The ride to Oaxaca was fantastic. Through desert valleys and massive plants of agave and other cactus species. But by the time we we rode closer to Oaxaca the dark and brooding clouds were familiar. And the chill in the air offered another hint. It was just a matter of time until the sky opened up and dumped on me once again. We are so close to the center of Oaxaca. But it couldn’t wait. The sky opened up and poured the heaviest and nastiest downpour of the trip. We pulled into a tiny shop wherein just behind the counter and cash register was te one room home for the family running this five and dime sort of store. Called aborretes, you see them every where in Mexico. Usually a mishmash of a collection of salty goods, sweet goods, beverages and whatever is unique to the locale’s tastebuds. The three of us crowded into the tiny 100 square foot store. I bought a grape soda and a bag of chips. Rent. In 20 minutes the rain subsided. Only to pick up again, though lighter, 10 minutes down the road.
With more than a quarter million residents, Oaxaca is one of the largest cities in Mexico I’ve stopped at during my month long oddysey through this great country. The downtown historic district was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. While so close to my home in California, my experience with Mexico had till now had been in Baja California and a brief stint to Sonora and Chihuahua in 2003. Now south of Mexico City, I have tasted more of Mexico that simply Corona’s and tacos. Oaxaca is a handicraft and perhaps the modern art capital of Mexico. World-reknowned Oaxacano artist Francisco Toledo lives here and once home to one of Mexico’s most famous artists, Rufino Tamayo, there are world-class museums and exciting galleries. If it weren’t for my lengthy trip and over-packed motorcycle I wouldv’e added to my visual and functional art collection from my travels. I guess Oaxaca will have to wait for my return.
The city center is surrounded by a number of colonial buildings and the zocolo is punctuated by a baroque cathedral which started in the mid-1500’s but wasn’t completed until the 1800’s after a number of earthquakes stalled construction. Just off the zocolo I spent several days just wandering Calle Alcala, a cobblestone street closed to vehicular traffic past a number of cafés, galleries, museums until it reaches a shady plaza and then perhaps the crown jewel of historical Oaxaca the Iglesia de Santa Domingo. Featuring a baroque facade and thick walls, necessary due to Oaxaca’s earthquake-prone proximity, it was built between 1570 and 1608 for the city’s Domincan monastery.
While Oaxaca may be famous for its handicrafts, contempoary artists and cosmopolitan scene, it has the honor of being the birthplace of arguably one of Mexico’s greatest and unequivocal heroes, Benito Juarez. Actually born in a small mountain village, his indigenous Zapotec parents died when he was three and at the age of 12 with only a pocketful of Spanish words in his vocabulary he walked to Oaxaca where a bookbinder recognized his potential and gave Juarez a job in his home. He studied for the priesthood but blew it off in favor of local politics. As such, he climbed the ladder of the Oaxaca political scene from city council, to state governement to governor of the state of Oaxaca. He served as president of Mexico for four terms, but not continuously. Conservatives had him exiled from Mexico in 1853 but he returned during the 1855 Revolution and became justice minister in the new liberal government. His Juarez Law, the first of the Reform laws that ultimately provoked the war of the Reform between 1858-1861, transferred the trials of soldiers and priests charged with civil crimes to ordinary civil courts and south to break the power of the Catholic Church. He also was responsible for making primary education free and compulsory. It’s no wonder I keep seeing his name in virtually every city, town or pueblo I’ve traveled or stayed in: street names, schools, public buildings, airports and plazas. To Mexican’s he’s a hero not unlike Abraham Lincoln is to US citizens.
In Oaxaca we find an inexpensive hotel that has a a double bed and a set of bunk beds, perfect for the three muskateers on GS’s traveling through Mexico. If you find yourself in Oaxaca you can stay at Hotel Vallarta on Diaz Ordez between Truano and Las Casas. It’s nothing fancy. But it’s clean, a great location and a good value.
Photos: (1) three musketeers’ bikes; (2) preparations for dias de los muertos (3&4) two views of the classic Santa Domingo cathedral; ((4) pleasant streets of historic colonial Oaxaca (5) another colonial period church with massive walls in the centro historico of Oaxaca, Mexico