For those of you who’ve never visited Oaxaca or perhaps never even heard of it, you may wonder why I’ve spent two weeks here already and planning to stay another month (into my own apartment no less). So what’s so great about Oaxaca? Here’s a rundown.

Climate

The northern hemisphere winter is the dry season in Oaxaca. This means sun every day, and virtually no rain. But because it’s located in a valley at 1500 metres, it’s not stiflingly hot. In fact, mornings and evenings can be downright chilly (6-14C). But by 11:00 am the sun has warmed up the air into the 20’s and you can peel off the layers. It’s T-shirt weather once again. Dry weather, not too cold and not too hot. This is the perfect climate… to grow coffee!

Coffee

For someone like me who likes her cappuccino every morning, living in a coffee-growing region is ideal. There are coffee shops on pretty much every corner in the centre of Oaxaca and some of them have very good espresso coffee, comparable to what I drink in Toronto, but for about half the price.

You can also buy your own coffee beans at some of the shops.

Beauty

Oaxaca is a Spanish colonial town, and the whole historical centre is maintained in excellent condition with buildings painted in shades of deep yellows, oranges, and reds, as well as blue, green, even pink. There is a wide pedestrian street called Alcalá, as well as even sidewalks, which make walking around very pleasant.

Mountains surround the city, giving texture to the horizon. The light has a special quality which makes almost every picture I take of the colourful buildings against the blue sky particularly vibrant.

Culture and art

Not surprisingly, this amazing light and physical beauty give birth to all manners of artists and artistically-inclined people. Painters, potters, and weavers produce a variety of handicrafts which you can buy in town or in the surrounding villages. The most common are carpets (tapetes), black pottery, and alebrijes, delicately carved and painted wooden figures of animals, real and imaginary.

Local artists also expose in galleries and coffee shops. Wherever you sit, you’re usually staring at some mural or other painting, sometimes entire walls filled with them. One real estate agent I met almost immediately told me that he was also a watercolour painter. 🙂

Food

Oaxaca happens to be one of the top foodie regions in Mexico, just after (or some say on the same level with) Mexico City. This is the birthplace of mole sauces, thick concoctions containing up to 31 ingredients. Depending whom you talk to, there are seven or eight different mole sauces. These are usually served on top of meat like beef, chicken or pork.

Oaxaca also has its own soups and other specialties like stuffed peppers, tlayudas (like a pizza on a giant baked tortilla), hot chocolate, and chapulines (fried grasshoppers) among others. But I have to admit that what I’m enjoying the most here is the availability of non-Mexican foods: whole-grain bread, salads, pastas, crepes, and so on. After three weeks of tortillas, Mexican cheese and refried beans, it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s also easy to find fruits and fresh fruit juices here. And chocolate!

And let’s not forget mezcal. This is the land of the maguey (a type of agave), the spiny pineapple-like plant that is used to produce the liquor. Mezcal is similar in taste to tequila, but the latter is produced from a different type of plant (blue maguey) which doesn’t grow here. While tequila is mostly produced industrially, mezcal is still produced by hand. There are many shops in town and in surrounding villages that offer free tastings.

I’ve written this comprehensive post on where to eat in Oaxaca.

Expats

It’s no secret that one of my quests when I travel is to find the perfect place where I can become a “snowbird” some day. Besides weather, food, and infrastructure, another factor I look at is the kind of foreigners that the place attracts.

In Southeast Asia, it seems to be mostly old men partaking in the sex trade (yuck). In Ecuador, it seems to be people attracted by the extremely low costs, but not necessarily interested in the local language or culture. In Cuenca (where I spent six weeks in 2013) expats were mostly North Americans who spoke almost no Spanish and who clang together like a big pile of dung. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.

Oaxaca seems to attract a mixture of expats both in terms of age, nationality, and interests. The temporary residents are learning the language, try to use it, and participate in community activities like language exchanges. This feels a lot more comfortable to me.

Things to do

Oaxaca and the area around it provide a plethora of things to see and do, from markets (in different villages on different days of the week), to artisan workshops, to ancient ruins, to mezcal factories, and tons of good restaurants and cafés. You can hike, bike, shop, take Spanish lessons, cooking lessons, attend free concerts, listen to live music and lectures, and I’m sure I forget many. I have a month ahead of me but I’m not worried at all about getting bored!

And the downsides?

“This sounds perfect” you may be thinking. “There must be some negative sides to all this…” Actually there are a few. The main downside for me is the noise: revving engines, barking dogs, loud music and parades (called candelas), church bells (there seems to be a church on almost every street), and firecrackers exploding at random times. Although to be fair, this is the case in most of Mexico and Latin America.

People who’ve been living here for a while sometimes complain about the locals’ lack of punctuality (think service calls) and frequent problems with things like internet, hot water, and so on. The secret seems to be in finding reliable people to help you: a plumber, a computer guru, and a good cleaning lady. Or at least that’s what my friend Martha has been saying. (I met Martha in a coffee shop a bit over a week ago and she helped me with my apartment search, beside being a gold mine of local information.)

And finally, as I mentioned before, Oaxaca is dry, very dry, especially in winter. Humidity levels hover around 10-35%. You need moisturizer and lip balm (or lipstick). And there is a shortage of water which results in very low pressure showers.

So that’s Oaxaca in a nutshell. The photos will give you a better idea of what it all looks like.

(If you want to learn more about Mexico as a place to live part-time or full-time, you can also get Tim Leffel’s excellent book A Better Life for Half the Price, whose largest chapter is about Mexico, his adopted home country.)

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