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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.