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Monday, May 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Down Mexico Way South Of The Border, Few Cities Rival Oaxaca In Beauty, History And Culture

By Michael Peterson Special To Travel

High in the southern range of the Sierra Madres sits a valley of such natural beauty that conquistador Hernan Cortes once brazenly asked the Spanish throne if he might have it as his own. That was in 1522.

Except for cars, electricity, a few paved roads and the airport, little has changed in this southern state of Mexico since Cortes first visited.

If only, as he thought, the combined wealth of land, people and culture had been what his men sought, they would have had it all here in Oaxaca (pronounced waa-hock-a).

When asked for my favorite colonial cities, my thoughts used to turn to Antigua, Merida and Cartagena. That was before I, too, discovered the treasures of Oaxaca.

Some five centuries old, this colonial city of 400,000 lies on the floor of a valley already 5,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by towering mountains. Across the plateau and up into the high country are hundreds of tiny villages, each still clinging heroically to its own language, dress, traditions and art. In Oaxaca State more then 200 different dialects are still spoken, with Spanish often only a second language.

This is a land enhanced by the collision of ancient Indian dynasties and old Spanish colonialism, each struggling to retain its grip on the people - each coloring the landscape with a culture, not compromised, but enriched by the process. If one is a traveler at heart, a lifetime could be spent exploring the singular heritage of each of Oaxaca’s diverse hamlets.

In the tiny village of Santa Maria el Tule, a 2,000-year-old juniper tree spreads its branches over a small church yard, giving welcome shade to visitors who come to gaze upon one of the oldest living things on earth.

Across the valley in San Bartolo Coyotepec, in another stone courtyard, the extended family of the late Dona Rosa de Coyotepec carries out her legacy, shaping the region’s unique black clay into coveted sculptures and pottery. They still work as she taught them, using only bare hands, native tools and a hole in the ground for a kiln.

In Tlacolua, a farmer’s hospitality includes dipping wooden cups into a 10-year-old barrel of aging “mezcal,” a high-proof tequila, so visitors can sample the fruit of his family’s tiny agave farm.

In Teotitlan del Valle, another family demonstrates how neighbors grow the materials to make all natural dyes for the wool they hand-weave into serapes and colorful blankets right before your eyes.

In Mitla, at noon, the bells of the 400-year-old cathedral ring out over its cobbled square where Indian artisans from the surrounding hills have gathered to display and sell their handicrafts. This ritual has gone little changed in the centuries since Spanish soldiers tore down the walls of the Zapotec Indian’s ceremonial city of Lyobaa here, and built their own church atop those 2,000-year-old palaces.

At the end of the day, tired pilgrims find rest inside the 3-foot-thick walls of the meticulously restored Convent de Santa Catalina, the second oldest in the New World. The rooms, once barren cells occupied by Dominican sisters, now house guests in luxury only tempered by the historic flavor and zealously accurate conversion of this living museum to a hotel.

Since the dawn of civilization, the tall mountains sheltered and buffered the native population of the region. In the center of it all sits Ciudad de Oaxaca, the hub that ties together this diverse, living museum of culture and anthropology.

Oaxaca City has survived modernization largely unspoiled. Unlike better-known Mexican resorts and “pseudo” colonial cities, no one is putting on a show for the benefit of tourists. Visitors quickly discover that this is truly the real thing - the real Mexico.

You would never know so many people live here. The city is spread out, non-industrial and very low-key. Buildings taller than two stories are rare. Most of center city has survived unscathed since the 16th century, hardly requiring any restoration or artificial facades.

The Mexican government has wisely declared the center of Oaxaca a National Historic Treasure, and has stepped in to insure its continued preservation. In 1987, the United Nations’ UNESCO program echoed that declaration on an international scale.

Many of the cobbled streets are now closed to vehicular traffic, allowing visitors and residents to stroll freely. It takes little imagination to walk these streets imagining you are a Spanish friar or Mixtec Indian, visiting in the year 1600.

Here is vintage Spanish “colonial” at its very best. Architecturally plain facades face the street, often punctuated by no more then a few plain, shuttered windows. Only the huge, rough-hewn hardwood doors, some with ornate hardware and decoration, give even a hint as to what lies inside - for it is inside these walls that the “other” Oaxaca comes alive.

In hotels, restaurants, government buildings and offices, fabulously planted flowered courtyards boast all the colors of the rainbow, as arched patios and bubbling fountains add spice to the mix. Original stone, tile and brickwork are meticulously preserved and appear just as they did 400 years ago, with the minor addition of a few lights and discreet amenities. Everywhere, walls and shelves are decorated with original art, native ceramics, hand-hewn furniture and an array of knickknacks that would make an antique dealer’s heart race.

Oaxaca is a town for Mexicans, not for tourists. There is no staged phoniness meant to impress tour-bus passengers. But if you are friendly, polite and curious, you will be welcomed warmly, and can share in the everyday celebration of life embraced by natives. There are operas, recitals, readings and band concerts almost every night, if you just ask around.

The diversity of the surrounding Indian culture has led to a lively and colorful mix of music, dance and costume, which culminates in a celebration every July called Guelaguetza (a tame sample of which may be viewed Friday and Wednesday nights set in the former Nunnery Chapel at the Camino Real Hotel). The city is rarely without shows, special events and festivals, and even on a slow day, there are museums to visit and historic buildings to tour.

Three different markets grace each day, featuring the mundane, the exotic and irresistible collectibles. Many vendors still dress in their indigenous costumes, adding color and ambiance to the noisy spectacle.

In the evenings, and at lunchtime or “siesta” (depending on if you are on local or tourist time), the parks, squares and Zocolo in front of the great cathedrals come alive. Nearly the whole population comes out to promenade, pass the time and visit with friends and neighbors. The gaiety of their demeanor and enthusiasm creates an energy beyond simple people-watching, making visitors want to be part of it. This is a town where bus loads of tourists do not overwhelm the natural order, so gringos still blend readily and innocently into the mix.

At night, dozens of tiny sidewalk cafes spring into action, adding a lively pulse to the overall social fabric, and offering a great place to pass the time and enjoy a Mexican beer or perhaps Oaxacas specialty - “tepache” (pineapple beer).

There are many fine restaurants featuring excellent “typico” or local foods at prices a third what you pay in resort towns. The cuisine of Oaxaca is built on seven different sweet “mole” sauces, served over everything from chicken and fish to desserts. The local chili is so complex that more then 30 different ingredients are required to give it its taste.

Spicy meats and cheeses, along with tortillas, tamales and the like, make up the usual fare. If you are really brave, sample the most popular local delicacy, “chapulines” - small, roasted, salted grasshoppers, best enjoyed with the various moles, salsa or sprinkled with cheese on top of a tortilla.

There is no shortage of things to see and do outside the city. You can go horseback-riding, hiking, touring or stay in a small tourist hostel set up by the government in one of many neighboring villages.

If you crave a tan, just a short shuttle flight away lies beautiful Bahias de Hautulco, Mexico’s newest upscale beach resort - perfect for a few days wasting away on golden sands under a warm tropical sun.

And no one leaves Oaxaca without calling on the ruins of the ancient Indian city of Monte Alban. Slaves labored for centuries leveling off the top of a mountain to create this religious and ceremonial icon. Though not well-known, it is considered by many to be more spectacular then even Tikal or Chichen Itza. It was Tomb No. 7 here that gave up one of the country’s most valuable treasures of gold and gems.

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. IF YOU GO Getting there: For U.S. citizens travel to Mexico requires a sealed birth certificate and/or two legal forms of photo identification. Tourist cards are given out on the airplane, and departure tax is now included in the price of your ticket. The best and easiest way of getting to Oaxaca is by air from Mexico City, on either Aero Mexico or Mexicana. Continental, United and Delta all offer flights to Mexico City. Bus or rental car travel from Mexico City to Oaxaca is possible, but is an adventure only for the hardiest with time on their hands. Accommodations: For historic ambiance and flavor, the best spots are right in the old historic center of town. (Prices are standard doubles and will vary subject to fluctuations in the value of the peso.) The Camino Real is the diamond of hotels, built into the former Convent de Santa Catalina, with housing in original cells, set around three flowering courtyards, one with a swimming pool ($150; call 1-800-722-6466). A little less pricey but still in the center of action is Hostal de La Noria, with 45 rooms also set around a central courtyard, also retaining the colonial flavor and feel of old Mexico ($45; call 011-951-47844). You can also call the Oaxaca Tourist Board’s U.S. office at 713-552-1435, or visit its Web page at http://mexico-travel.com/oaxaca/oax/oax.html

2. OAXACA TOUCHED BY CONTROVERSY Despite the apparent serenity of the countryside, there is an undercurrent of concern over recent human rights violations clouding the Mexican landscape, and Oaxaca is not immune. Growing tension over issues affecting the indigenous Indian population have boiled over, and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which had previously operated sporadically in nearby Yucatan and Chiapas states, has recently expanded into Oaxaca. These matters have not affected general public safety or endangered tourists. However, the State Department’s generic warning to U.S. travelers not to become involved in sensitive local political issues or disputes in a foreign land remains excellent advice. Michael Peterson

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. IF YOU GO Getting there: For U.S. citizens travel to Mexico requires a sealed birth certificate and/or two legal forms of photo identification. Tourist cards are given out on the airplane, and departure tax is now included in the price of your ticket. The best and easiest way of getting to Oaxaca is by air from Mexico City, on either Aero Mexico or Mexicana. Continental, United and Delta all offer flights to Mexico City. Bus or rental car travel from Mexico City to Oaxaca is possible, but is an adventure only for the hardiest with time on their hands. Accommodations: For historic ambiance and flavor, the best spots are right in the old historic center of town. (Prices are standard doubles and will vary subject to fluctuations in the value of the peso.) The Camino Real is the diamond of hotels, built into the former Convent de Santa Catalina, with housing in original cells, set around three flowering courtyards, one with a swimming pool ($150; call 1-800-722-6466). A little less pricey but still in the center of action is Hostal de La Noria, with 45 rooms also set around a central courtyard, also retaining the colonial flavor and feel of old Mexico ($45; call 011-951-47844). You can also call the Oaxaca Tourist Board’s U.S. office at 713-552-1435, or visit its Web page at http://mexico-travel.com/oaxaca/oax/oax.html

2. OAXACA TOUCHED BY CONTROVERSY Despite the apparent serenity of the countryside, there is an undercurrent of concern over recent human rights violations clouding the Mexican landscape, and Oaxaca is not immune. Growing tension over issues affecting the indigenous Indian population have boiled over, and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which had previously operated sporadically in nearby Yucatan and Chiapas states, has recently expanded into Oaxaca. These matters have not affected general public safety or endangered tourists. However, the State Department’s generic warning to U.S. travelers not to become involved in sensitive local political issues or disputes in a foreign land remains excellent advice. Michael Peterson

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