Moments later, we spotted a roadside fire, cresting in a cut-off oil drum. Among shuttle passengers, this drew an unsettling murmur: Was it trouble, or just a taco vendor setting up shop?
Visitors ask those questions in Oaxaca these days. Such is the perception--inevitably from afar--of a city in chaos. But some of us keep coming here anyway. This disheveled place simply gets under your skin, with its gratuitous noise, complicated culture, ferocious history and intrepid cuisine.
True, like many others, we had hesitated. Oaxaca has been drawing terrible press. Indy Web sites are peppered with grim reportage, and travel forums are replete with testimonials recalled in misshapen English and a whiff of complicity.
Not surprisingly, the city's mom-and-pop tourism businesses are primary casualties in this war of warnings; even when your rational brain unclenches, burning oil drums still draw a deep, visceral connection.
Prior to our trip, this Oaxaca hype had punished my wife with several sleepless nights. I was no braver, just jaded enough not to care. Summering here solo years ago, I'd tangled with a sullenly drunk Mexican politico. In his wobbly rage, the leftist legislator decided I was a CIA agent. Then he hurled his tall rum and Coke. The glass cut a 2-inch slice above my left eye. I left town soon after.
Anyway, following that stupid bar brawl, I pledged to be smarter about dicey situations. More worrisome now, really, was what I'd find among the warm and generous people we'd met in more recent visits. I was particularly concerned about the enchanting B&B we'd discovered on our last trip.
Inocencio "Chencho" Velasco is a compact Mixtec man who was born to nothing. Some 88 years later, his sprawling family runs Posada de Chencho with a graceful touch. Various Velascos tend the gardens, sweep the walks, cook breakfasts and greet guests--when there are guests to greet; we would be Chencho's only customers in several weeks.
He's hardly alone. The "troubles," as they're called here, have squeezed tourism to a trickle and strangled the local economy. This "collateral damage" takes many forms. During our stay, we were told of unsold folk art piled in nearby Indian villages, of tour buses idling empty, of countless small hotels going belly up.
"It has been bad in the past," Chencho says, after checking us in. "But I have never seen things this bad."
The seeds of this city's malaise were planted in May 2006, when a routine teachers' strike prompted a thuggish response by Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, or URO, the state of Oaxaca's imperious and widely despised governor.
But if Ruiz thought riot police would tamp the teacher's discord, he badly miscalculated. Instead, heavy-handed tactics only broadened the opposition movement, which came to be called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO. The group soon demanded that Ruiz resign. They battled police, burned buses and barricaded streets, until federal reinforcements quelled the uprising.
Ultimately, the fighting left 12 people dead, including American activist Brad Will, whose death was the subject of last week's Weekly cover story. "During that time, I had to stay inside my house," a tour driver named Raul tells us. "I could hear bullets outside."
Anger flared again last month at July's annual Guelaguetza folk-dancing festival. The city's signature event had been canceled last year, and APPO threatened to disrupt this summer's gathering as well. A defiant Ruiz declared that would never happen. He reportedly bused in villagers to fill the stadium, and police clashed with APPO nearby.
Meanwhile, the conflict reverberates far beyond Mexico. International human-rights groups have called for investigations into disappearances, detentions and beatings of protesters. The online propaganda war likewise rages, with posts describing Oaxaca as the scariest destination this side of Baghdad.
While these postings may be bona fide travel chatter, many are thought to come from APPO sympathizers, who hope to pressure Ruiz by holding Oaxaca's tourist-dependent economy hostage. "I can always tell those postings apart," says one restaurant owner. "They're in English, but a lot of words are always misspelled."
According to others, APPO's broad-brush tactics have weakened its public support. "URO is a true villain, there's no doubt about that," says one inn owner. "And absolutely, APPO has legitimate grievances. But after a year, I think most people say, 'A pox on both their houses.' I think everybody has had enough."
According to Chencho Velasco, small-business groups have tried to calm the waters with several large rallies urging reconciliation. "One march went four blocks long," he says. "They called for peace."
That's proving an elusive goal for Oaxaca's warring sides. Despite the online hysteria, however, the struggle is purely Mexican, and the impact on visitors is next to zero. True, during our stay, there was lingering tension. But political violence was nonexistent, and visitors were largely ignored by both sides.
Still, it's impossible to miss the trappings of struggle. A graffiti battle rages in the central square, or zócalo, with rebellious images appearing one day, painted over the next, then re-emerging in the same spot. And one afternoon, returning from the stunning Museum of the Culture of Oaxaca, we stumbled upon a big march approaching like a fat serpent between the colonial buildings of Avenida Independencia.
There were daily speeches on the zócalo, where APPO supporters also did a brisk business selling protest T-shirts and DVDs of its clashes with police. But the police themselves were now keeping a decidedly low profile.
It was beyond this plaza, however, where the true impact of this unresolved fracas lingers. Like many Oaxacans, Chencho Velasco is caught in the middle: His niece and daughter are both teachers. And his lovely little hotel is now as quiet as a church, except for my wife and I.
He gazes around the hushed garden, at the vacant rooms and a lavender-dotted trumpet vine climbing to the second floor. Since Chencho's staff is family, he's better off than some. Others, like the long-running Hotel Calesa Real just north of the zócalo, have padlocked their doors.
Along with the disingenuous Web postings, Chencho blames the media--mainstream and indy--for stoking Oaxaca's troubles and battering its economy.
"Journalists want to impress the public," he says. "They catch the best moments for them. But usually, those are the worst momentsfor us."