Sunday, 13 May 2007, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
We arrived in the city of Oaxaca (which is the capital of the state of Oaxaca) on Anzac Day - that is the 25th of April for those who are not familiar with the legendary Anzacs, which are so much a part of Australian (and New Zealand) history - 20th century history that is! I make mention of this because our stay in the Oaxaca area was highlighted by visits to several ruin sites that go back to hundreds of years BC. This is still amazing to someone who comes from a country with such a short history of European settlement and where the indigenous heritage is just not so obvious.
The drive from Zipotle to Oaxaca was certainly a 'long and winding road' - we seem to be finding a lot of those here in Mexico. It took us 7½ hours to cover the 250 kilometres! The road from the coast first wound its way up the mountains through lush tropical vegetation, then dropped into a rather dry plateau. The last few blocks to the trailer park we were slowed to walking pace by a demonstration in the street ahead of us. It was a relief to be at a higher altitude where the air was certainly cooler than at the coast, although daytime temperatures could still reach around 30°. We stayed at the Oaxaca Trailer Park which must have really been something in its original incarnation. It had covered a city block but the owner has discovered in recent times that the real estate is just too valuable for renting to campers. Already at least three-quarters of it is either built on, being built on or being used in some way for the building process. The shaded spaces left for campers number about 7. The bathrooms are still usable and have hot water, although sometimes the manager needs to be reminded to clean them!
Overnight we were serenaded by bad conga playing from a nearby night-club. On Friday, after two nights of interrupted sleep, we left to search out a campground that should exist outside the city in nearby San Felipe. We reached it after quite an adventure through the narrow, and sometimes blocked, streets of this village only to find the gate padlocked and no one answering the bell except a couple of dogs. I had committed myself to a new pair of rather expensive glasses the day before, which couldn't be delivered until the next Thursday, and therefore prevented us from simply leaving Oaxaca unexplored, and driving on in the quest for peace and quiet. We rather reluctantly made our way back to Oaxaca Trailer Park for another week.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because although we didn't always sleep particularly well, we did discover the delights of this city and also the nearby ruin of Monte Alban. We have to constantly remind ourselves that sometimes sleep isn't the easiest thing to come by, but if we pack up and leave a place just because our sleep is disturbed, we may miss some of the great things we have come to see. It is a difficult balance to maintain and we are constantly confronted by the need to try.
The city of Oaxaca is a very pleasant place to spend some time and the more we explored it the more we liked it. Before leaving the USA we had been warned not to go there because of political unrest and violence. Then we met a number of travellers along the way who had been there this year and who encouraged us to go. We are glad we took their advice.
One of the great things about travelling without a real itinerary is that when you meet fellow travellers and spend time sharing experiences, you hear of places you hadn't thought of going and have the freedom to change plans in an instant to include them. One of the pluses connected with staying on in Oaxaca was meeting people in the campground. First there were the English - Maureen and Les and Margaret - who have spent the last year or so in South America. They told us about lots of places they had visited that we eagerly made notes about for future reference. One thing I was most encouraged to hear about was the trip that Les and Margaret made to the Antarctic - it is a dream of mine that I might be able to get a good deal on a trip there once we reach the bottom of South America. Their experience certainly encouraged me to hold on to that dream. Gerry and Vicki caught up with us again and in the week or so we spent together at Oaxaca Trailer Park they passed on more of their invaluable experience of places both in Mexico and beyond. There was also another couple, John and Linda - an archaeologist and anthropologist respectively - who had some very interesting light to throw on things we were seeing on our travels. And Matthias and Allison and their two sons stayed a couple of days and passed on the name and contact details for a Spanish teacher in Guatemala.
As with most cities, towns and villages in Mexico, Oaxaca has its fair share of churches. Some we plan to visit, but most we just drop in to as we pass - one of those which we just happened upon and that interested us a lot was San Juan de Dios, which has a collection of paintings depicting the indigenous conversion by the Spanish. We also visited the church of Santo Domingo which is baroque style and once again the best description I can find is 'over the top'! But the ex-monastery next door has been turned into the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo which houses the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. This museum shows the history of Oaxaca from pre-hispanic times to the present and has some amazing exhibits from the indigenous inhabitants. Of particular interest to us were the pieces which were recovered from a tomb at Monte Alban - we were planning to visit that site a few days later. The exhibit shows clearly the well developed craftsmanship of the people of that city. You could spend hours in this museum, but we took a couple of hours to view the pre-hispanic exhibits only and also to take in the lavishly decorated building that those 'poor' monks had to live in!
We also got our first sight of the Jardin Etnobotanico from the museum building. This garden is also part of the cultural centre and we came back another day to take the tour which was led by a very interesting English speaking guide. The garden is a well-organised display of all plants indigenous to the state of Oaxaca - many of them are also endemic, i.e. they only occur naturally in this area. There is also a focus on plants which have been, and still are, used by the different ethnic peoples of Oaxaca for food, drink, medicines, crafts and other necessities of daily life. This tour was one of the highlights of our stay in Oaxaca and we really recommend it to anyone coming to the city.
The pre-hispanic exhibits at the museum wet our appetite for more and when we read about the collection of Rufino Tamayo we just had to see it. The pieces in the Museo de Arte Prehispanico de Mexico Rufino Tamayo were collected by the artist and displayed in a house he had restored. He then turned the collection over to the state. His goal was for the pieces to be appreciated as works of art rather than just artefacts. This makes this museum unique and also well worth the visit. English language descriptions of the pieces are provided, and this made the visit even more interesting. Put this on our list of Oaxaca highlights too.
Another building on our list of places to see was the Palacio de Gobierno - according to our guide books it is open 24 hours a day and entry is free. The descriptions given certainly made it sound worthy of a visit. Unfortunately, during our time in Oaxaca, we never once managed to find it open for one of these free visits. It is right on the edge of the Zócalo and we spent a considerable amount of time in this location either people watching or listening to music or watching dancers or having food or a drink, and all the times we tried we were unsuccessful at gaining entry - if the door was open, the guard said 'mañana' and then when we came back 'mañana' it was closed. This building still shows clear signs of the unrest in this region as most of its second story windows are broken and haven't been repaired. May 1st is celebrated in Oaxaca with protest marches and much graffiti - the palace received more than its share of the graffiti! It seemed such a shame to walk around the next day and to see all the beautiful old buildings covered in paint - in most cases the graffiti had been covered by splashes of paint of any available colour until such time as someone had the time or machinery to clean the beautiful stonework properly.
Continuation on > Page 2 > !