Living in Oaxaca: what it’s like for me

Today is July 27 and I’ve been living in Oaxaca since May 1. So far it’s been wonderful and also a bit hard at the same time. I’d like to discuss all aspects of my life here, since I always appreciate hearing all sides when I read other people’s blogs.

First, the wonderful aspects:

  • Great weather. After May ended (the hottest month here), the weather became beautiful. Cool in the mornings and evening, in the 70s-80s during the day, with a brief rainstorm in the late afternoon. Very reliably nice. Day after day. (When I was in Boston from January through April I was so cold all the time!)
  • Oaxaca weather averages

  • Beautiful old buildings. I absolutely love the old architecture. I also love the ordinary buildings that are a bit crumbling. It reminds me of the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” the idea that there is beauty in imperfection.
  • #oaxacamexico

    Beautiful crumbling
    Another thing I love is the bright colors used on many buildings.
    One of my favorite hangouts


  • Interesting street art and graffiti. Oaxaca has so much! See my other post: Street art in Oaxaca, for more photos.
  • Street art

  • Friendly people. Every Mexican person I’ve met here has been extremely friendly and polite. They’ve been very patient with my basic level of Spanish, which I appreciate! All of the expats I’ve met here are equally nice! It’s been easy to meet people and get involve in social activities.

    The woman below was showing me how they make natural dyes for weaving. She had a booth at the local organic market.

  • Natural dyes
    She is showing me how they make natural dyes for weaving.

    Carlos is from Cuernavaca and is starting a language school here in Oaxaca. Michelle was my neighbor (from Gary, Indiana) when I lived on Av. Juárez.
    Carlos & Michelle

  • Beautiful arts and crafts. The shops are filled with the work of local artisans. Beautiful weaving, pottery, and much more. It’s fun to browse and also to visit outlying villages to learn about their craft traditions.
  • Rugs


    Devil mirror

    Alebrijes: Oaxacan painted animals.
    Alebrijes: Oaxacan painted animals.
  • Many interesting museums. Most of them are free. Photos below are from the Stamp Museum: Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca.
  • Stamp museum courtyard

    Stamp museum

    Stamp museum

  • Interesting archeological sites nearby. I haven’t been to Monte Albán yet, but I plan to go sometime. Here are photos of the Mitla archeological site, which was very interesting.
  • Photo

    Love these designs.

  • Low cost of living.

    A) Hair salons: I enjoyed getting my hair cut and colored here for a total of about $20! I go to Estética Unisex Dominique. In Boston I used to go to two different salons: one for a cut and one for a color. I paid $60 plus tip for a cut, and $50 plus tip for a color (I always brought my own hair color, which I purchased at Whole Foods in order to use the chemical-free kind). I brought some of that color with me and they applied it here and did a fine job.

    B) Rent: In Boston I paid $1,250/month for a tiny studio in a great location. Here I paid about $400/month for a 1 bedroom, and recently moved to another place (sharing a two-bedroom house) for only about $250.

    C) Transportation: I’ve been happily car-free since 2005. It’s very easy to continue that here. I walk almost everywhere. Once in a while I take a cab to the suburbs (to go to a movie-plex). Cabs usually cost about $3 and sometimes $4, depending on the distance. City buses here cost only 6 pesos (a little less than $.50 per ride).

    D) I could go on, but you get the idea. I’m a privileged person from a first-world country and my dollars go far here. I hope that my money is helping the local economy. Tourism is one of most important parts of their economy. Soon I will join a tour of a local micro-lending non-profit called En Vía. They provide micro-loans to local women so they can start their own businesses. There are tours offered every week and the money you pay for the tour becomes part of the loan money going to locals. I’ve heard many good things about this group and I’ll post more about that after I join one of their tours.

Now for the things that have been a bit hard for me.

NOTE: These may not be problems for you (if you’re not vegetarian, for example), some of them are based on my particular lifestyle and preferences. And of course much of this is about adjusting to life in a different culture, always a process of change! None of them made me regret my choice to come here.

  • Traffic noise and diesel fumes. The first two apartments that I lived in were nice, but they were both on very busy streets with lots of traffic. Without pollution controls on cars, you can really smell fumes all the time. Both apartments had doors instead of windows (glass doors to little balconies on the second floor) and both had one door facing the street and the other facing an interior courtyard. In order to get air flowing through, i needed to open both doors. But that meant constant loud traffic noise and fumes, horns honking, loud busses and motorcycles, etc. It was awful. Especially in May when the weather was still hot. Closing the street facing door was a must, so it’s a good thing I had a fan in both places! Now that I’ve moved to a quieter location, I’m loving it. I’m up on a hill, on a dead-end street, behind another house, with a beautiful garden. It’s tranquil, quiet, calm, and smells good, too. So when you read reviews of hotels here, take it seriously when people recommend asking for courtyard-facing rooms. And bring ear-plugs anyway! I’m a heavy sleeper and can sleep through most things, but even for me it was difficult living on those busy streets.

    Pretty balcony to noisy street!
    Pretty balcony to noisy street!
  • Finding good options for a gluten-free, mostly raw, vegetarian diet. At first I gave up on being gluten-free and ate yummy cheese and pepper sandwiches, and various other dishes, usually smothered with cheese. I love cheese (all kinds!), but I gain weight quickly if I eat too much. I really feel healthier if I eat more towards the vegan end of things. So after I got sick for the first time, I decided to clean up my diet and be very strict about avoiding cheese and wheat. When I had wheat one time after not eating it for a while, I felt awful… I know I’m sensitive to gluten. Now that I’m eating in a healthier way, I feel great and I’m losing some of the excess weight as well! Eventually I found a grocery store that carries a few imported products from other countries and they have some gluten-free products like rice pasta, crackers and gluten-free muesli. Yum. I’ve always enjoyed convenience foods like those. Of course those are not cheap! So I try to buy mostly fresh fruit, veggies and potatos at the local markets. (very cheap) Here’s a nice blog post from someone about being vegan in Oaxaca.
    Quesillo en salsa verde

  • Different cultural expectations about noise. It’s common for people to shoot off very loud firecrackers every day. More than once I’ve heard loud firecrackers outside my window at 6 am on a Sunday morning!

  • Getting sick from bad water or food, even if you’re very careful to only use purified water and to sterilize all your fresh veggies and fruit with “Microdyn.” I’ve been sick twice during these 3 months. I’m guessing it was from something in a restaurant, but I’m not sure. I ate in restaurants the whole first month without getting sick at all. The People’s Guide to Mexico has good tips for staying healthy in Mexico. I think what they say is true: “Always attempt to reduce the chances of infection. I say reduce because for the most part it is impossible to completely eliminate the opportunities to eat or drink something that is contaminated.”

    Microdyn for sterilizing produce
    Microdyn for sterilizing produce

  • Needing to pay cash for everything and making sure you always have enough cash on you. You often need correct change, since people seem to be out of change most of the time.

  • Needing to go to the corner store to buy more time on your cell phone (with cash). Of course Murphy’s Law meant that my phone ran out of data at the same time that my home internet connection stopped working. (And right at the time I was getting ready for a Skype call with a friend). I had tried to set up my credit card on Telcel’s web site for auto-renewal, but it wouldn’t take my U.S. credit card. So I needed to visit my corner store, tell them my number, and pay cash. They entered the number into their cash register and my phone got more voice minutes right away, notifying me with a text message. I had to then go on Telcel’s web site to purchase a data plan with some of the balance, so that I could get a better rate. I use the Data Man app on my iPhone to track my data usage, so I know when I’m close to running out. I usually purchase 3GB of data for 399 pesos (about $32 US). This is good for a month, but I’ve been known to use it up before 30 days, because at my previous apartment the internet was always going down, so I used my iPhone a lot instead. Now that I’ve moved to a new place, the Internet is working wonderfully (knock on wood!), so I’m only halfway through my data, more than halfway through the month. I use a local SIM card in my unlocked iPhone and have another post about that, if you’re interested in details.

    Data use on my iPhone
    Data use on my iPhone

  • Not knowing exactly when your home gas tank will run out. Recently I was getting ready to cook dinner at home on a Saturday evening. I lit the gas burner as usual, then it went out. I couldn’t get any burners to light. So I realized the gas tank was empty. I called the gas delivery company and the said they would come on Sunday morning between 7 – 9 am. So I went out to eat. The photos below shows them coming with the tank, the empty tank in the yard, and the delivery guy lighting the pilot light in my water heater for me.

    gas tank delivery
    gas tank delivery

    empty gas tank
    empty gas tank

    Gas man lighting pilot light on my water heater
    Gas man lighting pilot light on my water heater

  • Going outside to turn on the water heater before each shower and then remembering to go out and turn it back off when you’re done (so the gas doesn’t get used up so quickly).

  • Needing to run out to the street early in the morning with your garbage bags when the garbage trucks come. They don’t use garbage cans here, you need to bring it out to the street when they come every day. They ring a bell and call out and you need to listen for them.

  • Needing to call for purified water delivery if you aren’t home when they come (usually they come twice a week to deliver large bottles of water).

    Drinking water delivery bike

  • Not being able to do your own laundry and use unscented products. There are no self-service laundries here, it’s the custom to drop off your clothes and pick them up the next day. Very convenient! The first few times I didn’t think to ask for them to not use scented fabric softener and all my clothes had that terribly, perfumey, chemical smell! I’m so used to using only unscented products for years, that I forgot to ask. When I finally learned how to ask, they sometimes forgot to follow that instruction anyway. Now I have a place that does a good job. They still use scented detergent, but at least they don’t use the fabric softener! I have searched in several grocery stores for unscented products, but so far I haven’t found any here. Here’s some info about the dangers of scented laundry products.

    Lavenderia Cancer
    They mean the astrological sign, but I’m thinking of the disease!
  • Not having the right of way as a pedestrian. It’s not the culture here to let pedestrians go first. Cars always go first and they drive fast! You have to wait and be very careful when crossing the street.

  • Crumbling sidewalks with big holes and broken sections. You really need to watch your step all the time.

  • The amount of dedication and time it takes to learn another language!
    I studied before I came, and also took Spanish in high school, so I can get by at a basic level. But I’d like to understand more of what people say to me and have more real conversations. I’m not at that level yet. Sometimes I feel lazy about getting to that level! I liked what I read on the Almost Fearless blog about feeling resistance when you’re almost ready to move up a level. That’s me! At first I was so enthusiastic, but now I’m feeling stuck and like I’ll never learn Spanish well. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know (as in many things!)

So in spite of all these things I found hard, I haven’t regretted coming here for a moment. It’s a lovely city in a wonderful, interesting country. I like exploring new places. It also makes me appreciate many things about our first world infrastructure that run in convenient ways. In the U.S. I don’t even think about clean water, trash pickup, gas for cooking, being able to find any kind of food I like in very convenient ways, or worry about getting sick from the water or food (though it does happen… I have had food poisoning in the U.S.!) There is traffic and noise, but I don’t usually smell diesel fumes and I can usually get away from it with air conditioning and insulated windows and doors. Even in the middle of Boston the noise levels are nothing like they are here.

Sometimes I feel like a “first-world diva” to even complain about these things! I’m grateful every day for all the opportunities I have. Most of the world doesn’t have the luxury to quit a well-paying job voluntarily and try living in different locations. I know many people who are unhappy in their secure jobs and many other people who don’t have work at all, or who work all the time for very low wages. So I hope more people can have the opportunity for meaningful work, autonomy, and good work-life balance.

For another perspective, see 10 Best and 10 Worst Things About Living in Oaxaca, Mexico – The NuNomad Blog.

Since I’m location-flexible, I’m starting to think about where to live next year! More on that in a future post.

7 thoughts on “Living in Oaxaca: what it’s like for me

  1. cj

    Sounds like a great adventure..and very safe !!!!!
    You’re inspiring me for similar travelogues I hit 62. Can’t I travel a lot now..but just short hops holistic Nevada and 2 hours hours to Tucson
    Not sure I can live without the driving though..but it’s true I don’t drive much after I arrive..I live to explore on foot. In many places like Cancun and Jamaica. You are advised not to try driving as very fast drivers there too.
    Take care

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  6. After 15 months of criss-crossing Mexico, my new book looks at Americans and Canadians who’ve chosen to avoid the big expat colonies in San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala. The book ends in Oaxaca, and it was one of my favorite stops! What the expats have found is both diverse and surprising. If you’re wondering what the expat experience is like, whether on the beach or in the colonial cities of the interior, you need to listen to this conversation. The book is called Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path, and there is no other book like it. There’s a sample on my website:

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