R had visited Oaxaca about 2 years ago without me and came back with armloads of adorable, brightly painted ceramics, intricately woven tapestries, and stories about how amazing he found the whole country of Mexico and Oaxaca, in particular. During our long, grueling mountainous rides he kept dangling Oaxaca as an oasis of culture, food and craft shopping (my greatest weakness!). So it was a bit of a letdown when we arrived in Oaxaca City and I was completely underwhelmed.
We rolled in on a bus that we flagged down on the side of the road after realizing that there were not only no hotels in the town in which we had planned to stop, but also no hotels for the next 60-90km. We arrived a few hours later still dressed in our spandex and greased up with a full day’s ride worth of sunscreen, sweat, and road grime. Showers and sleep were all that we wanted at this point, which should not have been a problem given that Oaxaca is comprised of 1/3 Catholic Churches, 1/3 Spanish Schools, and 1/3 youth hostels. Unfortunately, we happened to blow into town on the eve of Guelagetza weekend, the single biggest cultural event (read: tourist draw) in the entire state of Oaxaca. Rooms were scarce and we certainly weren’t able to angle for any kind of low season discounts, so our budget hobbled us in a big way. After knocking on a few doors, we found one of those typical backpackers’ hostels with the requisite allotment of overconfident guitar players, cockroaches in the dish rack, and shared outdoor bathrooms. Strike 1. I was seething with dislike for the place, but too tired to keep on searching. I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to give Oaxaca a fighting chance for a good first impression. We took a walk around to find a place to eat, but it seemed like the only options were hamburger carts in the main square, Domino’s Pizza, or offensively overpriced tacos. Strikes 2-4. Finally, FINALLY, we stumbled upon a late night tlayuda place where we ate like locals in the street, but were charged gringo prices. Strike 5. I went to bed feeling ripped off, kind of dirty, and like I might actually hit the girl downstairs if she didn’t stop playing that same damned Jack Johnson song.
And then morning came. We got up early and went straight out to look for a new hostel. The Guelagetza festivities were in full swing and we managed to squeeze in a little mezcal tasting, but could not be deterred from our mission to get the hell out of our practical joke of a hostel. But what a difference a day makes. The weather was nice, we were in civilian clothes, and I finally got to see the charm of the place. We scouted out a reasonably priced hostel that seemed to have a better vibe than the one we were in, so we struck a deal with the owner to move in the next morning and happily learned that we would be staying one block away from the Spanish school that we had decided to go to for a couple of weeks.
All of a sudden I started turn my frown upside down and realized that Oaxaca is actually a pretty incredible place. It has tons of amenities for tourists, but seems to draw as many Mexican visitors as gringos and doesn’t feel totally overrun by tourism. Think of cities like San Francisco and New York that have a thriving tourism industry and all the hotels, Hard Rock Cafes, and gift shops that go with the territory; but all of these places still have an identity apart from the industry that has grown around it- the thing that attracted all the visitors in the first place. Armed with a good night’s rest and a map of the center, I started to feel my optimism growing and think that I might have been a little hard on Oaxaca that first night.
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