Oaxaca city itself is teeming with tourists, almost all of whom are clustered in the beautiful colonial center (pictures) . The colors are vibrant, and wrought iron abounds (window grates, balcony railings, even some of the stoplights are haning from wrought iron braces). I'm told that they've actually had the foresight to make regulations regarding construction and remodeling so that everything in the center is done according to the existing colonial style.
The zocalo is the heart of the city. When you get to Oaxaca, grab a beer at one of the numerous restaurants and spend some time people watching. The area draws both tourists and locals. At night, a marimba band often plays in the gazebo at the center of the zocalo.
Beyond the center, Oaxaca turns into a typical Mexican town sprawl. Lots of concrete buildings, open front stores - auto parts stores right next to "Unisex" hair salons, right next to hole in the wall restaurants. Re-bar sticking out of the tops (I finally asked why, and they said it was so you could add additional stories when you wanted to expand).
Indigenous villages and towns
I stayed in San Marcos Tlapazola a few times. The women there make simple utilitarian pottery the same way they have for millenia. They basically take a big lump of clay that they dig from the nearby hills, set it on a piece of gourd (or, the occasional piece of basketball), which is set in a shallow indentation in a stone. They turn the clay by hand. No wheel is used. It's amazing how uniformly round they're able to make it. Unfortunately the Yu'u there was closed the last I heard. (San Marcos Tlapazola pictures)
In Teotitlan del Valle, you might be interested in staying with the Gonzalez', a family of Zapotec weavers who have an extra room that they occasionally rent out to visitors. It's simple and spartan (you'll live like they do), and a wonderful way to get an even more "authentic" experience. You can see more about them at http://www.rosengren.net/artisansinfocus. Elena (the mother) is a great cook. Lots of tourists visit Teotitlan del Valle, but as a general rule they're gone by six o'clock. Suddenly in the evening you're the only gringo around.
If you do visit the Gonzalez', you might be able to take part in their meals as well. Elena (the mother)reminds me a little of the stereotype of an Italian grandmother, always wanting you to eat more. I always think of the time I was sitting at their table with them, mouth full and chewing, with another bite poised for when my mouth was empty again, and Elena hands me some more food and urges me "Come, Curt. Come!" (Eat, Curt. Eat!). I had to laugh and tell her I really couldn't go any faster.
Teotitlan del Valle has a small market where locals buy food every morning right across from the church. All sorts of foodstuffs are available there (including some wonderful baked goods). It's also a larger small town (about 4,500 people) so there are plenty of the little stores around where you can buy water, snacks, yoghurt, etc.
I found the people in the small towns very friendly. I remember walking through San Marcos Tlapazola to visit some potters that I had become friends with on a previous visit, and it took me forever to get there (and the town isn't that big). People kept stopping me and wanting to talk. It's a big plus if you can speak Spanish, but even if you can't, a phrase book, a big smile, and a willingness to laugh will go a long way. Many of the men (and some of the women) in the indigenous villages have spent time working in the US, and have some knowledge of English.
There are numerous ways to get to the villages, depending on where they are. You could take a collectivo (taxis that go to various destinations and several people share the cost), take a bus from the second class bus station, or hire your own taxi, depending on how much you want to pay. The second class buses are actually pretty easy to take, and it's how most of the locals travel, which makes it that much more interesting.
The government has built yu'us in several small (primarily indigenous) towns and villages around Oaxaca. Yu'u means home in Zapoteca. It's a great way to get a completely different picture of Oaxaca (picture dirt streets, a man driving his herd of bony cattle past brick and adobe homes, while an ox-drawn cart rattles past on its way to the fields…).
If you do decide you'd like to do stay in one, check in with Sedetur (the Oaxaca state tourist bureau - the office is near the Zocalo in Oaxaca city). The yu'us range from six bed bunkhouses to individual bungalows, depending on the location.
Unfortunately several of these have fallen into disrepair and are no longer open, so you'll have to find out which ones are still options.
The yu'us have a kitchen set-up, which works quite nicely. There is generally at least a tiny store in the small towns where you can buy some very basic stuff (cans of beans, etc.). If you want fruit and vegetables in the smaller towns (e.g., San Marcos Tlapazola), you should bring them with you. It also seemed like I couldn't turn around without some generous local offering me a tortilla, fresh from the cooking fire. You should also be able to buy bottled water in the little stores.
Hierve el Agua
If you go to Hierve el Agua (pictures) , try the "restaurant" on the corner about a hundred yards (more or less) from the entrance. It's actually somebody's home, and they have a table set up in the dirt courtyard. There are restaurant stalls inside the park area which are just fine, but we kept going back to this little place outside the entrance because the woman who lived there was so enjoyable, and because the food was so good. There's only one choice at any given time (I suspect it's what the family is eating that day). The picture of the little girl is from there, and her grandmother standing behind her is the one who does the cooking.
If you do go to Hierve el Agua, be sure to stay overnight and get up for sunrise at the mineral pools/falls. There is a magic then that has disappeared by the time the day tripping buses disgorge their loads of tourists. There are several one room bungalows for rent at a reasonable price (don't remember how much, but cheap). It's best to make reservations through Sedetur first so they know you're coming.
We showed up on a whim in the evening after dark (we had commandeered an off-duty camioneta, one of the pick up trucks that go back and forth between Mitla and Hierve el Agua). The tank above the bungalow was nearly empty of water, and by the middle of the night there was nothing. Which meant no flushing (which was a near-crisis for us, as we were both in states of intestinal emergency). It took us a while to finally get them to fill up the water tank again.
The man who works taking care of the place, manning the entrance, etc. at night was a gem of a guy. Very nice. The ones who worked there during the day on the other hand were complete jerks. We heard stories from other people about bad experiences with them as well. Just be aware of that, and they won't seem so bad.
Be sure to take warm clothes, as it gets chilly at night. The beds in the bungalows come with basically a sheet and a very thin blanket. Heckle and Jeckle (as we named the daytime guys) refused to let us have more when we requested them, even though we could see big stacks of extras. We ended up having to "accidently" walk off with one when nobody was looking.
In spite of our experience with those two (they were rude, unfriendly, and behaved like they resented that we were there - the polar opposite of almost all my experience in rural Oaxaca), we stayed for three nights. It was that beautiful and peaceful there.
We walked down to the mineral pools about 11:00 one night and just sat. The crickets were chirping, and the stars were reflecting in the mirror-like pools. It might have been the elevation, but the stars were crisp and twinkling in a way I don't remember having seen before.
You might look into spending some time biking around the Oaxaca valley. There are companies that do organized bike tours, or you could just strike off on your own. I rented a bike and explored the valley, making a loop from Teotitlan, past Dainzu (some small ruins), to San Marcos Tlapazola, and back via Tlacolula and Santa Ana del Valle. Along the way, we rode along a path that I was told had been a highway built by the Zapotecs back in their heyday. It's still in use by locals going to and from the fields. Much of it was just a broad grassy path, but there were sections that were still "paved" with stones. It reminded me a little bit of the old cobblestone Roman roads that still exist in Europe.
It was an amazing day, and even though I had been to Oaxaca numerous times before and spent time in various villages, the mobility that a bike gave me made it a completely different experience. It was a great way to explore both the countryside and the villages along the way.
The biggest challenge with biking in the Oaxaca valleys is thorns. A guy whose wife is a biologist told me that overgrazing has stripped the valley of much of its native plants, but the livestock doesn't touch the thorn bushes. Consequently the thorn bushes thrive. I was lucky not to have any punctures, but I had to be constantly diligent when I wasn't riding on asphalt.
The day I spent biking around the valley, Osvaldo (the youngest son of the Gonzalez family that I mentioned earlier). He just came along as a friend (I've gotten to be good friends with the family over the years), but you might also ask if you could hire him as a guide/interpreter if you go exploring around the valley. It's fully do-able just on your own, but it can be fun to have somebody local along as well.
If you don't bring your own, you can rent a bike in Oaxaca city. Just be aware that the bikes you'll find for rent down there are mostly Mexican-made, clunky, and seemingly made of lead. They'll do the trick (I rented one for most of the time I was there in September), just don't expect really high quality.
Also, depending on where you live, the altitude even on the valley floor can be a challenge. I live at sea level in Seattle, so I found that I was more winded than usual when I first started buzzing around on a bike there.
Teotitlan del Valle in September
Fiesta del Senor de la Navidad
The Independence Day celebrations weren't at all what I expected. The thing I remember most was that they were loooooong. This was in Teotitlan del Valle. There was a parade through town after dark(which was fun) that ended at the main square where a stage was set up. All the school kids had red white and green paper lanterns on a stick (like torches) with candles inside. Of course half of them had already burned up by the time the got to the end of the parade route.
There was an eerily marshal feeling as drill team after drill team of kids goose stepped to military marches, presenting flag after flag. The blend of the marshal music, the school uniforms, the men in cowboy hats, and the women in traditional dress lent a surreal cast to the affair.
On the stage sat the year's "royalty," young women in solid colored red white or green evening gowns. There was music, poetry, a script that's read - if I'm not mistaken - in every town in the republic by the leading official. The "queen" of the royalty sang (quite off key, I'm afraid) each and every stanza of an extended Mexican national anthem. Then the mike was open to anyone who wanted to say something. It went on, and on, and on...
There were some fireworks that night, but most of the fireworks in Teotitlan del Valle came in conjunction with the religious festival that was happening around that same time.
Three loud booms, each maybe an hour apart, let the town know that the evening's festivities were getting closer. After the third, everybody gathered after dark in the churchyard. A brass band played, and the leaders of the community had a place of honor at a table front and center. They had small glasses, which were kept full of mescal. They each had a bundle of a plant that reportedly can be used in the morning to make a kind of tea that will help with hangovers. It seems to be something used in various events, as the same plant bundles showed up in the wedding activities I attended several months later.
While the brass band played, a dancer danced with a mock bull made of reeds and wood on his head (can't swear to exactly what it was made of). It was big enough that it fit down over his torso. As he danced, spinning fireworks attached to the bull were going off. Occasionally he would stop when the fireworks were spent and he went off to "reload." Once he was done, a pair of dancers did the same thing with turkeys. I think there is a story to the whole thing, but I can't recall what it is.
For the grand finale, there was a several story cross-like structure which had been built especially for this celebration. There were several wheels attached at various spots.
All the kids gathered on the ground up close to the structure, and the fireworks started going off. The most fun was the ones attached to the wheels, which spun the wheels in circles.
By the time it was done, there was a grey haze in the air, the town leaders were sauced, and my ears were ringing from brass band. It had been a lot of fun.
(pictures from this festival)
I was there last year in mid-september, and it's just the tail end of the rainy season. I was a little leary of it before I went, but it ended up to be no problem. It was sunny during the day, then in the late afternoon the clouds would roll in and there would be a downpour. By mid-evening it would clear up again and be a beautiful evening. I actually kind of liked the rain, as it would cool things down (the temperature was in the 80's F) and give a fresh feeling to the air.
It also made the countryside much more beautiful (see the countryside and monte alban pages in my oaxaca photos for the difference between rainy and dry season). Everything looked so lush and green, as opposed to the dry brown of the rest of the year.
Just be sure to bring some kind of raingear. I brought a cheap poncho and bought a cheap umbrella when I got there, and had no problems.
I've been there in January and February, and the weather was beautiful. Sunny and in the 70's F every day. I was there in May once, and it was very hot. Perhaps unseasonably hot, as it was often over 100 degrees F.