It would seem incredulous to be in Huatulco in the state of Oaxaca and miss the opportunity to visit the state capital city Oaxaca de Juárez, only 170 miles (280 km) away. We rented a car and left our boat behind in marina Chahue. It is not uncommon for other marina guest to do the same. If driving doesn’t suit you, one can take a bus or fly on aerotucan. Having a pet, however, made driving our only choice.
We stumbled across Europcar while walking around Huatulco and Jerrad went in to ask about their rates. He walked out seeming satisfied with the price and was told that we could just return the next morning to get a car. All we needed was our passport and a credit card, painless enough. We returned the next day promptly at 8AM only to find that there was no car available until maybe that afternoon. That was not going to work out for us because, even though Oaxaca was only 170 miles away, the drive would take us at least 6 hours as it goes through the Siera Madre mountain range and we would prefer to arrive before sunset. We thought of taking the taxi to the airport for other car rentals when the Europcar staff said he has a friend who most likely would be able to get us a car. Two phone calls and a taxi ride later, we met his friend Marcos at the Rentame facility in the airport and by 9.30AM we had ourselves a white Ford Fiesta. Oaxaca, here we come!
To get to Oaxaca, one can take a couple different routes: Hwy 190, which takes you two hours out of the way but it bypasses the mountain, or Hwy 175 that winds through the Sierra Madre mountains. We chose the latter and off we went. Several long hours of driving on the steep 2-lane mountain road, full of speed bumps and hairpin turns, in a rental car with a bad gearbox lay ahead. First gear worked 10% of the time and second gear about 40% of the time. Third worked 90% of the time but would occasionally throw a curve ball and SURPRISE! you would be in first. This made the drive somewhat annoying for Jerrad and worrisome for me. So I mainly occupied my mind with the breathtaking mountain vistas along the way. We passed several mountainside villages where schoolchildren were walking back home on the side of the highway. Some of them were literally flabbergasted as they saw Gidget sticking her head out the back window. Scattered along the highway as well were snack shacks and restaurants for the hungry traveler. We would definitely recommend this route if you ever travel from Huatulco to Oaxaca (preferably with a properly working car and a functioning GPS). Word of warning, we did notice that Hwy 175 branches off to a couple different directions, all still named 175, and we were unsure if they all converged back or not. But if you know the general direction of where you are going, it is unlikely you would get lost.
Roughly six and a half hours later, we arrived in our pet friendly hotel in the heart of Oaxaca. We left Gidget in the car for ten minutes while checking in only to come back to an empty bag of potato chips with crumbs all over the front seats. As we handed over our car key to the valet attendant, I pitied the man for not knowing what he was getting himself into. Hopefully he made it to the parking lot without much trouble.
The minute you arrived in downtown Oaxaca, you are surrounded with rich culture and history every which way you go. It is an enchanting colonial city with influences stemming from the Zapotec, Miztec and Spanish cultures. Oaxaca was named the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Vibrant and colorful buildings lined up both sides of the cobble-stoned streets typical of an old colonial architecture, the zócalo is packed with families, couples and friends enjoying each other’s company as well as all kinds of food, jewelry or toy vendors and street musicians. It is a lively and vibrant city. It is a very musical city with wedding celebrations down the street or live dance show at an outdoor amphitheater. It is a city that always celebrates its past, as evident by the dazzling numbers of art displays and galleries, museums, dance performances and historical structures throughout the downtown area. I’ve read somewhere that Oaxaca has 27 churches, all of them (well, maybe not since I didn’t see all 27 of them, but many at least) display the magnificent intricate details in their architecture, which dated back to the fifteenth and sixteenth century.
One thing Oaxaca is famous for is its native crafts, including hand-woven rugs, pottery and the alebrijes, wooden figures of animals or mythical creatures with vibrant colors. These wooden figures were carved from branches of (usually) the copal tree and painted with dyes produced from natural ingredients like pomegranate, lime, huitlacoche and cochineal. To see the process an artist goes through to make the alebrijes must be quite an incredible feast to the eyes.
Not only is Oaxaca famous for its art, many have called this city as Mexico’s culinary capital. It is well known for its variety of moles among other things. Mole is the general term for the rich sauce used for these dishes, and there are quite a few of them, including mole negro (black), verde (green), amarillo (yellow), and coloradito. Chocolate de leche (hot chocolate) here also has that unique taste as the chocolate is often blended with spices such as cinnamon. Other popular food items here include the tamales, tlayudas, and Oaxacan cheese. Mezcal is a specialty of this region as well; it is liquor made from roasted agave plant, which gives it a smoky flavor. Sometimes they put a worm inside the mezcal bottles and they supposedly are edible and highly nutritious; I must admit I wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to try one. You can indulge in this culinary heaven fitting to whatever your budget is. Delicious food can be found from the cheap Mercado 20 de Noviembre all the way to the 5-star restaurants around town. Our 3-day stay was hardly enough to try all the different specialty dishes Oaxaca has to offer; surely a telltale sign for us to plan another visit.
Any visit to Oaxaca must also be accompanied by a visit to the Monte Albán archaeological site, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a large pre-Columbian civic ceremonial center that, according to the UNESCO website, “best represents the singular evolution of a region inhabited by a succession of peoples: the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs”. As far as I have learned, its civilization spanned some 1500 years, with archaeologists dividing them into 5 phases of construction, settlement and urbanization. The impressive ruins consist of the ball court, the plaza, temples and tombs, mounded platforms with terraces, esplanades and carved stone monuments known as Los Danzantes. The city also has its own system of dams and conduits. It was a remarkably humbing experience to walk around these structures and to think of their monumental significance in human history. An imprint left behind by ancient civilizations, a partially unfolded story of their lives found amongst the ruins. Once finished exploring the site itself, we went inside the museum to see some of the excavated jewelry, tools and potteries from these long-gone dwellers of the Mesoamerica.
We loved everything about Oaxaca: the architecture, the culture, the art, the people and the food. Well, let me take that back. There is one thing we didn’t love about Oaxaca: the traffic. A minor annoyance, since the city is better explored on foot anyway. I wish I could tell you more about the history and culture of this place, but I am still only beginning to unravel its rich and complex tale. Oaxaca and Monte Alban are the kind of places that you have to be immersed in. No one can truly tell you what it is like and you must see it for yourself, through your own eyes.
View more photos of Monte Alban here
View more photos of Oaxaca here