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The Allure of Oaxaca, Mexico

Yes, it's gay-friendly, and more
Alvin Starkman | May 15, 2008

For years I�ve been trying to convince my friend Harvey to come to Oaxaca with his spouse. His response has always been the same: Why should I vacation in Mexico, with its less than stellar reputation regarding civil rights violations against gays? And my retort has similarly been consistent: As long as you keep your nose clean and are not into conduct which would, even in Canada and the U.S. attract the attention of authorities and homophobes, gay men and women should undoubtedly have one of the most culturally rich and diverse vacation experiences imaginable.

Oaxaca (wa-HAW-ka), the capital of one of Mexico�s southernmost states of the same name, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting world renowned cuisine, an impressive array of galleries, museums and colonial churches, a plethora of pre-Hispanic ruins, colorful marketplaces, fascinating craft villages, as well as more off-the-beaten-track sights.

Relative to the ex-patriot population as a whole, Oaxaca has an over-representation of gays, both singles and couples, who wouldn�t consider living anywhere else: Aside from the offerings in the city and surrounding central valleys, there are the Pacific beach resorts of Huatulco, Puerto Escondido and numerous smaller more secluded havens, easily accessible by car, bus, or a 35 minute plane ride from the city.

Oaxaca�s restaurants range from hole-in-the-wall eateries serving the famous moles, to relatively upscale yet unassuming bistro-style haunts with live music and in some instances fusion cuisine, to white linen restaurants run by chefs who have plied their artistry in New York and Chicago, returning to southern Mexico because of its slower pace, and an opportunity to experiment with and refine the use of unique herbs, spices and flavor combinations.

The city is a mecca for artists from all over the world. There are at least 60 galleries, as well as workshops offering courses at all levels. Its school of fine arts is respected throughout the country. The Museo de Pintores Oaxaque�os regularly holds fine art auctions to benefit a variety of worthy local charities. And of course there are many other museums such as the Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art, the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, and my favorite, the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Cultural events abound both on a fixed weekly schedule such as different bands playing in the z�calo (arguably the nation�s most colorful and lively main square), as well as visiting musicians and dance troupes from across the globe.

But to truly experience the magic of Oaxaca, it�s best to get out of the city proper for a couple of days, exploring the countryside either with a private guide or cab driver, on a tour bus, or by availing yourself of the extensive and safe public transportation system.

Spend a weekday doing the following village route. Begin with a black pottery demonstration in San Bartolo Coyotepec, at Do�a Rosa�s, where you can also select from a broad range of ceramics to match any home d�cor, be it contemporary, modern or with a developing Latin influence. A half-mile down the road is Santa Mar�a Coyotepec, home to the ranch, museum and research station dedicated to cochineal, the minute insect which feeds off the nopal cactus, is harvested, dried and then used as a brilliant red, orange and purple dye. In the 1700s Oaxaca was the world leader in production of the natural dye, exporting more than 1.5 million pounds to Europe, Asia and Africa, in 1758 alone. Cochineal is still used in today�s manufacture of makeup, lipstick, Danone yoghurt, Campbell soup and Campari. In its heyday, next to gold and silver it was the world�s most valuable commodity.

Next you�re off to San Mart�n Tilcajete, a village where alebrijes (hand-carved and brilliantly painted fanciful wooden figures) are produced in predominantly small, primitive household workshops. Then there�s Santo Tom�s Jalieza where you�ll see women working on the ancient back-strap loom making cotton textiles such as tablecloths and runners, napkins and placemats, bedspreads and more. The open air restaurant, Azucena Zapoteca enables you to indulge in typical regional food in a relaxed and friendly environment. The adjoining gallery has some of the best quality crafts you�ll find anywhere in Mexico.

In Ocotl�n you�ll visit the workshops of the Aguilar sisters, crafters of clay painted figures with strong religious, sexual, creationist, or indigenous imagery. The third generation knife and cutlery workshop of their cousin �ngel Aguilar is a short distance down the road. See a fascinating demonstration of the centuries old Spanish technique of hand-forging recycled metals in an old stone and clay hearth. Have a hunting knife or cake serving set engraved while you wait, with your surname and perhaps a short limerick. In the town square you�ll marvel at the building-long mural, painted in fresco by one of Oaxaca�s native sons, the late Rodolfo Morales. Conclude the day with a visit to the large traditional courtyard-style home where he spent the last few years of his life. And if you�re still up for it, a final stop before heading back to the city is the magnificent 16th century monastery at Cuilapam.

On the weekend, Sunday provides the best opportunity to visit sights. First you�re off to El Tule, purportedly the largest tree in the world. Then to the 16th century Dominican church at Tlacochuhuaya, known for the vast amount of remaining original painting done by Zapotec natives, and the spectacular 17th century German organ on the second floor, accessible by a narrow winding set of stone stairs. Your trip wouldn�t be complete without stopping a few miles down the highway at the rug village of Teotitl�n del Valle where you�ll have an opportunity to witness a family at various stages of rug production� from carding raw wool, to its spinning, then dying in large vats using the cochineal bug as well as vegetable dyes, and then finally the weaving of intricate designs, from memory, on large pine looms.

Continuing along the highway you�ll stop at a mezcal factory for tasting and a demonstration of the centuries old methods used for making Oaxaca�s state drink, starting with barbequing the agave plant in an in-ground oven, then pulverizing it using a horse pulling a multi-ton circular stone, followed by natural fermentation in wooden barrels. The mash is then distilled using copper serpentine tubing and a firewood fueled brick oven. The finished product is then imbibed in its purest form, or after having been aged in oak, flavored with the gusano worm, or infused with select local herbs or fruits.

The largest and best laid-out market day town in the region is at Tlacolula every Sunday. No need to attend any other market once you�ve been here. You�ll be fascinated and intrigued. It�s frequented by tourists seeking handicrafts, but more importantly the vast majority of attendees are locals from the surrounding towns and villages who shop for all their worldly needs in the marketplace � soak up all the colors, smells, sounds and above all pageantry. If you�re concerned about eating BBQ chicken off the parrilla before heading off, there�s a quaint restaurant down the road offering freshly grilled meats, salads and of course moles.

Finally, at Mitla you�re off to the ruin and craft marketplace, the latter known for the best prices and diversity of products in the area such as dresses, skirts and blouses, as well as many of the handicrafts you�ve already seen being made in the villages. The ruin is quite different from Monte Alb�n (the largest and most well-known ruin in the state), and therefore those with a particular interest in the region�s archaeological record should not miss a visit. Time permitting, on the way back to Oaxaca you can take in the ruin at Yagul, known for the second largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica, its tomb, a labyrinth, and a fortress up on a mountain precipice accessible only by hiking. The view from the top is breathtaking.

If ruins simply aren�t your cup of tea, then you can complete the day by continuing your drive up into the mountains and visiting Hierve el Agua, with its petrified mineral �waterfalls� and 2 large poolings of water fed by bubbling springs, suitable for a refreshing swim.

So Harvey and Morty, with all of this to keep you enraptured, I suppose your only other excuse can be: �Yes, but what about finding gay-friendly hotels?� The Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association provides a diverse range of quaint, clean and extremely accommodating guest houses ranging from about $40 to $100 a night per couple. And a much more complete catalogue of city activities is found at www.oaxacacalendar.com.

  • Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, thereafter embarking upon a successful career as a litigator until taking early retirement in 2004. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca where he writes, leads small group tours to the craft villages, markets, ruins and other sites, is a consultant to documentary film production companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. – Gay Link Content


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