After our family-history rediscovery tour of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Pat and I began March with a week in Oaxaca City.
Though we went to the state capital for Pat to attend a knitting retreat, our hosts, Bill and Irene York, from Green Valley, had scheduled plenty of time for our group of 18 to explore the area.
Our base of operations was the Hotel Casa Antigua in the middle of town. Our walking tours of the city extended a mile or so from the hotel and included the busy zócalo (town plaza), several good restaurants and coffee shops, and the impressive 16th-century church, Santo Domingo de Guzmán.
We sampled Oaxacan cuisine, which is heavily into mole sauces. At one meal I had red, green, and yellow mole sauces all on the same plate. Though we tired of mole, we never tired of tasty soups and black beans. We even found Italian restaurants for pizza, wine and gelato.
We attended a Guelaguetza performance of regional music, dances and costumes. Pat and I managed to get seats right in front of the stage, but truth be told, enjoyed the dinner buffet even more than the program.
Oaxaca is trying to establish a market for mescal and we were offered free samples on several occasions. Like tequila, mescal is made from fermented maguey plants, a form of agave that is grown all over the state of Oaxaca.
On several days our hosts provided vans to transport us to sites outside the city and guides to explain what we were seeing.
We visited the extensive ruins of Monte Albán, thought to be the Americas' first metropolis, reaching a population as large as 40,000 around A.D. 500. I marveled at the Zapotec builders' engineering skill in literally scraping off the top of a mountain to provide a platform for their city.
We also made a couple of trips to visit local outdoor markets - one in a small town square, the other at least 10 city blocks long. We saw everything from endless produce booths to a colorful display of painted underwear to an older woman scurrying around with a live turkey under her arm.
Pat and I particularly enjoyed the excursions to see Oaxacan folk artists, including rug weavers, black-pottery makers and wood sculptors. We met the artists in their working environment, typically a dedicated village with extended relatives making up the team that produced the artwork under the direction of the master artist.
At the wood carver's, we were fascinated by a family group of a dozen people or more sitting around a large table painting intricate designs on finely carved pieces. And we were surprised that Oaxacan potters don't use a potters' wheel, but instead fashion their pots on a plate, which they rotate slowly by hand, atop another supporting plate.
We were even more surprised to keep running into other tour groups guided by our friend Pablo, who the previous week had driven us on our adventure 150 miles to the south, across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
Oaxaca City is an interesting place to visit, especially for the archeological sites, the folk art and education in indigenous cultures. There was no hint of the problems plaguing the border areas of Mexico, and there is direct airline access from Houston.
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Sources: Moon Handbooks - Oaxaca and "Viva Oaxaca - An Insider's Guide to Oaxaca's Charms." E-mail Bob Ring at firstname.lastname@example.org