Tag Archives: tourism

One Day in Capulalpam de Mendez: Oaxaca’s Pueblo Magico

High in Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez, the mountain range to the east of Oaxaca city that borders the state of Veracruz, nestles Capulalpam de Mendez, one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos. The village is terraced into the mountainside and the views are breathtaking. Indeed, the altitude can take your breath away at almost 8,000 feet (2,350 meters, 7,710 feet to be exact).

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We are on a two-day adventure, me, Hollie and Carol.  We call it an adventure because none of us had been up this road before.  Little did we know what would be in store for us further along.  Before long, we will be called Las Tres Mosqueteras — female version of the Three Musketeers.

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We leave Oaxaca early Sunday morning in my faithful La Tuga (10-year-old Honda Element) to take the switch-back federal highway MEX 175, first to Ixtlan de Juarez, where Mexico’s reformist hero Benito Juarez was baptized close to his birthplace of Guelatao.  We climb nearly 2,000 feet in the distance of 62 kilometers or about 38 miles. The precipices are harrowing and the jam-packed shared taxis pay no attention to the solid yellow line that goes the distance to separate the two-lanes.  It takes the better part of two hours to make the trip.

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Soon we are in a bio-diverse ecosystem of pine, cedar and oak dripping with ferns, bromeliads and moss. It is a rainforest up here with water run-off, gurgling streams filled with trout and lots of roadside restaurants to eat them fresh.

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I took one seat out of La Tuga so I can haul an easy-chair and ottoman to an ESL teacher friend, the only gringa at University of Sierra Juarez in Ixtlan. On the return, I carry back a locally crafted pine dresser made from sustainable wood.

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After sleeping overnight at the very comfortable Ecoturixtlan ecotourism lodge (try the zip line), I propose we go further up the mountain a few miles more to Capulalpam. I had heard about it but had never been there and everyone is up for what’s next.

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Once we get there, we are lucky to find a comedor open for breakfast at the central market. The eggs are perfect and the climate even more so. We meet farmers and  innkeepers who tell us that there are only a few Zapotec speakers left in the village. We decide this a perfect spot for a writing retreat or just to chill-out for a few days.  Next time.

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Since the historic church doesn’t open until noon and it is only 10:30 a.m. local time (an hour later in Oaxaca City, go figure), we decide to scout out the road to the highest point in the village. There’s an overlook up there and we ask directions.

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Go to the end of the pavement. Take the dirt road up, says a local woman.  So we do.  I turn left, climb higher, shifting between first and second. With each curve there is a vista more spectacular than the one before. Then, we face it.

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A seventy-degree hill (okay maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit) rutted from rain run-off with a base of gravel and rock. I stop the car.  Carol says, Well, we could get out and walk. I say, Well, I think we can make it. Let’s see what La Tuga can do. I press the clutch, push the stick into first and up we go. Except we make it only about half way until the clutch starts to burn and the car begins to swivel sideways dancing toward the edge.

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I brake. Oops, I say. Roll down the window and honk, then yell,  Necessito un ayudante. I need a helper.  Ayudame. Help me. Un hombre. Un hombre. A man.  A man. Hilarious, you might think, despite the fact that we are independent women trying to make our way in the world solita. Alone. Hah.  Hombre, I yell again.  Two children materialize at the top of the hill and look down at us. I imagine they are thinking, Gringas Locas.

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Then, David appears. He runs to the passenger side of the car as Hollie is attempting an exit, tells her to get back in. Carol is unusually quiet. David guides me, tells me how to exactly turn the wheel so I can back down slow, straight and sure. Thank goodness my Spanish is good enough!

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At the base of the road, I turn the car around around. David invites us all into his house to meet his wife Martha and drink fresh guava juice.  His view hanging over the mountain side was pretty darn good.

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But, we still want to find the Mirador, the very top of the mountain. David offers to guids us up there and climbs in the back seat. Amazing views.

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We joke about our adventure all afternoon. Later, we invite David and Martha to join us for a trout dinner, exchange phone numbers, and I get contact information for his two adult children, a son and a daughter, who live in Los Angeles and who he hasn’t seen in seven years.

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If I hadn’t made that turn, I wonder what this story would be like.

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P.S. Find the whole wheat bread baked in the wood fired clay oven.  Stay overnight at Hotel Chorromonte, 01 (951) 53 92052, with WiFi, beautiful, clean, from 200 pesos a night. Eat breakfast at Comedor Mau-Mau in the village market operated by Betzabeth Cosmes Perez.

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Guelaguetza 2014 Photo Out-takes — Oaxaca Folkloric Fesitval Dazzles Crowd

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It’s more like a party than a traditional performance. Oaxaca’s annual Guelaguetza folkloric festival draws crowds from throughout Mexico and all over the world.

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If you hang around the stage at the end while most of the crowds leave, you might be handed a small cane cup filled with mezcal and get a close-up photo, too.

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I hosted a group of Australians and we had third row seats. That’s the luck of the draw, plus mostly getting to the tourism office early.  We bought these tickets in early June.

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Even photo out-takes are worth looking at!

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For a discussion about the cultural and political controversy surrounding Guelaguetza, see my July 24, 2014 post.

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People ask me all the time if Oaxaca is safe.  There were 11,000 people in the audience, plus all the performers. Instead of the crush, we did the WAVE!

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The exit is through a narrow underground tunnel and then down the Cerro del Fortin steps.  Most of us left that way!  Everyone was calm, helpful, friendly, gracious and orderly.

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We took a few minutes to stop and look at the stunning views of the city and the Santo Domingo Church below.

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Is Oaxaca safe?  YES!

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One big crowd pleaser is the Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma. It is a story of the Spanish conquest over the Aztecs. Many villages do this ritual dance. It is an important part of indigenous Mexican identity.

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The chief dancer is the Moctezuma, and featured are two girls, each representing the duality of Mexico — The Malinche and Doña Marina – who are one and the same.  How high the dancers leap is a feat of pure prowess and determination.

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Everyone in the crowd was hoping to catch a pineapple — one of the Guelaguetza gifts thrown — actually hurled — from the stage into the audience by each village represented.

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If we had our hands and a hat up, we got bread, radishes, lettuce, palm hats and fans, rolls, tortillas, sticky tamarind fruit, ritual bunches of fragrant greens.

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I managed to catch a bunch of bananas that I shared with my neighbors in keeping with the meaning of Guelaguetza. Only the front row received the pineapples. I think the organizers were afraid of injury!

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By the time we left the auditorium it was almost 10 p.m. We were hungry and thirsty. Somehow, sweet rolls didn’t seem enough. My mantra: time for a mezcal margarita and a good meal. This is the hour most Mexicans have their dinner! It was way past my bed-time.

Guelaguetza2014-29Our group of five women walked about six blocks to La Biznaga where we were lucky to find an open table. Beware: the margaritas are especially potent! The spinach lasagna (yes, Italian) was wonderful. Safe? Yes!

In Mexico City: Where to Buy a Bus Ticket to Oaxaca

Where to buy a bus ticket to Oaxaca in Mexico City’s historic center? This has been a dilemma and frustrating for foreign travelers for many years.  We cannot use non-Mexican credit cards to buy an ADO bus ticket to Oaxaca (or anywhere ADO operates) online.  Heretofore, the only solution was to go to Mexico TAPO (the regional bus station) to buy an advance ticket (45-minute taxi ride one-way) or show up on the day you want to leave and hope there is a seat.

Don't blink! You might miss it.

Don’t blink! You might miss it.

After a frustrating hour on my computer and then again with the concierge at my otherwise absolutely wonderful and affordable Hotel Catedral, I accepted that I could not change the system.  They suggested I might buy a ticket at OXXO (the convenience store).  Not wanting to waste another moment, I went on to spend three wonderful hours at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP) to view and review 1923-1928 Diego Rivera murals.  My hope was that sometime later, aka mañana, perhaps I would source a ticket location.

I went in search of OXXO.  No OXXO where it was supposed to be.  Then, I went into a hostel to ask and was directed to a street but no address.  I kept walking, hoping I could find the Hotel Majestic where someone else said there was a travel agency.  Instead, I found myself in front of the Holiday Inn Zocalo and entered, hoping they could sell me a ticket.  The bell captain, in reply to my query, said, Oh, someone was here last week saying an ADO ticket office just opened around the corner.  Go out, turn right and then turn left at the first street.  It’s down there somewhere. Not far.  I was skeptical, yet decided to trust.  This is important in Mexico.  Trust takes you to many places and then eventually to the right one.  (By the way, did I say I’m traveling alone, sola?)

So, I followed his instructions, but I crossed Calle Monte Piedad from 5 de Mayo to walk on the Zocalo side turning left and heading away from the Cathedral as instructed.  No store where the bell captain said there should be one.  Exasperated, I pivoted.  Un milagro! 

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Don’t blink!  You might miss it: A teeny, weeny sign hung high above and to the side of an arcade entryway leading to restaurants and artisan collectibles on the upper floors.  I was deluged by eager young people promoting said establishments and in the obscurity of the arched tunnel could not see the small, portable stand with signage facing the opposite wall promoting bus ticket sales.  So, again, after seeing the street sign, I said, Where is the bus ticket office?  There, they said, pointing about five feet away.

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Now, here’s what you’ve been patiently waiting for:

MultiMarca ticket stand, Ave. Monte Piedad #11, between 5 de Mayo and Francisco I. Madero, across from the Zocalo and next door to McDonald’s soft serve. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Cash only if you are a foreigner!  One-way, 6-hour bus ticket to Oaxaca on ADO GL is $584 pesos.  No phone.  They use wide-band Telcel USB to connect to the Internet and process tickets.

In case you forgot, this is the landmark!

In case you forgot, this is the landmark!

Are You Safer in Mexico or America?

Should I travel to Mexico?  Is it safe?  What about Oaxaca?  Robert Reid, Lonely Planet’s US travel editor wrote a blog post on May 10, 2012 about safety in Mexico, offering six reasons why Mexico is safe.  The headline is Are You Safer in Mexico or America?  The Huffington Post picked it up and published it and our follower, Bruce Anderson sent the story my way.  Thanks, Bruce!

I’m going to start with Reid’s last two points, which are specific to Oaxaca.  I am constantly writing about safety here because one of the biggest myths circulating is that travel to Mexico is not safe and safety is one of the most popular search terms on my blog.  I am on a mission.  It is my number one pet peeve.  The traveling public needs to know that most tourist destinations in Mexico — and especially Oaxaca — are safe.

Help me spread the word by forwarding this to one friend who is skeptical! Here’s what Reid says . . .

5. Malia Obama ignored the Texas advice.

Of all people, President Obama and first lady said “OK” to their 13-year-old daughter’s spring break destination this year: Oaxaca. Then Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum made snide remarks over that, perhaps overlooking that Oaxaca state has a smaller body count from the drug war than his home state’s murder rate (Oaxaca’s 4.39 per 100,000 to Pennsylvania’s 5.2).

Oaxaca state, not on the US travel warning, is famed for its colonial city, Zapotec ruins and emerging beach destinations like Huatulco. Lonely Planet author Greg Benchwick even tried grasshoppers with the local mezcal (Malia apparently stuck with vanilla shakes.)

So, can you go to Mexico?

Yes. As the US State Department says, “millions of US citizens safely visit Mexico each year.” Last year, when I took on the subject for CNN, one commenter suggested Lonely Planet was being paid to promote travel there. No we weren’t. We took on the subject simply because – as travelers so often know – there is another story beyond the perception back home, be it Vietnam welcoming Americans in the ’90s or Colombia’s dramatic safety improvements in the ’00s. And, equally as importantly, Mexico makes for some of the world’s greatest travel experiences – it’s honestly why I’m in this line of work.

So yes, you can go to Mexico, just as you can go to Texas, or New Orleans, or Orlando, or the Bahamas. It’s simply up to you to decide whether you want to.

Robert Reid is Lonely Planet’s US Travel Editor and has been going to Mexico since he was three (most recently to Chacala).

Oaxaca Hosts Malia Obama, U.S. President’s Daughter

Oaxaca Times reports that Malia Obama, 13-year old daughter of U.S. President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama is in Oaxaca, Mexico, this weekend!

She arrived on a commercial United Airlines jet direct to Oaxaca from Houston, and will visit archeological sites and craft villages.  Even with 25 Secret Service Agents at her disposal, she would not be here if it weren’t safe.

I’m heading out to the Tlacolula market today.  Not likely she will be there, since it would be difficult to maintain security among the throngs of shoppers, but who knows?

Thanks to follower Elliot Stoller for alerting me!