Mexico's best kept secret
Colourful markets, ancient ruins, wild beaches and delicious local delicacies, the state of Oaxaca has it all. So how come Tyler Wetherall felt like the only tourist in town?
It’s the end of perfect day. Wandering back to my hotel room, I feel completely satisfied. I have eaten exotic foods, sauntered through labyrinthine artisan markets, soaked up history at the awe-inspiring ancient ruins and topped it off with a mezcal cocktail. What I can’t understand is why I am the only tourist doing this.
Mexico’s state of Oaxaca (pronounced wah-hah-kah) was recently voted by travel bible ‘Lonely Planet’ as one of the top destinations in the world. However, most people would struggle to pronounce it let alone point it out on a map.
Intrigued, I read up on the southern Mexican state and discovered it has just about everything you could want in a holiday destination: a rugged coastline scattered with sandy bays and wildlife-rich waters, and a bucolic mountainous interior where tribes of people still live the life of ancient Zapotecs — the pre-Colombian indigenous civilization.
The capital, Oaxaca City, looks like a colonial dream town, with an abundance of restaurants, galleries and markets. Throw in 2,500 years of fascinating history, and I was sold.
My boyfriend Samuel and I arrived in the middle of the night in a daze of jetlag and checked into Casa Oaxaca, an art and gastro hotel, which is a new-fangled concept even back home.
In a stunning colonial townhouse, its understated luxury was imbued with Oaxacan tradition, and we were flummoxed as to why we were the only couple staying here.
Breakfast, served in the courtyard under the shade of a pomegranate tree, was a feast of homemade bread, fruit platters, guacamole omelettes and an intense local option of steak with mole negro — a traditional Oaxacan sauce of chocolate and chilli. The first thing I learnt about Oaxaca is that this city likes it food.
Taking a stroll through the cobbled streets, followed by yellow butterflies, feels like stepping into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
We decided on a whistle-stop tour of the city’s three major markets. Oaxaca has one of the richest and most inventive folk-art scenes in Mexico, with surrounding villages making the products using traditional methods such as backstrap, pedal looms and handturning pottery.
You’ll be tempted to come home laden with local specialties such as black clay pots, woven rugs and women’s brightly coloured tunics called huipiles.
Most impressive of all was the Central de Abastos, or supplies market — enormous and overwhelming. Alleys of freshly baked bread merged into rows of leather sandals with men crafting shoes out of old tyres as you walk by.
We encountered a flock of turkeys near a pottery section, where women in local dress and long pigtails sat painting flowers on to the black clay.
We braved the local delicacy of chapulines — grasshoppers fried in lime, chilli and garlic — which is surprisingly good once you get over their creepy legs. We attempted to navigate our way back to buy some mezcal (tequila’s meaner big brother), but were irrevocably lost and gave in to happy aimless wandering instead.
Oaxaca is thought to have some of the best food in Mexico. With up to 4,000 different cultures and 173 dialects, the cuisine has a wealth of diverse influences.
Oaxaqueños shun restaurants for the famed street food, including empanadas, tasajo (dried beef ), cecina (pork rubbed with red chilli), and tlayudas — known as the Oaxacan pizza — tortillas stuffed with tomato salsa, cheese and mole, all of which is superior to much of the formal dining fodder.
Chowing down our delicious chorizo, we realise we’re virtually the only Westerners in town. So, where is everybody?
In 2006, tensions between Mexico’s ruling elite and indigenous poor erupted onto the streets of Oaxaca. An annual teacher strike escalated into violent clashes between government and protes-tors, culminating in a temporary coup of the city, which left at least 17 dead, including one American journalist. This effectively wiped out the already small tourist industry.
While the travel warning was lifted in 2007, it has yet to reestablish itself on the tourist circuit.
The state is pushing its development as Mexico’s centre of culture and gastronomy, and it deserves the title. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca was undergoing a refurbishment, and the blossoming restaurants are having an international impact such as Casa Oaxaca — sister to the hotel — inspired the London-based restaurant chain Wahaca.
However, while you can sip a cappuccino in the leafy central square and catch a gig at one of the European-style, bar-cum-art-galleries, just a 20-minute bus trip into the countryside tells another story.
Despite being rich in culture and heritage, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states and home to 53pc of Mexico’s indigenous population. We visited the magnificent ruins of Monte Alban — more than 2,500 years old and some of the grandest I’ve seen in Central America — but what was just as fascinating was witnessing rural life in the surrounding villages such as Tlacolula, where the farmers and artisans meet every Sunday to trade wares.
Villagers are shy in conversation and refuse photographs, and some selling just blandas, plain tortillas, are clearly struggling to survive.
We decided to spend the second week exploring the coast. On the six-hour bus journey, we passed Mexican families living in wooden shacks with corrugated tin roofs and iron pots smoking on wood fires. Barefoot children stared as we passed.
Between the cosmopolitan delights of the city and the coastal attractions, you get a glimpse of the real Mexico.
In stark contrast, we arrived for our stay at Casa Bichu, one of the only boutique hotels on this stretch of coast. The sumptuous thatched villas overlook Estacahuite Bay and we immediately threw ourselves into the dark waters of the Pacific Sea — not the white-sand, palm-tree combination of holiday brochures, but something grander and more epic.
The yellow sands are framed by black volcanic cliffs and beaten by the boisterous waves. But what makes this truly special is that, yet again, we were the only couple in the hotel and on the beach.
We took a walk along the coves and found a small restaurant run by fisherman Umberto. He had just caught a six-foot marlin and, after proudly insisting I take a picture, he cut it up and handed it to his wife who cooked it on an open grill for our €4 lunch.
Our journey took us up the Pacific coast towards the hub of Puerto Escondido, which buzzes with restaurants and nightlife, but we hadn’t come here for that. It’s off-season, so surfer beach Zipolite is stranded and backpackers’ haven Mazunte is secluded. The highlight of our trip turned out to be the ecotourism centre at La Ventanilla. The economic mainstay of the area used to be turtle meat and eggs, but after the industry was banned in 1990, locals were instead provided training and resources to convert the area into an environmental hub.
While many hotels just insert the word ‘eco’ into their credentials to attract green foreigners, La Ventanilla is one of the success stories. All income from the conservation cooperative is channelled into supporting the community and preserving the area.
The centre is home to a crocodile nursery — and yes, baby crocodiles are very cute — turtle preservation and mangrove reforestation.
On a cruise of the croc-infested mangrove, we spotted their loglike bodies gliding through the murky depths towards our canoe, but I’m assured that they have no interest in eating me.
Back at the beach, we saw the release of dozens of three-hour-old turtles into the ocean. After the mothers lay their eggs in the sand, the conservationists assist in the hatching, before releasing them into the sea. One by one, we set them free by hand, watching as they desperately pushed their bodies along the sand into the crashing waves.
Just three-inches long, it’s hard to believe they will grow into the 100-year-old giants we had seen in the ocean depths.
Standing on the dusky beach, Samuel and I cheered on our turtle babies as they made it into the waves. The local villagers were playing a game of football on the beach behind us, and left us to enjoy the experience in private — something that we were getting used to on this trip.
Walking back to our hotel, I was suddenly tempted not to write a word about this place and keep it all a secret, but, luckily for you, I thought better of it.