Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

A Week in Oaxaca

on August 12, 2013

I arrived in Oaxaca (pronounced ‘Wa-ha-ka’) after pretty much a full day of travelling. From Zacapoaxtla I had to go back to Puebla and had a little wait there (which I didn’t mind as it gave me the opportunity to grab a taco arabe which I hadn’t managed to try during my initial visit- and it was delish!) and then I got on another bus to Oaxaca.

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Oaxaca is south-west of Mexico City and again the state and it’s capital have the same name. Like Puebla, it is a state also renowned for its food. Except here they have 7 main types of traditional moles (sauces)! They have the mole negro (black sauce, which I think was actually poached from Puebla), but they also have a mole verde (green), rojo (red), amarillo (yellow), and ones called coloradito (coloured), manchamanteles (tablecloth stainer) and chichilo (named after the chile used to make it). But there are hundreds more! Cacao is grown in Oaxaca and they make a distinctive spiced hot chocolate, and also have a unique stringy cheese (kinda like mozzarella) which is delicious!

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Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states, though it isn’t immediately apparent in the city which is beautiful. The state has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico. Many of these communities live outside of the capital in the valleys and mountains, and the isolation has allowed them to retain more of their traditional way of life, but at the same time has also restricted economic development. Agriculture is the primary industry in Oaxaca- corn is grown on just about every surface imaginable! Oaxaca is also famous for its textiles and pottery, with many of these indigenous families still practicing weaving and traditional methods of pottery making.

On my first evening I got straight into the food. I met Judo from Australia in reception of our hostel asking where to find some good local food and off we went for a wander. We ended up at a street stall selling tlayudas, sometimes called ‘The Oaxacan Pizza’. They are basically a big tortilla made crispy on the grill topped with beans, avocado, cheese, salsa and a meat of your choice. We chose chicken, which we were surprised to see came in drumstick form- a little tricky to eat! But amazing, and SO filling! I had been eyeing off a michoacana (ice-cream shop) on the corner, but there was no hope after that tlayuda!

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Later we met another Aussie called Peter who was rounding up a crew to go and see a jazz trio at a little bar nearby. Seven of us went and got to the bar around the time the music was meant to start, but of course they hadn’t even started setting up yet! It was about an hour before the music began. We then went to check out some other places since it was a Saturday, apparently the only night of the week that was really happening in Oaxaca. Café Central was charging us 50 pesos entry so we all decided not to go in, and instead ended up at Fandango, a grungy little bar where the beers were cheap but the toilets were definitely the mankiest I have seen in all of Mexico! Mystery liquid on the floor and missing a few desirables such as: a toilet seat, a flusher, toilet paper, soap, running water from the tap and paper towel…

The following day Judo and I and an Irishman whose name escapes me (terrible I know!) went to explore the city a bit. We first went to the biggest and most impressive church, Santo Domingo. In the plaza there were a bunch of election festivities taking place in lieu of the next week’s election. Marching bands, jumping castles, food stalls, it was all happening.

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We checked out the museum next door, which had an awesome display of some of the treasures found in one of the tombs at the nearby Zapotec archaeological site, Monte Alban- jewellery of gold and all kinds of precious stones.

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They had an array of other displays, pre-hispanic relics and also colonial pieces, the most memorable of which was this statue of Mary seemingly flipping the bird…

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We hit up the local food market for lunch, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, first walking through the smoke-filled meat corridor where all kinds of meats were hanging about and being grilled on the spot. It probably would have been super tasty, but we didn’t think we could handle sitting in the smoke for an extended period of time and instead settled for a little comedor (food vendor) in the market itself where we tried the mole coloradito- tasty!

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In the afternoon I went to the textile museum, which housed a number of classic Oaxacan pieces of weaving, as well as a very interesting exhibition called ‘The Decent Women of 58th Street’, which was on the prostitutes of Merida in Yucatan, Mexico. A social anthropologist called Christian Rasmussen had interviewed many of these women about their lives and experiences and written a book. He had also taken photos of each of them but had promised not to publish them, so got an illustrator to draw them and then another artist to embroider them in fabric. These pieces were all on display and were great. The book looked super interesting too, but was in Spanish, so I only read about one lady or I would have been there for days!

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The next day I went on a day tour to a few villages and sights outside of Oaxaca city. There were two Dutch girls, Lisanna and Aida, on the tour who together with me were the only non-Spanish speakers on the bus! Our guide Jorge translated everything for us which was good, as occasionally I miss things in the Spanish spiels. It was good to practice listening to the Spanish and then hearing the English translations to confirm if I’d interpreted things correctly though! Our first stop was Santa Maria del Tule to see El Arból de Tule (The Tree of Tule). This tree is meant to be the largest in the world by trunk width- apparently it is 14m at its widest point! It was quite impressive, but was fenced off, so I couldn’t get the tree hugging picture I’d been hoping for!

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We then went to a weaving village called Teotitlán del Valle, where we visited one family’s weaving business. In Oaxaca, the weaving is done by the men, while the women make and dye the threads using all natural colours, like cochineal from the bugs on the nopal cactus. The guys make weaving look easy, moving threads to and fro rapidly, but its amazingly intricate work, especially when making detailed designs like ‘The Tree of Life’. One small rug like this takes over a month to make.

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We got to have a go using the standing loom which was pretty tricky. You stand on these pedals and when you shift your weight from left to right the base strings alternate. You pass the coloured thread through these strings, switch pedals, loosen the thread and then push it down into the weave.

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Our next stop was a Mezcal factory. Mezcal is big here in Oaxaca, as a large variety of agave is grown here. Here we got to see all the steps in the process of making the liquor, from obtaining the fresh ‘pine cone’ from the centre of the agave plant, cooking it, pressing it, fermenting it then distilling it. I tried an 8 year old mezcal, which I could actually stand, as it lost a lot of the burn reminiscent of cheap tequila, and was much smoother, though still retained a mild tequila-ey taste…

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After trying a large assortment of Mezcals, we went to an archaeological site called Mitla. It was built by the Zapotecs but also has Mixtec influences, most likely from inter-marriage between the two cultures. The site was really different architecturally from any the Aztec sites I’d visited. Much smaller, but really beautiful. Mitla is extremely well preserved considering the seismically active region in which it was built. This is thought to be due to the design of the buildings which are built like inverse trapezoids. Something like 80% of the buildings on site are original with only a small proportion requiring restoration. The palace facades and inner walls still retain their original intricate mosaicked stone decorations which was amazing.

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Our last stop for the afternoon was Hierve del Agua (‘boiling water’), which was the one we’d been waiting for- it is actually a fossilised waterfall. I had no idea that was even possible, but apparently it is! The site still has a mineral spring which now feeds amazing blue pools of water perched up on a mountaintop. This spring is where the place gets its name, but though the spring bubbles like it’s ‘boiling’, the water is actually cold. This place was absolutely stunning and well worth the wait. Across on a nearby mountain was another fossilised waterfall, and the views across the valley were incredible.

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Despite visiting many ruins already, I decided I should also make a stop at Oaxaca’s premier archaeological site, Monte Alban during my visit. It is a large Zapotec city built on the top of a mountain about 20 minutes outside of Oaxaca. I had the same guide, Jorge, who had taken us out on the tour the previous day. Again I was in the minority- there were only 2 English speakers on the bus today! Monte Alban, unlike Mitla, had mostly been destroyed by earthquakes and the majority of what you can see now is restored. The site has a huge gran plaza (great square) surrounded by pyramidal style buildings, several tombs which unfortunately I didn’t get to visit as well as a small juego de pelota (ball court). Unlike the Aztecs and Maya, the Zapotecs didn’t practice human sacrifice in association with the ball game. There is no evidence at the site of human sacrifice at all, just some animal skeletons were found there. The views from the north and south platforms over the site and surrounding valleys were amazing.

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In the evening I checked out a free dancing performance at the cultural centre. It was done by local kids but was really good, and the costumes were fantastic. The town is getting all excited for the annual Guelaguetza festival at the end of July, and it was good to get a little taste of the festivities even though I will be gone by then!

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Something else I felt obliged to do whilst in Oaxaca was a cooking course. A cooking course had been on my list of things to do in Mexico since I arrived, and Oaxaca seemed like an ideal place to do it! I booked with La Cocina Oaxaqueña and was lucky to be in a small group with just two others, Lisa and Hosana from NZ. Our chef, Jerado, was lovely. He picked us up (ON TIME!) in his car and took as to a local market outside of the city centre. Here we bought the ingredients we needed for the day and Jerry introduced us to various fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices used in Oaxacan cooking. Once the shopping was done we headed back to the kitchen, which was at Jerry’s mother’s house. It was a beautiful place, set up with a spacious kitchen and dining table in the covered courtyard.

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We started with dessert (as you do) and we made a guava pudding. This basically consisted of cooking the de-seeded guavas in butter and sugar then blending that amazing mixture with cream, pouring it into bowls and whacking it in the fridge! Awesome. Next was stuffed zucchini flowers- in Melbourne, these tend to be more of a gourmet ingredient, but here in Oaxaca they are used pretty commonly, usually being thrown in the standard quesadilla. We stuffed the flowers with a ricotta-style cheese mixed with honey and pepper and onion, then they were fried (it’s the Mexican way).

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We also made a mole with almonds, a ‘simple’ one according to Jerry, as it didn’t have too many ingredients and steps. But still, you had to blanche the almonds, toast some sesame seeds then grind them together with some chicken stock in a mortar and pestle to a smooth paste. Separately, you grilled tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and parsley before blending those and then mixing the two pastes together. This might give an idea of the complexity of other moles which have more than 20 ingredients and who knows how many steps! Our last dish was tortilla soup, which is a tomato soup, but contains little squares of chewy Oaxacan cheese, tortilla chips and pieces of avocado. Que rico!

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Once all the cooking was complete, with rumbling tummies we sat down to our feast. It was amazing. And to top it all off, Jerry let us eat 2 desserts each! It was a fantastic course, and I’d absolutely recommend any foodies who are in Oaxaca in future to visit La Cocina Oaxaqueña- definitely a highlight for me.

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Since I practically had to roll home after the cooking course, it was a good thing I had booked myself in for a 3 day hike for the remainder of my time in Oaxaca! The hike was around an area called Los Pueblos Mancomunados (the commonwealth villages) in the Sierra Norte, which is to the north of Oaxaca. The region is very mountainous, and the villages are small and remote, with mostly indigenous populations.

I was lucky for this hike to have company- I was joined by two very friendly and stereotypically beer-adoring German guys, Mike and Sebastian. We had to leave the hostel in the dark (a bit after 6am) in order to walk to the second-class bus station to catch a 7am bus to a village called Cuajimoloyas. On arrival, after walking all the way though the quiet station to gate 37 where we’d been directed by the tour company to purchase our ticket to Cuaji, we were told by the dude at the desk that there were no more tickets. We asked when the next bus was, and he said 2pm! Not helpful considering we had to meet our guide at 9…

After a little while we discovered that we could still get on the 7am bus, but would have to stand. For this we didn’t need to buy tickets through the legit vendor, we just payed the driver.  And saved 10 pesos, woo! Unfortunately it was a 2 hour journey, and we’d all been hoping to sleep a bit. Lucky me scored a seat as there was one empty right next to where I was standing- I asked around, and no-one volunteered, so I jumped in- no use leaving it empty and giving up the beautiful views! The guy whose seat it was did jump on at a later stop, but told me to keep it. Ahhh, chivalry!

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We made it to Cuaji just before 9 and waited outside in the brisk mountain air for the office to open. When it did, we met our guide, Ivan (who was dressed in baggy jeans, skate shoes and a hoodie), and got given little picnic lunches to take with us. Cuajimoloyas sits at 3100m and has a population of 740. It didn’t take us long to leave the little throng of houses behind once we started moving towards the next village, Latuvi, 16km away. The sky was grey and cloudy and the air had a slight chill to it, pretty much a perfect temperature for hiking. On the way we practiced our Spanish quizzing Ivan about his village and family, and listened as he told us about the plants and the local area (all the guides only spoke Spanish).

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We began on wide open tracks through pine forest, but gradually climbed our way up to steeper single track into cloud forest. This part of the hike was probably one of the most beautiful of the whole 3 days. Trees and ferns emerged out of the mist as we progressed, bromeliads clung to high branches and gorgeous little orchids and wildflowers lined the trail.

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After a few hours of walking, we reached el mirador, the lookout, and halfway point for that day’s walk. There we met a most beautiful, but very malnourished dog. No-one knew whose it was or where it had come from- we were >2500m high and 8km from any village! I know you’re not meant to go round touching random animals in developing countries, but he was so sweet and placid I had to pat him, and even shared my muesli bar with him.

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We ate our picnic there- a delicious torta (roll) and a juice box as big as my head!- while enjoying the view and waiting for our next guide to meet us. Each of the villages has their own guides, so the work is shared between them. After leaving us, Ivan would walk the 8km back to Cuaji, while our next guide, Ismael, had left at the same time as us from Latuvi that morning to meet us at el mirador.

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Ismael didn’t speak quite as slowly or clearly as Ivan, but was super informative and kept giving us long-winded spiels about things we passed. The guys and I between us usually managed to get the main gist though! From el mirador, the walking was almost completely downhill (Latuvi sits at 2200m, 900m below Cuaji), with very few breaks for our poor knees! The views were a nice distraction- once the clouds had cleared we were treated to sweeping vistas over the mountains and valleys.

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We arrived in Latuvi ahead of schedule (the guides and the boys went a pretty cracking pace!), but were shown straight to our luxurious cabaña (cabin), which had a bathroom with hot water (YES!) and towels, full beds with mattresses, pillows and blankets and hammocks out the front. We also got fed hot meals AND hot chocolates at a little comedor across the road… De-LUXE! I could get used to this kinda hiking…

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Latuvi was the largest of the villages we would visit, with a population of 1150 people. After lunch, I walked with the boys to find a store, where they bought some beer (of course!). I went for a little siesta, and when I awoke, they had already been back to the store and were on their fourth beer each, both a little giggly, but insisting, ‘It’s the altitude!’ Despite us all laughing earlier at the 9.30pm bed time which was scheduled on our itineraries, we were all thoroughly exhausted and it ended up being pretty accurate!

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After 10 hours of sleep (!) we woke up for a breakfast of chicken and potato soup and hit the trail by 9. Ismael was our guide again. On the way out of town we passed his house, where his parents had left his backpack hanging on a tree and his bike lying by the path for him. He walked the bike along with us to use on his return journey (he would walk the entire 11km to La Neveria with us, then go all the way back to Latuvi that day!)

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We knew we would be doing a bit of climbing that day- we had to gain 400-500m of elevation to reach La Neveria at 2650m-  but Ismael said it was only ‘un poco subir’ (‘a little uphill’), so we thought at least it’d be gradual. The first few k’s were pretty easy going. We were feeling good so took a side walk to a waterfall which was really nice, but pretty steep both to get down then back up. Not long after that that however, the trail started to ascend, and it was a steady climb, up and up and up! We decided that ‘un poco’ when asking Mexican tour guides about climbing is like ‘un poco’ when asking Mexican chefs about spiciness- a gross understatement! Regular people need to multiply this by a factor of at least 10! It was a tough walk, as the pace was again pretty solid. But Ismael didn’t drink a drop of water the entire way! I hope his kidneys don’t pack up on him.

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After arriving in the tiny village of La Neveria (population 200), we said goodbye to Ismael, settled into our cabaña, had some lunch and then a siesta. It’s a tough life this hiking… I had set my alarm so I could go and test out the zipline they had up on the hill, but shortly after that went off (before I’d even moved in fact) it started pouring with rain. So I stayed put. It rained all afternoon, so we were trapped in our room- Sebastian fast asleep, Mike listening to music and me writing my journal. We had a rowdy Friday night, going for dinner and a drink then hitting the hay before 9.30 again!

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For our last day, we again had a new guide, Edgar. We thought it would be a relatively easy walk, just 8km, and with Benito Juarez sitting at 2800m, we only had to gain about 150m of elevation from La Neveria. Edgar also said we only had ‘un poco subir’ – we should have known! We ended up hiking all the way down into the valley to a waterfall (which was lovely) but then we obviously had to climb all the way out again! We were going up for what seemed like forever, one of those times where each turn in the path looks like the ‘top’, but all your hopes and dreams are dashed each time you round a corner!

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Edgar trekked all the way up in his jacket (though at least he drank a few sips of water occasionally), while I was overheating in my singlet, sweating and panting the whole way. He would stop to gather hongos (wild mushrooms) now and then, clean them up, place them in his little bag then run up the hill to catch up with us like it was a stroll in the park!

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We eventually reached the main road which wound and ascended more gently into Benito Juarez, and were told the kids in this area will walk an hour each way in the hills to and from school! When we arrived, we walked by a store and before I’d barely even entered; I heard the familiar order of ‘Dos Coronas por favor!’ (‘Two Coronas please!’). I went hardcore and got a coke. The shop owner let us sit out the back, which was basically her house and yard, beautifully decorated with flowers everywhere.

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Later at lunch, I chatted to a friendly guy from Oaxaca who was up in the village to do some walking with his wife/lady friend. Once we’d eaten, we said goodbye to him, and thought we’d get a head start walking the 4km back to the carretera (highway) to hopefully catch an earlier collectivo back to Oaxaca. We had been told this road was ‘plano’ (flat), but surprise, surprise; we were walking gradually uphill for most of the way!

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We reached the carretera around 2.30, relieved that we hadn’t walked all that way in the wrong direction, and sat by the roadside to wait for the collectivo. Two hours later, we were still waiting, and I had started throwing rocks at inanimate objects like the boys…

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A bit after 4.30, the friendly guy from lunch drove by. Surprised to see us, he asked if we had seen a collectivo- we had only seen one going the opposite direction the whole time! He told us to jump in and we heartily accepted. He was going to visit another town outside the city, but dropped us off much closer to town where we could get a taxi. The taxi driver said we had to wait for 2 more people as the taxi only goes when it’s full. This was a tiny sedan mind you- so the standard was 3 squished in the front and 3 in the back! We didn’t hesitate in telling him we’d pay the fare for 5 people if he’d please take us right away!

Finally we were back in Oaxaca, and exchanging photos and contact details. It was a great to get out of the city and see some of the stunning landscape and small communities nearby. And of course make some new friends along the way! We said our goodbyes, then off I walked to the station (my poor legs!) for my night bus to San Cristóbal in the neighbouring state of Chiapas.

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4 responses to “A Week in Oaxaca

  1. Molly says:

    Loved this blog post! Planning on going to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead and it was really informative. Thanks!!

  2. Erica says:

    Hi! I know it was a few years ago now, but was just wondering who you booked all your tours through and what hostel you stayed at in Oaxcaca,

    Thanks!!

    Erica

    • mandyhill25 says:

      Hi Erica,
      I think the hostel I stayed at was Casa Angel, I booked my day tours through the hostel, but the hiking in Sierra Norte I booked through an office in town, I think it was the official Sierra Norte hiking one but can’t remember where it is located sorry! Hope you have an amazing trip- it’s such a beautiful area!

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