I started a draft of this post a couple weeks back, at that time I wasn’t all that enthralled with Oaxaca. I was certainly having fun but as of then I hadn’t seen any reason to return. It’s the end of my trip now and rereading what I wrote two weeks ago, and rewriting to reflect a newer and more holistic reality, is kinda trippy.
In the past couple weeks the city and I have finally melted together somewhat. It’s still not quite what I expected, a lot more tourists and a lot more tourist focused than I expected. I would guess I arrived about 10 years too late maybe 20. In one of my favourite books the main character travels to Oaxaca in 1984 to try and get his ex brother-in-law out of cartel controlled jail. The way that Oaxaca sounds is what I was looking for. The fat German tourists with their socks and sandals he describes are still present 40 years later, I just fear they’re me.
I’d still love to come back for longer though. It took time to start finding what I was looking for and I really feel I was just starting to get it towards the end. I really love the feeling of starting to add this donut shop, that taco place, the bar behind the alley wall, to my quiver of local knowledge, it’s a wonderful feeling of a particular kind of learning experience.
The centre of Oaxaca City is basically divided into two areas, northeast of the highway is Reforma, the newer part of the city core, think wide streets and nice sidewalks, in a month staying here I never got a chance to visit Reforma even once, next time though.
A 25 minute walk southwest of Reforma, south of the highway, is Centro, the old city centre, the UNESCO Heritage site, etc, where we stayed.
Centro is situated around the zocalo (central square). North of the zocalo is the historic, pretty, clean, touristy area, where we stayed for the first three weeks. South of the zocalo is the market area, more local, rougher around the edges, more lived in, we moved here for the last week and a bit.
The city, especially the historic area north of the zocalo, is the first place I’ve spent significant time where it’s clear from most interactions you’re not a person but a tourist, at least until you put in some work to break through that. The old city feels somewhat sanitized and artificial. I certainly did not have a bad time staying here, but what was pushed aside to make room for tourists is probably what’s missing for me (and yes, I realize I am just another tourist too). Locals are less than thrilled by this situation as well. I understand nothing about the economic impacts of a city becoming a tourism destination at all, and I also understand I’m part of the problem but at the same time it’s a reminder of reality to be hanging out in a city full of graffiti telling me to go home. There is a tent city near the zocalo that stretches a few blocks, we spent some time there, translating the protest signs and at least making an attempt to understand how the recent rapid changes to Oaxaca City are affecting people.
The old city, while undoubtedly beautiful, with street after street of old Spanish block construction, felt oppressive to me on some level. The endless walls and complete absence of greenspace make a lot of the streets in the area a concentration of heat and noise and exhaust fumes. Hiking through these gauntlets just to pass shop after shop of tourist focused items I have zero interest in, to get to tourist focused restaurants that were almost never as good as they had been hyped to be, left me feeling a bit woozy.
I think a certain type of person is going to be most happy staying in Reforma and a certain type is going to be most happy staying in the old city north of the zocalo but we eventually figured out we were neither of these people and we moved to a new place further south, a block south of the central market. Within hours we realized swapping cocktail bars and jewelry stores for tire shops and chocolate processors was more what we were looking for.
The location change also helped the food situation. One of the main reasons for planning this extended stay in Oaxaca had been years of hearing about the amazing food culture in Oaxaca. While we were certainly able to find good food eventually, especially after moving away from the tourist areas, the Oaxacan cuisine was quite different from what we had expected, either that or we got extremely unlucky over and over with restaurant picks. I had a list of must-try restaurants in the old city and we tried them night after night for the first while, coming away disappointed every time, the restaurants look great, the food looks great, but when you actually eat it the realization that it’s quite mediocre, and expensive, hit us again and again. After a while it sorta started to feel like a joke was being played on the dumb tourists.
Some dishes were not great, some were pretty good, none were worth the money when compared to what you could get in the street or the market. On our last night in Oaxaca I decided to give one last try to the local fancy dining scene, I did a ton of research, found a place that seemed more than just an Instagram filter and we went, it was quite good, I’d say B+ overall but it still had the typical ice cold Mexican service and the cost was, to me, way out of line, we shared two appetizers and one entree plus cocktails and the meal came to $12o Canadian, I just don’t see why anyone would pick this over the better tasting four course lunch in the market for $7.50 Canadian.
Eventually we gave up on all but a couple restaurants and spent more time in the market food stalls and around street carts. Even here however there was much more mediocre food than anything notable. After a month I have a good list of good foods but after coming from Mexico City I still found the Oaxacan food experience quite surprising, and really disappointing.
The bar scene in the old city mirrors the restaurants, the area is packed with interesting looking cocktail bars, often with lovely rooftop patios, but once you spend some time in a few and scratch the surface a bit you realize the drinks are really not very good, nor is the service and most of the bars feel like they were assembled with parts ordered from the same “build your own rooftop cocktail bar” catalog. Not terrible but pretty soulless. A perfect example is the seating in these bars, most of these bars feature consistently bafflingly uncomfortable seating, forcing you to pretzel yourself to sit, to me this indicates an understanding that clientele will visit once or maybe twice ever, leading to an apathetic feeling all around.
As you move further south the cocktail bars are slowly replaced with saloons, which were honestly the most consistently interesting piece of local culture I found. Utterly honest and unpretentious beer halls, frequented mostly by locals, a lot of fun and good times. We ended up familiar with half a dozen of these, where the undefinable feeling of authenticity somehow comes through.
At our favourite saloon the bartender Rene, when I mentioned my shock at being served mediocre margaritas at so many of these lovely looking cocktail bars, just nodded silently and pulled out a dusty shaker, I had no idea he even did cocktails, he proceeded to make a margarita that absolutely shamed every one from every fancy bar in the tourist areas.
Every time I leave a new place I invariably come away with the feeling I was juuuust starting to get it, to understand a few things. This time in Oaxaca is the longest chunk of time I’ve ever spent in one place other than home and the feeling of juuuuust starting to get it is no different than while leaving any new place after 3-4 days.