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MEXICO - QUALITY ON THE CHEAP!
Photos and story by Andrew Renton

"Economy heading south!" screams the headline of my local newspaper. "Conserve your cash," preaches a guru on the early morning show. I rip open the envelope from my broker. Too late. My paltry savings have shrunk to the size of a freeze-dried prune. November rain is pounding the skylight.

All inclusives? Cruises? Not my style. "We love Mexico,"say a pair of perpetually tanned value-hounds who know my tastes. "How about a sophisticated colonial city with a multitude of markets and mariachis?" They tease. "Add on a comfortable beachfront hotel for half the price of a Motel 6 and hardly a tourist in sight? All this and enough cash left over for Christmas?" I am drooling. "Where, where?" I plead.

Thirty-three bucks buys a comfortable room in Oaxaca, just shy of the municipal market where every need is catered to: deep fried caterpillars, mounds of mole Negro, (my drop dead favourite chocolate and chilli sauce!), sheets of flank steak, hanging like washing on a line.

Muffled mariachi music funnels through the dark, narrow, ancient streets. By day, the Zocalo is a peaceful pedestrian square with colonnades, cafes and pristine flowerbeds. Shoeshine boys. Balloon vendors. Newsagents. All calmly plying their trades with familiar customers - but at night? Wow! Hold on to your hat!

She must be over 70 and I don't stand a chance! She'd spotted my tapping feet. I am hauled from the bar stool into the melee. This babe wants to boogie! Young, old or infirm, it's tough to stand still. The municipal band mixes Mariachi and jazz, and hundreds of smiling Oaxacans jive the night away. So much for jet lag. At night the Zocalo rocks!

Markets are my passion. Every day, except Monday, is "Market Day" somewhere along The Valles Centrales. Getting to them is a snap, once you find the right bus stop. Each town or village has it's own "hidden" station for buses, minivans and shared taxis. Up the alley? Behind the store? Over the bridge….etc.

Vegetable vendors. Kitchenware hucksters. Basket weavers. Guitar salesmen. A slick con man fleeces scarce pesos from his hypnotized audience. Live turkeys are the seasonal biggie. Women shoppers with buttock-length braided hair, tut and complain as they knead, squeeze and probe the breasts, thighs and legs of outraged birds. "Too thin." "Too scrawny." Choosing a fine Christmas turkey is an investment in cash and pride.

I forego guided tours to mountain villages, horseback riding and many of the eco-adventures on offer. I need a beach!

Express Vans to Puerto Escondido normally take six hours to zigzag over the 250-kilometre, vomit inducing, narrow mountain road. But, today is the birthday of The Virgin of Guadeloupe. Every god-fearing Mexican with a serviceable set of wheels is pedalling, heaven-bent, to the 2700 metre summit. Most have wooden crosses strapped to their backs. We lose an hour.

Puerto Escondido is a simple laid-back fishing village famed for it's pristine 3-kilometre beach known as "The Mexican Pipeline." A Haven for surfers!

I choose the conveniently placed Hotel Casablanca. Fan, fridge and friendly staff. Even a pool. And my balcony overlooks the action. For $26 a night I can amble to a couple of good restaurants, enjoy an early morning swim and breakfast on fresh fish straight from the boats.

"Surfing lessons? Sport fishing? The coastal lagoons of Manialtepec and Chacua that teem with bird life? Come and look for turtles dolphins and whales," boast the signs plastering windows of sleepy travel agents.

"Visit Bahia Puerto Angelito, Playa Carrizalillo for pristine beaches," plead the lonesome cabbies. "Only 30 pesos ($2). Maybe tomorrow?"

But I don't need to look any further - I have already found my little piece of affordable paradise. I spend a week becoming a local. Fishermen know my name. "Buenos dias senor," greets the smiling proprietor of a jewellery store, hoping that today I will meet his price on that silver bauble.

Then, it's time to head home. I hug Mario, proud Italian owner of Mario's Pizza Place. He is upset. "Hey, Andreas, you meet my wife, my son and my daughter. I like you. You are my friend. My family. How can you leave?"

I pay the hotel and nervously count my remaining stash of cash. Wow! There is still enough for a turkey and a Christmas tree when I get home!

IF YOU GO:

Getting there and around:
Continental/Northwest Airlines flies Houston/Oaxaca Monday Wednesday Friday Saturday. Connections are better in and out of Mexico City.

Aerovega has regular flights between Oaxaca/Puerto Escondido.

Express Service and Transportes Villa del Mar, run Express vans 8/9 times daily Oaxaca/Puerto Escondido M$130 - C$11

My hotels:
Oaxaca: Hotel Posada Catarina (3Star) www.hotelesdeoaxaca.com
Puerto Escondido: Hotel Casablanca www.ptohcasablanca.com
Rates quoted are low season. Check the websites.

My guidebook: Lonely Planet Mexico

PHOTOS:
1. Oaxaca Zocalo by day
2. Oaxaca Village market. Guitar salesman
3. Oaxaca Village Market. Lady with turkey
4. Puerto Escondido Beach
5.Puerto Escondido Fishing boat

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