Turning 50 in Oaxaca – A Celebration of the Senses
By: Lisa Coleman
20 years ago I sat on the shores of Playa la Ropa in Zihuatanejo celebrating my 30th birthday. My dear friend from Switzerland told me she had planned a party on the beach. It sounded great, but since this was a new destination for me, turns out she was the only person I knew when I arrived at my own fiesta. A gorgeous table covered with plates of fresh fish, flowers and gifts came courtesy of the locals – people I’d never met, friends I didn’t even know I had. A trio of musicians stood in the sand and serenaded me with song after song. By the time the evening was over, I had fallen even more in love with Mexico and the extraordinary people that embraced this stranger with smiles, laughter and kindness. It was pure magic. It was pure Mexico.
At the time, I had only been working in Mexico for a few years and had yet to discover the many gifts this magnificent country would continue to give me. Nonetheless, I knew immediately I was drawn to the country’s more off-the-beaten path places: the more intimate locales filled with culture and beauty, and the towns and villages enjoyed by the traveler rather than the tourist. As my 50th birthday loomed on the horizon (and I don’t say that lightly!), I knew in my heart the only place to celebrate this milestone would be my favorite place on earth: Mexico. But where? So many choices, so many memories… it was difficult to pin such an occasion on a single destination. After much contemplating, I decided to make it a combo adventure – my favorite colonial city and a beach town I’d always wanted to see. And so the wheels were in motion for a trip to the state of Oaxaca.
If you’ve spent much time traveling Mexico, you know this country is a chameleon. Every state shows a different color, every region a unique energy, and every local culture a special tradition. The only constant is diversity… And so it is with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As intriguing as its name, Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah) is one of the most unusual and dynamic places in all of Mexico. On a map, the state of Oaxaca can be found about 300 miles southeast of Mexico City. Its stunning Pacific coastline is home to the remarkable beach resort of Huatulco (more on that later), but the centerpiece of the state is the magical Oaxaca City. Founded in 1532, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and sits atop an arid highland plateau some 5,000 feet above sea level. And though the city is densely populated, it remains unusually intimate. Easily explored on foot, it has the warm and inviting pace of a village. There is a certain energy that radiates from the people and buildings, almost as if the past remains in the present. The streets resemble a brightly colored painting, enticing aromas fill the air and music abounds… everything looks and feels like a celebration.
When it came down to planning, I reached out to my good friend, Sylvie Laitre, who owns and operates Mexico Boutique Hotels. For me, MBH is simply the best of the best. Sylvie personally chooses each property in the collection and there is something enchanting about staying in a boutique setting rather than a big chain hotel. The service is unprecedented and the feel and experience are completely different. Over the years, as I have become a savvier traveler, I completely embrace “small property” hospitality, attention to detail and personal touch – especially in Mexico.
My birthday digs in Oaxaca City would be at the exquisite Hacienda Los Laureles located just a few minutes (five to eight at most and about $4 USD) by taxi outside the center of town. I had stayed here once before (on one of my first trips to Mexico with my husband), so the property holds special meaning for me. With a total of only 23 rooms and suites, Los Laureles is the ideal combination of traditional Mexican style and classic colonial elegance. You feel as though you are in your own private hacienda, complete with lush gardens, towering cypress trees, outstanding service and one of the best restaurants in town. Nestled in the mountain foothills, the hotel maintains its 19th century charm. The owner, Peter Kaiser, makes it his personal goal to ensure every guest feels at home. The evening we arrived, a “Feliz Cumpleaños” was written in flower petals on our bed, and a candlelit dinner was planned for us in the garden. It was a wonderful beginning to my birthday adventure, and the rest of our stay was equally as flawless. (Stay tuned for a more detailed feature story on Hacienda Los Laureles coming soon.)
The highlight of any trip to Oaxaca is going to be a visit to the majestic archeological site of Monte Albán. Indigenous tribes of Zapotec and Mixtec inhabited the area for centuries and built mighty stone cities that flourished for thousands of years. Over 2,500 years ago, the Zapotecs built the holy city of Monte Albán on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca. The view is nothing short of spectacular and whether you’re an archeological buff or not, this will be well worth the visit. We had a fantastic guide, Suzanne Barbezat, from Discover Oaxaca Tours . She and her husband, Benito Hernández, offer six different day trips around the area, and will also customize excursions to fit your personal needs. Benito is Zapotec and has lived most of his life in Oaxaca City so he offers prolific knowledge on culture, tradition and history. Suzanne comes to Oaxaca via Canada. She first visited in 1997 and fell in love with Benito (and Oaxaca!). She is completely bilingual, holds a degree in anthropology, and is the writer and editor for About.com’s Mexico Travel website . They are quite the impassioned pair about anything and everything Oaxaca, and I recommend them highly. (If you love bird watching, Benito also does birding tours—visit www.birdingoaxaca.com)
After a memorable day at Monte Albán, it was time for the main event: a birthday dinner at the famous Casa Oaxaca Restaurant. I selected this restaurant based on the location (just steps from the Santo Domingo church in the city center), the ambiance (simple and romantic with wood tables and towering white stucco ceiling), the awesome rooftop bar, and of course, the exceptional cuisine provided by world-renowned chef, Alejandro Ruiz Olmeda. Known for his creative dishes, Chef Alejandro has populated the menu with everything from expertly prepared rack of lamb, duck in green agave sauce and venison in yellow mole, to traditional Oaxacan specialties and fresh herbed octopus and grilled fish.Our party of eight enjoyed bottle after bottle of Mexican and Spanish selections from the extensive wine list while listening to a trio of musicians playing Mexican favorites. All was as it should be in Mexico – great friends, great food, and great wine, all wrapped up in cozy restaurant.
All too soon it was time to head south to the beach for the last leg of the celebration. We hopped on Aerotucan’s 8-seater commuter for our 45-minute flight to Huatulco (wah-TOOL-co). You can take a bus or rent a car, but you’re in for six to eight hours of winding roads. Despite the steep price tag, it’s certainly the fastest and best way to connect the cities. Of all the resorts in Mexico, I had never been to Huatulco; lucky for me it looks like I saved the best for last. This 21-mile stretch of coastline with nine pristine bays and beaches was one of the most striking beach destinations in Mexico that I’d ever seen. Anchored by the charming little town of La Crucecita, Huatulco was developed by Mexico’s tourism fund (FONATUR) and was designed to be a major Pacific coast resort community. Nonetheless, it has remained small and almost undiscovered… which, to me, is a good thing.
I had also worked with Sylvie from Mexico Boutique Hotels on a location in Huatulco and she recommended Hotel Las Palmas. After a quick look at their website, and some communications with their amazing staff, it was an easy choice. We were met at Huatulco’s “palapa-topped” airport and were greeted by hotel transportation. The service was spot on from the instant we arrived. When we got to the Dolphin Cove Villa at Las Palmas, it was nothing short of astonishing. I don’t use that word often, but that’s the only description that really sums it up. Our massive 4-bedroom/4-bath villa had an open-air living area, huge kitchen and negative-edge pool overlooking the picturesque Violina Bay and beach. Even though we were there in the dry season it was incredibly beautiful. Owners Ron and Jackie Williams came to Huatulco on a trip from Lake Tahoe in 2001. They took one look at the area and knew they had to realize their dream and build a hotel overlooking the Pacific. Well, their dream turned out to be my dream come true too, as you won’t find many places in Mexico as breathtaking as this. With a total of five casitas and three villas, Las Palmas feels more like a giant private home rather than a hotel. At the risk of overstating the obvious, it was perfect. (Stay tuned for a full feature story on Las Palmas and Huatulco coming up as well.)
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about turning 50. But, I can tell you this: turning 50 in Oaxaca is the way to go. Thank you, Mexico. Thank you for reaching into my soul and giving me so many gifts of so many memories. I look forward to the next 50 and continuing to discover your treasures.