Ever wondered what Mexico is like beyond the tourist traps of the Yucatan Peninsula? On my ten day trip I found out - rich in history, colourful in culture, and spectacular in nature
At first, Mexico City seems like a big, intimidating city; dig beneath the surface and you'll find a sprinkling of marvellous gems. The hop-on/hop-off Turibus (which leaves frequently from in front of the Auditorio in La Riforma) is a good way to start out tackling the sprawling city. I got off at the Plaza de la Constitucion, which, combined with the Centro Historico, is a lovely area for a morning stroll. In this area you will come across a number of taco stalls filled with locals buying exceedingly cheap ($3 - prices in pesos) and surprisingly tasty tacos in a variety of traditional flavours (I particularly recommend the refrijoles and pada ones). Spend the afternoon wandering the shops and trendy cafés of Polanco, and the evening the hip Condesa (which has now overtaken Zona Rosa in cool factor).
You'll need a whole day to see the Castillo de Chapultapec (free entrance for students; signs are in Spanish only) and accompanying parks, combined with the spectacular Museo de Anthropologia ($51 entrance), which contains artefacts, reconstructions and a wealth of (mostly) Spanish language information on the major prehispanic Mexican civilizations. You will also need a whole day to visit the mighty Teotiuacan, which you can do yourself or take a Turibus trip there for $550. Unlike some other sites, it is still possible to ascend the principal pyramids (Sun and Moon) which at the top give incredible views and a much appreciated cooler air.
Arriving via a much-delayed ADO bus (www.ticketbus.com.mx) into a Oaxaca sodden from days of unseasonal heavy rain, I had a sense of trepidation about the first part of my trip that I was to spend on my tod (I had been with Mexican friends in Mexico City). My nerves soon passed when I was greeted by the welcoming owner of Hostel Don Nino (dorms can be booked on www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelbookers.com for around $200 per night), who showed me through a serene courtyard restaurant to the upstairs dorms. I took myself to dinner at the charming La Biznaga. This was a spectacular meal, yet without spectacular expense. I had a starter of three tacos with spicy chicken, tomato and avocado (which really was a full meal in itself) and followed it by breaded chicken stuffed with gouda and served with a Mexican twist on apple sauce. Of course, I washed it all down with a Mezcal-based cocktail (a spirit produced in the region). The presentation of both the food and the restaurant setting if displayed a very close attention to detail.
Oaxaca is a place alive with rich culture and strong community. The former is evident in the large collection of museums and other art centres scattered across the town centre. Highlights include the Centro Fotografico Alvarez Bravo (founded by the successful Oaxacan artist of the same name, free entry on Bravo 116), the MUFI (Museum of Philatelia or stamp-collecting, which is beautifully presented in a bright, peaceful building with a leafy courtyard at the back; admission free at Reforma 604 between Berriozabal and Constitucion; www.mufi.com.mx) and finally the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca ($51; Iglesia de Santo Domingo) which overlooks the Jardin Etnobotanico, in which you can take English language guided tours.
There is a very strong expat community in Oaxaca, owning Spanish schools such as Solexico, (where I had a Spanish lesson on arrival – www.solexico.com), or yoga centres such as Casa del Angel (which does cheap yoga three times every day except Sunday) or coffee shops such as the delightful La Brujula on Garcia Vigil 409D, whose kitchen produces superb Belgian waffles and the best oatmeal and raisin cookies I have tasted outside New York. Native Oaxacans can more than rival this, with their weekly yoga and dance activities in Pino Juarez square. This sense of a balanced and lively community is not undermined by Oaxaca's lingering past troubles. While the weekend yoga, attended by a crowd of up to 100, displays the happier side of Oaxaca, the seemingly constant string of demonstrations display a different story.
While the 2006 unrest in Oaxaca, led by the teachers' union, is now on a smaller scale a yearly occurrence, the town is witnessing discontent caused by the apparent corruption of the local Governor. Savers have suffered unannounced bank closures and the loss of their savings, while the much-loved Zocalo (main square) was mysteriously 'revamped' without public consultation. Currently half of the town's roads have been uprooted to make way for new concrete paving slabs rumoured to have been bought from a company owned by the Governor's brother.
Despite these political problems Oaxaca remains a very safe and enjoyable place to visit, and a perfect base for excursions to the UNESCO site of Monte Alban (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/415), outlying market towns, ecotours to the Pueblos Mancomunados, and even cycle trips to the Pacific coastal town of Puerto Escondido.
Set deep in the Sierra Norte, the collection of eight Zapotec villages that make up the Pueblos Mancomunados are a rare gem in today's capitalist Mexico (see www.sierranorte.org.mx/home/index.php?band=2). Their name, literally 'peoples with common hands,' betrays the secret of these villages' success: a kind of modern-day communism, which marries small-scale ecotourism with traditional farming producing an extraordinary degree of self-sufficiency. In these villages, work is assigned on a yearly rotation, with some attention to individual strengths. For example, the lady whose house is well-endowed with a large kitchen is assigned to be the town's tourist chef. Sometimes, a person who has become particularly skilled at a job may keep it for a number of years. Such was the case with our three local guides: Vidal, Salvador and Javier. The partnership of Tierraventura, an ecotourism company based in Oaxaca (www.tierraventura.com), and the ecotourism project set up in the Pueblos is testament to a tremendous amount of work on each side and has given rise to a sustainable income and therefore way of life for the Pueblos.
The knowledge of both local and English-speaking guides - Gordon (USA) and Mari (Germany) - was outstanding. Throughout our two-day, leisurely 18km hike, we learnt of local traditions, historic battles, ancient trading routes (particularly on the historic Latuvi-Lachatao trail), and the medicinal qualities of a variety of plant life.
The evening's accommodation consisted of very pleasant cabanas, built by locals in the last couple of years, and serviced by hot water showers and the most spectacular views of undulating forests of pine. As well as spending our two overnight stays in two of the villages (Cuajimoloyas, meaning 'where the mole freezes in the pot', and Latuvi), we ate at the local ristorante at dinner and breakfast. On our first full day trek (Cuajimoloyas to Latuvi) we stopped for lunch at a trout farm south of, although belonging to, Latuvi. I am an unashamed fish sceptic but was totally sold by the most unbeatably fresh trout one could ever wish for. This was a superb end to the Mexico City- Oaxaca leg of my journey, made all the more enjoyable by my fellow trekkers Jill, Claire and Piper (from Portland, Oregan) and Ina (Heidelberg, Germany) and the sheer knowledge, enthusiasm and professionalism displayed by every one of our guides.