On the Road: Numero Quattro
Xalpa – Oaxaca.
The road winds lazily up a mountain pass. The peaks that surround are tall and rotund, dry and dusty. Wind whips by and peels off a layer of the red and purple earth depositing it on my shirt as if flaps in the wind. The hillsides are blanketed in cacti by the millions. All sorts and kinds. Tall thirty and forty foot high single branch obelisks proclaim supremacy whilst twenty-foot wide flat-pedaled behemoths of comprised of hundreds of trunks protect its boarders. It’s a foreboding place. I relish my spare fuel and water. From the pass’s peak the road bends softly ninety-degrees. Before me is Oaxaca. A colorful Capital City nestled in hilly valley encircled by towering desert peaks. The soft-clouded sky of the setting sun rests atop the peaks in concentric circles of green, purple and pink as if the city is fitted with a royal crown.
The highway relinquishes its grip on the valley floor and gives way to the cobble-stone streets I’ve become so accustomed to. Oaxaca follows the same formula as all other Mexican towns, yet everything is bit more gripping, a bit more engaging, a bit more special. The streets are formed not of irregular round stones, but of broad, flat, perfectly spaced rectangles, the buildings a shade brighter than most. The graffiti though present is bereft of gang-tags, in place exhibits of modern art, decedent and detailed, comprised of brushstrokes not spray paint, covering entire city walls. The iron grates overlaying the windows trace designs of paisley and whimsy, often adorned in colors and flowers. From the main square a ten block walking mall lit by lampposts and punctuated by food carts and popup restaurants forms the main thoroughfare.
The town being older than most, numerous monolithic two and three story buildings tower, built of yellow and green limestone as if in the old city of Jerusalem. Many cathedrals are present but the church of Santo Domingo at the town’s center is particularly grand. Inside fifty foot high archways are finished in a latticework of gold, precious stones, and murals reminiscent of the sixteenth chapel.
The town is literally blanketed in creativity and initiative. Past each unassuming door a treasure lies within. Small farmers markets, artisanal food and craft beer collectives, wine tastings, local art exhibits and boutiques, yoga studios. Large markets and tiny shops display the creativity endemic here, people do not yell at you or inflate their prices, and they are artisans, not hawkers. Beautifully hand tailored clothes intermix traditional textiles and colors with modern fashion, beautiful flowing gowns of coral and yellow lined with Aztec tapestries. Parking garages have been converted into business incubators where young Oaxacans develop apps, build companies, and work to protect the environment. Art even pervades the street as local artists drive around and park to display modern art museums on wheels, housed in painted busses or cars.
The people are warm and kind, even quick to spark up a conversation, rare in Mexico. Smiles and contentment are ever-present. There is a pride here that can be seen in the gate of every local and felt in the admiring gaze of visitors. Every park is filled with families, kids playing, parents conversing, everyone enjoying local cuisine, chocolate and coffee.
Oaxaca too is the center of Mexico’s culinary scene, a world onto itself. Mole is the best known of its creations, a thick black or red sauce made of chili, chocolate, coffee and as many as thirty unique spices. This is also the birthplace of chorizo and one of the centers of Mexican coffee. The olfactory joy of these splendid creations as well as tortas, memellas and empanadas fill the air. The smell of fresh ground beans emanates from coffee shops and the smell of chocolate permeates the streets from the shops of chocolatiers. This is the hometown of hot-chocolate. Mazcal, the lesser-known cousin of tequila is grown here and local distillers and purveyors sell endless varieties of the smokey elixir.
There is a special sauce here, much like the mole Oaxaca is known for, a city running on all cylinders, dynamic and creative with an absolute sense of self and an unbridled excitement for the future. It is a truly special place. This can be felt at all times of day, from the cool light of daybreak to the warm afternoon breeze at a café to the markets of the evening and the restaurants and bars of the wee hours. This is a place worth of a visit, and deserving of more time, truly special and worthy of its place on my, very, short list. I will depart tomorrow morning my soul warmed with a great sense of contentment, a mind full of great memories, and a belly full of amazing food and demure that I need leave so soon.
After nearly thirty countries and hundreds or thousands of cities or towns, my list, that all important list, that tiny, infinitesimally small list of places I’ve visited that I would be willing, even wanting, to live in for some period of time has grown. To four.
Luang Prabang, Laos. Hoi Ann, Vietnam. Beijing, China. And now, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Oaxaca is so captivating, so inviting, so vibrant, so smart and delicious and kind and seductive that I simply cannot escape without the addition of its name to the list. It is, an uncommonly fantastic town.