Due to a delayed connecting flight and a few rigid US security officers we are about to miss our flight to our next adventure: Mexico. Luckily that flight is delayed as well and we arrive as planned in Mexico City. We consider staying in the DF, Distrito Federal as the Mexicans call their capital, for a couple of days. But with visits to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, Las Vegas and LA in less than two months we’ve had our fair share of big cities. We want some relaxing weeks at the coast. Do nothing. Because sometimes traveling is hard work ;-).
We take the bus to Oaxaca. Situated midway between Mexico City and Oaxaca’s Pacific coast we have chosen Oaxaca de Juárez, capital of the namesake state, as the cultural hub in between. Oaxaca is famous for its colonial architecture (the old center is a Unesco World Heritage Site), the production of mezcal, a variety of moles (a type of sauce), chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and chocolate. Lots of chocolate! On top of that there’s the archeological site of Monte Albán (also World Heritage) nearby. And a big tree. Anyway, good for a few days of exploring.
The first two days we ramble the streets surrounding the Zócalo (the central place). It’s crowded. People have already started to do the shopping for Dia de Muertos. Besides being a tourist attraction the Zócalo also has an important social function as a meeting place for the locals. Which is why during our visit the streets are covered with plastic canvas to provide some shadow for the people camping underneath. People are obviously preparing for a protest. The missing students probably. Unfortunately the canvasses are also blocking the views on the beautiful multicolored houses and the square itself.
Luckily the street scene gets better at the Andador de Macedonia Alcala, a wide pedestrian street. Where you also find the 16th century Santo Domingo de Guzmán, one of Oaxaca’s major sights.
Another thing Oaxaca is famous for is its cuisine. And then mole (type of sauce) in particular. There seem to be 7 different moles that are usually served over meat. I think I may have had a mole or two. Or were that frijoles?. I can’t really comment on the moles. Let’s say if I had them they weren’t very impressive. Might have to try again.
In the beginning we were anyhow not impressed with the Mexican food. It’s a lot of tacos, quesadillas or other tortilla based dishes with frijoles (black beans). And a general lack of vegetables. We’ve found our way around now (and had some really good tacos on the way too) but still… we are not a big fan of the Mexican cuisine yet.
But with regard to one of the city’s other speciality – chocolate – Oaxaca lives up to one’s expectation. The area around Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a couple of blocks south of the Zócalo, and specially Mina street is full of chocolate houses. The chocolate is being produced directly from cocoa beans, cinnamon sticks and/or almond nuts and the procedure can be observed right in front of your eyes. These chocolate houses are good places for purchasing chocolate or even have your own customized chocolate made.
Meanwhile we see people sit with a cup of hot chocolate at the other side of the room. Drinking chocolate and having it with food, as a mole, are the usual ways to enjoy chocolate in Oaxaca. We order two cups of hot chocolate made of big chunks of their chocolate. It’s really good. We can definitely say that Mayordomo has the best (hot) chocolate we have ever tasted. Would go back for that alone.
Our favorite in the series “how things are made”: the magic chocolate machine
After having strolled all the streets of the historical centre at least twice we decide to broaden our horizons and go visit some places around. Looking at tours there are basically two options available:
- To the archaeological site of Monte Albán.
- To Hierve el Agua (a natural infinity pool), El Tule (the worlds widest tree) and the archaeological site of Mitla.
And then both of the tours have a pottery, mezcal factory or weaver thrown in to complete the program. But with about 200 pesos per person the tours aren’t exactly cheap. And then most of the visited sites have their own entrance fees on top.
Monte Albán is nice. It’s a pre-Columbian archaeological site situated atop an artificially leveled ridge in a low mountain range just outside Oaxaca. Instead of a tour we choose to visit Monte Albán by ourselves using the shuttle bus organized from the tour agency in the lobby of Hotel Rivera de Angel (518 Francisco Mina). It’s 50 pesos for a return ticket and the entrance fee to the site itself is 60 pesos.
While Monte Albán is a beautiful place, I often get bored soon on sites like this. I see it’s beautiful, I take some pictures. I walk around a bit and read some of the information panels. But it’s difficult to visualize how things were at that time. Would make a good app. Hover over an archaeological site and get to see how things must have been at the time.
Hierve de Agua
The day after we decided on the last moment to join a tour to Hierve de Agua, a rock formation with a natural infinity pool. Going there by public transport is quite an undertaking so it’s best done on a tour.
First stop is in Santa María del Tule.
Santa María del Tule is home to El Arbol del Tule, the worlds’ biggest tree. Biggest? I got a little confused. Hadn’t we just seen the General Sherman in Sequoia NP on our road trip through California? And wasn’t that the worlds’ biggest? Now it seems that General Sherman is the biggest in volume and El Arbol del Tule has the worlds’ widest trunk. Something learned.
On the way to Mitla we briefly stop at a weaver where we learn about the process of dying the wool with only natural materials. Like with tiny insects that live inside the cactus. Something learned again.
The next stop is the main destination: El Hierve del Agua. The first sight on the pool is frightening. “This is it?” many of us wonder looking at the dirty water. We at the wrong place, it’s the neglected pool of some sort of run-down resort. The guy at the toilets points us in the right way. After a 5 minute walk the beautifully shaped pool formed by limestone appears on the edge of the cliff. The views are amazing. A natural infinity pool indeed.
And refreshing. Unfortunately we can only stay for about an hour. The tour must go on.
After lunch there are two visits left: Mitla and the mezcal factory. First to Mitla, after Monte Alban the second most important archaeological site in this area. But with us still templed out from yesterday’s visit to Monte Alban, we decide to give it a miss. That’s how we end up in the Mezcal factory across the street…
While the rest of our tour group is studying the ruins of Mitla we are invited by the owner of the factory to have an explanation about mezcal. We learn about the different types of agave, the production process and how to give a specific taste to the Mezcal.
Mezcal is a Mexican distilled spirit that is made from the agave plant. Like tequila. But mezcal is not the same as tequila. Tequila is technically a mezcal but tequila is made of only the blue agave while mezcals can be made out of 28 varieties of agave.
There are 3 categories of mezcal, based on their age:
- Joven: clear, young, un-aged mezcal that results directly from the distillation process.
- Reposado: aged in wood barrels from three months to as much as three years.
- Añejo: aged in wood barrels for a minimum one to three years (depending on the standards of the factory)
And then there are several different joven mezcals like Tobala or Pechuga, where use a turkey breast in the distillation process.
On to the festive part: the tasting! 🙂
Mezcal has to be drunk straight but not as a shot. It’s like sipping a scotch. Mezcal has a bit of a smoky flavor that makes it fairly easy to distinguish from tequila. It also tastes sweeter, or richer, than tequila. The owner gives me one mezcal after the other while he tells about the differences (all in Spanish, we’re learning fast). In the meantime the glasses seem to getter fuller every round. It’s interesting to taste the different types (and getting drunk at the same time).
But I’m good. I can differentiate a Silvestre from a Pechuga and a Tobala. Apparently mezcal goes well with Chapulines (fried grasshoppers with chili, another Oaxacan speciality) and as such… had to try that too. They’re actually pretty ok, like a crispy snack. But it’s the salt and chili that do the trick. Excellent appetizer.
Oh, and the mezcal factory included in the tour? Let’s say that it was a good decision to step out of the program and have our own experience…
P.S. After some tequila-related incidents in the past, Carina was this time smart enough to keep it to the Crema de Mezcal, the women’s version 😉