Travel Dates: November 2017 for 1 week
Travel Buddies: Monica’s parents
Each time we land in Mexico, I cannot wait for the airplane doors to open to be greeted with warmth. It’s a warmth not only from the perfect temperature and sunshine, but also from the people. Despite our never ending world travel list, Monica and I find ourselves frequenting Mexico more and more. From the small fishing village of Teacapan, to the sleepy surfer town of Sayulita, to the rich Mayan culture in Mérida, Mexico continues to be an additive source of beautiful culture and hospitality.
Oaxaca city, the capital of the state of Oaxaca, is around 300,000 people. While there is definitely a sense of the city being sustained by tourism, much of that is from Mexican tourists. This subtle distinction makes all the difference in the world for an heightened authentic experience. Almost every conversation will start in Spanish, and good luck finding an English food menu. We were in heaven getting to constantly practice our Spanish and feel immersed in the culture. As we learned from a cheeky Mayan in Mérida, Mexico typically has 2 seasons: the hot season, and the very hot season. Combined with high humidity, it make sense that much of Mexico’s travel destinations are along the ocean. However, Oaxaca is 170 miles to the ocean, and is at 5,100 feet elevation. It is perfectly situated, receiving hot but pleasant temperatures, and low humidity. We couldn’t stop commenting how wonderfully ‘skin temp’ it was everyday.
Oaxaca is a culinary wonderland, known worldwide for mole and mezcal. The charming Spanish colonial streets are lined with an endless assortment of restaurants ready to please your taste buds. Not to mention the countless jovial mothers who set up tables in front of their home to sell homemade meals at random hours. We found the best $1 chile rellenos this way only a block from our house. Safe to say we returned several times. What really stood out to us, is how affordable and delicious the food is. It’s common to find $2 tortas for lunch big enough to share, and dinner in the $5 range. There are however still plenty of high end restaurants. It’s hard to go wrong picking a restaurant, but some of our favorites were: Tierra del Sol, Gozobi, Estambul Social Club, Xuncu Choco and Cafe Alex. While eating out in Oaxaca is not a financial guilt trip, there are many wonderful markets full of grocery staples. We enjoyed buying produce to make fresh guacamole and salsa to enjoy on our rooftop patio.
With all the amazing food in town, we of course had to take a cooking class! Our class was through Casa de los Sabores with Chef Pilar of La Olla, a tasty restaurant in town. She toured us through Mercado de la Merced where we purchased ingredients for our class, while learning about traditional Oaxacan ingredients. We then spent the afternoon at her house with other lovely travelers, learning to make mole chicken tamales, squash flower tamales, cactus salad, fresh salsa, and dessert. She even gave us samples of fine local mezcal.
Speaking of mezcal, my personal favorite event of the trip, was spending the day on a relaxed mezcal distillery tour through Las Bugambilas tours. Our guide Rene (who happened to be the brother of Chef Pilar), took us an hour outside of Oaxaca to Mezcal Lalocura in the small town on Santa Catarina Minas. Here we learned the traditional methods of mezcal production that have been practiced for over 2,500 years. Lalocura uses clay stills versus more commercially used copper stills. Clay yields less, but is their preferred method based on tradition and flavors achieved. After being educated on the various agaves and the whole fermentation process, we were invited into the home of the owner and mezcal master, Eduardo Angeles. His entire dining and living room is lined with 5 gallon glass carboys full of mezcal just waiting to be enjoyed. He proceeded to have us sample 10 or so of his mezcals (I lost count), each made of a different single source agave grown on site. His passion for mezcal truly showed as they were all delicious. Unsurprisingly after feeling the warmth of the mezcal, and Eduardo’s hospitality, we left with several bottles to bring back to the states. At the moment of writing this post, the mezcals have been providing much needed liquid sunshine to get us through the rainy Portland winter.
The streets of Oaxaca are very walk-able and you can spend days wandering from shops, to restaurants, to museums and more. A great place to visit is the Templo de Santo Domingo, which contains within it, the Oaxaca Cultural Museum. It is a beautifully curated museum from which you get glimpses out to the Botanical Garden behind the museum. It is easy to spend half a day exploring the grounds, or people watching in the plaza out front.
We stumbled upon the Museo de la Filatelia (stamp museum), which even if stamps aren’t your thing, the architecture is modern and beautiful. Oaxaca even has a small microbrew scene, which I of course had to explore. My favorite spot, which produces some seriously good beers, is Tierra Blanca. I was impressed by their range of styles, not just your typical light and dark lagers found throughout Mexico.
Finally, a great historical location to visit is the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. The site is located just on the outskirts of town, on the top of a hill, so it’s a convenient 20 minute bus ride. The site is very well preserved and has the essence of many of the Mayan ruins found throughout Mexico. We had a local guide show us around the grounds, and Monica’s parents realized it was the same guide they had when they had come 10 years earlier!
Of the several places we’ve been fortunate enough to visit in Mexico, I find my heart lies in Oaxaca. Despite only being there a week, we experienced so much beauty that it was hard to put the camera down. Consequently it was difficult to reduce the length of this post! If you’re still reading then thank you for hanging in there! We highly encourage anyone to travel to Oaxaca. Your soul will thank you! I know we will return someday.