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Vibrant arts and cuisine scenes make historic Oaxaca an ideal winter getaway

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: December 23, 2017
  • Published December 23, 2017

It was a bumpy ride on a twisting mountain road that brought us to Monte Alban, Oaxaca's biggest archaeological site, overlooking the metropolis. Monte Alban is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After getting off the bus, we found a guide by the ticket booth to tell us more about the site, which was carved out of a mountain. It was part ceremonial center, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory.

Known as the “ball field,” this site at Monte Alban was used for ceremonial games by the Zapotec people. The Oaxaca airport is in the background. (Scott McMurren)

From this vantage point, we could look out and see the Oaxaca airport, the downtown area and other mountains that surround the city. The Olmecs and Zapotecs that inhabited the site between 500 B.C. and 850 A.D. found mountain springs, which made it a natural site for agriculture.

Nestled in a central valley, the city of Oaxaca has a core population of around 350,000. Located about 300 miles south of Mexico City, there are frequent flights. But my wife, Christy, and I opted for one of the deluxe Mexican buses for s six-hour ride. There are just three seats across (two-and-one), with first-class legroom. The bus company, ADO, provides a separate departure lounge for its top-of-the-line "platino" service. They offer snacks, seat-back TVs, Wi-Fi and restrooms.

The urban center of Oaxaca also is listed as a UNESCO site, primarily for its layout as a 16th-century colonial city. There is a main square, a checkerboard layout of blocks — and hundreds of historic structures. Since its founding by the Spaniards in the 1520s, it has remained the economic and cultural center of the region.

Still, the area has had its share of conflict. It's estimated that between disease and forced labor, about 90 percent of the population died between 1520 and 1650. Natural disasters (earthquakes and floods) as well as political conflicts have taken a toll on the economic development in the region. In 2006, a popular uprising protesting the marginalization of the poor blockaded the city. Federal troops crushed the rebellion by force.

Visitors are drawn to Oaxaca for its history, art, food and warm hospitality. While the U.S. gears up for Christmas, Oaxacans have been celebrating all month long. First came the feasting and parties associated with Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico (Dec. 12). Then, Oaxaca has its own patron saint, Our Lady of Solitude (Nuestra Señora de la Soledad). Her feast day is Dec. 18 and there are fireworks and festivals going on for several days before and after the date. There is a local legend about a carving of the Virgin Mary discovered in 1620. On the site it was discovered, a church was erected, which now is near Oaxaca's town center.

On her feast day, the statue of Oaxaca’s patron saint, Our Lady of Solitude (Nuestra Señora de la Soledad), is decorated with flowers. The statue is inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude in Oaxaca, a brief walk from the city center. (Photo: Scott McMurren)

From our vacation rental six blocks away, we could hear the fireworks all night long for two nights — and the streets were lined with booths selling food and ornaments.

We were advised not to drink the water. But we definitely ate the food and enjoyed locally brewed coffee and beer.

Jorge Solis, one of the brewers at La Santísima Flor de Lupulo, has been making beer for about six years. From a crowded back room of the "Gourmand" restaurant, he offers a rotating selection of three draft beers. When we stopped in there was a white IPA, a black IPA and a pale ale.

Moises Perez is a trained "food engineer" with a passion for brewing. He and his wife, Sandra, met in Mexico City, but returned to her native Oaxaca. After taking an intense brewing course in Guadalajara, he started "Tierra Blanca," a microbrewery with a revolving tap of his beers, as well as his favorites from around Mexico. During a recent visit, I tasted two of Perez's favorite brews, a Jamaica Red Ale featuring local hibiscus flavor. A darker "Schwarzbier" featured cacao and pericon.

Jorge, one of the brewers at “La Santísima Flor de Lupulo,” presents a flight of his draft beers (left to right): Pale Ale, White IPA, Black IPA. (Photo: Scott McMurren)

Oaxaca is a food lover's heaven. You cannot walk for more than a block (we opted not to fight the local traffic with a car) without smelling the spicy chocolate or the delicious, fresh-baked bread. On our way to replenish our coffee supply, we stopped for breakfast at "Pan: Am." Along with the selections of delicious rolls, croissants and tasty breads, there were traditional Mexican favorites like chilaquiles, corn chips with mole and salsa. It's served with cheese, beans or eggs. I ordered molletes, strips of French bread smothered in red sauce, cheese and cilantro.

Another favorite restaurant right around the corner is the Casa Estambul. The setting features a giant courtyard, with a bar off to the side. It's set on the site of a former brothel, and the interior is filled with murals from local artists. The avocado toast will melt in your mouth. I opted for beet juice with lime and some other herbs. Sure, it stains your teeth, but it's good for you!

Throughout the downtown areas there are artisan markets, with jewelry, fabrics and other artwork. These artisans are a backbone for a resurgent tourism industry. Both Mexicans and foreign visitors come to Oaxaca to learn about its history and enjoy the food, the drink and buy the artwork.

A local foundation, "En Via," offers micro-financing and business education to women in the surrounding villages to help them start businesses. The foundation offers a tour where visitors can see local weavers and cooks in their homes. There's a demonstration of what the artisans are doing, plus an explanation of how they use the micro-loans (which start at about $75).

Nancy, our volunteer tour guide who lives half-time in Oaxaca, stressed that the bulk of the tour fee goes to the micro-loan fund.

Oaxaca's high altitude (about 6,000 feet), artsy environs, delicious cuisine and favorable exchange rate make it a favored spot for ex-pat Americans. We were here for "just" a week, but met many Americans who are permanent residents, or who were here for several weeks or months. Everyone we spoke with agrees Oaxaca is a great place to "thaw out" from the northern winter!

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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