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The cultural connections of travel – Oaxaca, Mexico

Selling capuchines (fried grasshoppers)
Selling capuchines (fried grasshoppers)
© Susanna Starr

story and photos by Susanna Starr

Alebrijes, fanciful carved wooden figures
© Susanna Starr

Like every other aspect of life, it's a question of focus. Some travelers seem to focus on the differences in the various cultures they visit. Others focus on the things they have in common. Obviously both aspects exist which add to the richness and sense of discovery as well as strong identifications that add dimension to travel beyond just the places we visit and the food we eat.

Being in Oaxaca at any time of the year offers special opportunities to enjoy many of the cultural offerings of this colorful city in the south central mountains of Mexico. With a strong and very definite indigenous culture, it has attracted many foreign travelers and now, more than ever, is appealing to ever increasing numbers of Mexican nationals. It is well known for it's crafts which are produced by whole villages of people who have handed down knowledge and techniques for generations, including weaving of wool textiles, elaborate embroidery of hand-loomed cotton clothing, fine filigree jewelry of silver and gold, extravagantly painted and fantasy inspired wooden animals and figures, intricate tin work and wood carvings and pottery for decoration as well as utility, and a host of other crafts. It is also well known for its outstanding painters and fine museums.

Mexican markets are notorious for their riot of colors and delectable smells, which also brings us to food. For many years, Oaxaca has reflected the foods of the seven regions of which it is comprised, with various moles, guisados (stews), tamales and enchiladas, the traditional dishes. But in the past decade or more, other variations on this traditional theme have made Oaxacan cuisine known internationally. Abigail Mendoza Ruiz, who runs Tlamanalli Restaurant with her sisters, has had world-wide acclaim as both chef and teacher and was recently featured on the cover of a magazine, published shortly after her return from Paris where she was invited to give a cooking presentation. Carina Santiago who runs the Tierra Antigua restaurant has joined in a community of Oaxacan chefs actively teaching and promoting this newly acclaimed cuisine. Both restaurants are in the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. Once upon a time, their cooking was presented mostly to family and friends, but with the advent of their own restaurants, their reputations grew and they are now much in demand on the “cooking circuit.”

Not only are there some outstanding individuals who are receiving wonderful recognition, but the whole presentation of foods in the markets have undergone changes. Where once giant cauldrons of tantalizing stews and legumes bubbled over braziers and chunks of meat were prepared on open comales (woks), there are now all kinds of prepared foods both for eating on the spot or packaged for take-out at every market. They are presented in modern 21st century packages, giving the assurance of cleanliness as well as being tasty. There is much more of an emphasis on healthy eating and beautifully presented salads and cut up fresh fruits have become common. What used to be a fairly basic offering of Mexican “sweet bread,” now has expanded to include magnificent and alluring pastries to attract us, in spite of trying to resist (not really possible) the calories.

All of this being said, however, one need never worry that the traditional foods of the marketplace have been edged out. A good example of this are the displays of chapulines that are abundant in April when this particular grasshopper makes its appearance on the scene. Mounds of them can be found at various stalls where they're generally sold in small bags to be taken away and munched on, much as popcorn or potato chips, with the same appealing crispness.

In the villages, as well as in the city, life has changed a lot in these past few decades but, fortunately, the underlying core values have not. That's one of the pleasures of being able to visit the same places over long periods of time. It's easier to see the differences from our own culture (like the specific celebrations that often go back thousands of years)) and the sameness (like the deeply seated core value of family life). Or the presentation of chapulines and the ongoing freshly roasted and ground coffee and chocolate. Yes, things are a lot more expensive now than they used to be and eating in good restaurants and staying in nice accommodations can be somewhat costly, but we hope that reflects a better way of life for more families who live there and depend upon tourism.

Although there are a multitude of choices of where to stay, anywhere from charming B&B's to luxury hotels, one can also stay outside of the city itself in an area like San Felipe del Agua. Here, too, are many B&B's but the hotels are smaller, more intimate and the entire area a good deal quieter. There's easy access to the city with taxis as well as local buses which make it convenient, as well.

Because of its geographical location, high up in the mountains of Mexico, Oaxaca is cooler than many cities of that latitude. Of course, it has its heated up months, especially in the late spring before the rainy season as well as a “cold snap” (temperatures in the 60's) in late fall or early winter, but generally speaking it enjoys a moderate and refreshing climate. It also provides easy access to the beach areas of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel on Oaxaca's Pacific coast.

If You Go:

There are direct flights to Oaxaca (OAX) from Houston Texas on United

Tourism Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
Oaxaca Tourism
Mexico Tourism

Where to stay

Casa de mis Recuerdos

Hacienda Los Laureles

Mexico Boutique Hotels

Casa de Adobe

Angel Inn

Where to eat

The hotels listed above all have excellent restaurants

Tlamanalli Restaurant

Avenida Juárez 39, 70420 Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico
Phone: +52 951 524 4006

Tierra Antigua Restaurant

Avenida. Juárez 175, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, México
Phone: +52 (951) 166-6160

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Susanna Starr is an entrepreneur, photographer, speaker, artist, writer, and traveler and holds a degree in philosophy from Stony Brook State University of New York. Susanna has over twenty years experience in the hospitality business as owner of Rancho Encantado, an eco-resort and spa in Mexico. She has lived in Northern New Mexico for more than thirty five years and has lived in and traveled throughout Latin America. She is a member of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) Susanna is the author of the book: Fifty and Beyond: New Beginnings in Health and Well-Being. Her blog is here. Her new book, Our Interwoven Lives with the Zapotec weavers: An Odyssey of the Heart, can be seen here.