September 2017 Earthquakes in México: One Year Later

On September 19, 2017, I was at work at my office in the neighborhood of La Roma, in Mexico City. One of my coworkers was having a meeting with our graphic designer and my other coworker and I were huddled over our computers. At 1:14pm, I felt a swaying motion and looked up, locking eyes with our visitor. One of my coworkers yelled, “Está temblando” (It’s an earthquake!) and we all scrambled out from behind our desks. I instinctively grabbed my purse and phone and rushed down toward the stairs behind my coworkers. As I attempted to go down the curved stairway, the swaying motion shifted to a violent vertical heaving and I had to put my hands against the wall to stay upright. I heard a loud crash behind me and proceeded to run down the stairs, jumping over the bicycle our designer had left in the hallway that was now blocking the door and hearing another loud crash, this time of glass breaking, somewhere next to me. When I got out the door, my coworkers motioned to me from behind a car and we all crouched down in the street, using the car as a potential shield for falling debris. Someone began to pray but I was too in shock to even think, still feeling the ground sway back and forth beneath me.

When the swaying mostly stopped, we all stood up and took stock, making sure we and those around us were ok. I remember an older woman next door walking toward us crying and my coworker went to hug her. Our office building was still standing, as were all the buildings we could see, though there was a large cloud of dust forming down the street. Everyone began checking their phones, calling or texting relatives to see if they were ok. Germán called me to see if I was ok and I managed to send a message to my family telling them what had happened and that I was ok before the networks got overloaded and shut down. Not sure what the extent of the earthquake was and unsure what to do, we began to walk towards the cloud of dust. The air began to smell of gas and a passing police officer told those who were lighting up cigarettes to put them out because of gas leaks. About one block from our office the cloud of dust was coming from a collapsed building. We asked around to the crowd of people that had started to form and it appeared that no one had been inside. It was so odd to see two buildings standing on either side and this one just slumped over in between them.

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Police had already started to congregate at this building and when we tried to continue down the street someone stopped us, saying it was closed because of a gas leak. We wandered back to our office, talking to strangers around us to try to fill in the gaps of our knowledge since internet and cell service was down. We got back to our building and checked the damage, the loud crash behind me had been our printer falling and the second one was the glass-front refrigerator of the tortillería next door. We didn’t see any major damage but also didn’t want to stay inside of any building for too long after seeing the building down the block. Cell service was going in and out at this point and one of my coworkers had still not heard from his mom in Xochimilco and the other was worried about how her neighborhood had fared in the notoriously shaky center of the city, where the earthquake of 1985, fatefully on the same day, had hit hard. So we decided to split up and make our way back to our respective neighborhoods.

The metro was closed which is how I normally got home so I decided to walk to the metrobus. I was able to board the bus with many other people and we started down the street, only to be stopped behind another bus a minute later where we waited, slowly advancing until we reached the next stop and were told that the metrobus was thereby closed. We all got out and joined the crowd of people walking down Insurgentes, one of the main arteries of Mexico City, eerily absent of cars with pedestrians and bikers forming a sort of solemn parade.

A few blocks later we were detoured away from Insurgentes due to a gas leak so I started walking down side streets more or less parallel to Insurgentes, trying to get south. I saw many broken windows and even hospitals evacuating their patients. At this point cars were passing by but they were going slower than I was on foot so I kept walking. Whenever I got service I would check my messages and Google Maps to make sure I was walking in the right direction. Germán had decided to stay a little while longer in Polanco since the traffic leaving there, normally very heavy, was surely intense. He ended up getting a ride from a coworker to Del Valle, most of the way home for him, but I was already passing by when he was just leaving Polanco so I went on alone. I walked and walked until I got to my municipality of Coyoacan, then got on a bus for the equivalent of the last two metro stops then walked some more. I probably walked more than 6 miles that afternoon and arrived home with my feet all chewed up from my shoes that I had not planned to walk in all afternoon. Germán’s mom, a professor at the UNAM, and her TA were at our apartment as the UNAM is right around the corner so they were riding out the “susto” (scare) and the traffic at our house.

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My apartment, built on volcanic rock, was completely fine. Even the pair of tall vases on my table were upright with their flowers still within them. By the time I got home, hours had passed and the power and other services had been restored in my neighborhood. We swapped stories and listened to the news and I began to find out that many had not been nearly so lucky as me. The 7.1 earthquake had its epicenter to the south of the city of Puebla, about 80 miles from Mexico City, and at final count killed 361 people and injured 6,011. Thousands of buildings collapsed or were badly damaged by the quake. All that night we watched the news and saw videos of building after building collapse, many with people trapped inside. Germán’s mom ended up staying with us that night as the city was still in chaos but early the next morning we went with her to her home in Tlalpan and then went to Costco to get emergency supplies to donate to rescue efforts and shelters that were springing up all over. We spent the rest of that day at a supply center next to a collapsed school moving water, food, shovels, medical supples, clothes, etc. in a human chain, loading up cars that were going to the most affected zones: Condesa, Roma, Xochimilco and further south to the mountains of Puebla where it was rumored damages were widespread in the hard to reach communities.

In the following days the relief effort became more organized. There were designated supply centers and an army of cyclists that transported supplies from place to place, avoiding congesting the streets with traffic so that emergency vehicles could pass through. In order to verify where supplies were still needed and what needed to be moved there, giant networks of communication were formed through WhatsApp to identify those needs in real time. In contrast to the response to the 1985 earthquake, the ax1PG8W_460sgovernment had a strong presence in supply centers and rescue sites alike. We all got to know Frida, the yellow lab on the Nay search and rescue team who wore goggles and booties to investigate the rubble, saving 52 people from collapsed buildings. Despite the recent tragedy, there was an incredible outpouring of support and strong sense of community in the city. Although many restaurants and businesses were closed in the days after the earthquake, some restaurants opened to serve free meals to volunteers, and psychiatrists and therapists volunteered their services at supply centers and shelters to help survivors and volunteers deal with the trauma.

Only a few days later, on Saturday, September 23rd, we were woken up to the earthquake alarm and rushed out the house, reliving the fear and anxiety of earlier that week. While in Mexico City this earthquake just brought up our collective trauma, it toppled buildings and caused more casualties in Oaxaca. This 6.1 quake was actually an aftershock of the 8.1 earthquake that hit Oaxaca just weeks before, on September 7th. And while help and international support were pouring into Mexico City, the people of Oaxaca, especially in the Istmo region, were lacking in supplies and aid.

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Istmo de Tehuantepec, Oaxaca (Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oaxaca_Valley)

Supplies kept getting donated however, and now the people of Mexico City did direct some of that to help Oaxaca.  This trio of deadly earthquakes in one month, with aftershocks happening practically every day, inspired international giving, and I had family and friends inquiring how best to support the country in this trying time. That was actually a difficult question to answer, there was of course the Red Cross, the volunteer rescue squads, the government reconstruction, and a wide variety of smaller nonprofits with their own specific mission. Donations to the Red Cross do not go 100% to rescue and relief efforts (which as a nonprofit professional I am very ok with and wish everyone could get over this fear, but that’s a story for another day) so many were looking to donate elsewhere. The volunteer rescue squads were a good cause but they were flooded with donations after the earthquake and it was unsure what they would do with all that money after their supply needs were met. And there were serious concerns with the government that ended up being justified.

Once the immediate aftermath passed and the task turned to the reconstruction of much of the country, the government’s positive force changed to a feet-dragging bureaucratic let down.  It was the government’s responsibility to reconstruct schools but they did so very slowly, many schools did not reopen until December or January, and even then they are learning in temporary structures. Money distributed to families to rebuild their houses did not have any selection criteria and there was little transparency in the process. Especially since the timing of reconstruction coincided with elections, there are suspicions of political cronyism playing a role in this distribution, and even that the government stole some of this money for their campaigns. In Mexico City, there are more than just suspicions of embezzlement, there are three cases of municipal governments not complying with their reconstruction promises and information on amounts of money destined for reconstruction has suspiciously gone missing from the public record. And it was not the case at all that this money was no longer needed for reconstruction, there are still communities, especially in the harder-to-reach areas, that have not been attended to since the earthquake. But even within Mexico City, Xochimilco, a municipality to the south that was hit hard, was without power and water for months.

However, where the government has failed, the nonprofit sector has stepped in. Now, one year later, the money that was donated to funds has been distributed to deserving projects and reconstruction is underway throughout the country. I want to highlight here a couple of amazing funds or projects that I’ve learned about that deserve support and recognition.

Fondo Semillas

Semillas is a feminist organization that aims to improve women’s lives in Mexico. Obviously their reconstruction efforts have this women-led focus, supporting projects directed by women called “Women Rebuilding their Communities“. There are 25 projects that were selected from the many more that applied and the geographic range, though focused on Oaxaca, is all over central and south Mexico. You can like them on Facebook to hear more about the projects which started this July and if you feel inspired to support their efforts you can donate here.

Fondo Levantemos México

This fund has sprung up from the organization Ambulante, an organization that produces documentaries, organizes documentary film festivals and promotes the next generation of documentary film making through training. At the helm of the organization are Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, who fundraised after the earthquake and decided to create a Fund within Ambulante called Levantemos México. The projects are split between those organized by established nonprofits with history in the area and new groups that sprung up after the earthquake to help their community rebuild and recover. Many of the projects focus on rebuilding houses, either distributing typical construction supplies or rebuilding using traditional but forgotten building techniques like reinforced adobe that are actually very earthquake resistant. However, there are also projects that focus on rebuilding the social network in communities or that are trying to reenergize the local economy, especially for the Istmo region where interestingly, many of Mexico’s chips are made. There’s a full breakdown of the 45 projects funded by Levantemos Mexico here showing what they’re working on. And while most of their Facebook is focused on their documentaries, they’re also putting up news on Levantemos México now and again if you want to stay in the loop.

Isla Urbana

One of Levantemos Mexico’s funded projects is headed by my favorite nonprofit in Mexico, Isla Urbana. Isla Urbana’s mission is to increase access to a clean, reliable and affordable water source for Mexicans through rainwater harvesting. In the period after the earthquake when Xochimilco didn’t have power and water, the streets were still badly damaged, which made trucking in water difficult. Isla Urbana had actually been contracted there to install rainwater harvesting systems years before and the people that had those systems were the only ones in their neighborhood that had water. They ended up sharing with their neighbors and called up the municipality to see why more couldn’t be installed. Isla Urbana came in, supported with donations from all over the world, and installed 350 disaster relief systems in houses in San Gregorio, the neighborhood in Xochimilco that was most affected. They’re continuing this work with support from Levantemos México but they are always installing systems throughout Mexico City and beyond to provide a water source for those who do not have one. If you would like to support their work of providing water to the most vulnerable and improving the resiliency of communities, especially after natural disasters like the earthquake, you can donate here or get to know more by following them on Facebook.

Today will be an emotional day for many Mexicans (and people living here, like me), one when we remember the horror of feeling the ground shake beneath us and seeing buildings collapse to the ground, but we will also remember the camaraderie and fellowship of those days afterwards when everyone worked together to help out those in need. In these times of political division and environmental catastrophes, I hope we can hold on to that feeling to face the challenges ahead.

 

A Foodie’s Perfect Day in Oaxaca

Every time I’m in Oaxaca I feel more and more like it really represents the soul of México. It’s the birthplace of mezcal, indigenous cultures and languages are still very present and there are amazing mountains, beautiful beaches and pre-hispanic ruins to explore. In the capital of Oaxaca City, there are so many activities to keep you busy and not to mention amazing art and shopping but one thing really stands out for me: the delicious food. If you appreciate good food and drink and find yourself in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, try out these recommendations to create a perfect foodie day.

Breakfast at Boulenc

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If you’re not staying at a B&B that has breakfast and are looking for a lighter option to pace yourself through your foodie day, then Boulenc Pan Artesano is the perfect option for you. This hipster bakery specializes in sourdough bread, served as sandwiches or with eggs for breakfast. Their menu also includes pizza if you come here later in the day (or if you enjoy pizza for breakfast, who am I to judge?). Their coffee is also on point, I always appreciate a place that serves a good cold brew. They’ve done a great job with the atmosphere, it gives off a warm, homey vibe (though way cooler than any home I’ve lived in). When I was there a live band was playing and the brass instruments really completed the hip throwback vibe.

After breakfast you may crave some intellectually stimulation after the gastronomic experience so head over to the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca to learn about the original indigenous cultures in the state. It’s right next to the Jardín Etnobotánico so if you stayed too long at breakfast enjoying the live music and missed the tour of the gardens (the only way to enter), there’s a wonderful view from the back of the museum. While you’re there, pop into the church of Santo Domingo and marvel at the impressive gold plating.

Mid-Morning Refreshments at Oaxaca en una Taza

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Oaxaca en una Taza means Oaxaca in a mug, and that really is the best description for this little cafe. There is coffee and some assorted breads and small pies but the reason you come here is for the chocolate. Not bars of chocolate but refreshing chocolate drinks made the traditional way. You can get them hot or cold and with milk or water. I prefer the cold chocolate made with water, especially if you need a pick me up after strolling around in the sun. You can get it plain or with other spices mixed in and for an extra charge you can choose the cacao percentage you would prefer. It’s definitely a unique drink, and something you don’t even see that much elsewhere in Mexico. Be sure to give it a try!

In the center of Oaxaca, there is an art gallery practically on every corner so you can continue your cultural experience admiring local art. There is also plenty of places to shop for Mexican artesanía, especially the Oaxacan specialties of black pottery, wool rugs and embroidered tops and dresses. Lunch in Mexico isn’t until 2 or 3 so feel free to work up your appetite as your browse for souvenirs.

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Lunch at Casa Oaxaca

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http://www.casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com/php/spa/index.php

If you’re feeling a little fancy get a reservation ahead of time for this popular (and a little pricey) restaurant. Casa Oaxaca is noticeable for its bright blue exterior and the simple, sophisticated while still a bit traditional vibe continues inside. There are a few interior dining areas and a beautiful roof area overlooking Santo Domingo. The food is elevated traditional Oaxacan and you will not lack for options. It’s really a mind-body experience dining here, where you can feel like you enjoyed a delightful meal and took a deep dive into Oaxacan culture at the same time.

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If you’re impressed by the mole or Oaxacan cheese at lunch and would like to take some home with you, head to the mercado to get a feel for the local hustle and bustle and where you can also buy mole paste, crickets, local cheese, or almost anything else from Oaxaca. The paste will stay good for months even without refrigeration and only needs to be heated up with some chicken or vegetable broth to serve. It’s a great way to impress your friends back home with how much you learned about Mexican culture.

Pre-Dinner Cocktails at Praga Coffee Bar

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Praga Coffee Bar has one of the best views in Oaxaca, directly facing the church of Santa Domingo. Once the sun starts going down, the lights illuminating the church come on and the rooftop terrace becomes the perfect spot to enjoy the golden color of the church at night. With delicious mezcal cocktails, lots of wine and beer options and a selection of tapas and appetizers to whet your appetite, it’s a great spot to start off your night in style.

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If you haven’t walked through the Zocalo yet, you can stroll down the pedestrian road lined with galleries and cafes to get to the main square, where there are always crowds of people selling things and enjoying time with their families. If you didn’t have an appetizer at Praga, you can line up at one of the street carts for ezquites or elotes, my personal favorite street food. They’re corn off or on the cob served with mayo, cheese, chili and lime, which I agree sounds gross but just believe me, they’re amazing. But don’t eat too much, there’s still one more meal to enjoy in this beautiful city!

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Dinner at Zandunga

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Zandunga specializes in food from Istmo, a region on the coast of Oaxaca. The vibe is colorful and friendly and I’m always impressed with the wait staff’s knowledge and demeanor. It has your typical Oaxacan classics but with a bit of a twist. There’s understandably more seafood than you would find in a typical Oaxacan restaurant but even for non-seafood lovers like me there are plenty of options. Their homemade salsas are quite spicy and are served with freshly baked tortillas, I would also start out with their perfectly tangy guac. If you’re here for dinner then you could split a tlayuda or stick with something lighter, like one of their tamales. They also make delicious mezcal cocktails and have a good craft beer selection. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed myself every time I’ve come here, it seems to inspire great conversation and embodies the Oaxacan spirit that I love so much.

If you’re here with the whole family, then you may be ready for bed after dinner, as dinner is usually around 9pm. But if you’re still wanting to sample some of the local drinks to wash down all of the delicious food, there are plenty of options for drinking mezcal, the local craft spirit. Or, if beer is more up your alley, Oaxaca is starting to catch on to the micro brewery movement and there are some delicious craft beers local to the city.

Local Craft Beer at La Santísima Flor de Lupulo

La Santísima Flor de Lúpulo means “The very sacred hop flower” and there is even a hop spirit creature on the wall in the same sort of display that virgins and saints are normally displayed on in Mexico. They are a nano-brewery so there are only a few of their own beers on tap but they have lots of other Mexican and international options as well. And it’s one of the few breweries in Mexico that I’ve seen that has their own Saison! It wasn’t the best Saison I’ve ever tasted but I give them a lot of points for just having one in a country where craft brewing is still very much in the early stages.

Mezcal at La Mezcalerita

If you’re more interested in trying some mezcal, then head over to La Mezcalerita, a comfortable and quirky bar with plenty of options to get your mezcal fix. There’s also craft beer and other drinks if you want to mix it up but the idea is to order a shot of mezcal and a Mexican beer and to switch off sipping between the two. There are some different areas indoors and a giant roof terrace with tables and couches. If you’re there later at night and it starts to get chilly they even let you borrow a nice thick blanket to keep you warm and toasty.

If you’re full of energy and want to keep exploring the nightlife in Oaxaca, you can stroll back down past Santo Domingo until you hear thumping music coming out into the street. Otherwise, it may be time to call it a night so that you can get up tomorrow and continue enjoying all that Oaxaca has to offer you.

Huatulco, Oaxaca

Nick, Ally, and I woke up in our dark, air conditioned room to texts from Mom that her and Dad were drinking coffee by the ocean and we should come see the view. After examining the map to determine where exactly we were going, we ventured out of our room for our first look at the beach. Dreams Resort is right on the ocean in a protected bay with a few islands breaking up the bright blue water. We walked past a few infinity pools to find our parents seated outside at the buffet style restaurant. The slight anxiety we had felt at the extreme culture shift from Oaxaca to an all-inclusive beach resort went away as we took in the ocean views and enjoyed what was actually a pretty good breakfast, though nothing compared to Conchita’s. My parents were excited to be able to communicate with the English-speaking staff though still trying to practice the Spanish words they had learned (I think we all did this out of a feeling of moral superiority over the ignorant gringos who had only come here to sunbathe and day drink). After breakfast we tried to figure out what activities were offered and what we should do in the next few days. We got excited about being able to go kayaking for free but were taken aback at the prices for the tours that the resort offered. Nick and Mom thought that they might indulge in a massage during their stay but after seeing the prices thought better of it. The high prices are especially shocking after seeing how much things cost in “normal” México but even by US standards these seemed high. We determined then that we were not really the all-inclusive resort type (I had known that before but it was definitively confirmed) but also decided to try to take advantage of everything that was included in our stay.

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So we slathered ourselves in sunscreen and put on coverups (we are a pretty pale family) before heading down to the beach to find the kayaks. We waited for enough kayaks to free up for us and then headed out, with the only rule being not to go into the roped off swimming area. Pretty much all of the kayakers were clustered close to the beach, maybe venturing out to the first nearby island but we are a family that grew up kayaking around entire lakes so we struck out past the first island and eventually out to where the bay opened up to the ocean. We saw secluded little inlets and imagined what it would be like to stay in one of the gorgeous houses on the edge of the bay (though we were grateful we weren’t staying in the resort on the other side of the bay which distinctly resembled a freight ship with what looked like smoke stacks rising up out of every building). The water got a lot more choppy as we kayaked around the last island in the bay but it was a welcome challenge and we slowed down to enjoy the moment on our way back in. After returning our kayaks we finally submerged ourselves in the clear water and enjoyed exploring the beach and scrambling over some rocks.

Over lunch at the beachside grill we rather smugly remarked about how we had gone out further than anyone else at the resort though our feelings of superiority didn’t make the subpar food taste much better. That afternoon we took it easy with everyone branching off to do their own thing, I made plans for our next few days and enjoyed the beach (surprisingly, although everyone got up ridiculously early to claim their beach chair and kept their things on it all day to guard it, mostly everyone cleared out around 4pm which made for a nice afternoon experience). That night we decided to try out the Mexican restaurant at the resort but were disappointed once again by the food. The menu was actually pretty authentic, sampling foods from all over Mexico, but the execution was just bad. The chicken was maybe the driest I’ve had in my life and the vegetables that were stuffed inside were boiled down to nothing. We decided then that maybe the buffet really was the best option there. Instead of continuing the all-inclusive fun at the bar, we decided to head to bed as we had planned for a busy next day, trying to squeeze all the fun Huatulco adventures into the next two days we were there.

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We woke up early to go on a mountain biking tour in the National Park with Huatulco Salvaje. Although we had come to the beach, my Dad is not really a beach person and my Mom does not do well with relaxation so I thought the bike trip would be great for us. We showed up at the office and after filling out some paperwork and getting bracelets to enter the park, got our bikes assigned to us. Their bike supply seemed aimed toward shorter people (along with being pale we are also all quite tall) and the gears were not the easiest to shift but the staff was very nice and our guide was determined to speak English. We set off down the road, assured that the National Park was just a few minutes away. When we entered the park our guide explained that it had been designated a protected area because of the biodiversity there that contains a lot of unique animals, especially birds. He had brought along a bird book and stopped every once in awhile to tell us which bird was calling out from the trees along our ride. At first the trail was wide enough for three people to ride abreast and there were occasional sand pits that would bring us to skidding out stops. Just as I was wondering if this would be a there and back trip along a not super fun trail he told us that we could go on another trail that wasn’t technically part of the tour that would take us to the beach. We jumped at the chance and rode onto some single track that got a little bit technical at times but was much more interesting than the wide dusty trail. As we were approaching the beach we rode past some houses that he told us had been there before they designated the area as a National Park and had therefore gotten grandfathered in. When the trail turned to sand we walked the rest of the way through some low trees that opened up into a wide expanse of beach. All sweaty and dirty, we took our shoes off and walked through the waves, amazed by the view. He called it a heart bay (that was not it’s real name I don’t think) because there was an island in the middle of the water so the waves came in in two direction and created a sort of heart shape. We ate the fruit and drank the water that our guide had stuffed into his giant backpack for us and stretched out on the sand. We eventually head back to our bikes, a little sad to enter the forest again but very excited now to see more of the bays in the afternoon. The way back took us along some of the same trails but eventually came to a paved road. My Dad excitedly zipped ahead (my Mom and Dad are pretty into road biking) and we went up and down some pretty intense hills (especially intense when you’re stuck in a high gear and can’t downshift) in the open sun. My face was beet red by the time we finally descended into town again and came to the office for Huatulco Salvaje.

Our guide had told us while at the beach that they also did bay tours and since we had not booked one yet (scoffing at the high price at the resort) we arranged with Huatulco Salvaje to do their sunset bay tour and they gave us a discount for doing two tours in one day. We head back to the hotel to shower and have lunch before our second tour. As we were preparing to leave, we started strategizing how to bring some beer with us on our trip (a lot of these tours have free beer included but ours did not). Since we were staying at an all inclusive hotel we grabbed the beers from our mini fridge but then thought to also call room service to restock our fridge. We thought we were being kinda sneaky to bring them out of the hotel so we laughed when we requested the tops to stay on. Even after the first delivery we decided that we simply did not have enough beers and decided to call room service again. But it took longer than expected so my mom and I decided to start leaving to grab a taxi. One our way past the hallway supply closet, where a few hotel employees were restocking the beverages, I stopped to ask if they happened to have any beers they could get us. All the hotel employees there were pretty universally surprised and delighted to have a guest speak better than broken Spanish to them and to make a long story short, we ended up with backpacks full of beer as well as some snacks! Because of the beer situation we arrived slightly late for our tour but we immediately went to the dock, met our guide and hopped on the boat to head to the first bay. We excitedly sat up front and between the rough waters and all the weight being up front, Ally and I got soaked from the constant spray for the first 20 minutes. We reluctantly went to the back when we got to the first bay but were hardly sprayed after that and still got a good view. The bays in Huatulco are pristinely beautiful, with clear blue ocean meeting undeveloped white sand and steep rock faces then green forest followed finally by the mountain range that we had crossed to get here. When we got to the second bay on our trip Dad and I decided that we really couldn’t go on a bay tour without taking a dip. The water was crisp but not too cold and as we climbed back on the boat we finally cracked open a beer (we had definitely overestimated our beer drinking on this trip). The last bay we went into had the most amazing view of the four, with the mountain range clearly visible behind it. At that point it was nearing sunset so our guide took us straight out away from the shore to get the best view of the sun sinking behind the water. The sky turned bright orange and then pink as some clouds came in and the sea rocked under us. After taking a million pictures and only drinking about 2/3 of the beer we headed back in to the dock. We unloaded happy from our boat ride and had a pleasant chat with the Huatulco Salvaje staff as we waited for our taxis to take us back. Back at the hotel, we decided to forego trying one of the fancy restaurants and ate at the outdoor buffet they had set up which was pleasantly not bad at all. Mom and Dad decided to explore the resort a little more to see what was going on but Nick, Ally and I decided to stroll on the beach on the way back to our room, excited for the day of surfing we had planned for the next day.

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I had found a surf instructor in my Lonely Planet guidebook whose contact was through his facebook page so we had set up an informal surf lesson (more of a surf rental with a hands off guide) in a town about 40 minutes away for midday on Friday.  He had also gotten a taxi to bring us there and back which was about the same price as getting one on our own so we met our taxi driver outside the hotel (minus Dad who had decided to head into town instead of surf due to his tendancy to become a lobster when out directly in the sun on the beach. We drove into Barra de la Cruz which is a small, pleasant town relatively untouched by the tourist industry. Once at the beach we followed the Surf Lessons sign to find Pablo and a nice big shady tent on the beach where the instructors were (some other family had paid for the real lesson which apparently included an individual instructor per person and a tent on the beach). We had to wait for said family to stop and give up a few of their boards so that we could head into the water. We had our guide stick to my mom, who likes having more personalized instruction and we tried to get some waves. My sister lived for awhile in one of the surf meccas in Costa Rica so she knew what she was doing and Nick and I had both tried surfing when we went to visit her. Nonetheless, we struggled out there. Surfing is physically tiring from all the paddling and staying in the same spot as wave after wave comes over you but also mentally tiring, examining each wave as it comes in and getting frustrated as you put all your effort into trying to catch one that turns out to be a dud. I did stand up a lot more though than the first time I tried and I even managed to actually sort of surf (instead of just standing up right at the end of the wave which is what I mostly did). I was not quite confident enough though to hop up from lying down so after a few hours my knees were really bruised from getting up first on them every time. Content with my progress for the day, I headed in to join my Mom (who had tapped out earlier after being whacked in the head with her board and then face-planting in the water). Ally joined us to enjoy the waves sans board as Nick tried for awhile longer to get up some more. We left Barra de la Cruz satisfied with our effort but not sure that life as an avid surfer was in the cards for most of us. After finding Dad at the hotel and grabbing some lunch we had our final activity planned for the trip – a photo shoot.

My Mom had insisted on the shoot after finding out that the hotel had a photographer on staff who did the shoot for free, you just had to purchase the pictures afterwards. My mom had been obsessed with the idea of getting a family photo shoot on this trip even before she learned of the photographer so there was no stopping her then. We tried to find semi-coordinating nice outfits (since we had not planned on doing this as we packed)  and met our spunky photographer on the beach. After being friendly teased into various poses (she called Ally twin the whole time instead of her name) and getting our lower body soaked from sitting on the beach as a wave came in, we finished up and grabbed some margaritas as we waited for her to do some quick edits. The feistiness of our photographer grew as she tried to speed us through picking out 14 pictures from the 200+ she had taken (we may not have been the best at consensus and the margaritas didn’t help). We finally ended up with some good shots and we headed over to the “fiesta” the hotel was having on the patio. Surprisingly, the Mexican buffet food at the fiesta was significantly better than at the Mexican restaurant and although the fiesta included some cheesy cruise-ship type antics like seeing who could do the best grito they had a folk dance group that was quite good and a mariachi that even played “Despacito”. Despite looking down at the unauthentic-ness of it, I actually had some fun singing along with my mom and watching the dances. We headed back to the room afterwards to pack for our departure the next day while my sister hurredly submitted an application to grad school. We went to sleep for the last time in Huatulco, slightly anxious for our return trip over the mountains the next morning.

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During our time in Huatulco we had been searching for a less vomit-inducing way to return to Oaxaca. Charter planes and buses were considered but we finally ended up paying our concierge’s neighbor with a van to take us there. We were able to leave at 5am instead of 3am with Expresos Colombo and he was picking us up right at the hotel and dropping us off at the airport (since the airport in Oaxaca is about 40 minutes south of the city it saved us a fair amount of time on that end). So in typical Croteau family fashion we were a little late in the morning but this time loaded up with Dramamine. We spent most of the trip napping and admiring the view and before we knew it we were at the airport – definitely a better experience than our first mountain crossing. Since we had even arrived early we checked our bags and headed to grab some breakfast before going through security. We finished up and headed to security only shortly before our flight (the Oaxaca airport is pretty tiny). As we went through security my mom’s carry on got flagged and a security guard took it aside to open it up. “Any liquids in here?” to which Mom responded, “No, of course not” forgetting that she had packed her carry on days ago and had put the mezcal they had bought at the distillery in that bag. The security guard soon found it and let us know that this would not get through. As the best Spanish speaker in the group I took the bag and went back out to bag check to check it for the flight. However, when I got back there and explained what had happened and how I wanted to check it the Volaris representative flatly denied my request, saying that it was too late and the computer wouldn’t let her. In a normal airport I would have understood this because it takes time to get through and they can’t guarantee that it’ll get on the plane. But she was literally steps away from the airplane and, in my opinion, could have done something. I tried complaining and protesting a bit but she was not budging. So I dejectedly went back to security and tried to offer it the two bottles of mezcal and a bottle of agave to the security guards which is apparently illegal for them to accept and they told me to throw it in the trash! Not accepting the trash as an option, I went back out of security, leaving my bag in the x-ray conveyor belt area and grabbed the first airport employee I could find, a little old lady sweeping. I explained to her that they wouldn’t let it through and told her it was good quality stuff and I hoped her or someone in her family would enjoy it. She accepted it with a big smile which somewhat soothed the aggravation I felt toward stupid Mexican airline rules (it isn’t just Volaris, all the national airlines have horrible customer service and are just looking to screw you over at every opportunity). I told my family the sad story and we spent the short flight would’ve could’ve should’ve-ing.

We tried to move past the sadness of losing the mezcal once we landed in Mexico City and headed to my house to drop off our stuff, meet up with Germán and head out to explore the city. Nick and Ally still had a few souvenirs they wanted to get so we went to La Ciudadela and literally got lost amongst the maze of stands but managed to get some good stuff. Bags full and bellies empty, Germán and I insisted we get tacos for dinner – a Mexican staple that they had not had as of yet. We went to one of our favorite places, El Tizoncito (they give you a tower of salsas with chips which includes delicious bean dip which we always ask them to refill at least 5 times) and tried to make recommendations for everyone. For Nick and Dad, they needed to try some variation of tacos al pastor, which is slices of pork skewered on an rotating sort of upright spit topped with a pineapple to give it lots of juice and flavor. You see the trompos all over the place when you walk around Mexico City and it is definitely a local must-have. For Mom and Ally, more vegetarian-minded, I recommended the veggie tacos (mushroom, cactus and rajas [slices of poblano peppers]). As we were waiting for our tacos and devouring salsa and beans, my mom saw a slightly guacamole-looking salsa and dipped in deep with her chip. When she put it into her mouth her eyes opened as wide as I’ve ever seen them and she had to spit out what was actually habanero salsa into a napkin. For those of us who hadn’t taken an accidental bite of super spicy salsa it was really funny but Mom had to down multiple glasses of water and kept feeling it for the rest of the meal. Full and content with our meal, we walked toward Paseo de la Reforma to stroll along the street that was modeled after Le Champs-Élysées and see the Ángel de la Independencia. Since our energy levels were quite low at this point we grabbed an uber to skip over the middle section of Reforma and got dropped off at Alameda, a beautiful park next to Bellas Artes, the impressive opera palace/cultural center. From there we cut through the crowds on the pedestrian streets to the Zócalo, the main plaza in Mexico City. The Christmas decorations were still up which included a giant tree, lights spelling out Feliz Navidad and even an ice skating rink. We enjoyed the festive spirit for a bit before getting an uber to head back to my house for the night, tired from our full week of travel. Mom. Dad and Nick were heading out Sunday afternoon (Ally spent another day in CDMX and flew back to Peru on Tuesday) so when we woke up they spent some time packing and then we headed to Coyoacán for breakfast, to a place Germán and I hadn’t been to but seemed to have good reviews, La Vianet. We wanted a place that would have a traditional Mexican breakfast and this place fit the bill. As always with a traditional Mexican breakfast, we chowed down on the pan dulce that they place in front of you to go with your coffee. I recommended chilaquiles to Nick (which I got too, it’s one of my favorite Mexican dishes) and even my does’t-like-eggs father was content with his enchiladas. Mom probably would have preferred something lighter but that is not in the style of traditional Mexican breakfasts. Although our original plan had been to stroll around the center of Coyoacán for a bit afterwards, we didn’t have enough time after breakfast. So we went back to my house and got everyone all ready for the airport. It’s always hard saying good bye to my family since I usually don’t know when I’ll see them again. But despite the sadness my heart was full of love and my head full of the wonderful memories we had created together in the last week. They left with promises (or maybe urging from me) to return and get a better feel for Mexico City, which they had barely scratched the surface of.

Overall, this trip was a perfect mix of urban and beach adventures, full of delicious food and amazing sights enjoyed with wonderful people who I love with all my heart. I’m already daydreaming about returning to Oaxaca to see what we didn’t have time to and drink in more of the amazing culture, and the mezcal! 😉

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

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.

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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.

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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 has turned the whole cliff face white. We walked through the dry landscape seeing patches of agave 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.

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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 Albán, 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 in Mexico) 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, a local culinary 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.

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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.

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Our last B&B breakfast was delicious
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Santo Domingo
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La Virgen de Guadalupe

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 armrests 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.

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You can read about the rest of our trip in Huatulco over here. And if you’re thinking of going to Oaxaca and like to eat and drink (and I mean, who doesn’t??), check out my guide for a perfect foodie day in Oaxaca. Or, pin this article for future reference 😉