Category Archives: Mexico

Holidays in Oaxaca….Mexico

We arrived in Oaxaca after a first class, 6.5 hour ($24 each) bus ride from Mexico City.    The scenery was beautiful, pocked full of very erect cacti (which are pictured at the very end) and the erupting volcano Popocatépetl.

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Popocatépetl Erupting
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Scenery between Mexico City and Oaxaca

They don’t have Uber in Oaxaca, but our five minute taxi to the hotel was still only $2.50.  My parents were majorly delayed, as Aeromexico has not got their sh*t together and canceled their connection from Mexico City a week earlier.  While we waited for their arrival, we hunted for a grocery store, sat on the main square, another Zócalo, and watched the Christmas Eve festivities, which were plentiful.  Sparklers, and brass bands, floats and giant walking puppets.  Just general pandemonium.  It had died down a bit by the time my parents arrived, but they still caught some of the fun.

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Elaborate firework hats
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Oaxaca Zocalo Christmas Tree
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Spinning fireworks
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Baby Jesus parade

We had a slow start on Christmas day, but managed to explore a few neighborhoods in Oaxaca, including the area around the aqueduct and Jalatlaco.  We continued our evening ritual of finding a place on the Zócalo for drinks and then ended our night at a restaurant/hotel with an impressive nativity scene in its courtyard.

 

Monte Alban is located 6 miles (9 km) outside of Oaxaca at 6,400 feet (1940 m) and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the historic center of Oaxaca.  Monte Alban was the ancient Zapotec capital and was founded around 500 BC.  The mountain was carved away to make space for the buildings, forming a large flat area on the top.  There are a  number of uniquely carved stones and an interesting ball court still visible, along with many temples.

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Monte Alban
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Monte Alban
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Monte Alban mountain platform

We took a tourist bus to the top and spent three hours wandering the site before taking a brutally hot bus back to the city center.  It was so stifling that we got off early and walked rather than continue to where we were supposed to be dropped off.  We explored the Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre just south of the Zócalo and then had a massive lunch at Mayordomo – a chain of chocolate cafes that didn’t disappoint.  We took a much needed break before the obligatory Zócalo drinks and snacks.  Pretty sure we skipped dinner as we were so full from lunch.

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Oaxaca market
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Oaxaca market

There are a number of towns just outside of Oaxaca that we wanted to visit.  We didn’t want to rent a car, so we opted for a half day tour to Santa María del Tule, Mitla and Teotitlán del Valle.  We got lucky and our tour ended up with just the four of us and an American couple.  Tule is home to one of the world’s oldest, widest and largest trees, a 2000 year old Montezuma cypress.  The tree was struggling a number of years ago, so an irrigation system was installed to keep the tree hydrated and it has recovered.  The immense cypress dwarfs the neighboring church and gardens, which were festively decorated for Christmas.

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2,000 year old Montezuma cypress in Tule

Our next stop was Mitla, a Zapotec religious center from perhaps as early as 900 BC.  It has some really intricate stone geometric mosaic work unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  All put together without mortar.  They are really impressive. 

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Mitla church
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Mitla
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Riki takes way too many shots of cacti, but in the background you can see the crazy geometric mosaic stones
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Main street in Mitla. Check out those shadows.

 

Our last stop was Teotitlan del Valle, a Zapotec village well-known for its naturally dyed wool rugs.  Our tour only stopped at one craftsman’s shop, but we were given a demonstration on how the wool is dyed and the type of loom they use.  Of particular interest was the way they achieve red by crushing a cochineal beetle.  Add lime to pomegranates and you get purple.  We weren’t blown away by any of the rugs we saw, but the other couple in our group managed to spend $1500 on a big rug.

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Wool rug in progress

We were back in Oaxaca in the early afternoon and went to Biznaga for a large and delicious birthday lunch for my dad.  They had massive tlayudas (Mexican pizzas) and I finally found Pulque to try, a milky drink made from the fermented sap of the agave.   We continued our traditional Zócalo drinks, snacks and people watching that evening.

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Santo Domingo in Oaxaca

With the same company from the day before, we booked a tour of some more artisanal villages outside of Oaxaca.  This tour was fuller and felt more like a glorified shopping trip than a tour, as our guide was less informative than the previous day’s guide had been.  However, we got to see the black pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, copal wood carving (alebrijes) in San Martin Tilcajete, and traditional hand weavers in Santo Tomas Jalietza.  We had demonstrations at the pottery and wood carving places.  The process to make the alebrijes is incredibly time-consuming and it made a lot more sense why these little guys were so expensive.

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The Alebrije from the movie Coco apparently
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Santo Tomas Jalieza church

Our next stop on the tour was to the Friday market in Ocotlan, where we wandered the numerous lanes of stalls before having a typical Mexican meal of tortillas with sauce.  Our final stop on the tour was to a mezcal distillery in Santa Catarina Minas where they showed us the process and then let us sample numerous different kinds out of communal gourds before dumping the leftovers (and perhaps backwash) back into the glass jugs.

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Meat in Ocotlan market
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Distilling mezcal
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Hand bottled mezcal

On Saturday, we walked over to the weekly market and proceeded to walk in what seemed like circles, though managing to find some of the coveted woven plastic bags my dad had been looking for every day.

 

Right next to the market is the main bus station and we headed there to try to find a bus back to Teotitlan del Valle, the wool weaving village we had visited the outskirts of on our first tour.  We managed to flag down a bus headed in the right direction for 10 pesos (50 US cents) for the 17 mile (28 km) trip.  After being dropped off on the highway a bit outside of town, we hopped in a collectivo, which is like a fixed route taxi for 8 pesos/person, which took us to the center of the village.  From there we explored the church and wool rug market as well as some of the shops scattered around the village.  We managed to spend all of our cash on small, but gorgeous hand woven rugs, having to resort to using US dollars for the last purchase.  We took the same collectivo (though with 5 people in the little sedan this time) back to the highway intersection and pretty soon a bus headed back to Oaxaca stopped to pick us up.

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Teotitlan del Valle. Riki can find a parade anywhere. This one was for a wedding.
Rugs
Some of the spoils from Teotitlan del Valle

Our last full day in Oaxaca, we climbed a hill hoping to get a good view of the city, but ended up in the Xochimilco neighborhood instead, where Riki eagerly photographed all the street art.  We stumbled upon another market and a little chocolate shop where we took a break to try their omnipresent cacao drink.  After some light souvenir shopping, we had lunch at a food stall place which vaguely reminded me of the Timeout Market in Lisbon.  Finally tired of Mexican food, I ordered a chicken sandwich, which didn’t disappoint.

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Oaxaca window
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Oaxacan Street art in Xochimilco
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Xochimilco pinata
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Rooftop hummingbird
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Oaxaca theater
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Cylinders of air make the best toys
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Another pinata

My parents left for the airport at 4:30 in the morning on New Year’s Eve.  Unfortunately, Aeromexico once again screwed up and they were delayed so much that they missed their connection in Mexico City and were rerouted through Dallas and then Austin.  Riki and I had opted to spend NYE in Mexico City so we took the luxury $30 7 hour bus ride at 9:30am.  This bus was even plusher than our ride down, with three seats across, fully reclineable, two bathrooms, individual TVs and free drinks.

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As promised, the erect cacti on the way back
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Volcán Iztaccihuatl

We took a taxi to our hotel, which was slightly nicer than our previous stay, but was also located closer to where the party was supposed to be that evening.  Riki napped and then we walked down Paseo de la Reforma looking for a place to eat.  Lots of restaurants only offer fixed menus on NYE, as it is common for people to eat late dinners with family in Mexico. So we were limited on our choices, but eventually found a cute place that had quick service and delicious food.  We met up with a friend from New Orleans later that evening and stood on the street awaiting the fireworks, which never came. We did get a concert and a pretty impressive laser show.  Apparently, due to pollution issues, the city cancelled the fireworks.

A seamless trip home, we picked up our car in San Antonio and made it back to Austin mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day.  Mexican food is one of my favorite cuisines, but it has been a few weeks and I still am not craving it.  Austin has good Mexican, but it can’t really compare to all the amazing meals we had on our two week trip.  I have some research to do on Oaxacan dishes, as I’m still unclear on the difference between enchiladas, enfrijoladas, and entomatadas, which all appeared to just be tortillas and sauce.  Why are corn tortillas SO much better in Mexico?  I also discover the Oaxacan version of pizza, the tlayuda, which I will attempt to replicate one of these days.  And we had numerous other delicious dishes.

Riki and I have decided we need to go back to Mexico in the near future, perhaps the Yucatan next, or Guadalajara.  We’ll see.  We’ve got a lot of trips state-side the first half of this year, so it may be awhile.

Exploring the Mega….Mexico City

With a population of around 9 million, it is hard to believe that Mexico City is basically built over a lake.  Factor in frequent seismic activity and terrible air pollution trapped in a geographic bowl and you might wonder why Mexico City still receives over 2 million international visitors each year.   But Mexico City checks every box, besides beach.  It’s got history, culture, food, architecture, and even sun.  Sun being our main goal, as even Texas gets too cold in the winter for Riki.

Central Mexico has a very lengthy and unique history.  Twenty five miles northeast of modern day Mexico City lies Teotihuacán, which dates to around 200 BC and was occupied by up to 250,000 people at its height.  The pyramids still located at this archaeological site are one of the most popular day trips from Mexico City.  Teotihuacán fell in the 7th or 8th century possibly due to internal uprisings.  But other city centers in the area filled the void after its collapse.  In 1325, the Mexicas, took a small natural island in Lake Texcoco and expanded it to create a new city, Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City.  The Aztecs dominated the area until the arrival of the Spanish, who conquered the city in 1520.  The Spanish built over the historic city and expanded the metropolitan area, which has now reached over 20 million people.  But that’s just the brief version.

We flew out of San Antonio a week before Christmas.  The flights were significantly cheaper, non-stop and San Antonio is only about an hour south of Austin. Plus, we got to stop at the outlets on the way so I could get new walking shoes for the trip, which is always a gamble but my other ones were just as much of a gamble considering the rough shape they were in.  At the airport, we bought a sim card for $6 and then took the metro to our hostel near the Zócalo.  We pack light, but I would not recommend taking the metro with any type of bag, and not recommend taking it at all during rush hour.  It’s chaotic, completely packed and involves a lot of stairs.  We dropped our stuff in our $25/night hostel (on the fifth floor, no elevator, no window, shared bathroom, but great location) and headed out to explore the historic district.  The Zócalo, which is the main square in the historic district, was completely covered in potted red poinsettias and the facades of half the buildings were lit up with giant Christmas light displays.

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Radio Stations
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Ciudad de México
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Mural

We braved the metro again the next day and stumbled upon the Artesania Ciudadela, which is a tangled market selling a lot of souvenirs.  We must have been there a bit too early, as most of the shops were closed, so we carried on to Chapultapec Park to visit the Anthropology Museum.   I had visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Anthropology Museum) last time I was in Mexico City, but that was 10 years ago, and honestly, even after three hours in the museum, Riki and I both agreed that we could come back.

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Entrance to Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Inside Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Teotihuacan model in Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Sacrificial stone in Museo Nacional de Antropología, where they put the bloody hearts apparently
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The start of Mexico City
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Aztec sun stone in Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Oaxaca mural, Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Museo Nacional de Antropología

However, lunch beckoned.  We didn’t exactly hit the jackpot with food though. Ordering randomly, we ended up with some sort of meat item vaguely resembling cloudy jello in a taco. It was better than it sounds. Later, after walking Zona Rosa and the San Juan market, we again ordered randomly and got a white bread sandwich with hogshead cheese, or at least we think that’s what it was.  Luckily, the mojitos were good.

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Mexico City skyscrapers
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Ángel de la Independencia
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Ángel de la Independencia
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CDMX street corner

That evening, after over 30,000 steps, a hot shower was in order. Unfortunately, there was no hot water in our shared bathroom, I forgot to bring my towel and because I was standing there so long waiting for the hot water to arrive, the motion-sensing lights went out me.  Cue naked flailing around, splashing cold water everywhere as I tried to get the light to come back on before someone else walked in.

As we usually avoid group tours, we did some research on how to get to Teotihuacán on our own.  So we set out early-ish. 3 metro lines and a $2.75 beater of a bus later complete with hitchhiking mariachi players, we arrived at the pyramids.  This being my second time here, I was surprised to realize we must have skipped the south part of the site before.  Our first stop was to see the plumed or feathered serpent, which we had seen a replica of in the anthropology museum and something I don’t remember seeing on my last trip.  This section of the pyramid is largely intact because it was protected by a later pyramid built up against it.  These phenomenal creatures are supposed to represent Quetzalcoatl, the God of Wind and Wisdom, who is kind of like a snake-bird.

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Near the entrance to Teotihuacán
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Teotihuacán
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The plumed serpent temple

Next, we went all the way to the other side of the archaeological site and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest one at 216 feet (65 m).  It was quite crowded as we ascended, but about halfway up we found orange barricades set out in a way which suggested they had to stop people on busier days to limit the flow.  The steps are very steep and there is only one hand rail but the view from the top is worth it.  Next we climbed the Pyramid to the Moon, though you are only allowed about halfway up.  This site is largely reconstructed and it is interesting to see the different techniques used at different time periods to delineate the reconstructed parts.  Old photos show this site largely covered in brush and there are still some grassy mounds that haven’t been excavated.  There are even a couple of spots where you can still view original murals.

Our return bus left from right outside of the last gate, was a bit less beat up than the first one and dropped us off at a metro that was more convenient to get back downtown.  We headed straight to the Roma neighborhood where we had delicious, large mojitos before wandering back to the hostel.

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CDMX Street art

I was excited to show Riki the Templo Mayor, which is located just off the Zócalo and is the area where Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325.  The museum is amazing and showcases the artifacts found in the archaeological site. It also does a great job explaining how the 7 different layers of the superseded temples interact.  You can walk down between the ruins and then visit the museum where they house the artifacts; my favorite being the exhibit where they lay out the bones of the numerous animals they found.

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Templo Mayor and the Cathedral in the background
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Skulls at Templo Mayor
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Templo Mayor Mosaic
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Diego Rivera mural at Palacio Nacional

We did a quick visit to the Palacio National to see the Diego Rivera murals before finding a sophisticated place overlooking the Templo Mayor for lunch.  Two hours, numerous fancy drinks, multiple courses including crickets, and less than $50 later, we needed a nap.  Some of the indigenous tribes were out on the square blessing people with odorous herbs and dancing.  We watched that before heading into the cathedral and then back for a rest.

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Torre Latinoamericana from the Zócalo
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Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heavens
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Blessings on the Zócalo

Later, we walked to the Bella Artes, where there was a folkloric ballet performance that evening.  We inquired about the ticket cost, but as they were almost $100 a piece, we opted to walk towards the Republic tower for a nice view.  From the top, we could see the skating rink and then spotted what looked like a carnival in the streets.  We ventured a few blocks north and were overwhelmed by the noise, lights, and atmosphere of the street fair.

Saturday we reserved for markets.  After running to catch the metro, Riki managed to squeeze in, leaving me on the platform as the doors thumped shut.  Luckily, the trains come so often that he caught me on the next train just a few minutes later, but we never ran for the metro again.  Our first stop was in San Angelo, where they have a lot of local artists, but it was quite packed with tourists and expensive.

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El Bazar Sabado, San Angelo

We took the metro to Coyoacan, where we found the main square packed with people hanging out.

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Coyoacan most likely means “place of the coyotes” in Nahautl

The market here was huge, loaded with piñatas, which were very tempting, if only we had a better way to ship them home.

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Coyoacan Market

 

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Outisde Frida Kahlo’s house

We found a rooftop near Frida Kahlo’s house to rest before the long metro ride back to the Zócalo.  We ventured into a packed restaurant called El Quatro 20, where, surrounded by chaos, we had a great, cheap meal with huge beers. Just what we needed after a long day of shopping (though not buying).

On our last full day in Mexico City, we caught La Lagunilla market, where Riki was hoping to browse the antiques, probably looking for old books, if I had to guess.  There was a small section of antiques, but the quality varied and nothing really struck us.  We then ventured to the Jardin del Arte, which had some of the same artists we had seen on Saturday.

We then found a fruit market and walked on Reforma to the Metro Insurgentes.  Unfortunately, on our way home, in the Pino Suarez metro stop, Riki got pickpocketed as he entered the metro.  A group of people pushed us into the car as people were still trying to exit and managed to reach in Riki’s front pocket during the chaos and take his wallet.  We spoke with the police there who recommended reporting the incident back by the Insurgentes stop.  We went back to the hostel to cancel all our cards and then took an Uber to the Tourist Police.  And we were not alone.  Three other groups of tourists were in there, and the exact same thing had happened to them, in the same metro station.  He didn’t have that much money in his wallet, as we always split it up between us, but we were left without a debit card and down to one credit card.  Luckily, we were meeting my parents the next day and they were able to hold us over for the rest of the trip.  But it left us with an unfortunate impression. And we didn’t ride the metro there again.  To mourn the loss of the wallet, we stopped at a bar on Calle Geneve where we met two Mexican-Americans who cheered us up as we enjoyed our liquid dinner.

Uber is so cheap in Mexico City.  I was feeling generous as it was Christmas Eve and gave a 50% tip, but our 20 minute ride to the bus station was still less than $5.  We next took a first class bus for 6.5 hours ($24 each) to Oaxaca to meet up with my parents for a week.