This is not a real estate post. I wish I’d found something like this when I was preparing for my Spanish Immersion trip to Oaxaca: a quick buleted list of recommendations. I didn’t and had to discover what follows the hard way. My hope is that I save the next person to embark on this journey a few days of floundering and a couple of buckets of aggravation.
In the winter, Oaxaca is host to large numbers of retired Americans and Canadians who come to escape the harsh northern weather. The locals call them ‘Jubilates’. They tend to clump and cluster together, speaking English and never truly interacting with the culture. Many take language classes more as an activity than as a serious pursuit.
My first school, Spanish Magic, is a wonderful place for these Jubiates. The pace is easy and fun and you will never be expected to get much further than ‘I think I’ll have the veal tonight.’ I ended up there my first week via a recommendation from The Oaxaca Lending Library, an ex-patriot haven where Jubilates tend to clump. They go there to hang out and speak English all day. If you are serious about learning Spanish and interacting with (not just viewing) the culture, my recommendation is to avoid the Lending Library and the Jubilate crowd as much as possible.
There are many Spanish Language schools in Oaxaca and I am sure many are very good. Far and away, the best is Instituto Cultural Oaxaca (ICO). It is a real school with wonderful instructors, a carefully designed and packaged curriculum and tremendous resources for solidifying your language pursuit.
ICO is located in a sprawling old hacienda in a wonderful area of the city – close to Parque Llano and across the boulevard from Barrio Reforma. Their regular daily program includes:
Three hours of classroom Spanish
One hour of Spanish conversation
An hour of Intercambio – where they set you up with a local Oaxaqueno interested in polishing his or her English. You meet and decide how you’d like to proceed. You might speak English for half an hour, Spanish for half; or you might speak only in Spanish, your partner in English; or you might do what my Intercambio partner and I did: speak Spanish one day and English the next. Intercambios are not only valuable as conversation practice, they create a comfort level for talking with the local people you encounter throughout the city.
Two hours of ‘Cultural Activities’. During my time at ICO, three activities have been offered: Salsa Dancing, Oaxacan Painters, and Cooking. I did a week of Salsa and learned some pretty cool steps, but it is music and movement centered, so not that much Spanish (or any other language) is spoken. I switched to Cooking class and I can’t say enough about how beneficial and fun these sessions have been. You get an education on how the locals cook and eat and between recipe steps, there is conversation. It’s wonderful!
If you take the ICO regular program, your day will begin at 9 am with class, and you will be done with your Cultural Activity at 6 pm. There will be a two hour break in the afternoon between your conversation hour and your Intercambio. It’s a full day of language study . . . but isn’t that why you came to Oaxaca? To study the language?
By the way, there are students at ICO of all ages, but the largest group is college students. They help keep the pace lively and exciting. At 62, I had no problem fitting in or being accepted by this group, so if you are serious about learning, don’t let age stop you. Oh, and the cost is about $150 US per week.
This was very difficult for me and, as I’ve learned, difficult for many. Real estate in Oaxaca is largely a mouth to mouth business. Apartments are plentiful, but finding them is challenging, especially from a distance. After four days of searching (and staying in a relatively expensive Hostel), one of the students in my class told me about a vacancy in her little building. I am in Jalatlaco, a ten minute walk from ICO. It’s a lovely old residential neighborhood. I pay $450 US per month.
My advice on housing is this: Contact ICO and ask for their help. They know of dozens of apartments in the area. They can also arrange a Home Stay, where you live with a local family and take one or more meals a day with them. That is often the least expensive alternative. There are others. For example, one of my Cooking Class pals is in a group setting, where several rented bedrooms share a common kitchen. All of her ‘roommates’ are here to study Spanish so she get’s additional practice when she is at home.
Oaxaca has been spared any significant impact from the drug wars that have plagued Mexico for years. No, you won’t see dead, decapitated bodies in the street. You will, however, probably see a variety of protests. Oaxaquenos are political people who love a parade; they will find something to protest almost every week. You’ll probably also see an encampment of some kind near or in the Zocalo (the main square). Often these are people from the outlying areas who come to the capital to make a point. You will also see Police, in abundance, almost everywhere. It is an appreciated presence that you may find a little unsettling because it is so different from home.
(By the way, if you feel inclined to join a protest march or speak out about the plight of the Indigenous . . . don’t. Mexican law prohibits foreigners from participating in political discussions or activities. Plainly put: they don’t want outside agitators stirring the pot. And your Gringo face is one of the things all of those police people are looking for when they scan a crowd of protesters.)
The only crime to be concerned about is petty theft, pick pockets and the like. So don’t be stupid. Leave your jewelry at home, especially when you go anywhere where there is a crowd. Don’t dress up unless you’re going to a place where that’s expected. In fact, do the opposite: dress down. Try to look less like someone who is apt to have a roll of cash in their pocket or bag. When you go out, take enough cash to cover your planned activity and a little extra, and leave your credit and ATM cards – except for that one you are apt to use – behind. Men, put your wallet in your front pocket and wear your shirt tail out so that it covers the pocket opening. Having said that, I don’t want to overstate the case: you will probably have no problem at all; but don’t ask for trouble, ok?
Ladies, I hear you can expect the famous Latin Leer. Men – of all ages – are going to oggle you. Some may even make a remark or two. The young daughter of my neighbor is quite lovely. She’s not used to being oggled, and has on occasion turned to look at the oggler and said, ‘Que!? Que es lo que quiere!’ (What!? What do you want?). That’s probably not recommended. I mean, you’re not going to change the culture, and that’s what it is. All they want to do is look, so just go about your business and try to forget about it. Going out at night for single women can be a little scary. Go with friends, take taxis (they are cheap) and so on.
Guys, you don’t have to worry about any of the concerns experessed in that last paragraph. I’ve walked every bit of this city at all hours of the day and night and have had no problem at all.
I have a confession to make: I don’t particularly care for Oaxaqueno Cuisine. Don’t get me wrong, there are some marvelous dishes! The moles in particular (there are seven different ones) are wonderful. But things like tacos de sesos (brains) and the street food of choice, the Tlayuda, leave me cold — and I usually like anything edible.
When you look for a place to stay, make sure there is a refrigerator and some facility for warming things up. I have breakfast in my apartment every day: fruit and eggs and yoghurt. I also keep a few easily heated items on hand: empenadas stuffed with mushrooms or chicken mole, a ham and cheese torta (sandwich).
I usually eat out once a day. There are abundant ‘Comida Corrida’ restaurants in Oaxaca. They serve home cooking (Oaxaca style) and often as a fixed menu that changes daily. You’ll usually get a soup, an entre, a desert and a drink and the price will be amazing: between 45 and 75 pesos (roughly $3.75 – $6.25).
There are also some really nice high-end restaurants, mostly located within a few blocks of the Zocalo where you will find excellent cuisine at a price that will surprise you. I’ve been to a few of those places in the past, but I’m on a bit of a budget this trip, so I’m sticking to less pricey alternatives.
Along those lines, I have to tell you about one of my favorite places to eat: the Mercado. There are quite a few Mercados – places where individual vendors sell various food items and lots of other things – around Oaxaca. In addition to meat, vegetables, fruits, bread and dry goods, you can have a meal at the Mercado. All have an area where lunch counters are set and various vendors serve their specialties. The food is cheap and often excellent. The ingredients are fresh, coming from the other vendors in the Mercado. Look for the stands that seem popular: that’s probably where the best food is. Have a seat and give it a try.
Best Mercados for a meal: Mercado Centenario, close to Basilica Nuestra Senora de Soledad; Mercado Sanchez Pasquez on Porfirio Diaz at Callejon Hidalgo. By the way, the Mercado is where you should do your grocery shopping as well. The prices can’t be beat and the quality is usually excellent.
It goes without saying: don’t drink the water. It has bacteria and parasites that will make you sick. Generally speaking, he locals don’t drink it eiher. Everything for consumption is made with bottled water . . . so you probably shouldn’t worry about things you eat on the street or in restaurants, right? Wrong. You’re ok with anything that’s really hot, but watch out for things like aqua fresca, horchatta and other water-based drinks, especially on the street. And of all things, be careful with lettuce. It can be washed in the sink and therefore tainted. Most everything else is ok, but aways carry a bottle of fresh water with you.
If you get sick, check with your landlord or the school for the name of a good Doctor who speaks English. I had problems with my neck that were interfering with my ability to enjoy life, so I went to one. It cost me 350 pesos for the consultation and prescription (a little less than $30), well worth the money. Speaking of prescriptions, if you run out of your medications or forgot something at home, don’t ask a friend to mail it to you. Snail mail can take 5 weeks from the States and drugs – even prescriptions – are almost always confiscated in customs. Just go to the farmacia and ask for what you need. I found it helpful to write down the names and dosages of my meds and then Google them to see if there is a Mexican name. I took the list to the farmacia and got enough meds for the two extra weeks I elected to stay. I don’t know what the rule is about buying meds without a prescription in Mexico, but I had no problem buying blood pressure medication.
There are dozens of interesting museums, churches, plazas and mercados in Oaxaca. Plan to see them all. But don’t neglect the little pueblas around the State. Some of my favorites are:
Mitla, where there is an excellent archaeological site and a wonderful church. Don’t miss the little chapel a few blocks away that is built on top of a Zapotec ruin. And be sure to taste a little Mescal. It’s made all around this area and there are several mezcalerias in town. I like La Costumbre – very authentic.
Tlacolula, where there is a gigantic public market every Sunday. It’s worth the bus ride even if you buy anything. And don’t miss the church. It’s one of the most ornate I’ve ever seen.
Yagul, between Tlacolula and Mitla, where the Zapotec ruins are remarkable, You’ll see 1,100 year old stucco still holding up.
Monte Alban, a huge archaeological site that will give you quite a sense of the power of the Zapotec empire at its peak (about 900 ad). The museum is very good, too.
And so much more.
You have two choices getting from the airport to town: a taxi, which will cost about $20 or a collective van which will be less than half of that but will take much longer with all the stops.
Once in town, you have four choices. First is the private taxi. You can get almost anywhere in the historical centro for 40 pesos or less (about $3.50). That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up after awhile.
There are collective taxis that run a regular route – usually a long one way street – throughout the day. These look like private taxis except that they don’t have a ‘Taxi’ sign on the roof. Usually their destination or route is written across the front windshield. When you see the one you want, flag it down. The trip will usually cost 10 pesos (less than a dollar) depending on how far you are going. Colectivos are usually old Nissan Sentras or similar and the driver will attempt to get six passengers on board, so it can be cramped.
I prefer the buses. The fare is 6 pesos (50 cents) and they go all over town. Here’s how to ride the bus locally:
First, map your route before you leave home. Decide what the most ikey bus route will be. Take your map with you and go to the closest bus stop headed in the direction you want to go.
As the buses approach the stop, read what’s on the windshield. They will usually list, in order, the streets they will take and where they will turn. For example, I sometimes like to go to the two gigantic mercados in down, Mercado Benito Juarez and Centra de Abastos. Both are located south and west of me. I know the best place to catch a bus going south is Ave. Juarez, so I go to the stop there.
I also know from my map, that to get closest to my destination, I’m going to need to go west a bit, and there is one street that will do that for me: Arteaga. So look at the windows of the buses as they approach and when I see one with ‘Arteaga’ listed I get on.
Coming home, I know I am a few blocks from Parque Llano, so I look for ‘Llano’ in the window. Simple. It really is. By the way, that map you brought along? I take mine out after I take a seat and follow the bus’s route until I get to my destination. It can help in knowing when to get off.
The fourth option? Go on foot. The historic centro is fairly compact, about a mile across in either direction. Often I take the bus one way and walk the other. It allows for lots of slow sight seeing. Generally, the terrain is fat, so hills are not a problem, but some of the best views will be atop El Fortin, the big hill on the northwest side of town. There are magnificent views from a restaurant up there, El Mirador.
I think that about covers it. Oaxaca is one of he best places to learn Spanish in Mexico. It’s a friendly town, not particularly overrun with tourists. You will have ample opportunities to practice your new language, and there’s great sight seeing as well. First Step? Contact Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca.