Honestly, it was pretty magical just to get out of the city for the peace and quiet of the mountains. The past weeks of blockades and general unease in Oaxaca City between the federal government and protesting teachers’ union have taken its toll – we were all ready to leave it behind for the weekend for the tranquility of the Sierra Norte and the pueblo magico of Capulalpam de Méndez.
There were five of us: me plus gal pals Michelle and Liduina, and Bev and husband Davor (who feels pretty comfortable as the only gallo among the gallinas, which he is a good bit of the time.) Michelle taught at the university in Ixtlan for almost two years, so we headed there first – it’s 65 km. north of Oaxaca City, about an hour and a half up and over the mountain through at least four separate micro-environments. In this first rainy month of June, the folds of the mountains were luscious green, dotted with tiny towns and trout farms.
Ixtlan de Juárez is thought to have been founded before the Spanish conquest in the 15th century by Zapotec people, though there are also neolithic remains in the area. Benito Juárez — who served as president of Mexico during roughly the United States’ Civil War period — was born in nearby San Pablo Guelatao, and was baptized in the church of St Thomas in Ixtlán (so in Mexican tradition, his name has been added to that of the town).
Its impressive baroque church, the Templo de Santo Tomás Apóstal (church of St. Thomas the Apostle) was built between 1640 and 1734, and occupies a site scraped flat on the side of the hillside with commanding views into the mountains and valley beyond.
But our real destination was the pueblo magico of Capulalpam – the first in the state of Oaxaca (in 2008) to be named a “magical town” through a federal initiative begun in 2001 to stimulate tourism in Mexico. To date, there are 111 pueblos magicos, with the newest additions in 2015 including several more in Oaxaca: Huautla de Jiménez, Mazunte, San Pablo Villa Mitla and San Pedro y San Pablo/Teposcolula.
To be designated a pueblo magico, towns need to have historical importance, unique cultural traditions and natural beauty, have a population of at least 20,000 residents, and be located within about two hours from a major tourist destination.
Chosen from a rigorous process that saw only 28 towns selected from more than 180 in the last selection process in the fall of 2015, each designated town undergoes a careful modernization of its infrastructure and tourism-related businesses. It’s also an economic stimulant: the towns will divvy up 400 million pesos this year for spending on maintenance, rebuilding historic centers, improving infrastructure, installing underground utilities, developing tourism products, training and other projects.
Capulalpam really is magical. At 6,700 feet, it’s higher enough than Oaxaca City’s 5,102 feet that the air feels different. The view from the hillside is expansive, overlooking red-tiled roofs of buildings that snuggle into the green folds of the mountains.
We didn’t really have to do much to have a good time; there aren’t so many options that it takes long to decide anything. We chose the hotel right on the square, Los Sabinos, which had clean rooms with private baths for about $25 a double, plus a rooftop bar with lovely view of the tiny zocalo. Lunch was at Comedor San Mateo, a little eatery at the top of the stairs in the renovated marketplace: grilled chicken breasts for the chicas and enchiladas con mole for the caballero.
At dinner time, we ran into the Mexican vs. American eating schedule in that most comedores closed after comida around 5, and we were heading to eat about 6. Ducking our heads into El Abuela Luna, we found the cook cleaning up but willing to fix us dinner, provided we all wanted chiles rellenos. Of course we did. Vegetable soup, the main dish with rice and beans, and a cold Victoria beer (which they had to run next door for) set us each back $60 pesos, about $3. Entertainment that evening was mezcal on the terrace with a rousing round of Bananagrams.
In the morning, we headed to the restaurant of one of Michelle’s student’s families – only when asking directions en route to find out that because the pueblos don’t observe daylight savings time, we were an hour early and they didn’t open until 9. That would be gobierno (government) time in Oaxaca City, vs. hora de dios (God’s time) in the villages.
Oh well, it just meant we had to have an earlier coffee with bread back at Comedor San Mateo, and kill an hour before heading up to Verbo de Méndez, owned by the family of Eunice Hernández Toro. A diminutive young woman in her early 20s, she makes the one-and-a-half hour trip each way to Oaxaca every Saturday to take English classes at the Berlitz School. About 10% of the restaurant’s clients are English speaking, and (as she says proudly), with her now Level 6 language skills she can actually make conversation. We were all charmed by her and the whole setting.
We opted for the al fresco table right above the restaurant, with expansive views of the mountains and valley, and each ordered a paquete de desayuno, with an egg dish, coffee, fruit or juice for $80 pesos, about $4. Mine was scrambled eggs a la Mexicana (with onion and pepper) and entomatadas, rolled tortillas filled with queso and covered with tomato sauce. With our extra hour, we got to dawdle over breakfast, chat up the charming Eunice and her parents Rosalinda and Balthazar, and generally enjoy a very fine morning in the mountains. Davor remarked that the red-tiled roofs reminded him of his home country of Yugoslavia.
After breakfast, we headed over to the town’s centro de salud, where they sell natural herb-based pomadas, having made reservations the previous day to get massages all at the same time – they would have to call in several reserve masseuses. Alas, this being Mexico and best intentions being waylaid on a regular basis, two masseurs didn’t show so only three of us got in. My masseuse was Florencia, a tiny Zapotec women with a set of hands so powerful I had to back down on my request to go as hard as she could. This all done on a plain double bed in a simple room with none of the modesty that goes with American draping and wrapping. Florencia, who was so small that she had to get on her tiptoes to get to my far side, making her apron get caught in my feet, just uncovered me from the worn cotton sheet and went to town on my sore muscles.
Of course, everything wasn’t perfect. The music broadcast throughout town from the church’s loud speakers seemed ethereal for the first hour, then by the end of the day, Davor wondered if it came from a maniacal priest out to punish the parishioners. My hotel bathroom was clean, but lacked a toilet seat (what is it with toilet seats in Mexico? They’re not standard issue, even in the nicest places.) So much snoring occurred in the shared room of Michelle and Liduina that one of them slept on the bathroom floor, and the other had to use the outside bathroom in the night. Ni modo. That’s what you say here when things don’t exactly work out as planned. Translates roughly as “what’re you gonna do?”
But hey, that’s Mexico. You might make a plan, but you’d better be ready to chuck it and go with the flow, because it probably won’t roll out as expected. Then there are things that also turn out better than anticipated. On Saturday, we lucked into a collectivo who would take us straight to Oaxaca, bypassing the usual stop of Ixtlan (with five of us, two had to ride in the one seat up front, normal business here). There were no blockades on the edge of town, and the rain held off until I had just gotten off the bus two blocks from home.
All in all, it was a magical weekend.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org
Verbo de Méndez Café, calle Miguel Méndez esquina con Emiliano Zapata
Eunice Hernández Toro, firstname.lastname@example.org, Capulalpam de Méndez