Oaxaca has been an amazing place to visit. Its hard to say for sure, but our gut says its a great first place to visit on your first time to Mexico because it has a great balance of everything. Its a city, so there is a lot to do and a lot to see and there are always people around. Its relatively small so you can easily walk from one end of ‘El Centro’ to the other in under an hour. The default language is Spanish, but its possible to get around with a few key phrases. There are food and drink options at all price ranges. Also, everyone is incredibly friendly and kind.
Oaxaca is a Spanish colonial city. You can see old photos of Oaxaca in the excellent, and free, MUFI. In those old photos it looks just like old New York or old San Francisco. Since then, its lost some of the colonial charm, but much remains. There are many gorgeous churches. The roads are long, and straight with nice cobblestones. Almost every street is one way for cars which makes things easier when crossing the street. The buildings are mostly similar in style and contain all kinds of goodies. There are many cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, etc. The only really charming thing that we wish Oaxaca still had are nice big sidewalks. Cities of this style usually (and Oaxaca used to) have large sidewalks where cafes and bars can set up large patios where one can watch passersby. This is not the case in Oaxaca. The outer walls of buildings reach almost to the street now, which is unfortunate.
Something we find funny here are the cars. This is probably more broadly applicable to Mexico in general, but it’s very noticeable here. The cars in Oaxaca span an incredible range. On one end, there are many smart, sophisticated, European cars that we don’t have in the US. Every day, we see Seats, Renaults, VW’s, Mercedes, etc. On the other end of the spectrum are trucks that can only be compared with those in Mad Max. Massive American SUV’s and pickups from the 70’s and 80’s that are held together with spare parts and sound like they are on the edge of being supercharged and completely breaking down. Then in the middle are 2 types of funny car. One is VW bugs (or Vochos as they call them). The VW bug was made here until 2002, so there are a lot of them in really good shape and they’re incredibly affordable here. Also, almost every Taxi is a Nissan Tsuru. These look like they were made in the early 90’s, but they just stopped making them in March, 2017. They are everywhere and since a lot of them are new, its funny to see a car that looks like its from the early 90’s in perfect condition. Its incredibly interesting to see such a span of vehicle types all within one city.
We were very worried about our safety in Mexico. Its easy to read lots of horror stories online. However, our assumptions have been completely invalidated. Oaxaca city, and everywhere we have been in Oaxaca state, has had the nicest, friendliest, most helpful people. Not once have either of us felt in danger. Not once has someone tried or succeeded to take something of ours or rip us off at markets or stores. We use reasonable precautions. We’re from San Francisco after all. We wouldn’t leave a pair of glasses or phone or anything unattended in San Francisco, and we don’t do it here. That said, people do it all the time.
The default assumption of everyone here is that everyone else will be honest. For example, we have rarely paid for a service up front. When we do our laundry, we leave it with a nice woman. When its done, we come back and pay for it. At cafes or restaurants, there is never a pay up front model. Every cafe you enter, you seat yourself, someone comes to you and takes your order. When you’re ready to pay you ask for ‘la cuenta’ and then they bring you the bill. They never bring you your bill without you asking. You can sit at a restaurant, bar, or cafe for as long as you want and they’ll never bring it to you. Its nice, you never feel like you’re getting kicked out. We’ve learned when we’re in a rush we ask for the check when they bring us our food and that takes care of our worries about the time.
We’re told by others here that people from Oaxaca state have a reputation all around Mexico of being very nice and we’re told that as long as we’re in Oaxaca, we’re good. However, once we get to Mexico City, we need to keep our guard and our eyes up.
We love Mexican food. As a native Californians, its basically a primary cuisine. Thats not to say that Mexican food in Oaxaca is the same as in California (its not). But we’re used to the flavor palette and we’re used to eating Mexican food daily. All that said, the food in Oaxaca is incredible! From street tacos to high end restaurants, all the food is delicious and affordable. And, there’s way more than tacos here, just don’t ask for a burrito.
Common kinds of food include delicious soups, tlayudas, quesadillas, empanadas, and enchiladas- all basically different shapes of the same ingredients that include tortillas, black refried beans, various meats, avocado, tomato, lettuce, etc. The meats are usually barbacoa, chorizo, tinga de pollo, and other delicious options. One of the foods here that we’re not used to in California is the incredible variety of bread options. There are many different kinds of bread. Most of them are a bit on the sweet side but they’re all really good.
Also, Oaxaca is known for its molés. The molé here is really good. You can order almost anything with molé on it or in it. There are also different kinds of molés. Some are very similar to a smooth salsa and others, like molé negro, are thick and black and delicious. Oaxaca is also known for its cheese. Here its called ‘quesillo.’ Its basically the only kind of cheese you can get, so hopefully you’ll like it 😋. We think its delicious. But its pretty stringy, so its not well suited to quesadillas and other melted cheese items but they use it for all the stuff anyway 😂.
Allison has had slightly more challenges in the food department. Interestingly, it hasn’t been the easiest to eat out as a vegetarian, especially if you want to avoid eating cheese at every meal. (Don’t get me wrong I love cheese, but there really are only so many mushroom quesadillas a girl can eat in two weeks.) It turns out, though rice and beans a definitely staples of a vegetarian diet, its somewhat hard to order those ingredients + mole here. Once a request for enchiladas with mole minus meat yielded a plate of mole with tortillas underneath, that’s it. It’s not their fault of course, vegetarianism isn’t as much of a way of life here, so we just keep trying out places that claim to have a sizable vegetarian menu and it adds to the adventure.
Oaxaca is also big enough that Mexican food is not the only type of food that is available. There are a number of good pizza places. Also, we found two French bakeries that have amazing bread and various other items you cannot get as part of ‘standard’ Mexican food. There are also asian food options though we haven’t tried any of those yet. We have been recommended a couple of places to try and we intend to go!
Music is Everywhere
Oaxaca is noisy.
There are car horns, people shouting, and music playing everywhere, all the time. Someone in an undetermined place on our block has taken to playing especially loud Spanish renditions of American songs on weekend evenings. Last weekend they were playing the song Sandy from the movie Grease in Spanish and couldn’t we help but laugh. Last night someone (possibly the same person) was playing Sweet Caroline on repeat from what sounded like a car speaker for at least 30 minutes.
Live music is everywhere too. The other day we passed by an accordionist, a violinist, and a person singing on their karaoke machine all in one block. Last Monday, we went out for mezcal and we were the only ones in the bar but that didn’t stop a full band from playing their entire set of 90s alternative songs. There is also state band, that plays full symphony concerts in one of the squares twice a week. We also saw two parades over the weekend, for weddings we think, each complete with full brass bands which totally ignited my little former trombone playing heart.
We Love Oaxaca
Oaxaca is incredible. Its blown away all of our expectations. We’re still here for 2 more weeks and looking forward to exploring it more and more.