Every time someone would ask me why I was planning to spend the first two months of 2017 in Oaxaca, the colorful little city in southwestern Mexico (in the state by the same name), I found myself at a loss for words.
It’s not that I didn’t have reasons. I had many, in fact. But what came out of my mouth more often than not was something hardly more eloquent than “Uhhh, just cause?”
The truth of the matter was, I had learned about the city back in early 2016 when a travel company had contacted me about participating in one of their tours. The trip would begin in Oaxaca before making its way south through the Sierra Madres and ending in a small surf town on the Pacific Coast.
Naturally, I said I’d be delighted to come. I hadn’t been to Mexico since my college days, and that trip was hardly what I would call a cultural experience if you know what I mean–spring break in Baja California with my sorority sisters…I’ll let you do the math.
Oaxaca would be my first opportunity to see what most would consider the “real” Mexico. A city that plenty of people knew about, but few had experienced. A destination that maintained its deeply-rooted cultural identity even as more tourists arrived year after year, and as more and more expats called it home. Even better, the trip would be guided by a local couple who had lived all over the country, and at one time had called Oaxaca home themselves.
After hastily agreeing to travel to Mexico for this tour, my real research began. What jumped out at me first was simply how beautiful a city Oaxaca was. Mountains in every direction you looked and buildings painted every color of the rainbow. Cobbled streets, palm trees, plumerias. Churches whose ornately carved façades demanded to be examined from a distance of no more than a few feet, lest you missed the details.
Everything was falling into place for my triumphant return to Mexico. Then, not more than a few days after booking my flight to Mexico City (where a van transfer provided by the tour company would whisk me away to Oaxaca free of charge), the email came through. From my friend’s sunny San Francisco apartment, I read the most disappointing news of my year so far (you know, before that whole Donald Trump thing):
The tour of Oaxaca was canceled–it hadn’t filled up in time.
The company apologized profusely and offered to compensate me for the time I had already spent writing a blog post and announcing my upcoming trip on social media. Downtrodden though I was, I took their offer–what else could I do? Sure, I had already purchased a flight to Mexico City, but I still wanted to go, after all, and a little bit of solo travel never scared me anyhow.
Once the initial shock subsided, I settled into the idea of an independent trip to Mexico with no return date and carried on enjoying my time visiting friends in San Francisco. It was Easter Sunday, a holiday San Franciscans really know how to celebrate, and I wasn’t about to let this minor hiccup ruin my fun.
If you have followed my blog since that time, you know how this story ends. The tour company came back with a new offer just a day later; we’d be touring Mexico City instead, getting an exclusive first look at their newest itinerary. I silently jumped for joy before almost instantaneously accepting. On that trip, I fell madly in love with Mexico City in just seven short days. Then, heeding a mysterious instinct, I flew to the Yucatán Peninsula to spend two more weeks in Tulum where I turned 29 in style and in solitude.
In spite of the incredible time I had in Mexico on that trip–or perhaps because of it–I still wasn’t satisfied. I had grown so attached to the idea of Oaxaca that even as the year went on and I found myself spending more time in Europe than the Americas, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still had to go. And so when I found myself back in the US and dreaming of my next escape, Oaxaca was the one city that surfaced in my mind time and time again.
Not being one to ignore such persistence, I conceded and purchased my one-way ticket. As I write this, I am seated in the studio apartment I discovered on Craigslist; the sun reflects strongly off a mandarin-colored wall just outside my window, lending the room a warm glow. I have little on my agenda for the day, save for the few hours I’ll need to vacate the casita once the cleaning lady arrives.
My days are mostly reserved for working (which I do from anywhere thanks to my location independent lifestyle) with short breaks in between to run errands and experience Oaxaca as a local would. I’ve felt comfortable here from day one.
I arrived with no real intentions other than getting to know the city and spending some much-needed time with myself and my yoga mat. So far, that is precisely what I have done. I suppose a part of me also wanted to know if Oaxaca could be a home for me on a long-term basis. Now that I’m here, I certainly understand why it’s a popular expat spot and why so many of my digital nomad friends have decided to set up camp here at one time or another.
My stint in Oaxaca, however, is currently limited to two months, and that is likely where it will end. I have alluded many times over the last year to the fact that my heart simply doesn’t belong to travel anymore, and I have disobeyed its wishes for long enough. At present, there is more meaning to be derived from a humble life in my home state than any far-flung destination I could imagine, and that is what I intend to pursue. More on that later…
But, if you’ve read this far and are still wondering what specifically drew me to Oaxaca, well, just about everything. Where do I begin?
The culture of Oaxaca is distinct–native roots run deep here with a startlingly diverse range of indigenous cultures represented. The opportunity to learn some of this history was enticing in its own right. The Zapotec and Mixtec peoples who inhabited this region in the largest numbers left many traces of their ancient civilizations in the wake of the Spanish conquest led by Hernán Cortés. A notable site just 20 minutes from the city is the ancient Zapotec capital, Monte Albán. Mexico’s first Indian president, Benito Juárez, also hailed from the city of Oaxaca.
It follows that with a distinct culture highly influenced by indigenous traditions, the food would be unique as well. The geography of the region plays its own important role, creating diversity through the sheer abundance of resources like vegetables and tropical fruits; these factors together mean Oaxacan food is an attraction unto itself. Oaxaca is considered by many to be the birthplace of mole, a sultry, spicy sauce that can be made from a variety of ingredients like nuts, spices, dried fruits, and chocolate.
There are tlayudas, which are enormous baked tortillas topped with delicious things–if I were making an analogy to another food, I might call it a Mexican pizza of sorts. Oaxaca also makes its own special version of tamales and is widely know for its quesillo, the region’s distinctive cheese. These are just a few examples of the delicacies I’ll be researching rigorously during my stay. The photo below shows a tostada de coco I purchased from the local organic market topped with mole, salsa, and fresh avocado.
And did I mention mezcal, the magical drink of the agave plant? Agave varieties grow all over Mexico, but the majority of mezcal production takes place in Oaxaca, making it the typical drink of the region. The flavors are complex and vary widely depending on the specific source plant, the method and length of fermentation, the spices added, and a number of other factors. I love the smokiness and the distinct lack of hangover I experience after a few mezcal drinks.
And then there’s the weather. Ahhh the weather! Okay, so some of my reasons for choosing Oaxaca were superficial, but who doesn’t consider the climate of a place they plan to live for months at a time? The weather in this high-altitude desert region is mild, dry, and cooler than surrounding lowland areas. That means in the winter it’s especially nice–not too hot during the daytime and refreshingly cool at night. No fans or AC units needed, just a range of outfits from summer dresses and light jackets to long pants and boots (and a hat to avoid sunburn at all times–the UV index here can be alarmingly high).
Oaxaca is not what I would consider a “digital nomad hotspot” (not yet, anyway) and I prefer it that way. Not that I don’t love my fellow bloggers and online entrepreneurs, but I personally enjoy feeling anonymous in a new city and free from a crowded social calendar. I enjoy chatting with locals in their native tongue when I’m out and about and because of the short duration of my stay, have little interest in creating a close circle of friends here.
Perhaps that sounds pessimistic to some, but it’s simply a reflection of the realistic and admittedly self-preservational approach I’ve taken to long-term travel. Goodbyes on the road are not easy, and contrary to logic, repetition doesn’t help.
I hope this explanation serves to clear up any remaining confusion about why on Earth I would choose to spend a few months living in Oaxaca. For those of you who may be concerned for my safety, you can rest assured that I feel quite secure here–and with several years of solo travel under my belt, I know when to take the necessary precautions and have developed a finely-tuned instinct for who to trust.
If you’re considering a stint here yourself, please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions and I will do my best to answer them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a massive tlayuda on my plate here and it’s rude to keep it waiting.
Have you heard of Oaxaca or ever considered traveling here?