Samuel Contreras sells handwoven rugs in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, a center of native hand-weaving.
Samuel Contreras sells handwoven rugs in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, a center of native hand-weaving.
Photo by Luis J. Jimenez

Oaxaca: One Year Later

By Ceci Connolly
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 25, 2007

The last time I was in Oaxaca, I was frantically trying to improvise a gas mask. The city was a war zone: anti-government protesters packing spray paint, rocks and Molotov cocktails; police in riot gear tossing canisters of black tear gas into the crowd.

My eyes stinging, I raced past the burned-out shell of a bus. Thick smoke filled the air, but there was just enough of a clearing to allow me a glimpse of El Catedral restaurant. It looked so enticing: a serene courtyard, white tablecloths and glass wine goblets with the distinctive Mexican blue rim. But the door was locked.

I kept running.

Fast-forward one year and I'm finally inside El Catedral, and in a city that feels much different.

Seated under the stars on an ancient stone patio, a fountain burbling beside me, I savor sauteed mushrooms in garlic wine sauce. The setting is almost exactly as I envisioned it would be: a place of architectural jewels, one-of-a-kind textiles and culinary surprises.

Except I am alone.

The two-story bar, all polished wood and chrome, is dark. The dining room to the right of the courtyard is as empty as the one to the left.

I have returned to Oaxaca on assignment: Find out if, one year after deadly riots crippled the city, it is again an attractive destination for visitors seeking language schools, colonial history, craft markets and art galleries.

I'm eager -- and a bit apprehensive -- to check in on friends I'd made here and find out whether Oaxaca still belongs on Mexico's A-list. It didn't take long to realize that the answer is more complicated than I'd thought.

Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka) is no longer the filthy, smoldering wreck of 2006. Nor, however, is it the bustling cultural center of years past. It appears safe and clean. But unresolved political tensions have prompted the U.S. State Department to keep it on a watch list. "We're not discouraging tourism," says U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Judith Bryan. "But we want informed and appropriately cautious tourism."

My friend Harry Smith, a Bostonian living in Oaxaca with his wife and three daughters, is keenly aware of the economic and political injustices in the city. But he also wants Americans to appreciate its warmth and beauty.

"I would advise people to come, as long as they come with their eyes open," he says. "But this is not Disneyland."

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