IN THE SWING
In The Swing - Luxury Travel Magazine
In The Swing
|By: John Maddocks, Issue 27 – Winter 2006.|
|MEXICO IS THE HOME OF THE HAMMOCK, WHICH MAKES IT THE PERFECT PLACE TO CHILL A WHILE.|
|At last I find it – the perfect place to slow down after travelling for several weeks. Strangely, it isn’t a beach resort or an isolated mountain retreat, but the public square of an inland city. Not just any city, mind you, but fabulous Oaxaca in south-eastern Mexico.|
At its heart lies the zócalo, a large, shady central plaza that is the focus of much of the city’s traditional activity. As I enjoy coffee after breakfast at a café on the square’s perimeter, I watch the shoeshine boys ply their trade while their clients read the paper. Hawkers clutching dozens of colourful inflated balloons entice children, while others sell flowers, and a busker strums gently beneath a laurel tree.
I have the feeling that, apart from occasional renovations, not much has changed here since the square was designed in 1529. There are no cars, just people strolling, sitting on the ornate castiron seats or looking at stalls filled with carpets, pottery and jewellery made by the local Zapotec and Mixtec people. A raised sandstone area in the centre of the zócalo features a 19th-century art nouveau bandstand that also houses painting and photography exhibitions.
Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-kah) is the most beautiful part of Mexico. At least that’s what Spanish conquistador Cortes decided when Emperor Charles V offered him any part of the colony he desired. Cortes was attracted by the spectacular setting and the fascinating mix of ancient civilisations found in the region.
Today, the city is visited by tourists from all over the world lured by the unique blend of exceptional ruins, gorgeous Spanish architecture, stunning handicrafts, memorable gourmet delicacies and mezcal that outshines tequila. Oaxaca is a vibrant artistic and cultural centre set on a World Heritage site that includes the city and the nearby archaeological remains of Monte Albán.
Suitably relaxed by watching the world go by in the main square, I decide to wander through the nearby old area of Oaxaca. Many of the delightful colonial buildings were constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, and central Oaxaca, with its cobblestone streets and elaborate facades, has a powerful sense of history.
Much of Oaxaca’s status as a cultural centre derives from its excellent museums, galleries and churches. The Iglesia de Santo Domingo, situated 500 metres north of the zócalo, is the city’s most beautiful church. Completed in 1666, the church’s striking facade is matched by an opulent baroque interior with extensive gilded plasterwork.
Adjoining the church is the outstanding Museum of Oaxacan Cultures (Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca). You can spend hours in this huge museum, which was formerly a Dominican monastery, looking at exhibits and artefacts dating from pre- Hispanic to recent times.
Places of interest are by no means limited to the city itself. The impressive ruins at Monte Albán (White Mountain), the ancient Zapotec capital, are located on a hilltop a few kilometres from Oaxaca. Founded around 500BC, the extensive site features an enormous plaza, elevated platforms with wide staircases, and a series of captivating tombs.
Fascinating carvings of dancers at the foot of one of the Monte Albán buildings were made between 500 and 200BC, and nearby hieroglyphs represent the earliest writings in Mexico. Treasure found in one of the tombs is regarded as among the most significant in the Americas, and is on display in the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures – well worth a visit.
Oaxaca is also surrounded by the Valles Centrales (Central Valleys), which are home to Zapotec villages specialising in a number of crafts, including weaving, carpet making and pottery. Many of the villages have colourful local markets.
All of the villages in the Valles Centrales can be visited on day trips. I decide to head to the Friday market at Ocotlan, 32 kilometres from Oaxaca, which has been running every week for centuries. The market is much larger than I expect, and sells everything from high-quality pottery and carpets to vegetables and goats. Crowds of people from all over the Central Valleys move among the colourful stalls, bargaining for essential items as well as jewellery and toys.
Another interesting day trip takes you to the unique ruins at Mitla. On the way it is worth stopping at the villages of El Tule and Teotitlan. El Tule is home to an enormous Ahuehuete tree that’s more than 50 metres round and 40 metres high. The tree is reputedly over 2,000 years old.
Teotitlan is famous for its mezcal, a potent drink made from the agave cactus. A rather charming and effective sales approach at the Teotitlan market is to offer samples at the numerous mescal stalls before you buy. As there are many varieties featuring fruit and other flavours, mezcal tasting can be an involved but rewarding process.
Mitla is a pre-Hispanic Zapotec religious site, and the ruins there have distinctive ornate stonework in geometric patterns. There are also two underground tombs, one of which contains the ‘column of life’.
“If you put your arms around the column, the distance between your fingertips indicates how long you will live,” our guide tells us cheerfully.
Buoyed by my mezcal sampling at Teotitlan, I crawl into the tomb and embrace the column of life, only to find that my hands overlap!
“I usually advise tall people like you with long arms not to try out the column of life,” the guide says with an apologetic smile. “So I hope you’re not superstitious.”
Fortunately I’m not, and my trip to the ruins has worked up an appetite. Oaxaca is renowned for its exceptional regional cuisine, especially the seven sauces (moles) used to add spicy flavour to dishes. My favourite is the mole negro – made from up to 31 ingredients, including chillies, chocolate, spices, ground nuts, cinnamon, bread and pepper – that combines so well with chicken. Fried grasshoppers, eaten with a dash of lemon or lime, are also widely served.
Restaurante El Naranjo is among the best places to savour traditional Oaxacan food, including the moles. This delightful restaurant is situated in a courtyard featuring a fountain and the orange trees after which the restaurant is named.
The best seafood – flown in daily from the coast – is to be found at Marco Polo, where the specialty is fish cooked in a large outdoor adobe oven. If you feel like a change from local dishes, the restaurant at the Casa Oaxaca serves excellent modern international cuisine.
Because I am enchanted by the life of the zócalo, I spend several evenings eating at El Asador Vasco and the adjoining La Casa de la Abuela, both of which overlook the square.
From these restaurants it is only a short walk to the Casa de Siete Balcones, a delightful boutique hotel set in a 200- year-old colonial house. It’s worth staying in one of the early Spanish buildings in the historic quarter simply to absorb the atmosphere. Try for a room at the exquisite Casa Oaxaca – also known as the Art Hotel because of its exhibitions by well-known local artists – but book ahead.
|- Air New Zealand, 13 24 76, and Qantas, 13 13 13, fly to Los Angeles, and Mexicana, www.mexicana.com, flies from Los Angeles to Oaxaca via Mexico City. |
- Rooms and suites at the Hotel Casa de Siete Balcones cost from $115-$300 a night, www.casadesietebalcones.com
|- Rooms and suites at the Casa Oaxaca cost from $192-$383 a night, www.casa-oaxaca-reservations.com |
|- CASA OAXACA is situated in a wonderfully remodelled 18th century colonial building. With only seven large rooms, this hotel has an intimate feel, +52 (951) 514 4173, www.casa-oaxaca.com|
|- CASA DE SIETE BALCONES is a superb colonial building with exquisite décor and one of the best locations in Oaxaca on the Avenida Morelos near the zocalo, +52 (951) 516 0133, www.casadesietebalcones.com|
|- CAMINO REAL OAXACA is housed in the former Santa Catalina convent that was built in 1576. This elegant hotel has declared an historic monument by UNESCO, +52 (951) 501 6100, www.caminoreal.com/oaxaca|
|- HACIENDA LOS LAURELES is a 19th century colonial building with enchanting gardens. The 23 rooms are well appointed and the service is excellent, www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/loslaureles|