Oaxaca. Even the name draws you in. It has the highest indigenous population of any state in México with hundreds of indigenous languages still being spoken. Oaxacan restaurants are taking over the food scene in Mexico City and mezcal, the hipster tequila, comes almost exclusively from there as well. In my mind it seemed like Oaxaca represented the soul of México. So when my family suggested coming to México for our annual post-Christmas trip, I made the case for Oaxaca. We decided to spend a few days in the city and then head to the beach for an escape for them from the harsh New England winter.
We arrived a little haggard after a red eye complete with a baby who cried literally the whole flight (can I take this opportunity to say that if you are traveling with a baby, maybe don’t risk taking the red eye?) but when we walked into our B&B it was like stepping into an oasis. La Casa de mis Recuerdos has a beautiful stone-paved central courtyard filled with plants and color. Conchita, the owner, is a warm grandmother figure who doesn’t speak much English but is able to communicate the essentials (turn off the lights at night and here’s how to open the door). The rooms and common spaces are filled with Oaxacan handicrafts, almost to the point of overdoing it but the tasteful arrangement keeps it fresh and colorful, not tacky. After freshening up a bit, we ventured out to find some food and see the city. Upon Conchita’s and a friend’s recommendation, we headed towards La Biznaga and Zandunga, which are next door to each other. There was a longer wait at La Biznaga so we entered Zandunga. I ordered and translated for my family, trying to get a good sample of Oaxacan food to start us off. We really enjoyed the veggie tlayuda (I like to explain it as a Mexican pizza) and the mezcal cocktails as well as their hip yet traditional vibe. Our waiter was very patient and dedicated to the cause of showcasing their cuisine, though when we decided to order another tlayuda, we ended up waiting about a half hour listening to the same jazz song on repeat. We finally escaped the musical torture to stroll around the city and see the sights. The street connecting Santo Domingo and the Zócalo is a pleasant pedestrian walkway filled with cafes and art galleries and we arrived at the Zócalo to a bustling maze of people, vendors of elote and artesanía, and even protestors camped out on the green spaces (Oaxaca is also known for its occasional political unrest). We called it an early night due to our lack of sleep the night before and our early wake up the next day and headed back to the B&B.
Since experiences are scientifically proven to be better than physical gifts, my brother and sister and I had planned a tour in Oaxaca for my parent’s Christmas present through Zapotrek. I was really intrigued by their Hierve el Agua hike but I felt that while in Oaxaca we had to go see how mezcal was made so we were able to combine their two tours into a custom one for us. We got picked up early and ate our breakfast sandwiches from Conchita in the van on the way with our tour guide, Sergio, and driver. Our first stop was at a mezcal distillery which I originally thought was a strange choice for before a hike but we ended up appreciating our newly acquired knowledge on our hike when we passed by all the varieties of agave that we had just tasted. Real Matlatl Mezcal is a small, family-run place that sells their small-batch mezcal in México but even up in NYC. We saw their whole process and learned more about the drink here. It’s quite involved but I’ll try to boil it down for you here.
An important thing to know is that mezcal is made from either farmed agave (of the espadín variety) or wild agave (many, many different varities). The wild agave is considered to be superior because of the richer flavor profile but the plants take longer to mature (15-20 years instead of 8-10 for espadín). It’s also more complicated to harvest as the land in this area is pretty much all divided up into communities, and to harvest from a community’s land you need to be a male resident who has completed their mandated year-long community service. Once you’ve managed to harvest some agave, they then hack off all the leaves to use the heart, or the piña (pineapple). The hearts are put into a pit filled with super hot rocks and covered with tarps and dirt to smoke for about a week. Then they´re broken up into smaller pieces by a giant gristmill being pulled around in a circle by a horse (how boring for that horse right?). Those pieces then get thrown into a giant tub with water to soak for a week or so (I might be getting the time periods for these steps mixed up, sorry mezcal experts). This is when the fermentation happens but the liquid is very very low in alcohol so they distill it by putting it in a closed pot with a fire burning underneath. When the liquid heats up enough to evaporate, it goes through a tube that comes up from the pot then coils through some cold water to cool the vapor into liquid again and what comes out is mezcal! So after seeing all the steps to this process and tasting the farmed and wild varieties in addition to some cremas (I had a delicious walnut one that I haven’t seen anywhere else), we headed out to our hike.
We made a quick stop at a town market to pick up some fruit for snacks later and our local guides. It was my brother’s and parents’ first time at a Latin American market so that was quite the experience in itself for them. On our drive down to where we were starting the hike, our local guides showed us an old grave that they had found when working to expand the road. They had already taken a pipe they had originally found but the bones were still there, still mostly covered (apparently these indigenous communities have their own rules about archeological findings so taking the pipe was not illegal, maybe…). We finally made it down the dirt road and got ready to start our hike but instead of heading out on the trail we took off our shoes and headed down into a mellow river bed. The rocks raising up on either side of us as we walked through the river were colored red, white, orange and green from the mineral rich water dripping down. We arrived to a waterfall surrounded by the same colorful rocks and took in the view. It was really incredible and my dad, a rock nerd, was really getting into identifying which mineral produced which color and explaining it all to our guide. After climbing out of the river bed, we started out on our hike to Hierve el Agua, another water feature on a cliff whose mineral-rich waters had turned the whole cliff face white. We walked through the dry landscape seeing patches of mezcal growing every so often and the wild varieties popping up along the way as well. It was quite a hot day and the climb up the Hierve el Agua was not easy, we definitely got a workout in. The views approaching the cliffs were beautiful and we crossed into another community’s land before arriving. When we crossed the boundary we went through a gate in the fence that stretched out in either direction as far as you could see.
Hierve el Agua was impressive to see, with a natural infinity pool on the cliff’s edge and swirly white mineral deposits breaking up the water into smaller pools. Being the Sunday before New Year’s, it was quite crowded so it was impossible to get a clear foto of the whole area but we enjoyed our time refreshing ourselves in the water. After, we went to a comedor for lunch of quesadillas, the Oaxacan version of sopes, chorizo, carne de res, freshly made guacamole and agua de limón followed by a dessert of sugar cane sticks. It was maybe the first time my parents had seen someone cooking over an open fire and they were quite impressed by it. On our way back to Oaxaca, we stopped at another mezcal distillery, El Rey de Matatlán. This one was marketed for tour buses from Oaxaca but the lack of authenticity was partly made up for the wide variety of wild agave mezcales. We left feeling bad for the poor espadín who kept getting disparaged by the man conducting our tasting as having “absolutely no flavor!”
We got back to Oaxaca feeling tired though we rallied for New Year’s Eve and headed out in search of a place to ring in the new year. After trying at about 5 different places we finally made it in to what seemed like the only restaurant downtown that wasn’t exclusively taking reservations. We made it to midnight but shortly after headed back to the B&B to rest. The next morning was our first real breakfast at La Casa de mis Recuerdos which did not disappoint in flavor or presentation. We had decided that day to go to Monte Alban, an archeological site of a prehispanic city probably used for ceremonies and to house the ruling priest class. I thought that there would be tour guides available for hire there (like at some other archeological sites I’ve been to) but there were not so we leisurely wandered around the city. Reading the signs explains a little but we definitely missed having more of a background of who these people were and what they did. Despite the lack of historical knowledge, it was quite impressive just seeing the carvings and climbing up the stairs built onto the buildings to admire the view.
Once we got back to Oaxaca, we headed to lunch at Sabina Sabe (not sure if the name comes from María Sabina who is the woman who made Huautla, Oaxaca famous for their magic mushrooms). We split lots of dishes again and for the first time my family ate chapulines, grasshoppers (though they were blended into a sauce so it doesn’t completely count), which is a traditional Mexican food. The restaurant itself is again a mix of hip with traditional with their drink list made up of mezcal and artisanal Mexican beers. With our bellies full, we headed out to explore the city and were immediately sucked in to the handicraft stores. Although we never even made it to the mercado, we stocked up on barro negro (a black ceramic typical to Oaxaca), rugs from Teotitlan del Valle (a neighboring town), and other Oaxacan handicrafts.
For our last night in Oaxaca, we learned from our New Year’s Eve lesson and made a reservation at Casa Oaxaca, which seems to be a local hotspot. We could see why a reservation was needed after our delicious meal accompanied by live music. We sat inside but snuck upstairs to the roof afterwards and were immediately jealous of the people who had been seated there. This was perhaps the tastiest food we had enjoyed so far in Oaxaca, which is saying a lot as we had eaten really well before this. Oaxaca certainly lived up to its culinary reputation.
We spent our last morning enjoying squash flower omelets for breakfast and while my mom, Nick and Ally took it easy at the B&B, my dad and I did some last-minute rug buying and finally went inside Santo Domingo (so much gold!). We then said farewell to Conchita and her husband to begin our 7 hour trip to Huatulco. This part of our trip I had thought about a lot, looking into the different options to cross the mountain range to arrive in Huatulco. The bus goes on a less intense route but took 9 hours instead of 7 and had a limited schedule. I decided to go through Expresos Colombo to be able to have a little bit more time in Oaxaca and to save us a few hours. I had heard that this drive was quite treacherous and that some of these van drivers drove like crazy people so I tried to find a company that seemed a little more VIP. The trip started off well enough, the van was seemingly new and pretty spacious and after the first few hours I was wondering what everyone was making such a big deal about. After our halfway break though, the road really began to twist and turn, so much so that you had to have a death grip on the handrests to avoid getting tossed around with every curve despite our driver’s reasonable speed. Around this time they also started playing a deafeningly loud dubbed version of one of the Transformer movies and my dad really went over the edge. I had to yell at the driver to pull over as my mom was telling me my dad was going to throw up any second. Luckily, he ended up not vomiting but he and my sister both armed themselves with plastic bags for the rest of the trip and Nick tried to zen out with his noise cancelling headphones but still got a migraine. It was dark by the time we finally arrived in Huatulco and stepped out into the heat. When we arrived at our fancy resort, all dingy and nauseous from our trip, we had a bit of a mini culture shock as we as gringos once again became the majority and I stopped having to translate for my family. My brother turned to me then and said laughing, “Well I don’t think I’ll get the chance to practice any Spanish here”. Without even checking out the beach or the resort, we found the closest place to eat from our rooms and headed to bed, excited yet already missing Oaxaca.
Stay tuned for my next post about our time in Huatulco…