Oaxaca is a place where one can indulge to great extent, all five senses of perception. From taste to sight, Oaxaca offers a virtual Garden of Eden when it comes to experiencing things that are new. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that some senses may be appalled upon first arrival in Oaxaca, but for the most part, they will be thrilled to discover all that the Valley has in store. This post is just a brief overview of how my five senses respond to all that Oaxaca is. I hope it will inspire you to at least visit Oaxaca, and experience for yourself this land so rich in culture.
It’s hard not to notice the beauty of Oaxaca in the majestic Sierra Madre mountains, surrounding a colonial style city with sightings of deeply ingrained culture on every corner. Colors abound in typical clothing, local art, and traditional food contrasted against the pale green color of the colonial architecture (made from a local green stone), and the seemingly endless deep blue sky above.
Oaxaca is a city of visual contrasts. You might see a modern office building built adjacent to a dirt floored shack, or children begging in the streets while other children of influence walk by in their private school uniforms. It might even bother you to see the streets blocked, barricaded, and even violently besieged by the state teacher’s union, the taxistas, or just about anyone with a self-justified reason. These contrasts are what make Oaxaca interesting.
Amidst the aroma of freshly started leña fires, there wafts upon the cool morning air the smell of traditional food in the making as homes and businesses alike prepare the menu for the day. El Desayuno (breakast) is the first order of business as memelitas, chiliquiles, entomatadas, enfrijoladas, tamales, and a host of other specialty breakfast foods are made fresh daily.
After breakfast it’s time to prepare the main meal of the day – La Comida. This meal is the most important and usually the heaviest meal of the day, and because of this preparation time can take hours. But what a joy to be involved in the preparation! Just walking down the block will delight your olfactory senses and make your mouth water! Oaxacans love to cook, and even more so they love to eat! They know how to do both very, very well. One can see why Oaxaca is known throughout the world as the culinary capital of Mexico.
Traditional food is the mainstay in Oaxaca. There aren’t many fast-food restaurants, and the people want it that way. The Oaxacan people have a long proud history of cooking. In the homes or on the streets, you can find traditional dishes made with the utmost care, so much so that it’s rare to find a dish that lacks “sabor” (flavor).
Oaxacans have learned over the years to cook with a lot of spices (not in the Spicy sense of the word, although there are a few dishes that “bite”), and have mastered the art of flavor combined with presentation. Chili peppers of varying sizes and colors abound in the Valley as there are hundreds indigenous to the region. Chocolate came from Mexico, and the Oaxacans have learned how to infuse it into various dishes from sweet to salty (especially Mole), and also drinks such as Tejate, and Chocolate de Agua/Leche.
Though the sounds of La Ciudad (the city) and El Campo (the country) differ, they are the same in that they denote activity. In the city, the mornings are very much peaceful until about 8:30-9:00am when it’s time to work. The city then comes alive as the buses and collective taxis fulfill their calling – transporting Oaxaqueños where they need to go. Everyone is in a hurry as they strive to be on time, but rarely are. High heels hit the sidewalks, horns blow as the traffic creeps along, and buses roar around the corners of the ancient city.
Everyone is in a hurry as they strive to be on time, but rarely are.
Amongst all this city noise, you can hear children laughing on the way to school, a guy on a bike with a bullhorn saying, “Tamales, Tamales…”, a mother calling out to her daughter inside the walls of the house across the street, and the bells of the local church calling people to mass.
Los Oaxaqueños are a conservatively social people. They love to get together for dinner or coffee, but usually only with friends they know well, or most always with family. They are deeply rooted in their own traditions, but do make allowances for, and are often interested in, other cultures. I was once told that a Oaxacan is like an onion. There are many outside layers to go through before you get to the real thing, but it’s worth the peeling.
If you are a foreigner, Oaxacans will embrace you (over time) and will eventually allow you to be a part of their inner circle. Even though they may not show it, they are just as interested in you, as you are in them. Before long, you will be celebrated, and will become a part of the tribe. You will learn when to greet with a kiss on the cheek, you will experience a “man hug” in all it’s formality, and you will be touched by all of the attention given to you that you would otherwise not get at “home”.
So you see, Oaxaca has a lot to offer. I’ve only barely touched on what it’s like to open your five senses to the land of eight regions. Oaxaca may not be the land of plenty, but it’s the land of appreciation and gratitude for what one has: friends, family, and the ability to enjoy life.