I’m about to pack my backpack after living in the city of Oaxaca for eight months. Helene and I arrived here shortly before Día de Muertos in 2014, and initially settled in the Centro, before finding a cozy apartment a short walk north of the Centro, in Colonia Reforma.
Oaxaca is a great town if you want to experience the “real” Mexico away from the resorts. There’s a lot of things I’ll miss about Oaxaca, and, admittedly, a few I won’t. Here’s what I’ll miss the most.
I’ll miss the food and the markets.
Oaxaca has a reputation as a spectacular foodie city. Now, this might surprise some people considering Oaxaca’s reputation, but day to day, it’s not the best dining experience in Mexico. It was harder to find decently-priced, amazing meals here than it was in Xalapa or even Puerto Escondido. But where Oaxaca truly shines is in its markets, which offer a wide variety of local, small-scale products, some of them prehispanic and truly unique.
Adding to Oaxaca’s reputation is a slew of high-end dining experiences in the Centro that combine fusion cuisine with the staggering variety of unique local ingredients. I tend to prefer smaller, unassuming joints, so aside from the occasional splurge, I mostly stuck to my fabulous neighborhood market and its comedores. But when I did splurge, I sure understood what gives Oaxaca its stellar reputation, even among Mexicans.
I’m gonna miss the mezcal, especially the cheap kind.
Mezcal is a unique Mexican drink that’s ubiquitous in Oaxaca. “Mezcal” encompasses most distilled spirits made from the heart of the maguey or agave plant; tequila, made from blue agave, is technically a mezcal, although it is by far the most industrialized of the lot.
If you’ve never tasted unbranded mezcal from a plastic jug, then I’m sorry, but you’ve never tasted real mezcal. I’ve tried a few allegedly “high-end” brands of mezcal, and I hated most of them. As with many things in life, the best stuff is the simplest. See that woman selling unbranded mezcal bottles for five bucks a liter at the market? That’s the good stuff!
A great spot to sample a few mezcales in Oaxaca is the Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca. If you want to try something truly unique, ask for the mezcal de pechuga auténtico. This potent liquor is made by suspending a turkey or chicken breast in the still, which completely “melts” away in the process!
I’ll miss the people.
The Mexican people is Mexico’s greatest treasure, and it’s certainly true of Oaxaca. I’ve always felt “taken care of” in Oaxaca. I feel as if the people around me care for my well-being, and will look after me should something happen. It’s not to say every single person you meet is nice, but the good people vastly outnumber the bad.
One thing that exemplifies this for me is the practice of saying provecho! (“enjoy!”) to other patrons as you exit a restaurant. Where else in the world do you greet other clients as you exit a commerce? Part of this practice is just Mexican manners, but I’ve had so many people wishing it to me with genuine warmth to know it’s not just a rote saying.
I’ll miss excursions outside the city.
Whether it’s going on market runs, exploring artisan villages, or going looking for mushrooms in the sierra, every single time I’ve stepped outside of Oaxaca proper has been a magical experience. The city itself is nice, but the surrounding pueblos are downright magical. The food is stellar, the air is fresh, and the people are amazing.
I’ll miss the Día de Muertos celebrations.
No festival around the world has moved me as much as Día de Muertos. Beyond the colorful imagery lies a profound celebration of life and a peaceful acknowledgement of death. It’s truly moving to see the altars prepared by loved ones, and to soak in the communal celebration of life and death that takes place around this time. There’s something deeply calming and reassuring about the way people in Oaxaca approach death: not as something to be suffered through alone, but shared among loved ones.
To be frank, though, there are some things I won’t miss.
No place is perfect, of course. In the hope of helping prepare anyone who wants to settle in Oaxaca (and to get a few things of my chest), here’s the stuff that I won’t miss:
I won’t miss the treatment of dogs.
Now, there are a lot of kind-hearted Oaxaqueños who genuinely care for animals and want to improve things. I really hope they succeed, because some people here are just awful to their dogs.
It’s a shock especially when you come from somewhere like Thailand, where people genuinely care about animals, including strays. Here, though, many owners seem to think a dog is a glorified house alarm that doesn’t need companionship. It makes for lonely, miserable dogs who spend their days and nights barking for scraps of attention.
I sure won’t miss the water shortages.
Oaxaca has big water supply problems, to the point that pipas (water cistern trucks) that make home deliveries are a common sight. Houses typically have an underground cistern that fills up the two or three times a week (if you’re lucky) that municipal water comes in.
Even if you’re in a good neighborhood, chances are at some point during your stay, you’ll run out of water. There’s not much you can do about it except tough it out. It sure makes you appreciate a steady water supply, though!
I won’t miss the busted-up sidewalks.
Helene and I are inveterate walkers: walking is easily our favorite mode of transportation. Unfortunately, outside of a few select streets in the Centro, Oaxaca isn’t much of a pedestrian city. From what I can gather, each house is responsible for their segment of the sidewalk, leading to innumerable steps and gaps along the way.
I tried running in my neighborhood at first and quickly gave up after a few face plants. One of the problems is the big cement slabs they use to build sidewalks here: these quickly shift around or get pushed up by tree roots, leading to near-invisible “steps” that will trip you up in a second.
We still managed to walk around as much as we could, but I’m not gonna miss nearly killing myself once or twice a week. Oh, and I look forward to the lavish luxury of pedestrian crossings.
Overall, though, I had a great time.
The good largely outweighs the bad. I’ll miss Oaxaca, especially my friends and the fabulous produce at the market. It’s been a fantastic nine months that I’ll never forget.
¡Gracias por todo, Oaxaca!