|Subject: Trip to Mexico report|
Over the Christmas holidays my family decided to get together in Mexico,
mainly in Oaxaca. With my parents, who live in Vermont, and my sister
Flora and her friend Brian, who live in Baltimore, we coordinated plans
with David and Cristina, a young couple dear to us who live in New
Mexico. We stopped in Mexico City both coming and going. Our hotel for
both stays was the Casa Inn, a former Days Inn at the corner of Rio Lerma
and Rio Misisipi, a block outside the Zona Rosa. It was an o.k. place,
well located; we had questions about their competence on our return stay
when one part of our group was assigned to four different rooms before we
were in the right room. The main thing we did on our first stay in the
city was to go to Coyoacan, a former separate town absorbed into the city,
with the Frida Kahlo and Trotsky museums. Back close to the hotel, in
Chapultepec park, we made a too-quick stop at the Anthropology Museum. On
our return stop in Mexico City, we got together for dinner with Laurie and
Peter of the Travelzine, always a pleasure to see them again after previous
times in Rome and Montreal.
My mother and I had been to Oaxaca previously and had great memories of it, starting with our stay at the Casa Arnel http://www.oaxaca.com.mx/arnel/ , a great friendly place with minimal prices; I'd also seen recommendations, including in the Zine hotel database, for Las Golondrinas. Neither of them could accommodate us at this busy time, though, so I reserved rooms at La Casa de Maria B &B http://www.oaxacalive.com/maria.htm . Maria manages discussion boards on oaxacalive.com; as I worked out details of the reservation with her by e-mail, she gave helpful tips for booking bus travel from Mexico City for this peak travel time from a distance. When we got to the inn, if I identified her correctly, she had a broken leg and we mostly dealt with her grandchildren. The place had a pleasant atmosphere but was probably overpriced for Oaxaca. It was some distance from the city center; the people there kept saying it was a 10-15 minute walk to the zocalo (central square), but it was easily more than 30. We were also hindered by not having a phone in the rooms, both for communicating between rooms and for reaching David and Cristina, who were staying in another hotel. I was given the assignment to call them to arrange our first dinner meeting; I called from the hotel office as they were completing their annual holiday pageant and there was shouting among family members; not great for me since I keep my voice at low volume.
We were very satisfied with our meals in Oaxaca, with local specialties such as chicken mole and tasajo (thinly cut steak). Personally I didn't sample the chapulines (grasshoppers in chile). We had our first and last suppers for the whole group at La Casa de la Abuela, upstairs overlooking the zocalo, and our Christmas meal at El Asador Vasco also there. We had two lunches in places in courtyards on Garcia Vigil street; at one, La Tradicion, a few blocks north of the zocalo, we ordered main dishes at about $3.50 U.S. and got many nice appetizers; we wondered what kind of cover charge we would get and there was none. Arranging meeting places with difficult phone communication and some of us being earlier risers than others was a problem. Once we decided to meet for lunch at a restaurant listed in a guidebook without a full address, just the street and that it was north of the zocalo, meaning a two-block range; people looked in those blocks and beyond for the restaurant without finding it--it had apparently closed down--but our three groups eventually found each other. Even in this busy time for tourism our party of seven could always be seated without a reservation; true, we ate earlier than typical Mexican meal times.
One reason for this being a busy time is the world-renowned Night of the Radishes on Dec. 23. After dinner that night my parents went home, and the rest of us went to see the display of radish sculptures. The line to get onto the platform to view them went halfway around the zocalo and doubled back 3-4 times. Although I was the most interested in seeing the radishes, I wasn't sure I wanted to go through that. The others were ready to make the effort, so we all did. The line was self-policing, and eventually order broke down; people from behind us surged past us, and we joined the flow of people getting onto the exit side of the platform. With people going in two directions, we felt one section of the platform sag and it collapsed just after all our group was off the section. (I don't think anyone there was hurt.) With all our difficulty in seeing the displays, we found some of them very impressive, but I'll be glad to call this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Oaxaca is great simply for taking in the atmosphere and great weather. The outdoor market stalls and busy covered markets are appealing. The area north of the zocalo is picturesque and generally calm, while to the south one feels the bustle of a big city. Important sights in town are the Basilica de la Soledad and the church and cultural center (with interesting temporary shows) of Santo Domingo. On Christmas Day, we went to the spectacular archaeological site of Monte Alban, high above the city. Construction there began around 700 B.C.; the very first thing they did without machinery then was cut the top off a mountain; what we have now is the vast main plaza of a big Zapotec city, with big structures to climb and take in the view. Mitla is another important site; we missed going there this time when it rained on our last morning in Oaxaca and we hadn't fully resolved the problem I'll describe next.
Our stay in Oaxaca was marred when my mother's purse with her passport was stolen. Although she had been in a busy market, she remembers spending from the purse afterwards. Evidently someone in the street made a quick cut in her big heavy-duty nylon bag and the straps of her small purse for valuables. There is consolation in the thought that, if the thief had been spotted, he might have done something worse with the knife. While my mother filed a report at the police station, my father and I went back to the hotel to make calls to cancel the credit card and get the house sitter to fax a copy of the passport. We needed to make these calls from the street, and loud buses came by at crucial points of the recorded messages we were hearing or leaving. (There are places in the city center where one can make calls from a quiet booth and pay afterwards.) When my mother got back, she said the police station typed up the report with five carbon copies, scanned it into the computer, then ran paper with carbon through the printer. This was Sunday, Dec. 23; we waited to see if the U.S. consular office in Oaxaca (a small space in a shopping mall) would be open Monday. It wasn't, and the number in Mexico City that supposedly answered 24 hours only had a recording and no other way of getting help. On Dec. 26, the secretary of the consular office prepared the paperwork for my mother to return to the U.S.; the consul needed to sign it and it wasn't certain when he would be in. In fact he only came in after hours on the 27th, our last day in Oaxaca, but he delivered the papers in person to our hotel. I was in e-mail contact with Laurie, who deals with this type of problem for Canadian citizens, during this time, and she was helpful. We had worried about crime in Mexico City and had somewhat let our guard down in Oaxaca; this atypical incident doesn't hurt our positive view of Oaxaca.
About transportation: we took first-class buses as the reasonable way to get between Mexico City and Oaxaca. We left from TAPO, one of the four big bus stations in Mexico City, on the peak travel day of Saturday, Dec. 22. Although the station was crowded, boarding and baggage checks went efficiently, with the departure hall separate from arrivals. The pretense of a security check wasn't very serious, though. There was an odd selection of videos on the scheduled 6-hour ride, including a preview of a movie about a plane hijacking. I had heard that travel time had been reduced with the construction of the new toll road. These roads had periodic booths with a set toll rather than a system with tickets. There were delays with these multiple stops on the road to Puebla, the first part. At some of these stops, police boarded to look for fugitives. Then the toll road on to Oaxaca was in fact a mountainous two-lane road. Sitting close to the front I saw some risky moves; it's common to pass on an unmarked middle lane and count on others to move to the side.
Not that much to report on the air travel (beyond the current changed realities): the best deal available to me was on America West. Once I knew that there would be no meals on any of my three-hour segments connecting through Phoenix, there was nothing too bad about the trip on the airline known as America's Worst. I was selected for random searches on both the international segments. I booked the others out of Washington Dulles on a Mexicana ticket but a United non-stop flight; it was a better deal than anything out of Boston or Baltimore. My parents made a separate connection Boston-JFK-Dulles. On the return, we followed the airlines' guidelines and arrived more than three hours early for our 11 a.m. departures. We got through check-in and security in no time; it's some consolation to think that the lines would have been much longer if we'd gotten there just a little later.
So it was a great adventurous trip; thanks for reading.