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Tourists return to Oaxaca, Mexico

Image: Peta Ruiz sells a local delicacy of grasshoppers bathed in chile powder and salt in the city market in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Peta Ruiz sells a local delicacy of grasshoppers bathed in chile powder and salt in the city market in Oaxaca, Mexico. More than a year after police evicted protesters who held the city for months, visitors to Oaxaca will find a less crowded city with more local flavor than it had before the 2006 political uprising. Gregory Bull / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Poinsettias carpet the carefully tended gardens of Oaxaca's arch-ringed main plaza, where smoking wreckage and barricades stood just over a year ago. Local bands and marimbas have replaced the sound of explosions, and the smell of gasoline bombs and tear gas have given way to the scent of coffee and mole sauce, two of Oaxaca's specialties.

More than a year after police evicted protesters who held the city for months, visitors to Oaxaca will find a less crowded city with more local flavor than it had before the 2006 political uprising. There are fewer tourists, more open tables at restaurants ringing the square, and a new program that closes off the streets around the main plaza to create a pedestrian mall on the weekends.

"It is really pretty. It has changed so much," said Alfredo Santiago, a businessman on vacation from a Mexico City suburb who was hanging out with his son, listening to music in the flower bedecked main square in early January. "The truth is, we wouldn't have come last year, because of the problems, but now you can even bring kids, the family."

Like many Mexicans, Santiago was horrified by television images of burning buses and violent clashes with police in the streets of Oaxaca, founded in 1529. The city's massive green stone buildings and graceful archways are considered the archetype of a Mexican colonial-era city, drawing tourists from around the world, so seeing buildings burned or trashed came as a shock.

"It felt bad. It was like watching Oaxaca die," Santiago recalled. "We thought, why go to Oaxaca? It looks like Iraq."

While Oaxaca state — whose capital city goes by the same name — has everything from archaeological sites, beaches and forests to cloud-shrouded mountains, it suffered from the violent images, even though the protests were largely confined to the city. But now, foreign tourists are heading back.

Jim May, 60, a professional storyteller from Harvard, Ill., was on his second trip back to Oaxaca since the disturbances — his fifth or sixth trip to Oaxaca overall.

"I think that what I would tell people is that it's safe," said May. "There is some volatility in the political situation, but there is everywhere in the world."

Some travelers are even attracted by the city's still-lively political scene.

"That's why I came down here. I want to hear more about it," said Mike Dallas, 43, who teaches life skills in New York City. "I am fascinated by the fact that Mexicans would actually feel empowered enough to take over their town."

At the same time, Oaxaca "seems safer than anywhere I've been in America. I keep looking around for the security cameras ... but there aren't any," Dallas said, as he did what tourists have been doing in Oaxaca for decades — relaxed at a cafe in the main square.

From May to November 2006, a coalition of striking teachers and leftist supporters blockaded the city to demand the resignation of the state governor, driving out tourists and paralyzing traffic, commerce and tourism.

The political divisions remain, but the violence has died out, at least for now. Most of the graffiti and damage has since been removed or repaired. The striking teachers got some of the pay raises they demanded, but their leftist allies got little: about a half-dozen protest leaders remained jailed, Gov. Ulises Ruiz remains in office, and little progress has been made in investigating the case of Brad Will, a New York journalist-activist shot to death during the uprising.

The artisans who made Oaxaca famous for black pottery, hand-woven carpets and the surreal painted wooden sculptures known as "alebrijes" are eager to greet returning visitors with their wares.

Isidor Chavez Hernandez, 36, still turns out hand-woven wool rugs on his loom in the town of Teotitlan del Valle, 17 miles east of Oaxaca city, just as his grandparents did. But he used to sell as many as six rugs per week — now he sells about two per month.

"Business practically died off for eight months," Chavez Hernandez said as he threaded strands of naturally-colored wool into a complex pattern that might take weeks to finish. "We looked for other places to sell, some families left (for the United States), and some people did more farming."

While the protests were mostly limited to Oaxaca City, tourists largely avoided the entire state of Oaxaca, rich with archaeological ruins and quiet beaches. Tourists are returning throughout the region, and rediscovering once popular sites.

Just outside the city along the road to Teotitlan, visitors will find the Zapotec and Mixtec ruins of Mitla and Yagul, and just a bit further on is Hierve el Agua, a kind of giant outdoor stalagmite in the form of a frozen waterfall.

In fact, archaeological sites and artisan towns practically surround Oaxaca city in every direction: the ruins of Zaachila and San Bartolo Coyotepec — known for its black pottery — lie to the south; the hilltop temples of Monte Alban and Arrazola, known for its woodcarvings, are to the west. Hiking and mountain biking tours through these towns and sites are also available.

And to the south, a few hours' drive away, are the Pacific coast beaches of Huatulco, Puerto Escondido, Puerto Angel and Zipolite.

Perhaps the biggest change has been for local residents. For them, downtown Oaxaca has once again become what it was for generations: a meeting place, a site to relax, chat and watch life go by.

"Before the problems started, we would do what we're doing right now, which is to come to the main square on weekends," said Hector Chavez, 45, a Oaxaca construction worker, as he listened to a free concert in the plaza. "Now, the peaceful atmosphere has returned, but the tourism and the job situation haven't yet recovered."

That means visitors are more likely to meet local residents than other tourists in the square. But one thing they are less likely to find are the street vendors who had long carved out their own space on one side of the plaza. Except for a few balloon vendors, the vendors are no longer allowed.

That has drawn complaints from some tourists, who now find the plaza a bit antiseptic. It also has drawn the ire of the vendors themselves — precisely the kind of social tension that keeps Oaxaca's political pot bubbling.

"A lot of the vendors in the downtown historical district have approached us, looking for our help," said Florentino Lopez, the spokesman for the group that organized the 2006 protests. "We are reorganizing, and preparing for new demonstrations. For us, the political movement in Oaxaca continues."