Oaxaca: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

They often mispronounce the name even in the airport, certainly on the northern side of the border. “Boarding for Ox-ack’-uh” will come over the loud speaker and it sounds so wrong I don’t even get up.

It’s “Wah-hah’-ka,” derived from the original Nahuatl name Huaxyacac – which I wouldn’t try to pronounce on a dare. The de Juárez was added later in honor of Benito Juárez, one of only two natives of the state who became president of Mexico. (He was the good one.)

Oaxaca’s exotic moniker is a great metaphor for this fantastic city, capital of the state of the same name: it has a distinctly indigenous flavor, it’s complicated, and just when you think you get it — you really don’t.

Oaxaca's original name in Nahuatl

Oaxaca’s original name in Nahuatl

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Lately a bit of a travel darling (mentioned in a January 2012 New York Times article “36 hours in Oaxaca” that still gets hits when you Google “Oaxaca), it’s a mind-blowing assault of the senses. Like most really special cities – Paris, Rome, San Francisco, New Orleans – it’s magic because it’s real and gritty.

Travelogues mention the food – notably the seven kinds of mole and chapulines, fried grasshoppers – and art, especially woven textiles, black pottery and alibrijes, intricately painted fantastical wooden animals. Here’s what they might not tell you about the low-down good, bad and ugly of Oaxaca.

The Good

The tree of Tule

The tree of Tule

Its alternative lifestyle vibe, possibly created by sitting on one of the largest energy vortices in the world. The magnificent El Tule tree reportedly is on one of 12 chakra foundation areas of the world. You can still take guided mushroom experiences a la María Sabina, a Mazatec curandera whose practice was based on the use of psilocybin mushrooms (Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Mick Jagger reportedly were clients in the 1970’s). You can have the bad juju cleansed out of your system in a temezcal, sort of a sweat lodge experience with healing herbs for body and spirit.

Zaachila market

Zaachila market

The markets around the city are fantastic, each with a different personality. My favorite is Thursday in Zaachila, where the Zapotec rulers moved when Monte Alban declined around 1000 AD.

Zaachila animal market

Zaachila animal market

An added feature is the nearby animal market, where you can peruse pairs of yoked oxen, baby burros, horses and more – along with all of the harnesses and equipment that go with them.



Tlacolula’s Sunday market is also a huge draw in the Mitla valley area; that’s where I go when I’m really looking to buy. Recent purchases include small cooking pots with snap-on lids, a whetstone, punched gourds to use as lampshades, and an embroidered apron. My market food faves include candied limes filled with shredded coconuts, champurrado (the corn drink atole mixed with chocolate, grill ‘n eat meats that you buy and throw on the coals with onions and peppers, and sweet breads. That’s real bread just to be clear; I pass on the goat testicle tacos that José dearly loves. I am not making that up.

El Pedregal

El Pedregal

Its status as the organic and sustainable agriculture center of Mexico, which just a few decades ago branded it as backwards but now makes it unspeakably cool. There’s a worm farm (worm facility?) in Tule, and a sustainable community at El Pedrigal (near Huayapam) run by a Mexican environmental engineer that’s trying to recapture water through the watershed in the mountains and is working on water quality with nearby communities as well as trying to save heirloom seeds.

The Bad

Bad traffic and roads with aggressive drivers. Take city buses with competitive drivers, potholed and speed-bumped streets, lots of hills and pedestrians with basically no road rights, and you have a situation where you need to stay on your toes. Never, ever walk in front of a bus even at a red light without making sure that it’s truly stopped. I also like to maintain eye contact with the driver as I board city urbanos to ensure that he doesn’t take off and literally drag me under the bus.


Graffiti. This could possibly be on the plus side of the list as much of it is really artistic, but a lot of it is just dirty and messy. Especially in really public places like Santo Domingo Plaza. 

Strikes and blockades. They’re part of life here. Teacher union protestors downtown awhile back made the tv news look like Beirut on a bad day. They did have riot police in full gear monitoring protestors who set a truck on fire. If you had seen the news clip you would have tried to airlift me out of here, but that just goes to show how much the news exaggerates, because it was over in a couple of hours.


Every summer there are tent cities in the zocalo and the mountains of trash that go with thousands of people living on the street. The blockades are just a big pain in the butt to get around and as far as I can tell don’t solve what they’re supposed to, only prevent common people from getting to and from their work in the city.

The Ugly

The large scorpion I just killed on my living room wall; it’s scorpion season again. I actually got stung by a huge black one last year as I worked at my desk. It burned, I screamed, I ran to the landlady’s, José rushed from work with the doctor who works next door (OK, he’s an ophthalmologist but still an MD ).


Jimmy the eye doctor asked me if my mouth was numb, I said no, and he went back to work; five minutes later my mouth did go numb (also my feet, it’s the neurotoxins). Went to the hospital where the doctor told me that it was a good thing it wasn’t one of the little brown scorpions from Durango whose stings are fatal; next time I should eat chocolate immediately and ice the sting. Two things I’d better keep in the house from now on. Got two antihistamine shots and called it a day.


Whole pig and cow heads on butcher counters, This is possibly  a cultural thing. I’m also not fond of gutted whole chickens and strung-out innards. I might consider going vegetarian in Oaxaca if it weren’t such a moral commitment. Live pink worms in the market; what are you supposed to do with those? I am not a picky eater, but still.

So there are a few less than perfect things about Oaxaca. Like the guy whom you love dearly because he’s a wonderful person with a heart of gold – never mind that he snores like a train and has the unfortunate tendency to sometimes ask your opinion and then not listen to it — it’s still magic.

Oaxaca Botanical Garden

Oaxaca Botanical Garden

And though we made it through 12-12-12, the end of the Mayan calendar when some were waiting for the world to end again – there’s no denying that vortex or not, there’s still some magic energy in Oaxaca.

— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org





2 thoughts on “Oaxaca: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. Loved it, Susan! I just got back from Guanajuato and when I mentioned the comparison to Oaxaca, I say “Oaxaca is interesting and different in many ways” All of the things that you mention make Oaxaca more “interesting.” I may have to come back and visit el mercado en Zaachila; that’s one I haven’t been to, I don’t think.


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