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It takes a stubborn cyclist to tour through Mexico without taking in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez. The alternative routes through the country to the north are apparently a bore, while bypassing the city to the south requires an extended visit to the troubled state of Guerrero. It’s not quite correct to say that all roads lead to Oaxaca, but most cycle tourists choose one of those that do.

‘Are you going via Oaxaca?’ asked two riders we met at the roadside about a month ago. They hadn’t enjoyed their time in the city. ‘It’s very touristy.’

‘Does that mean you’re missing Oaxaca?’ inquired another cycling friend of ours, when we sketched out our route in a sentence. She’d had a better time. ‘It’s very touristy, but…’

 


 

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Long-distance cicloviajeros generally develop an attitude to capital-t Tourism somewhere between reluctance and scorn. We spend so much time off the beaten path, out of necessity as much as choice, that the surreality of some tourist towns stands out much more than it otherwise might. Today’s world is a smaller place than ever before, and hunting for authenticity is a fool’s errand best left to anthropologists. Even so, in many chocolate-box destinations, the mechanics of the tourism industry are as obvious as the weather.

Granada in Nicaragua and Antigua Guatemala in (yes) Guatemala, to name but two towns we’ve recently visited, are promoted by national governments and international guidebooks as spellbindingly beautiful colonial cities. They are; Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is especially gorgeous. But the tourism that’s helped to preserve their architecture has also helped to eliminate much of the local character they may once have possessed. Granada’s main street is now a catastrophe of Irish pubs, Italian restaurants and international bakeries that tells you everything about the conservatism of many travellers and little about Nicaragua. And while, as we discovered, the cobbled streets of Antigua weren’t designed for bicycles, nor were they designed for the coaches that arrive most mornings, disgorging day-trippers for a few hours before returning them to the cruise ships from which they’ve been granted day release.

(In both Granada and Antigua, you’ll find more evidence of local culture the farther from the centre you travel. Such evidence isn’t necessarily appealing, especially in towns where the riches displayed by visiting tourists has bred understandable resentment among the desperately poor residents. It’s also bred opportunity, of sorts. In Granada, Ruth had her purse snatched by a local clearly well practiced at the art of gringo thievery.)

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Some of Mexico’s honeypot destinations seem different, and a couple of reasons spring to mind. The first is that although avatars of globalisation can be hard to avoid – fast-food chains and massive malls, FC Barcelona shirts and swoosh-lined sneakers – Mexican culture has proved potent enough to resist too much outside interference. The country has more than its share of archaeological ruins, postcard beaches and historic towns, drawing travellers from far and near. However, its greatest asset, what we’ll call its Mexicanity, is much less tangible and far more precious. More so than anywhere we’ve visited since Colombia, Mexico retains a charisma and a vitality all its own.

The other reason, which we hadn’t considered until we arrived here, is that Mexicans travel. Bottom-line economics dictates that the overwhelming majority of tourists in the likes of Nicaragua and Guatemala are foreigners, and foreigners own the majority of businesses that cater to them. The atmosphere that results from this curious state of affairs is global in only the most provincial way. Central Granada, in particular, feels like a cross between a theme park and a food court.

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Like Nicaragua and Guatemala, if not to the same degree, Mexico is a poor country, disfigured by inequality. The minimum wage here is about US$5 – not per hour, per day. But there’s enough wealth here that some Mexicans still take holidays, and they do so by frequenting businesses owned by their fellow countrymen. In peak season, which ends next week, even the most tourist-packed towns and cities can still feel resolutely, defiantly Mexican. That includes Oaxaca. Just.

 


 

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At first glance, Oaxaca doesn’t look promising. The centre of the city is dotted with luxury hotels whose nightly room rates exceed the annual salaries of those who work to keep them safe and clean. Alongside them are restaurants serving peasant food at gentry prices, presumably for visitors too daunted by the perceived dangers of Mexico to further explore the city. Souvenir stores hawk mass-produced Mexicabilia. Buskers and jugglers are a hazard it’s hard to avoid.

Nothing better reveals the popularity of Oaxaca among expatriates and tourists than the presence, in a plum location, of Amate Books, comfortably the best English-language bookstore we’ve visited in the 18 months we’ve been on the road. However, and this is key, there are far, far worse things to find on the main street in a tourist-friendly town than a splendidly curated bookshop dealing almost exclusively in books about Latin America. (An ersatz Irish pub, for instance.) Especially when, just along the same road, are an equally well-stocked store selling only books in Spanish, an elegant civic library, and a block-long book fair dedicated to literatura Oaxaqueña. This is a town that welcomes tourists and enjoys their money, but hasn’t yet given up its soul.

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Similarly, you can wander the streets here for hours in gentle contentment. The centre of Oaxaca is a pretty little place. However, if you stop by the city’s flagship museum, you’ll find a serious, uncompromising collection of artefacts dedicated to Oaxacan culture. Close by, the town’s main photographic gallery is given over not to demure shots of churches and manses, as you might expect, but Germán Canseco‘s shocking documentary images of drug addicts in the notorious border town of Ciudad Juárez. There are two pre-Christmas crafts markets that are transparently aimed at tourists; there are three others, and possibly more, that clearly aren’t. There are wine bars and beer bars and coffee bars – and then there is the grubby backstreet shambles of a mezcal tasting room to which we were led by a clued-up friend. And so on.

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You can have an easy-living time in Oaxaca, if that’s what you desire. Many do; the town is popular with snowbird retirees from the US and Canada, attracted by a more exotic energy and culture than Florida could ever hope to provide. However, there’s more here than may first meet the eye. In other words, our friend was right: it’s touristy, but

 


 

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It’s pronounced ‘Wa-ha-ca’, incidentally, although you probably knew that already. When Thomasina Miers and Mark Selby decided to drive their taco truck into what had long been the largest gap in the British dining market, the name they chose for their restaurant, Wahaca, neatly echoed the food they served – adulterated Mexican, with the difficult bits taken out. A one-off Covent Garden spot has since become a kind of Latino Wagamama, rolled out with apparent ease across London and beyond. No one calls it ‘Oh-axe-a-cuh’ any more.

Along with neighbouring Puebla, the state of Oaxaca has the reputation as the culinary capital of Mexico, itself the Latin American country with the most exciting cuisine. In a damning verdict on the wisdom of crowds, the top four restaurants on TripAdvisor when we arrived were a French-ish bakery, a US comfort-cooking diner, a pizzeria and a whistle-stop coffee shop. (Seriously: why even travel?) We went looking for something else, and didn’t have to look far to find it.

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We’ll have more to say about Mexican cooking in due course; it merits a post of its own. Suffice to say, though, that this is not the Mexican food we have to endure in Europe: the wallpaper-paste burritos and the bland tacos, the colourless pork and the lime-free guacamole. Some of the difference is simple taste, the European fear that our taste buds won’t be able to handle the heat. Some of it, though, is the unavailability of ingredients. While we’d love to find a decent cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork, a Yucatán classic) when we return to London, we’re not expecting to find that Miers has added chapulines to the Wahaca menu. Chapulines are grasshoppers, toasted in bulk with chili and lime. Pictured above, the end result is salty, crunchy and – this took us rather by surprise, though it shouldn’t have – a little grassy.

The food in central Mexico is both a quotidian way of life and a source of considerable pride. We have debated flours and doughs with bakers and cooks; we have had longer and more detailed conversations about the origins and make-up of mole negro, which Puebla claims as its own, than we thought possible. The flavours here are both richer and subtler than we’ve encountered elsewhere in Latin America, dazzlingly so when we get lucky with our restaurant and our order. Over the last ten weeks, but particularly in the last month or so, we’ve been lucky more often than not.

 


 

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We left Oaxaca on Boxing Day, cycling north on empty roads under azure skies. Four days later, we reached Puebla, a gorgeous and energetic city that deserves far more attention than we’ve time to give it here. In summary: overwhelming cathedral (pictured below); wonderful food; wildly over-the-top Christmas decorations; far fewer extranjeros.

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After a quiet new year – Mexicans apparently tend to celebrate with their families, and the centre of Puebla was nearly deserted by 9pm – we cycled out of town on Saturday afternoon. By lunchtime on Sunday, we’d at last arrived in a town we’ve been eager to experience ever since we started planning this trip. When we’ve made some sense of the sprawling, energising chaos that defines Mexico City, and it may take some time, you’ll be the first to know.

from México, Distrito Federal, Mexico