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After 6 months of living in and enjoying Oaxaca, Mexico, I wanted to share some of our experiences for those of you thinking you may like to make it a future destination. So – here’s my list of 10 Best and 10 Worst Things about Living in Oaxaca Mexico to aid in your decision making:
Let’s get the worst over.
10 Worst Things about Living in Oaxaca, Mexico
1. Water or lack thereof
– Although Oaxaca gets loads of rain during the wet season, the city does not have the structures necessary to catch the water and so this precious resource runs off. Couple this situation with the fact that Oaxaca’s tenuous political climate results in groups stopping the delivery of water and what you have is life where water is rationed and often does not arrive on schedule. In our 6 months of living with a cistern plus three rooftop tanks, we ran out of water 6 times despite our “turn it on – get wet – turn it off -soap up – turn it on – rinse off – turn it off ” showers and “If it’s yellow let it mellow – if it’s brown flush it down” toilet policies. It is not fun to live in a house without water.
2. Political unrest
– regular demonstrations by groups (teachers and pueblo groups mostly) result in major streets being blockaded and the zocalo being inaccessible. When the streets are blockaded getting in and out of town is very difficult and sometimes impossible. Sometimes blockades are announced ahead of time and sometimes not. It is easy to be caught in a never-ending traffic jam unexpectedly. In election years (this happened to be a particularly big one with state and national elections happening simultaneously) the protests are multiplied. We were unable to enjoy the zocalo for the last two months of our stay. Bummer.
3. Garbage collection
– I will never understand Oaxaca’s garbage collection policies. If you move there, ask a neighbor when the garbage truck comes and they will kindly tell you the hour. On that hour you mustbe in the street with your garbage. The truck will arrive ringing a loud cow bell. There will be men on the back of the truck who appear they are there to take the garbage. No!!! They will hop off the truck and watch you dump your own garbage in. Then they will hop back on and ring the bell again as they drive away. Our garbage truck came at 5:30 am every morning – so on those days that I didn’t need to dump garbage we still got to hear the cowbell at 5:30. If you don’t believe me, here’s a video of garbage collection on my street.
4. Noise pollution
– Mexican’s have a very different relationship to noise than we do in the U.S. or than what I’ve experienced in Europe. The garbage truck was not the only entity that made a loud noise on our street. Every vendor and service seemed to have their signature noise to alert you of their presence. The gas truck, the knife sharpener, the atole woman, the elote woman, the popsicle man, the water man, the list goes on. One of our favorites was the doughnut man who arrived at 11:00 pm every evening yelling, “DOOOONNNAAAASSSS”.
– Oaxaca is not a clean place. Streets are often littered. Although the historic centered is kept clean the remainder of the city is quite dirty. One of the issues seems to be a lack of trash receptacles for well meaning people to use.
– Now, I can appreciate good art and some graffiti is good art . However, names and words messily scrawled on historic buildings or otherwise beautiful churches are just an eyesore. Unfortunately, on some roads of Oaxaca, people appear to have walked down the street with spray cans just writing whatever came to mind. Often as part of protest marches, the marchers carry spray paint and mark buildings as they go along. The result is not appealing.
7. Begging and Vending
– Beggars and vendors in Oaxaca vary from children to elderly and/or disabled people. Often they are on the streets simply holding cans for money. This is not bothersome although it is sad. Others, however, are much more aggressive in their approach and will persist even after you have said no. The worst, however, were those who came to our home with lies or con games to try to get money from us at our door. The stories usually had to do with needing money for a relative who just went to the hospital or needed oxygen. I fell for it once – not the second time, or third, or sixth for that matter.
– Here I am not talking about the handmade clothing which can be beautiful and well made. I am talking about everyday clothing you might look for in a department store, such as a t-shirt or pair of jeans. The clothing in Oaxaca is over priced and of terrible quality. I once tried on a dress at a department store only to find that it had a 2 inch hole in it. When I went with the clerk to find another in my size the second one had a 5 inch hole. The clerk was not at all surprised by this and said I should just sew it. At one point I needed to buy my daughter a pair of lycra pants for dance. They lasted 3 classes before falling apart.
9. Personal Space in Public
– In public places such as grocery store lines there is no concept of personal space (at least by the standards we use in the U.S.). More often than not, the person behind me was standing up against me. Man or woman – it just didn’t matter. Personally, I really didn’t like it.
10. Driving Behavior
– If you venture out as a pedestrian in Oaxaca you must understand that you do not have the right of way in the minds of most drivers. Oaxacan drivers are aggressive and do not want to stop or even slow down for pedestrians. You must be very aware when you’re in the streets.
OK, so now that that’s done, I’d like to share the 10 Best Things about Living in Oaxaca and the reasons I would be happy to go back and stay.
Top 10 Best Things About Living in Oaxaca Mexico
1.The People –
The Oaxacan people are genuinely warm and loving. We were welcomed not only as tourists but as individuals with whom deep friendships could be made. In our 6 months we had the fortune to make many true friends with whom we will stay in touch. In fact, 6 of those friends even accompanied us to the airport when we left just to say goodbye. We dearly miss them.
2.The Food –
Oaxaca is the “Land of the 7 Moles” but the variety of dishes available goes far beyond these amazing sauces. From the simplest food on the street or in the local markets to gourmet food in the more expensive restaurants, we feasted our way through 6 months. Fresh foods are also readily available in the “Tianguis” (traveling street markets that go from neighborhood to neighborhood each day). Even better, the prices are cheap. Oaxaca is also known for it’s chocolate. Be sure to try a cup of it!
3.The Culture –
There are over 16 indigenous tribes in the state of Oaxaca. Of those 16, the largest is the Zapotec. Each has their own language – but if you can imagine, the Zapotec language alone has over 40 dialects. This only illustrates the wide variety of cultural influences that make up this region. What our family really appreciated is that the Oaxacan people proudly keep their cultural traditions. It is common to witness folkloric dance groups, people in their indigenous clothing on the streets, native languages being spoken, traditional handwork being done. It is a treasure for any person wanting to experience rich cultural heritage.
4.The Amazing Day Trips
– The variety of cultures and food of Oaxaca is paralleled in the variety of experiences one can have taking a day trip from Oaxaca City. In less than an hour to the north you can reach a dramatically cooler mountain climate complete with tall pine trees and the feeling you have transported yourself to Germany. To the east in less than 2 hours is the dramatic stone waterfall, Hierve el Agua, the rugmakers of Teotitlan del Valle, and El Tule, the world’s widest tree. To the south in 1/2 hour you can visit the wood carvers of Arrazola who create the famous painted animals called “alebrijes” or the potters of San Bartolo de Coyotepec who create beauties of black pottery. If you’d like to take a longer trip, the beautiful beaches of Mazunte, Puerto Escondido, and Huatulco can be reached in 1/2 day’s drive.
5.The Climate –
The climate of Oaxaca cannot be beat. A typical day may be sunny and in the 80’s farenheit (mid 20’s celsius) in the afternoon, receive a strong rain shower towards evening and cool enough to wear a light sweater in the night. April and May are a bit hotter and the winter months cooler but the majority of the year enjoys this mild climate. The air of Oaxaca is also quite dry with the exception of the rainy season.
6.The Geographic Variety –
As I mentioned in day trips, you can experience cool mountain air or a hot beach all within half a day’s drive from Oaxaca city. The land is majestic and expansive with the majority of the state being covered by mountains. Tall pine trees can be found at higher altitudes, arid and cactus covered areas in the basin, and tropical flora and fauna near the beaches.
7.The Prices –
Current exchange rates and the struggling Mexican economy make Oaxaca a very reasonably priced destination and one that lends itself to nomad-ing. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico so prices are low even by Mexican standards.
8.The Holidays –
Oaxaca’s rich cultural heritage comes to life in their many holidays and festivals. Consider visiting in July for the Guelaguetza celebration of dance and music, in November for the Day of the Dead, experience the Noche de las Rabanas on Christmas Eve or the processions of Holy Week in the spring. These are Oaxaca’s major festivals. However there are other minor holidays year round as well. In fact, there seemed to be a celebration nearly every week of our stay.
9.The Historic Buildings and Archeological Sites –
Oaxaca is one of the oldest cities in Mexico. In addition it is the home of Monte Alban, one of the largest archeological sites in Mexico and home of the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec peoples. From the elaborate interiors of its numerous churches to the intricate stone work of Mitla, Oaxaca offers a feast for any fan of architecture.
10.The Hand Crafts –
If you have ever visited a Mexican imports store and marveled at the crafts produced in this country you may not realize that many of the things you are admiring are from the Oaxaca region. The many indigenous people have honed their crafts over generations to the point that their products are true pieces of art. Black pottery, fantastic painted wooden animals, world class wool rugs that are naturally dyed, beautifully embroidered clothing, green pottery, are just some of the offerings of this area. Even the most frugal of us will be tempted by the amazing opportunities to buy something unique.
In spite of the many challenges of living in Oaxaca, the positive aspects made this a very rewarding place for us to live for 6 months. The overall review from myself and my three daughters was overwhelmingly positive. If you’re willing to live in a place where life may not always go as easily or smoothly as what you’re accustomed to back home, the rewards can be great!