Monthly Archives: January 2010

What To Pack for Oaxaca Winter Travel

Norma Hawthorne’s travel and packing tips for a one-week stay in Oaxaca during the winter months, December through February.

Clothing and Personal Essentials:

Flip flops for the shower

Hand sanitizer (small travel size)

Wool socks

Comfortable walking shoes

Sandals or clogs (optional)

Layered casual clothing

1-2 pairs of pants

1 pair shorts (optional)

dress (optional)

short sleeve shirt (2)

long sleeve shirt (2)

warm sweater or fleece

warm scarf

wool socks

Underwear for 4-5 days

Jacket or windbreaker

Sun hat with wide brim for day and warm hat for night

Medications, toiletries, sunscreen (the sun is strong)

An antiviral in case you get a stomach bug

Sunglasses, extra pair of prescription eyeglasses

Extra passport copy

Extra duffle bag or suitcase for bringing back gifts/purchases

Totebag and/or backpack for location work

Camera, batteries/chargers (video and still)

Electric current is the same, no need for a converter

Dress is VERY casual.  I bring one black washable dress and one pair of black slacks (rayon or washable silk), and two long-sleeve black T-shirt that I can interchange, sometimes wearing the dress over the pants, adding scarves and shawls and a different jacket to change looks.  Makes packing much simpler!  Blue jeans and sweatshirts are perfectly acceptable.  Please be comfortable.

Washing your clothes:  there are convenient laundries throughout the city and the villages.   Clothes dry in the warm air in just a couple of hours so you can easily wash and wear the same day.

Before you leave home:

Call your credit/debit card company and tell them the dates you are traveling to Oaxaca.  Ask them not to block your charges and ATM use.

Sign up for international (Mexico) phone service with your wireless carrier and if you carry a handheld (iPhone/Blackberry) get an internet roaming plan or turn your data off to avoid big charges.

Money:  Do not bring Traveler’s Checks.  They are too difficult and expensive to cash.  There are ATMs in the Mexico City airport, in Oaxaca, and the regional towns like Tlacolula and Ocotlan.  The best exchange rates are via ATM withdrawal.   Often, merchants will give a 10 percent (or more) discount if you use cash and not a credit card.   Some will take a personal check rather than a credit card.  I always bring a few personal checks.  As of this writing the exchange rate is 12.5 – 13 pesos to the dollar.  Oaxaca banks with ATMs are located across from the Zocalo, on Hidalgo, on Garcia Virgil a block from the Zocalo, and on the Periferico near Fabrica de Francia on the road to the airport and Ocotlan, and across from Llano Park.

Weather: Days will be mild and can be as warm as the mid-80’s Fahrenheit.  Nights will be chilly and it can be breezy, even windy throughout the day this time of year.  You will need to bring clothing to transition from day to evening.   Think layers.  This is not the rainy season.

Public Health: Most households and restaurants in Oaxaca use either purified drinking water or boil their water for cooking.  Do not drink the tap water or use it to brush your teeth — anywhere.  When eating “on the street” or in cafes, I advise that you do not eat raw greens, salads or anything that has been pre-peeled and cut.  It is difficult to know if the utensils were washed with purified water.   High-end restaurants that cater to tourists will have good sanitation standards, but in my humble opinion it is better to be safe than sorry.  It is safe to eat anything that has been grilled or boiled.  That’s why I have no qualms eating off the grill at the Sunday Tlacolula market.  Carry your own water, tissue paper/napkins, and small container of hand sanitizer (which I use liberally).   Bottled water is ubiquitous and you can buy it at any corner shop in most villages.

If you have travel tips for Oaxaca to share, please add your advice to this blog post.

Earthquakes in Oaxaca? Yes

As a Californian, I grew up respectful of the power of earthquakes and in fear of the devastation they could cause.  The 1988 Loma Prieta earthquake, centered in Santa Cruz, California, was in my sister’s backyard.  Anything breakable was destroyed and buildings constructed before “code” or ignoring the boundaries of legal approval were vulnerable, toppled or structurally compromised.  I remember the “shake, rattle and roll” years of living in San Francisco and the dread of driving into an underground parking garage, wondering if this would be the unpredictable moment that all would fall down.  Now, four days after the Haiti earthquake, we take stock of where we live, how we live, how we build our dwellings and public spaces, and the impact of poverty on physical safety.

The state of Oaxaca is on the San Andreas fault line, which runs from the west coast of the U.S. down the spine of the Sierra Madre mountain range into southern Mexico.  The historic city of Puebla was victim of a massive quake in the last two decades, and the areas around the volcanoes that border Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca are particularly volatile.   There are no skyscrapers here.  Oaxaca is the second or third poorest state in Mexico and there are shantytowns in every corner of this magnificent city and scattered throughout the countryside in the poorest villages.

Those who have money to build solid adobe or brick construction understand that they must dig deep to anchor their foundations.    Foundation trenches are at least four to six feet deep and two to three feet wide, filled with huge boulders, steel girders and then concrete.  I have to believe that this type of construction has evolved over hundreds of years of experience.  Adobe will crumble; bricks and concrete block will topple.  And, the huge fortress churches of these Mexican cities (including Puebla and Oaxaca) have survived over 500 years of earthquakes reaching magnitudes of seven on the Richter scale.

There was a day last summer when I was awakening in the early morning from a deep sleep and felt a gentle shake and rattle.  Ah, I said, must be an earthquake.  We are used to them in Oaxaca and believe it is a good sign that the earth is giving off it’s geological stress to relieve the pressure.  Hopefully, this periodic burp will avoid the “big one.”  Was the earthquake in Haiti different because there hadn’t been a major quake there (7+) in over 200 years?  Are little quakes a reminder that we live in a region that is at risk and we need to take precautions?  How much precaution CAN be taken when there is not enough money to build a proper home to withstand the forces of nature?  Supposedly, the human tragedy of a natural disaster does not discriminate based on wealth or poverty.  Yet, we know that the poor suffered most in New Orleans.  Will the same be true in Haiti?  Can human beings win against the forces of nature?  Not likely.

As for Oaxaca, people with money will dig their foundations deep while the poor construct shelter out of tin scraps, cardboard and discarded bed springs.

Getting to Oaxaca: Airfares and Travel Tips

Stephen and I just completed our Oaxaca travels over the winter holidays.  We booked round trip in and out of Mexico City which can be a 30-40% savings.  We took a taxi to TAPU (regional bus station) and then the ADO GL bus to Oaxaca (6.5 hours for about $50USD).  There’s an overnight bus to Oaxaca from Mexico City — the one to take is the Platino or Uno, which has reclining seats that are like beds.

You’ll just need to check the going rates for the best fares.  I have become a Continental Airlines frequent flyer because they fly direct from Houston to Oaxaca and sometimes the fares are good.  We’ve paid from $450 to $800, so it’s important to book in advance (way in advance) for best fares.  American has a codeshare with Mexicana in which you fly to DFW, then to MexCity, then to Oaxaca.  You can fly any carrier into Mexico City and then get to Oaxaca various ways.

There is a bus, Estrella Roja, in the international terminal in Mexico City, that will take you to Puebla ($15USD), one of my favorite cities.  It is two hours from M.C.  We stay overnight there at Camino Real Puebla (great breakfast buffet) which is a 16th century ex-convent, then continue on to Oaxaca the next day, making the bus trip a little more bearable for me (even though there are toilets on the ADO GL).

I book all our hotel rooms online using and save 40-50% off the rack rate.  For airplane fares, I belong to and use  Most of the discount airfare websites are not substantially different in pricing, but you can get tricked into booking a low cost fare only to discover that they haven’t added on airport taxes and booking fees until check-out.  On my next trip to Oaxaca coming up in February for the documentary filmmaking workshop we are offering, I booked round trip from RDU to Mexico City for $388USD including taxes and fees.  I then went onto the Mexicana website and booked an internal round trip from MexCity to Oaxaca for an additional $200, making the total fare come in under $600.

ONE Space Open, Oaxaca Documentary Film Workshop: Interview Subjects Confirmed

Norma Hawthorne announces that she has confirmed the interview subjects for the Feb. 19-26, 2010 documentary film making workshop to be held in Teotitlan del Valle.  There is still one space open and it is not too late to register and attend.

Interview subjects are:

1)  Magdalena (Magda) is an elder of the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle. She is the mother-in-law of Josefina, the proprietor of Las Granadas Bed and Breakfast. Part of Magda’s daily life is preparing organically grown corn (maize) to make masa and tortillas.  This is a rich, cultural tradition.  Embedded into this practice are issues about traditional, locally grown corn vs. bio-engineered corn imported at a lower price; the traditional role of food and women preparing it; and family relationships in a multi-generational living compound.
2) Pantaleon Ruiz Martinez is a 34-year old Zapotec artist who is a renown weaver, painter and jewelry designer.  He translates indigenous life, dreams, images and ancient symbols into his art.  His images incorporate mythical animal and human figures, and he uses sweeping strokes of paint applied by hands and fingers to his canvas.  Paint pigments incorporate the natural dyes derived from local plant materials.  He has exhibited widely in the U.S. and throughout Mexico.

3) Arte y Seda is a family-owned weaving cooperative that focuses on cultivating silk worms, feeding them the mulberry leaves from the trees grown in their courtyard, spinning the cocoons, dyeing the silk yarn with natural colors, and then weaving the fine silk threads into magnificent garments, scarves and shawls.  Silk cultivation and weaving was introduced by the Spanish centuries ago.  The family of Aurora Contreras has been working with silk for several generations.  Today, she and her husband Reynaldo Sosa continue the tradition in the original style, preparing their own natural vegetable dye materials.  The silk worms are dormant now and the mulberry trees on the property will be leafing out during our visit, however, there are lots of photos of the worms that can be used to augment the interviews, spinning and weaving.

Workshop participants will work in pairs to produce a 5-6 minute documentary video, learning all the storytelling, interviewing,  b-roll skills and editing techniques necessary to produce a short film.   This program is perfect for social cause advocates, artists, budding film makers, and anyone who wants to tell a visual story using video.

Talavera Armando, Puebla, Mexico–Making It Good?

In October 2009, I bought some pieces of talavera ceramics from Talavera Armando in Puebla at their factory store in El Parian at the corner of 6 Oriente and 6 Norte.  (They operate at least six galleries in Puebla.) Av. 6 Norte is the street full of talavera vendors that Puebla is famous for.  The quality from shop to shop varies, but I know that at the factory store Talavera Armando sells first quality DO4 pottery.  I paid 1,500 pesos ($123USD at that time) to ship three plates, one soup bowl, and six tiles.  A lot, you might say, but we had already packed our suitcases and knew they couldn’t take any more weight.  We were willing to pay the price for good pack and ship.

Everything except the tiles arrived broken.  The box, too small for the number and size of the pieces, was only half filled with peanuts, and the bubble wrap was one layer thick around each plate and not secured with packing tape.  In the shipment, bubble wrap must have fallen away from the plates which bumped against each other to cause the breakage.  I filed a claim with UPS and received the retail value of the broken pieces, amounting to $43.  UPS would/did not reimburse for what I paid for shipping.

On this recent return trip to Puebla, I stopped by Talavera Armando and told one of the managers, Omar Rubi Navarrette, what happened.  I showed them a photo of the too-small box, and asked them to reimburse me for the shipping cost.  He said I should have phoned them and they would have filled another order.  Then, he said they use PakMail and once they turn the order over them, it is out of their hands.

After an hour of discussing the customer service problem with a relative who was a fluent English speaker, they told me they would discuss the situation with PakMail, file a claim, ask for shipping reimbursement for me, and let me know if that was possible.  I am still keeping my hopes up that Talavera Armando will make good and reimburse me or give me a store credit for the inferior quality of packing.  I hope they understand that whoever they choose to pack and ship their ceramics is a reflection on their own quality of product and service.

I will write further about this to let the public know how this was resolved.

Meanwhile, not a single piece of the eight pieces of talavera I bought this week in Puebla, wrapped myself and packed in my suitcase, arrived broken!  I insert a sturdy bamboo basket inside my suitcase.  Pack my well-bubble-wrapped pieces into the basket so everything is snug and doesn’t wiggle.  Cover the basket with a plastic bag full of bubble that I secure to the basket with heavy duty wrapping tape, and cover that with my down pillow or bag of dirty laundry.