss my connecting flight. Or I might not have been entirely convinced about my safety on the metro. It may also have been the rather obvious fruitlessness of spending 1.5 hours on a metro for less than an hour at the location. Or all the factors together; but something inside me stopped me from going. Instead, I treated myself to a couple of Vanilla Roiboos Chai Lattes from the abundant Starbucks shops and people-watched at the airport. I will make sure to visit Mexico City another time.
The final leg of my journey – to Cancun – featured an impressive number of US tourists. Just before take-off, I overheard the following bits of a conversation between my two female neighbours (must be performed in heavy US accent):
“Do you know if Mexico is in the same time zone as the US?”
“(hesitating) Erm… the answer’s no.”
“Is the whole of Mexico in one time zone?”
“(not willing to give up easily) How long is the flight?”
“We are arriving at 16:45 (silence) which makes it two hours (silence) assuming Cancun is in the same time zone (silence) but I have a feeling it isn’t (prolonged silence) so it could be three hours (getting very hesitant)maybe more.”
For them, the holiday was only starting. Mine was, however, coming to an end.
Cancun was the third and last Mexican airport for me that day. It was like being on a special airport discovery mission. My weary backpacker’s look attracted the attention of customs officers. Unfortunately for them, I had no imported apples to declare this time.
Cancun is divided into two distinct parts: the downtown “zona comercial” (where the locals live) and the so-called “zona hotelera” (where the locals work and where the city’s major hotels are concentrated). Zona hotelera occupies a 25-km island connected to the mainland on both sides and enclosing a lagoon. Endless Paseo Kukulcan road is the island’s main artery; it is divided into kilometre-long strips for navigation.
After safely getting off downtown from an airport bus, I caught a local “Ruta-1” bus to zona hotelera where I had booked to spend a night at the modest Sotavento Hotel. Finding budget accommodation in zona hotelera was not easy; most of the hotels on the island are the palace-resembling likes of Westin and Grand Caribe. In other words, outrageously expensive.
It took me two bus rides up and down the island to locate my hotel. Looking at the positive side, missing it the first time meant that I ended up at Kukulcan Plaza just in time for a spectacular sunset over the lagoon and mainland Mexico. Indeed, not many places in Mexico offer the view of the sun setting over the water.
DAY 14 – CANCUN AND DEPARTURE TO LONDON
Finally this day came. The day I was coming back to London! It seemed like I had been in Mexico for over a month, not merely two weeks. Everything in the air was a reminder of my imminent departure. Overcast clouds were gathering menacingly overhead; the waters of the paradise Caribbean were visibly troubled; and the famous zona hotelera was strangely empty. It was the right time to leave.
After capturing a cloudy sunrise not far from the hotel, I took my last walk in Cancun. I had heard diverging opinions about the place before, most of them being negative. It is hardly a surprise therefore that I had come prejudiced; but I did like Cancun. One cannot deny that it provides many visitors with what they really want: a beach location with minimum disruption to their everyday life back home, at that also being cheaper. It has the entertainment scene most westerners are used to. It has all the instantly recognised international (read: US) food chains such as Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King and 7 Eleven. It offers duty free shopping for well known brands in its Western-style malls. It is extremely convenient. That one cannot deny to Cancun.
Cancun’s only problem is that, especially as far as zona hotelera is concerned, it isn’t really Mexico. Those slamming the city off must have come for a different experience. The experience of getting to know a new country with a culture richer and older than most others. It is however wrong to blame Cancun for failing to be what it was designed to be in the first place: a package holiday destination.
I got up early and was for a while meeting only the locals – most on their way to work in numerous hotels and tourist amenities in zona hotelera. Finally some obvious tourists started crawling out of their shells, Bermuda shorts and flipflops clashing massively with the local service staff’s modest uniforms. Cancun was decidedly off-season. Monstrous hotels were rising like ghost ships, with barely any people to justify their size. Half of the shops were closed; those open were attacking rare foreigners like vultures.
(View my Flickr photo set for Oaxaca)
(View my Flickr photo set for Yucatan, including Cancun)
On my return flight back to London, I could not force myself to sleep. My holiday may have finished, but the memories from the two weeks spent in Mexico were many. I remembered the perfect sunrise over the Caribbean Sea from my terrace in Tulum. The colourful fish near Cozumel. The crystal clear fresh water of Grand Cenote. The boat ride to Yaxchilan between Mexico and Guatemala. The humorous locals in the town of Palenque. The frosty mornings in San Cristobal. The borderline pagan church in San Juan Chamula, full of smoke from hundreds of trembling candles. The Chiflon waterfall cascading lavishly in my face. The geometrically perfect Zapotec city of Monte Albán. The ever-festive, unforgettable Oaxaca. And of course the irresistibly bright, meticulously painted alebrijes in Arrazola. Just a few things covered over two weeks, over 2,000 km of ground travel and 70 hours on the road – still a fraction for a country the size of Mexico.
What was the highlight of my visit? Difficult to say. I am only certain about one thing. Somehow I do not regret not going to my original destination – Cuba – in the end. Viva Mexico!