Considering the first reported case of swine flu was in Oaxaca, we were expecting it to be as badly affected as our previous stops. Turns out we were half right: all the museums, including Oaxaca’s renowned art galleries were shut. As were all the major archaeological sites, meaning we missed out on nearby Mitla, and as well as Monte Alban, the pyramids spectacularly sited on top of a hill overlooking the city. That was particularly annoying, as it’s supposed to be the city’s highlight. Most disappointing of all was that I wasn’t able to do the Mexican cookery course I’d been looking forward to since I first planned my trip.
Oaxaca is famous for having some of the finest cuisine in Mexico, and has numerous schools that offer one day courses, including a trip to the market to buy the fresh ingredients before cooking the meal. Thanks to the swine flu, most of the schools were closed due to the lack of tourists. Only one ended up replying to my original email, and despite confirming the time, date and price, the owner of Casa Crespo never turned up on the day, nor did they answer the phone. With my days in Mexico running out, there would be no time left to reorganise in another time, and I was gutted, it was probably the thing I’d been looking forward to most. Looks like I’ll have to try and find one in another country – but sadly it won’t be Mexico, which is such as shame as it’s my favourite food in the world.
At least we’d got up early that morning, meaning we had time to hire a car and drive out into the countryside to explore a bit more of the surrounding area. Highlight was getting to visit Hierve El Agua (literally ‘the water boils’), one of the world’s only calcified waterfalls (the most famous being at Pammukale in Turkey), where water coming up from natural springs is so full of calcium carbonate that it deposits it as it pours down the mountain, making spectacular ‘frozen’ waterfall effects in the rock.
As well as the natural formations, the channels have been dammed in a couple of places to form bathing pools perched at the top of the cliff looking out onto the valleys and mountains of the Sierra Madre del Norte beyond. With the views, the pools and the warm sun, it should have been a wonderfully relaxing day – except for the infestation of hippies.
I’m sure the original hippies in the 60s must have started out with genuinely well-meaning intentions, but these days they are just like a plague, pissing off other travellers with clouds of marijuana smoke, smelly dreadlocks, dancing that looks a bit like they’re constipated, and worst of all, the dreaded bongo. This group came with all of the above, and even managed to confuse the annoyed stares of the other visitors with appreciation, and had the nerve to come round and try and collect money from us. I might even have given them some on the condition they’d stop the incessant noise, but didn’t think they’d stick to their side of the bargain.
So we soon left and headed slowly back along the valley to Oaxaca, giving lifts to various villagers along the way, and stopping at various ruins to see if we could get in, to no avail, until eventually we found one, Yagul, where access was just controlled by a locked gate in the road. So we just parked the car, walked round, and yet again were left as the only visitors to a set of ruins, set on a hill, where we got to watch a spectacular electrical storm play out in the distance towards the city (sorry – no pictures of that – have you ever tried to capture lightning on camera?). I must admit, as I’ve said before, it’s terribly sad that the country is so empty at the moment, but it has been a wonderful experience sometimes feeling like I have the country to myself. Quite a magical and unique experience. I also got to see El Arbol del Tule, the biggest tree in the world, over 50m around. Not all that exciting, but it’s one of those things I’m glad I got to see.
Before I’d arrived in Oaxaca, I’d heard it many travellers describe it as their favourite in Mexico, and I can quite see why, it’s a beautiful city, and at the heart is the finest Zocalo (main square) I’ve seen in Mexico. Like many, it’s tree-lined, with a bandstand at the centre, but it’s also bigger than most, and it really feels like the heart of the city, being filled at all times with a cross-section of Oaxacan society, from middle class families, to indigenous women and children selling artesanias, as well as tourists of every age and nationality. We spent hours there just sitting around in the cafes surrounding the square, watching the world go by. It’s a shame so much was closed – although I suppose that gives me a reason to head back some time.
The other highlight, and mercifully unaffected by swine flu worries, was the central market, with its narrow lanes and stalls selling everything – and so many brightly coloured things such as piles of all kinds of chilli, fresh ice cream in hundreds of flavours and pinatas. I got to sample two of the local specialities: grasshoppers fried in oild and chilli – which is exactly what they tasted of, and Oaxacan chocolate, which was much nicer. Most atmospheric of all was the food section, one long narrow lane filled with clouds of smoke, and every stall selling the same thing – freshly barbecued meats (every stall is ladened with strings of chorizo, sheets of beef skirt and hanging trip) served with blackened spring onions and fresh green chillis.
After that, with the options of things to do rapidly running out, we decided it was time to head to the coast (after all, it’s pretty difficult and rather pointless to close a beach). Which turned out to be easier said than done: less than an hour outside of Oaxaca, our bus was stopped by a roadblock. For some reason the local villagers had decided to protest about something or other by closing the road with a series of fires. Unsure of what to do, we were slightly alarmed when the police closed the road behind us, leaving us stranded in a no-man’s land between the two roadblocks, along with a couple of buses. Everything felt rather tense for a while, especially when we saw a huge phallanx of riot police begin to descend the hill towards us. We needn’t have worried: the police vastly outnumbered the protesters, plus with their shields and batons they knew the locals were no match. The villagers made the sensible decision to retreat back across the fields, and soon we were on our way again, very relieved that the situation hadn’t escalated. Still, nearly being caught up in a riot is one more travelling experience I’ve chalked up.
The internet’s been too slow to upload most of my photos, so you can see lots more of my friend Matt’s (far better) photos of Oaxaca at his Flickr page.