This article is from the April 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Books, Pools and Chinese Food

by Maryanne Wilson

A frequent contributor to The Mexico File, Maryanne Wilson is a Manhattanite who spends as much time as she can exploring the special people and places of Mexico. She reads Mexican literature and loves mariachi music. She contributed an article on Frida Kahlo which appeared in the May 1999 issue, as well as an article on why she chooses Mexico in the June 1999 issue – in addition to accounts of a recent trip she made to Oaxaca which appeared in the October 1999 issue.

I love Oaxaca. There’s no denying that simple fact. I, no doubt along with many of you, have found a place with which to connect – emotionally, spiritually, and visually. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been there. On each visit I discover, however, that there is so much more to discover. While strolling down a street I’ll look into what, at first glance, appears to be a quite ordinary alley or passageway. On looking deeper, I behold a lovely courtyard brimming with brilliantly colored jacaranda trees and filled with the high-pitched tones of tropical birds. Some of these hidden spaces, such as the one at M. Bravo 210 in the Plaza San Cristóbal, contain a small family-run restaurant or cafe – provide a perfect place to sit, have a cool drink, write cards and letters, read a book, or simply enjoy the setting.  

On my last visit I made another sort of discovery: the Oaxaca Lending Library, which you can join for about 100 pesos a year. The library is run by a small group of volunteers, all Americans who live in Oaxaca or its suburbs. There seems to be a deep schism between this group and the other Americans who live there. The library is seen as elitist and detached from the native population. Sadly, I found this to be true to a certain extent. Nonetheless, the resources available here make the library worth a visit. Almost all the books here are in English – and they have recent issues of most American magazines. You don’t have to join, but if want to take out books you must be a member. 

The best part of the library is the section containing books and videos about Mexico, and Oaxaca in particular – reference books (not available for loan), histories, novels, short stories, etc. Members may borrow books and videos for a period of two weeks, for a fee of about five pesos each. The library also has books for sale. These are not arranged in any particular order, but higgledy piggledy on shelves just outside the entrance to the library. It would certainly be worth your while to take a look. You can pick up really interesting books here for a dollar or two. Bye the bye –  the library acquires most of its books through donations. So pack some books into your suitcase on your next trip –  then fill up the empty space with all the lovely things you’ve purchased. The library is located at 305 Macedonio Alcalá between Mariano Matamoros and Nicholas Bravo, just one block south of the Santo Domingo Cathedral. The library is on the second floor – look for the small sign near the staircase. Hours are 10am to 1 pm and 4 pm to 7 pm Monday to Friday, and 10 am to 1 pm on Saturday.

Another delightful surprise awaits diners at Quing Long – a Chinese restaurant just one block north of the library, in the corner on the second floor of Santo Domingo Plaza (opposite the Cathedral). As a native New Yorker I have, of course, been dining on Chinese food since I was taken off baby food. Our Chinatown is a sprawling, noisy place at the Southern tip of Manhattan. An afternoon spent there is like a visit to Hong Kong. Quing Long is equal to some of the better Chinese restaurants where I’ve dined. At Quing Long the spacious dining areas (one large and two small rooms) are decorated in faux Chinese décor in shades of lavender, royal blue and peach, with Chinese lanterns strung across the ceiling. The tables are nicely set up with linen cloths and napkins; the tables along two windowed walls offer great peoplewatching.

The menu is vast, and all encompassing, with an emphasis on the cuisines of Canton and Sichuan. You’ll find a multitude of choices of seafood, poultry and beef dishes. I had a few lunches there, trying to sample as much as I could without being piggy. On my first visit I ordered, sopa de aleta de tiburon (shark fin soup), which was smooth as silk and quite piquant. I especially enjoyed one of the appetizers – pan chino con carne y cameron, which are steamed buns filled with a tangy mixture of beef and shrimp. As an entrée I had camaron gigante quisada estile pekines (giant shrimp Peking style) – which was a succulent, semi-spicy dish guaranteed to please the most discriminating palate.

On my second visit, I brought along a friend – that way I got to taste more of Quing Long’s offerings. Between the two of us, we finished off an order of fetete de pescado con salsada tomate y pina (sweet and sour fish), mariscos mezclados con verdus y vino (mixed seafood and vegetables in wine sauce), arroz frito con pollo (chicken fried rice). For dessert we had manzana al caramelo (apples with caramel sauce), and nieve (ice cream). And, yes, we took a siesta after lunch.

I do love Mexican food, but have found that too many of the restaurants in the historical center of Oaxaca, because they cater mostly to tourists, serve food lacking in imagination, variety, and quality. At first, I felt silly going to a Chinese restaurant in Mexico. . . but, I don’t eat Mexican (or even American) food every day when I’m home. Interestingly, there were no other gringos in the place when I was there.

Prices at Quing Long are quite reasonable. Soups, appetizers and side dishes are priced from about 16 pesos to 22 pesos – except the shark fin soup, which is priced at 60 pesos. The main dishes run from about 50 pesos up to 65 pesos; except for the giant shrimp priced at 100 pesos, and the Peking duck at 120 pesos and requires 24-hour advice notice.  

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret – only to be shared with fellow Oaxaca lovers. If you’re like me, there usually comes a time during your visit when you feel the need to get away -- to take a vacation from your vacation, so to speak. I’ve found the absolutely perfect place for a quick get-a-way – the Villa de Adán, just a 20 minute drive from the center of Oaxaca. The villa calls itself a balneario – a swimming pool. Indeed, there is a swimming pool there, and in fact there are three pools – a diving pool, a kiddies pool and one large, free form pool measuring about 30 by 60 meters. All are set amongst well-kept, spacious grounds. When my friends and I were there we were the only gringos. Most of the other guests seemed to be middle-class Oaxaquenos, vacationing families from other areas of Mexico, and some younger (college-age) people.

The Villa de Adán is owned and managed by Sr. Joaquin Maldonado, a charming fellow who really makes an effort to ensure that his guests relax and enjoy themselves. The Villa is set in the mountains surrounding Oaxaca, in the village of San Augustín Etla. The main pool is set right at the edge of a small rise, and offers exquisite views. The property is divided up into different areas, and includes grounds available for camping. You’ll find lounge chairs, palapas, tables with umbrellas set up, as well as the occasional hammock. There’s even a beach with real sand – yes, Sr. Maldonado has thought of everything. If you don’t have a bathing suit, you can rent one here – or towels, bathing caps, or toys for the pool. And, yes, there are showers and changing rooms so you don’t have to leave in a wet bathing suit.

The atmosphere here is very relaxed, quiet, uncrowded (at least on weekdays). Everything is immaculately clean and well groomed. All the pools are filled with fresh spring water which comes from higher up in the mountains, and contains very little chlorine. The Villa has a casual outdoor restaurant serving local cuisine; there’s also a bar for liquid refreshment. But, you’re allowed to bring your own food and drink. On the weekends there’s live music. And, yes, you can smoke there.

Senor Maldonado promised me that the best is yet to come. He is in the process of building a few small bungalows on the hillside just beneath the main pool area. These bungalows will be available for rent – for a day, a weekend, or whatever length of time you desire. He’s also building barbecue pits for those who enjoy outdoor cooking.

If you don’t have a car during your stay in Oaxaca, you can take a collectivo, which you’ll find in front of the second-class bus station –  just by the Pasteleria Mexico. Tell the driver to drop you at the Villa de Adán in San Augustín Etla –  look for the sign with the apple on it! Don’t confuse this with the village of Etla. Just at the entrance to the Villa you will find Sr. Maldonado the Elder, father of the owner, whose job is to collect the 30-peso per person admission change. For your return trip, you can catch the same collectivo – it stops at the entrance to Villa de Adán approximately every 15 – 20 minutes. The cost is about five pesos each way. If you’re feeling flush, you can take a taxi, which will run about 60 or 70 pesos. The Villa de Adán is open all year, seven days a week, from 7 am to 7 pm. So, on your next visit to Oaxaca, have your morning coffee on the zocalo, take a couple of books out of the library, spend the afternoon at the Villa de Adán, then have a late dinner at Quing Long. Sounds like a perfect day to me!

© 2000 Maryanne Wilson