ADVERTISEMENT

On the Road Again, and Again

April 6, 2006
0605_how_books
Michael Kraus

During long journeys across the country, the authors of two new memoirs searched (respectively) for down-home grub and a free ride. We asked them to give advice to anyone hoping to walk--or eat--in their footsteps.

In Two for the Road (houghtonmifflinbooks.com, $24), authors Jane and Michael Stern reminisce about rodeos, state fairs, cheap motels, and more than 70,000 meals they ate while penning their bestseller, Roadfood. What do they look for?

  • Restaurants open only for breakfast and lunch, because these are places where the locals come to chat 'n' chew.
  • Old menus with gravy stains or barbecue-sauce fingerprints, because they've been used by the multitudes.
  • Statues of cows, pigs, roosters, or crabs on the roof, because they're irresistible (and the food's usually terrific).
  • A jukebox with Hank Williams songs, because the menu probably hasn't been modernized either, and you can count on country-comfort food.
  • Based on his experience thumbing rides all over the world, including a recent cross-country hitchhiking adventure described in Riding With Strangers (ipgbook.com, $23), Elijah Wald advises would-be hitchers to:

  • Smile and appear clean, like you're trying to get somewhere rather than wandering.
  • Display a sign when appropriate; no ride is too short works particularly well.
  • Choose your spots carefully, where you can be seen as far off as possible and drivers have plenty of space to pull over.
  • Let the driver set the mood. Be quiet if the driver's not talkative.
  • Pass on drivers who seem drunk or who spook you out for any reason. Another ride will come along.
  • Keep reading

    Confessions Of... An Amusement Park Employee

    Melissa Mayntz worked at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, during five summers between 1996 and 2003. Keeping it clean I had several different jobs at the park, but my favorite was one most employees hated: the sweep. Sweeps are always walking; my record was 22 miles--and yes, I had a pedometer that day. As a sweep, you're the one called to clean up vomit puddles and spilled sodas. But I loved the exercise, the freedom to roam the park, and the fact that I never knew what I'd find: discarded socks, kids' retainers, and one time, an unopened can of corn. The job does have its hazards--namely, cigarette butts. Sweeps gather hundreds of them, and smoldering cigarettes often rub up against napkins in the dustpan. While doing the "dustpan jig" to stomp out the flames, I set myself on fire more times than I care to mention. It shouldn't have to be said, but if you smoke, please use the ashtrays. It's not like they're hard to find--there's one near the entrance to every ride, shop, and restaurant. Lines, long and short Most guests assume the wait for rides is shorter early and late in the season, but that's not entirely true. While lines tend to be long in summer, that's also when staff levels are highest. A fully staffed coaster runs efficiently, with up to four employees checking harnesses, an operator at the entrance to measure guests' heights, and a quick turnover of riders. In spring or early fall, however, rides may have only two employees checking harnesses and no one at the entrance. The extra seconds that it takes the smaller staff to do its jobs add up. In terms of shortest wait time, your best bet is weekdays in early June, when there are plenty of college students already at work, but grammar and high schools are still in session. Standing tall Ride operators have a love-hate relationship with the candy cane, the striped pipe Cedar Point uses for height measurements. Guests try to circumvent the system, and we've seen it all: stuffed shoes, 8-year-olds with platform heels, ponytails rising four inches above the scalp. It's unwise to try to fool the candy canes. Parents with children who just make the cut should visit the operations office at Cedar Point for a height measurement. Kids who qualify will be given a wristband to save them from hassles at ride entrances. Shutdowns Most ride delays are the result of computer "setups," in which the ride must reset after a stoppage. Setups usually last less than 10 minutes, and operators don't typically bother offering explanations. When an operator doles out vague statements such as "We're temporarily closed for mechanical reasons," and "We don't know how long we'll be closed, but we'll reopen as soon as possible," you might want to move on. It's our summer, too Working at an amusement park isn't at all like an extended vacation. I clocked 60-70 hours a week, sometimes with seven days in a row on the job. Roller coasters, while exciting at first, lose their novelty after you've served four open-to-close shifts back-to-back. Still, we employees made our own fun. One summer, while I was cleaning the boats at a ride, a water fight broke out with hoses and buckets. Another season, we created a Fourth of July scavenger hunt, with prizes for spotting the most American flag swimsuits, guests with boiled-lobster sunburns, and identically dressed families.

    True Stories

    New Prize: $2,000 gift certificate to New England inns!If your True Stories submission is the best one we receive before June 30, 2006, you'll win a $2,000 gift certificate good at more than 300 inns, resorts, and B&Bs throughout New England, courtesy of the New England Inns & Resorts Association. The gift certificate can be used at any member property, including for services charged to the room (such as meals and spa treatments). The prize is valid from September 1, 2006, to August 31, 2007. Subject to availability; nontransferable; nonnegotiable. No blackout dates apply. For more information on the New England Inns & Resorts Association: 603/964-6689, newenglandinnsandresorts.com. How to enter TrueStories@BudgetTravelOnline.com or True Stories, Budget Travel, 530 Seventh Ave., 2nd Fl., New York, NY 10018. We can't return photos. Read the full guidelines. This month's winner This month's winner is Pam Anderson, of Sussex, Wis. Her prize is a pair of Aussie AirPasses, courtesy of Qantas. While in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, my husband, Scott, and I arranged a day trip to Tabacón Hot Springs. After a quick hike, we hurried back for our mineral mud bath. The other guests were already coated in mud and baking in the sun. When we entered the adobe hut for our turn, two Costa Rican men motioned Scott to leave while they studiously painted me from head to toe. Leaving no skin uncovered, they followed very close around my bikini. When I emerged, the other people in our group asked how I got my mud on so perfectly--theirs was streaky and uneven. I said that was how the two Costa Rican men applied it. "What Costa Rican men?" they said. "We were all told to put it on ourselves!" Scott and I never did see those two men again. First You Accept Candy From Strangers, And Now This A friendly gentleman approached me while I was touring Paracas, Peru, with my mother. He was selling candy on the beach, and as I was making my selections, he invited me to his home to meet the family pet--a penguin. A little hesitant, but naturally curious, I followed him down the street, around the corner, and through several alleys. Upon entering his home I was warmly greeted by each member of the family and introduced to their pride and joy, a pet penguin! Christy Bowie, Jacksonville, Fla. She's Never Seen His Jump Shot My coworker Craig, who is 6' 11'', got lots of attention while we were traveling through China. He actually appeared to believe he was some sort of royalty. We were having fun with his newfound celebrity status, allowing the locals to join us in pictures, until we ran into a middle-aged woman who was clearly not impressed. In broken English, she asked Craig who he was and what he did for a living. He claimed to be a famous basketball player. She shook her head and waved him away, clearly disgusted. He asked why she didn't believe him. "You no basketball playah," she said. "You fat like Buddha." Susan Waters, Milan, Mich. Don't Go Chasing Skirts If You Can't Handle The Consequences Studying abroad in London, a few girlfriends and I came across a group of big, burly rugby players in a pub. They were all wearing kilts and partying quite wildly. My friend bet me that they didn't wear underwear--then she went right over and asked them. The entire team flashed us simultaneously. We definitely got our answer. Laurie Johns, Reno, Nev. There's A Rugby Player In London Who Could Use Them On our last day in Vienna, before going to Rome, my husband, daughter, and I were almost out of clean clothes. We had just enough time to run into a Laundromat, where a nice elderly man helped us figure out the machines. Against our protests, he even took his laundry out of the dryer early, so we wouldn't have to wait. We tossed our clean laundry into a suitcase, told the good man we wouldn't forget his kindness, and dashed for the train station. Once we'd settled into our compartment, we started sorting our clean clothes and realized we had something else to remember him by: a pair of his underpants. Maria Goodavage, San Francisco, Calif. You can find more True Stories in the May 2006 issue of Budget Travel magazine.

    Trips for Families With Kids Ages 7 and 9

    Any advice columnist would have said my family really needed a vacation. Over the past year, we spent far too much time at The Home Depot and U-Haul storage centers (we were renovating a house), as well as hospital rooms (too many reasons to explain). My children, Arjun and Araxi, are 9 and 7 years old--beyond the sandbox but not yet concerned about the fine line between cool and not cool. While trying to imagine what they'd most enjoy, I thought back to lessons learned from previous vacations, including the fact that spectacular scenery is for grownups. My kids love fun, hands-on activities and time to hang out together, and absolutely hate waiting in lines. For their sake and to preserve my sanity, I wished for all of these things, too. A farm with cute animals and a place to swim seemed like the perfect simple solution. The idea apparently appealed to another generation, as my parents wound up joining us. Through the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association I found Weatherbury Farm, a B&B and working farm where guests help with the animals (1061 Sugar Run Rd., Avella, 724/587-3763, weatherburyfarm.com, $138 for a family of four). Owners Dale and Marcy Tudor decided after staying in various European pensions with their son Nigel that they wanted to run a B&B. While many B&Bs are filled with antiques and seek rich couples rather than families for guests, the Tudors decided they'd rather open an establishment that would appeal to children. They opened Weatherbury Farm, with a pool and six guest rooms, in 1992. Our quarters, Mother's Sewing Room, had a black-and-gold foot-pedaled Singer machine as part of the decor, drawing Arjun and Araxi's attention for hours. They also inspected the steamer trunk, which stored extra bedding, and admired the claw-foot bathtub. I swear they never noticed the room had no TV. After a delicious breakfast of apple pancakes and a bacon-and-egg casserole, Farmer Dale--everyone calls him that--guided us through the morning chores. We started by priming the hand pump. Anyone under 50 pounds had to put his or her entire body into this job. Araxi dangled from the handle a few times, and we managed to pump enough to give the animals their water. As we lugged buckets to the barn, my kids started talking about how hard farmers work. Geese, ducks, and guinea hens hung around in the background, and cats and kittens were everywhere. Farmer Dale showed us how to unroll a hay bale, and we fed the sheep and goats. The sheep ate out of our hands, which tickled. Arjun and Araxi used a baby bottle to give milk to a kid--the goat kind, with tiny hoofs and cute little teeth. It drained the bottle in less than a minute, and my kids were beyond thrilled. Up at the henhouse, Farmer Dale opened the bird-size door, and chickens paraded out. We walked in the people-size door to deliver feed and water, and to gather beautiful pastel blue and green eggs. We didn't hang around long. "It smells worse than Yellowstone Park in there," Arjun said. Once each morning's chores were finished, we had nothing in particular scheduled, though the children were given a packet of farm-related games and puzzles. We were free to explore the farm, which was always full of important lessons: On our way to the cow pasture, Farmer Marcy cheerily called out, "Remember, everything that's brown isn't dirt." I also learned that as long as there were enough kittens to go around, everyone was happy. My kids found the side porch where more than a dozen cats and kittens gathered on drizzly days. They fell in love with Frankie, a six-week-old tabby with blue eyes who was small enough to curl up in their hands. The hard part was getting my kids to leave the farm--and particularly, the porch with all the cats--for lunch and dinner. Pretty much every activity that took us off the farm, including a trip to an old-fashioned soda fountain, ended with the kids begging to go back. At the end of our stay, Arjun and Araxi were given certificates that declared them Official Weatherbury Farm Kids. My parents were delighted with all the time they spent with their grandchildren. I was so relaxed I felt like I'd been to a spa. When school started, Araxi had to do a report about what she had done over the summer. She drew a map of Pennsylvania decorated with kittens, along with an X in the southwest corner marking the farm. At the bottom of the page, she wrote: "We got to do chores!" Finding farmstays The farm associations of Pennsylvania (888/856-6622, pafarmstay.com) and Vermont (866/348-3276, vtfarms.org) make it especially easy to locate farmstays. Other states maintain agritourism sites--alabamaagritourism.com and California's agadventures.org, among others--where you can find farms that rent rooms, as well as ones that only welcome day visitors (for tours, tractor rides, and so on). Some farmstays are more geared to kids than others, so always ask about age-appropriate activities.

    25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca

    1. Altar of gold The ceiling of the 16th-century Santo Domingo church, five blocks north of the zocalo (town square), is covered with hundreds of plaster figures (opposite) outlining the family tree of Domingo de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order. Even more amazing is the church's over-the-top Virgin of Guadalupe altarpiece, gilded in 60,000 sheets of 23.5-carat gold leaf. An adjacent monastery houses the less flashy Oaxaca Cultural Center, which includes a regional museum ($4.30), a walled garden of cacti from all over the state of Oaxaca, and a library dedicated to books on Oaxacan history. Constitución 101, 011-52/951-516-3720. 2. Courtyards by the dozen Many of the city's old colonial villas have been beautifully restored and turned into boutique hotels. Just two blocks east of the zocalo, Casa de Sierra Azul manages to keep the bustle of street life at bay with an ornate wrought-iron gate and thick adobe walls. As at many of Oaxaca's restaurants, galleries, and hotels, Sierra Azul's exterior hides a shady courtyard. Guests in many of its 14 rooms open their doors directly onto the quiet patio, where potted geraniums and ferns surround a gurgling, hand-carved stone fountain. Corridors around the courtyard are painted a pale yellow and host faded frescoes as old as the 200-year-old house. Hidalgo 1002, 888/624-3341, mexonline.com/sierrazul.htm, doubles from $124. 3. Corny festivals Nearly 40 percent of the state's population is indigenous, and the ancient languages are still heard in markets, especially in outlying villages. The Zapotecs, the most populous of the 16 native tribes in the valleys around Oaxaca city, are credited as the first people to celebrate Guelaguetza, a festival honoring Centeotl, goddess of corn. These days, Oaxaca city welcomes thousands of Indians from several tribes for traditional dancing and music during the festival, which falls on two Mondays in July. Tickets go on sale in May, and hotel rooms should be booked three or more months in advance. Oaxaca Tourist Office, Murguía 206, 011-52/951-516-0123, aoaxaca.com, $40. 4. A new old town The city's zocalo has always been considered one of the prettiest in Mexico, so Oaxacans were understandably shocked last summer when city officials closed it without warning for a five-month renovation. Workers replaced cantera stone pavers, replanted flowerbeds, and painted cast-iron benches a shiny black. But not everyone's a fan of "progress." Protest banners and kids' drawings of 125-year-old laurel trees killed during the renovation covered a corrugated metal fence that enclosed the project site. Reviews of the new zocalo are mixed--critics say it's too perfect--but it hums again with roving balloon vendors, mariachis, and teenagers out for a paseo, or stroll. 5. Chili power Iliana de la Vega, a virtuoso of traditional Mexican cooking and a favorite of American celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, teaches novices on Tuesdays and Thursdays at her top-rated restaurant, El Naranjo. Each cooking lesson varies, but students may learn to brew a tea flavored with hibiscus flowers, toast chilis and tomatoes on a comal (the clay griddle used to dry-roast ingredients and to make tortillas), and then use those chilis to make several salsas and a mole. After an educational walking tour of Mercado Benito Juárez, a daily market, the class indulges in a late lunch of all the dishes created that morning. When the last bite of flan has been eaten, de la Vega sends students home with printed copies of the recipes she's taught them. Valerio Trujano 203, 011-52/951-514-1878, elnaranjo.com.mx, $60. 6. Laundry like it's the Middle Ages Originally built as a convent in 1576 by Dominican monks, Camino Real has served as a government office, a jail, and a school over the years. Now it's a five-star hotel where doubles start at just under $300 a night. But you don't have to stay there to enjoy the two acres of grounds, planted with soft grass and bougainvillea. Check out Los Lavaderos, the 16th-century equivalent of a laundry room, in the northeast corner of the property. In a hexagonal stone gazebo, water flows from a large central fountain to a dozen stone basins that were once used by the nuns for washing. 5 de Mayo 300, 011-52/951-501-6100, caminoreal.com/oaxaca. 7. Sweating like an oldie For a traditional temazcal steam bath, taken in a small adobe sweat lodge, a bouquet of herbs--eucalyptus, mugwort, rosemary--is placed on heated rocks, and water is poured over it. The scented steam has been clearing minds and purifying bodies since the days of the Aztecs. Shaman Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera can be booked through Casa de las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast. A two-hour treatment in her garden sanctuary 15 minutes from the hotel includes an aromatherapy steam, a few gentle whacks with a juniper branch, and a massage ($65, or $120 per couple). Reforma 402, 011-52/951-516-1165, lasbugambilias.com, doubles from $65, includes breakfast. 8. "Stain the tablecloth" is a flavor Known as the Land of the Seven Moles, Oaxaca receives accolades for its complicated chili-based sauces, which often require chocolate among more than 20 ingredients and take many hours to prepare. You'll never find a consensus on exactly what the seven are, but many agree on negro (black, the richest and most complex), amarillo (yellow and very spicy), coloradito (rust-colored and medium hot), almendrado (mild, flavored with almonds), rojo (very red, quite spicy), verde (green, light, and full of herbs), and manchamantel (literally "stain the tablecloth," sweetened with fruit). Restaurante Los Pacos, with a rooftop dining area, offers a great three-mole sampler. Mariano Abasolo 121, 011-52/951-516-1704, $11. 9. Worm chasers Tequila is king in the state of Jalisco; Oaxacans prefer mescal. Both are made from agave (different species), and it's the processing that gives each its unique taste. Agave hearts are steamed for tequila and roasted in fire pits to make mescal. That's why mescal has an earthy, smoky flavor that tequila lacks, no matter how old or expensive it is. Mescal is traditionally served in small earthenware cups, with lime wedges and sal de gusanito, an orange-colored salt spiced with smoked, ground worms (the same kind that are found at the bottom of many bottles). Mezcal Benevá, in the nearby town of Mitla, offers free tastings and tours; bottles of mescal start at $13. Km. 42.5 Carretera Oaxaca--Istmo, 011-52/951-514-7005, mezcalbeneva.com. 10. State of the arts Some of Mexico's most famous contemporary painters, including Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales, and Francisco Toledo, were born in the state of Oaxaca, and museums and galleries crowd the city center. In terms of size, scope, and popularity, you can't beat the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art (Morelos 503, 011-52/951-516-4750, $3) and the Oaxacan Museum of Contemporary Art (Macedonio Alcalá 202, 011-52/951-514-2818, $1). But smaller treasures, like the Museo de Filatelia, which exhibits Mexican stamps from as early as the middle 19th century, are worth seeking out (Reforma 504, 011-52/951-516-8028, mufi.org.mx, free). 11. Underground movies Back in the 18th century, Dominican monks built an aqueduct to bring water from the Sierra Madre mountains to Oaxaca's north end. In the neighborhood of Los Arquitos, restaurants, shops, and apartments have sprouted under the defunct structure's archways. Among them is El Pochote Cine Club, part of Oaxaca's Institute of Graphic Arts. El Pochote screens classic and contemporary films from around the world--most dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. Schedules are in the English-language Oaxaca Times, available at Amate Books or oaxacatimes.com. García Vigil 817, 011-52/951-516-2045, free. 12. Down = South Oaxaca's streets slope gently downward from north to south toward the zocalo, where the city flattens out. Everything's within walking distance, and if you're ever turned around, just remember that north is uphill. 13. Open-air prayer Construction on the Exconvento de Santiago Apóstol church began in 1535, but King Charles of Spain stopped footing the bills in 1550 after costs skyrocketed. What remains on the site in the small town of Cuilapam de Guerrero (southwest of Oaxaca city) is an elaborate facade, with flying buttresses, arches, and frescoes--but no roof. A second-floor window frames a perfect view of the entire valley. Admission $3. 14. Doorway to heaven Swing by Amate Books for its extraordinary selection of English titles on Oaxacan history and Mexican street art, but also for the one-of-a-kind doorway lined with a foot-wide border of dried red, orange, yellow, and white marigolds. It's sometimes guarded by a nattily dressed Day of the Dead skeleton. Macedonio Alcalá 307 #2, 011-52/951-516-6960. 15. Trunk show Many day trips to the east of Oaxaca city begin with a stop in Santa María del Tule, a small village named for the massive 2,000-year-old cypress at its center. More than 130 feet tall, with a trunk that's 46 feet in diameter, El Tule is regularly described as the largest tree in Latin America. Local children dressed in green sweatpants are the official tour guides; they use pocket mirrors to reflect the sun at different knots that look like an elephant, lion, waterfall, King Kong, Jesus, or various body parts. One particular bump brings to mind a woman's backside, which your guide may say resembles that of anyone from Monica Lewinsky to J. Lo. Eight miles east of Oaxaca, admission 25¢. 16. Serenity and spice Named for the monoliths carved with dancing figures found at the famous ruins of Monte Albán, Los Danzantes is a hip restaurant set peacefully back from the street hubbub in Oaxaca city, just beyond a small koi pond. Two-story walls in various shades of ochre ring the restaurant's patio, and a long reflecting pool runs the length of one wall. The eclectic menu might feature roasted hierba santa (a wide leaf that tastes mildly of anise) stuffed with goat cheese and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) in a spicy tomatillo sauce, or duck enchiladas in green chili sauce. Hand-rolled organic cigars are for sale at the bar, where glass shelves are set into adobe. Macedonio Alcalá 403--4, 011-52/951-501-1184, entrées from $8. 17. Not everything's colonial Though it occupies a historic villa, Casa Oaxaca is a hotel with a minimalist, contemporary design--a refreshing change. Local artists' abstract paintings, on loan from a nearby gallery, dot whitewashed walls in the central courtyard and, in an adjoining garden, a blue-tiled pool makes a sharp contrast to bright red walls. Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo runs the hotel's small, excellent restaurant. His nuevo-Mexican fare has proved so popular that Casa Oaxaca recently opened a restaurant in town. García Vigil 407, 011-52/951-514-4173, casa-oaxaca.com, doubles from $149, includes breakfast, entrées from $14. 18. Grasshopper poppers Men pushing what look like ice-cream carts hit the streets in late afternoon selling elotes: roasted corncobs topped with a dash of lime juice and chili powder. After a night on the town, Oaxacans head for their favorite tlayudera, a stand that sells giant crispy tortillas topped with bean paste, chopped spiced beef, and cheese. Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) are still considered a regional delicacy. They're sold at Mercado Juárez, and can even be found on the menu at some of the city's best restaurants. 19. No bifocals necessary At La Biznaga, Mission-style wooden tables are arranged on a courtyard patio, and the menu is written on huge chalkboards that hang from the arches. Chef Fernando Lopez puts a modern twist on traditional mestizo cooking with a salad of watercress, pears, pistachios, and Roquefort in a mango dressing, and grilled fish marinated in a sauce of pineapple, onion, and cactus paddle. It's also a fine place to taste a variety of mescals. They're usually served with orange slices in place of lime. García Vigil 512, 011-52/951-516-1800, entrées from $7. 20. Really super markets No matter when you're visiting the region, it won't be difficult to find fantastic shopping opportunities. Vendors take over outdoor squares somewhere in the state of Oaxaca every day of the week: Mondays in the village of Ixtlán de Juárez, Tuesdays in Atzompa, Wednesdays in Zimatlán, Thursdays in Zaachila, Fridays in Ocotlán and San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Sundays in Tlacolula. Oaxaca city's Abastos market, though open seven days a week, triples in size on Saturdays, with hundreds of stalls under a makeshift roof of plastic tarps. The pickings include exotic fruit such as cherimoya (with a white flesh that tastes like a tropical fruit smoothie), soursop (related to the cherimoya, but more bitter), and mamey (reminiscent of pumpkin pie). In other aisles, you'll wander past handmade pottery, burlap sacks overflowing with dried chilis and herbs, and veladoras (religious candles) stacked in colorful pyramids. 21. Home of the cloud people Oaxaca's largest and best-preserved archaeological site, Monte Albán, is eight miles west of the city ($4.30). It's easy to see why the Zapotecs built their fortress-city on a mesa more than 1,300 feet above the valley floor: The 360-degree view is ideal for spotting would-be intruders. In its heyday, around 800 a.d., 40,000 Zapotecs--known, not coincidentally, as the People of the Clouds--lived in Monte Albán. Surrounding the enormous grassy plaza are earthquake-resistant temples and tombs, built in perfect alignment with the sun and stars. There's very little shade, so go early to avoid the scorching sun (and the crowds). Monte Albán Tours runs four-hour trips in Suburbans or minivans to Monte Albán (011-52/951-514-1629, $17, includes hotel pickup/drop-off). If you plan to visit the ruins and several towns in one trip, and don't want to be held to a schedule, you might think about hiring a car and driver ($20-$25 an hour) through your hotel or the tourist office. 22. Seriously crafty Of the state's 3 million people, about 160,000 are registered artisans. Every village specializes in a different craft: In San Antonio Arrazola, phantasmagoric animals called alebrijes are carved from the soft wood of the copal tree. They're then painted in bright colors with tiny brushstrokes, creating geometric designs. The town of Atzompa is known for green-glazed pottery; Ocotlán, for clay figurines; and San Agustín Etla, for handmade paper. The Regional Association of Craftswomen of Oaxaca (or MARO) store in Oaxaca city sells crafts from all over the state. 5 de Mayo 204, 011-52/951-516-0670. 23. Lingo for gringos The Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura de Oaxaca holds Spanish classes Mondays through Fridays, and a week's worth of instruction costs just $150. The institute also offers a popular immersion program, in which students live, eat, and play with Oaxacan families. The $450 weeklong package includes airport transfers, accommodations in a room with a private bath, all meals, five hours of daily language instruction, arts workshops (cooking, weaving, dancing), and a field trip. Macedonio Alcalá 307, 011-52/951-516-3443, iccoax.com. 24. Tomb raiding Outside Oaxaca city, archaeological sites and villages are clumped together so you can see two or three in a day and not feel rushed. Mitla, 30 miles southeast of Oaxaca, is an ancient burial site for the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, with intricate stone mosaic fretwork covering the square tombs ($2.75). In the nearby town of Teotitlán del Valle, weavers such as Demetrio Bautista Lazo create much-coveted rugs with patterns that are inspired by the tomb designs (La Cúpula, Km. 2 Avenida Juárez, 011-52/951-524-4090, rugs from $170). No visit to Teotitlán is complete without lunch at the Mendoza sisters' Tlamanalli restaurant, where all dishes--squash-blossom soup, slow-cooked chicken stew--are made in the traditional Zapotec style (39 Avenida Juárez, 011-52/951-524-4006, from $6). 25. Chocolate for breakfast! The art of Mexican chocolate-making has remained unchanged for centuries: Cacao beans are dried and cured, then toasted and ground by hand on a stone slab and mixed with cinnamon, sugar, and crushed almonds. The result is dry and chalky, but delicious. Oaxacans love their chocolate; they each consume an average of 5.5 pounds of it per year. Many start the day with hot chocolate, which is whisked until it froths like a cappuccino. One of the best-known brands, Chocolate Mayordomo, has a small shop outside Mercado Juárez. 20 de Noviembre 305, 011-52/951-516-3309.

    ADVERTISEMENT