Trusting A Stranger in Oaxaca, Mexico – Solo Travel

categories: mexico travel

Felipe Hernandez - weaver

When I went to Mexico in 2009 I did exactly what your mother told you not to do. 

The last time I had been in Mexico before that trip I had been in Tijuana in September of 2008. The week I was there the drug war violence had erupted and 50 people had been murdered in nasty horrible ways (decapitations, vats of acid, etc) in Tijuana the weekend I was there. Now I was back, although I was in Oaxaca far away from the troubles on the border. 
Trusting A Stranger in Oaxaca, Mexico #mexico #oaxaca #travel #solotravel

Trusting Strangers

“I can pick you up tomorrow at your hostel and show you some of the sites”, Filipe Hernandez said. I had met him only 5 minutes earlier in the bustling Zocalo or central square of Oaxaca, Mexico. He was still very much a stranger to me. If he had offered me candy to get in his car then the picture my parents had painted for me would be complete.

If I said “no” then the worst case would be that I would miss out on an adventure. If I said “yes” then the worst case was that I would die… if I judged Filipe’s character incorrectly and if the media was to be believed. But Filipe seemed to me to be just what he claimed to be, a local weaver who wanted to be my tour guide and probably wanted to sell me a rug.

I was traveling in Mexico alone. It was my 16th trip to Mexico but also in some ways, it felt like my first trip. The first 15 trips had been volunteer vacations to build houses with a group called Esperanza International (Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope) in the neighborhoods of Tijuana where the working poor lived. Tijuana, as a border city, has shallow roots. Its people come from all over Mexico so it has an aspect of everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Esperanza works to build community out of the mix while creating houses as a byproduct.


The people in Oaxaca have deep roots. Filipe was a Zapotec. Like 60% of the residence in the Oaxaca area his family speaks an indigenous language at home rather than Spanish. The Zapotec people have been in the area for over 2,500 years. His people had leveled off a nearby mountain starting around 500 B.C. to build Monte Alban a city for 30,000 people. Living at the top of the mountain earned them the nickname “cloud people”. Filipe was trying to revive some of the Zapotec tradition in his weaving craft by working with muted natural dyes instead of the more bright modern dyes. This is what he wanted to share with me as he struck up a conversation in the zocalo.

The zocalo is Oaxaca’s living room. The central square just off the cathedral is lined with restaurants and bars and hosted a different musical group each night of my visit. Young and old alike gather around the central gazebo where they listen, talk and sometimes dance. The crowds don’t start to dwindle until at least midnight. In the restaurants and bars around the square, you can still purchase food like spicy crickets that pre-date the Spanish influence in the region.

Filipe picked me up early at the Hostal del Mercado, where I was staying, and took me to see some of the tourist sites in the valley that surrounds Oaxaca. We visited the truly enormous “big tree” in Santa Maria del Tule. The tree is nearly 200 feet around.


We explored the Zapotec ruins at Mitla, which unlike Monte Alban was discovered by the Spanish and largely dismantled to build a nearby church. We shopped in the large Sunday market at Tlacolula. Everywhere Filipe took me I saw tourists disgorged from tour buses. They had paid to visit while the cost of my trip was a beer (cerveza) I had bought Felipe in Tlacolula. Finally, Filipe took me to his home which was also certainly against the “stranger protocol” that my parents had taught me.

Felipe’s Home

Filipe was a 4th generation weaver with two large looms in his home. His daughter-in-law and granddaughter crushed small dried bugs called cochineal from prickly pear cactus used to make the traditional red dye. They carded and spun their own wool, washed it and then dyed it with natural dyes such as the cochineal for red, alfalfa for green, bark of the cedar tree and pomegranate skin for tans, marigold for rust, walnut shells for brown,black beans for black, prickly pear fruit for purple and indigo for blue. Filipe showed me how rugs are created on the loom and how the patterns he used echoed the patterns his ancestors had carved in stone at Mitla.

Felipe has a son who lives in Tijuana and he worries about the violence in that city, but he worries about it as one worries about something far away. I am sure he tells his son to be careful and I would not be surprised to learn that he tells his son never to ride with strangers.


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by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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