Arriving in Oaxaca meant we were finally back on track to reach the border before our visas were due to expire. As per usual we didn’t have any accommodation organised except for Google maps loaded on my phone ready to go for knocking on hotel doors. Our first stop was a hostel in the area which we quickly boycotted due to the price. Another few hotels later and we located one which was adequate right around when I was about to start complaining about the weight of my pack. We booked a week because we knew we needed time to get one of our cameras looked at. For some reason the image on the right side of our photos was becoming increasingly out of focus as time went on. Not a small nuisance when you are taking a lot of photos. But there was enough to occupy ourselves with in Oaxaca for this to be an acceptable amount of time.
We had just enough time before needing to get to the border for this to work out, hopefully. Worst case we would need to leave the camera and backtrack for it after our visit to Guatemala. We settled into our room before venturing out to find food. The area where our hotel was located was near a lovely plaza, a decent amount of eateries and walking distance to the Centro.
That night we discovered the cons to the hotel having a beautiful garden in the internal courtyard: Mosquitoes. I was eaten like crazy overnight and woke up scratching the various mozzie bites. Why do they like me so much?!
We ate breakfast at the hotel before heading off on our mission to get the camera repaired. This was harder than it sounds as being in Mexico we had to negotiate the repair in Spanish. After being told we needed the receipt we backtracked to the hotel to send some emails hoping we could get a copy of it sent to us. Our second administrative task for the day was to check if it was possible to extend our visas internally and therefore avoiding the trip to Guatemala at this time. We located the immigration offices and enquired but got a quick negative answer, looks like we would definitely be heading to Guatemala.
The remainder of the afternoon we spent wandering through the streets and plazas. Oaxaca has quite a pretty colonial centro district, but not quite as nice as Puebla we thought. A visit to an information booth set us up with a map and locations for colectivos to the sites out of Oaxaca city that we wanted to visit over the next week. Armed with the map we could start planning our days. After that we decided to call it a day and wandered back to the hotel.
Luckily that evening we received an email from the shop I brought our camera from in Perth with a copy of my receipt, so quick job Camerahouse! So the next morning we would quickly head back to the Panasonic service centre to hopefully get the camera repair started.
So the next morning with our camera no longer in our possession but also no idea of the estimated repair time we headed to explore the city. I’ll let you know now that after spending eight days in Oaxaca these days had a tendency to roll into each other. If something seems slightly out of order that’s probably because it has gotten muddled in my travel overloaded brain.
First stop was checking out the beautiful Templo de Santo Domingo Guzman church, located on a pedestrian only street which lead from a plaza near our hotel into the zocalo. We walked this street pretty much every day. The church was quite large on the inside and had the regional museum next door as well as a well rated botanic garden behind. But being a Monday both of these were closed so we visited them on later days. After checking out the church and taking the requisite photo down the main isle we ventured into the zocalo.
In the zocalo is the cathedral but this was also closed so we decided to check out the Benito Juarez market. The markets in and around Oaxaca are fantastic! If you are planning on visiting Mexico and want to pick up some souvenirs then this is the city to go to. The percentage of crappy souvenirs against quality is strongly in favor of quality. You can shop to your hearts content for woven goods, wooden utensils, stunning traditional clothing, jewellery and of course Mezcal. In the mercado we paused for a fresh juice before continuing. A local lady with a basket of Chapulines (fried Grasshoppers) convinced Tom to try one in an effort to sell us a bag and Tom bravely crunched away and declared it crunchy and salty but not too weird tasting. I, of course, was too much of a chicken to try one. Stopping to browse a stall of mezcal we were offered a tasting which of course we accepted. Mezcal is a maguey spirit similar to Tequila which you can get in the standard clear or older “aged” varieties. My favourites are the flavoured liquors they make from it; especially the crema de mezcal cream based ones…delicious and dangerous. After purchasing some fresh fruit (we have a massive love of mango and have been eating it most days) we decided to start the hunt for food.
An indoor restaurant seemed like the best idea with the air cooling, the breeze picking up and the rumble of thunder in the distance. Ordering from the menu del dia we settled in to watch the torrential rain which had started just as we walked in the restaurant door hoping it would pass over before we finished. After our meals of chicken (Tom) and a vegetarian alambre (me) we begged a plastic bag to protect the phone and dashed out into the cold rain on our way back to the hotel. In shorts, t-shirts and jandals we weren’t too phased by the rain but it stopped soon after we set out.
The next day dawned fine which had become the norm at this time of year; rain or a thunderstorm each evening but a fine day up to that point. We were still dealing with the camera so that was our first stop of the day. The Panasonic staff became used to seeing us each day as we struggled to ask questions in Spanish.
After a late start we decided to check out the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca which was basically a regional museum. Situated in an old convent next to Templo de Santo Domingo Guzman church we took our time with the exhibits, occasionally reading an information board in Spanish to get a little more detail. The museum houses a great display of the treasures found in some of the tombs at Monte Alban which we planned to visit the next day. Enjoying the architecture of the building as much as the exhibits we stood at one of the pillared balconies and watched as that afternoons storm came over the city. Tom spent about half an hour trying unsuccessfully to catch the lightening on camera (luckily we had our tough camera so having the other in for repair wasn’t the end of the world).
That afternoon after some wandering, we do excel at this, Tom decided he wanted to try some mezcal. It’s a ‘when in Rome’ sort of situation in Oaxaca so if you visit I highly suggest you try it. Deciding on a cocktail made with mezcal and some other creamy ingredients I sat back to watch as Tom got a tasting degustation of three types of mezcal. The bar had wall to wall bottles of the spirit, a majority of them artisanal. We made friends with an Australian guy and chatted away for an hour or so. Wasting away the afternoon we finally returned to the hotel stopping for food on the way.
The next day we decided to visit one of the major attractions of Oaxaca: Monte Alban. Up bright and early the next day we needed to get across centro to the place the buses would leave from. Stopping in the mercado we had a delicious breakfast of tortas and fresh smoothie/juice. We have an unspoken agreement most of the time we eat tortas, we will each get a different filling and swap halfway through so we have the best of both worlds because sometimes it’s hard to make food decisions. Reaching the tour company we sat and waited for our bus and checked out their other day trips. A half hour bus ride later and we had reached the site of Monte Alban perched on top of one of the hills surrounding the valley Oaxaca city is situated in. What a view; it was easy to see why the Zapotecas had chosen this site with an outlook over all their lands and easy to defend. Monte Alban is one of the older Mesoamerican archaeological sites in Mexico and it’s in pretty good condition. We took our time walking around the site, the midday sun was hot but not unbearable and we were passed by a lot of other tourists whizzing their way through. Other than Teotihuacan in Mexico City this was the most touristed site we have seen with multiple tour groups. But luckily these ancient cities are grand in scale so we have never felt squished or hurried in our exploration. Although in good condition and the biggest in Oaxaca state we felt we had seen more interesting ones with less of a tourist vibe previously. Having some background information from the previous days visit to the museum was a help as well. After locating the sites of the famous tombs (which are only a ruin of a building with a hatch shutting off the tomb entrance) we had a half hour wait for the bus. I really wanted an ice cream as the weather while we were in Oaxaca was perfect for icy treats. But having paid as little as 10 peso in the past I refused to fork out over 30 for one at the site entrance.
With a small amount of afternoon left we organised with the tour company to join a day trip the next day and paid a deposit before returning to centro. Deciding to see another museum we bypassed the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Prehispanic art. This was another casa style museum showcasing old mesoamerican treasures and we worked our way through the four rooms while I played tour guide for us both. My guide act consisted of reading a collection of laminated information sheets while pointing out what each object was, where it was from and how old it was. Surprisingly entertaining although slightly nerdy sounding.
With another early and organised morning started we returned to the tour agency with fresh tortas picked up en-route. Chowing down on these we waited for the van to arrive with our guide.
The day started with our guide explaining what we would do and see over the course of the day, but only in Spanish. Out of a van load of tourists we were the only native English speakers so he catered for them and spoke in Spanish. We used it as a chance to practise our Spanish but he was nice enough to clarify things in English if we asked.
Our first stop was in Santa Maria del Tula which is the home of the widest tree in the world known as El Arbol de Tula. The tree is a cypress and was quite wide with a total circumference of 42 meters. While definitely not the most astounding thing we have seen on our travels it was interesting enough but we were soon on our way again to our next destination.
At first mention a tapestry weaving workshop might sound kinda boring but it was surprisingly interesting for both of us. We were shown the process of weaving on the looms which is a complicated set up that takes many many hours to complete a single tapestry. Tom being Tom asked a million questions before we were called inside for the next showcase. The wool is all hand spun and dyed using natural ingredients the most impressive being the Cochineal colour. A colour which comes from a small bug which likes to eat the nopal cactus. The bugs are dried and then ground to form a vivid red colour. After that we were shown (and enticed to buy) a variety of completed tapestries from small ones to wall sized ones. I have to admit that we fell in love with some of these and may return towards the end of the year to pick up a souvenir. If we have enough money for an expensive treat like these.
Five minutes drive away we stopped at a mezcal factory… Cue time for drinkies and it was only midday. As I think I mentioned earlier, mezcal is a spirit similar to tequila. We got to see the agave ‘piñas’ being crushed in a traditional form of giant pestal and mortar (for lack of a better way of describing it). The whole device operated by a horse hitched to it and walking in circles. The best part (obviously) was the taste tests. I’m quite proud that I managed to try all the flavoured varieties as well as the straight mezcal. There were approximately 20 flavours so I was feeling quite good as we got back into the van with a few bottles purchased. Just to make you drool a little here are some of the flavours on offer: mango, passionfruit, coffee, almond, peanut, tamarind, blueberry, pistachio, cappuccino, strawberry, hazelnut, blackberry, herb and mandarin. I know there were more but I can’t remember then at this time. Yuuuum. The three small bottles we brought didn’t last long.
Back in the van and we were on our way to Mitla. Mitla is a small village about an hour out of Oaxaca which is the site of another interesting ruin of the same name. This ruin was in excellent condition although it hadn’t been rebuilt much. The stone frescos on the buildings are famous throughout Oaxaca state and we often saw similar patterns used in more modern ways. This sight was doubly interesting because it had tombs we could actually enter. These were accessed by climbing down into the ground about two meters before entering a low tunnel with access to the tomb itself. Obviously it was just a humid and sticky feeling stone bunker but still was cool to think ‘Hey we are in a tomb!’. Luckily no ghosts, zombies, skeletons or curses were seen.
Next stop was lunch, although not included in the price of the tour we decided to splurge on the not inexpensive but delicious Oaxacan buffet lunch. Usually only having two meals a day on our travels this would act as our lunch and dinner so we filled up on the buffet each having multiple plates of food plus multiple returns to the dessert tables (don’t judge us too much).
The last destination of the day was another hours drive over windy mountainous roads to Hierve del Agua which is a petrified waterfall. After seeing Pamukkale in Turkey on our holiday in 2013 this was slightly disappointing. It was definitely no pristine white calcium coated hillside like we saw in Pamukkale but was nice in it’s own way. The hill had the most STUNNING view of the mountains and valleys surrounding us so as others stripped off for a dip in the calcium pool I happily snapped photos.
Back in the van for the last time we both struggled to stay awake on the return drive. Full of food and after seeing some interesting sites we were not disappointed with the $200 peso each price of the day trip as getting to these places by public transport would have been both time consuming with many bus changes along the way.
OK this post is getting long but bare with me, Oaxaca is a great city and I need to tell you all about it!
We delayed visiting the Ethnobotanical gardens until Saturday so we could take the English tour. These gardens are located beside the Templo de Santo Domingo Guzman church and in the past have been many things including an army base, rubbish heap and basketball court but some lovely caring people saved it from this and created a beautiful, functional and educational garden. Going on a garden tour seems like a strange thing to do but it was actually really interesting. We decided on the English tour so we could really learn about it rather than try keep up with and understand the Spanish alternative. The guide walked us all over the garden telling us about the various species all of which are from Mexico. A highlight was definitely when we were in the vegetable garden area and we could pick and taste some things, Tom (being Tom) decided to try the spiciest chilli along with another guy and declared it to be “not that hot” while the other guy coughed and spluttered.
After leaving the gardens we ran into a decadent affair of a wedding including traditional dancing girls in beautiful dresses, larger than life puppets of the bride and groom and a lively procession down the street which included a lolly scramble as well as tourists being caught up in the festivities and given shots of mezcal. There was even a drone flying around taking a video of the whole parade.
For lunch we decided to visit the mercado as there is always good food available in Mexican markets. Lunch this day was Tom’s choice as we try take turn about to pick what we feel like eating. This keeps us (me) from feeling like only one of us makes all the difficult food decisions. That day Tom chose meat; specifically an area of the market that specialised in grilled meats. We each had a plate which consisted of beef, chorizo, and pork for me with the addition of two types of mole for Tom. Both came with tortillas, salsa, rice and guacamole as well as a drink. Needless to say I was so full you could have rolled me back to the hotel afterwards. But meat prepared like this is an Oaxacan tradition so we had to try it at least once.
That evening we went to a nearby Italian restaurant which looked swanky, entering in our walking shoes and grungy backpackers clothes we asked to see a menu and were surprised at the low prices. Ordering a few beers and a pizza to share we heard the familiar sound of English being spoken by a couple at the table next to us. They were on holiday from Chicago and we chatted away with them for the duration of our meal. One of the things I love about having travelled so extensively within one country is the ability to give advice and recommendations while sharing stories with other travellers. To top off our tasty pizza we (I) decided on a dessert which we rarely do. It was a beautiful basil pannacotta and we devoured it declaring it delicious. Even Tom who doesn’t really have a sweet tooth enjoyed it a lot. I’ll have to try my hand at making it once we have returned to real working life.
Sunday was time for a visit to the famous markets in Tlacolula. We needed to take a colectivo taxi for about 30 minutes to reach the town and knowing that multiple streets were closed off for the market day we had no problem locating the vendors once we were there. It ended up being a lovely day, probably one of my favourites in Oaxaca. We just wandered the streets investigating all the different stalls and what they were selling, did a small amount of buying and sampled some (more) mezcals. I fell a little in love with a banana flavoured crema de mezcal, it tasted exactly like Meadowfresh flavoured milk from back home in New Zealand. Ahh nostalgia!
Lunchtime came around and we were craving barbecued chicken or pollo asado as it’s called here. We found a vendor and sat down to a half chook accompanied with tortillas, avocado, rice and barbecued onion. Full and happy we returned to our exploration of the mercado. I brought my first souvenir which I have been eyeing for a while now. It’s a wooden utensil designed to act like a whisk in the making of atole or hot chocolate. As it is wooden I hope I can take it with me home with me at the end of the year. Needing ice cream (because this is a need for me, obviously) we found a line of ice cream stalls and stared into the cabinets at the dozens of flavours. Being overwhelmed at the variety we took ages to choose and I think the vendor was getting a little annoyed at my indecisiveness. Choosing two flavours I sat down with Tom to savour my treat, I had chosen a flavour called sambors which I have only seen at this market. Even after an internet search the only references to it I could find are at this vendor, must be famous in Tlacolula. The best way I have of describing this flavour is carrot cake but in ice cream. It has a vanilla-ish base with grated carrot, walnut, raisin and coconut mixed through. It is delicious! Yum, writing this makes me want a bucket of it right now! OK enough about the ice cream lust. On our way back to the main road to catch a colectivo back to Oaxaca Tom treated himself to a bottle of aged 10 year old mezcal. He still has the last inch or so in the bottle as I sit here in Guatemala writing this post though I wonder how much longer it will last…
Our final full day in Oaxaca was up and down. We had decided with our extra day to go see another small archaeological site that was an offshoot of Monte Alban and located on another nearby hill. The day started out interestingly because we had trouble locating the place where the correct colectivo departed from. In total there were probably a few kilometres of taxis lined up travelling to various parts of Oaxaca and the surrounding towns. A nice local man saw us looking confused and accompanied us to the correct place which ended up being down an intersecting street. We probably wouldn’t have found it without him and gratefully headed to the taxis he pointed out. Finally on our way Atzompa we played the how many people can the taxi driver fit in one small car game. On this day the answer was five adults (including the driver) and two children. We were dropped off in the small town near Atzompa. We still had an uphill walk of four kilometres in 30+ degree midday heat. We are crazy. But we arrived sweaty at the top of the hill and walked around the site. Atzompa has only been opened to the public for the last few years so is relatively new and very quiet because it’s harder to get to (as evidenced by our walk). Parts of the site are still under reconstruction which we actually find really interesting. The walk back down was far more leisurely although still very warm and we picked up a colectivo easily for the return to Oaxaca.
That afternoon Tom was feeling average to say the least with what we decided was food poisoning and wrote him off for that evening and most of the next day. Luckily the bus we were planning on taking south was a night bus so we had the whole next day in front of us.
Now for a camera update. After visiting the repair centre most days of our stay in Oaxaca we were able to get it repaired under warranty which is great. But the actual repair would take time so we had no choice but to leave the camera in their (hopefully) capable hands.
The food in this city is amazing so I look forward to returning after our time in Guatemala to collect our camera. One thing I didn’t manage to try this time around was a Oaxacan hot chocolate, much to my sadness. Update: this has been remedied upon our return to pick up the camera and it was delicious!
After a late start on Tuesday we packed up our bags and begged a box off the hotel. We packed up some of our unworn clothes and the textbooks from our first school and parcelled them up to send to my family in Mexico City. We have a plan to return there at the end of the year before flying back to New Zealand. The idea being that we might see Pearl Jam on their Latin America tour in November and possibly also visit Cuba. But that is many months away so we will have to see how things turn out as my magical crystal ball is currently not working.
With the box handed over to the post office we decided on a quick stop at a museum we had yet to visit. Museo Filatelia is basically a stamp museum and turned out to be a great idea because the rain started as we entered. The museum was OK and we enjoyed picking out the stamps from New Zealand and Australia in the displays. The rain had stopped by the time we had finished so we headed back to the hotel to relax until it was time to head to the bus station.
The bus we chose was a first class line so we could hopefully get some sleep in 11 hours it was scheduled to take between Oaxaca and Tapachula near the Mexican border.
We were finally on our way to Guatemala after one hundred and eighty minus two days in Mexico.
If you are reading this THANK YOU for persevering with what has ended up being a huge post about our time in Oaxaca. I hope you enjoyed reading about this city we visited.