Oaxaca City is a UNESCO-listed colonial city located in a picturesque valley within the Sierra Madre mountain range in southern Mexico. The area has been inhabited since very ancient times and was the cradle of the Zapotec civilization, but no less than 16 ethno-linguistic groups live in the state of Oaxaca. With its ancient sites, colonial period architecture, numerous indigenous markets and handicraft villages, Oaxaca offers a whole host of excellent local cuisine choices, crafts and heritage.
It was a little over 6 hours in a shuttle bus from Pochutla, the main transit town for bus connections down near Mazunte on the coast. Best to take a travel sickness pill before getting on that shuttle, as it goes up, over and around the mountains, going up as high as 9,000 ft (almost 3,000m) in some areas.
We stayed at Casa Angel Hostel and had initially taken our own private room with bathroom and a balcony to boot. There is a large kitchen / communal area as well as large rooftop terrace looking out towards the mountains. Breakfast is provided, reception staff are helpful, BBQ on a Sunday and movie night on Monday night. With its mountain backdrop and warm air even at 5,000ft, we hit the cobblestoned streets to see what the city was all about and noticed that there are a lot of churches here! I think during the first two hours we were wandering the colonial part of the city we must have stopped into at least 6 of them!
Cycling the villages of Oaxaca
I had booked us onto a cycle tour on day 2 that would start at Monte Alban, the protected UNESCO archeological site that was inhabited over a period of 1500 years byr a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs. The terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Alban were literally carved out of the mountain and are symbols of a sacred topography. This is one of the smaller excavated sites in Mexico, but there are still mounds in the surrounding areas that are still waiting to be uncovered. Unfortunately the Mexican government has said it does not have the money to continue with this.
From Monte Alban, we jumped onto our bikes and headed down hill; well mostly, there were a few steep hills chucked in to keep us on our toes. First stop was at Arrazola which is famous for its wood carvings. They transform pieces of wooden into colourful “alebrijes” – the name of this particular handcraft. There were some stunning pieces there and perhaps we succumbed… finally the thought of buying gifts as this tour comes to an end
Next stop was Cuilapam de Guerrero where we were able to visit this old monastery and pop inside for a look around. It was a very impressive building; from the outside looking almost regal like.
Last stop was the small town of Zaachila, a famous village famous for legends, traditions, its importance to Oaxaca’s history and its food. Alas, neither our guide nor our driver were able to speak very good English so we remain in the dark about the legends and the traditions. However, we did get to walk through the markets and sit down and try some of the local mole, that Oaxaca is so famous for.
Traditional Mezcal tasting in the local villages
For day three in Oaxaca we went mezcal tasting. The day before whilst we had been standing outside our hostel waiting for our cycle tour, another guide had pulled up to collect someone else. I had asked where they were going and he explained that they were going out into the local villages to see how mezcal was traditionally made. I had asked for his card and bingo, we were able to book for the next day.
Mezcal is pretty much Mexican moonshine. You could say that the spirit is a crazy cousin of tequila! Or perhaps it is the other way round, as tequila is a type of mezcal; they both come from the cactus plant but different types. Mezcal can be made from a load of different types of agave, unlike tequila which can only be made from one. Throughout the tour we were given different blends of mezcal to taste; different villages / families produced different types of flavours. There was even one which was distilled with a chicken breast hanging in it to give it a slightly different flavour.
Here its all about quality rather than quantity. Families grow up producing it and traditions have been passed down through the generations. Most mezcal comes from the state of Oaxaca. It starts with the agave plant, which is only ready to harvest after seven or eight years; though this is dependent on the soil in which it is in and if it farmed or wild. The leaves are cut off and they are placed in a special stone lined fire pit, covered and roasted down over a period of four or five days.
Next its time to crush the roasted agave using a special grinding mill. Think a big concrete roll being pulled around the pit by a horse or donkey. This gives the agave a real good squeeze and this is them placed in vats with water added and left to ferment. It is then distilled. At one particular place, during the distillation process they added a chicken breast to give it a slightly different flavour. The fibres are then removed and it is distilled for a second time to get a higher grade of alcohol.
As different types of agave are used, there are different flavours of mezcal to be tasted. I think in the first distillery alone we probably tasted eight of them – I started to loose count and loose my taste buds too! Restaurants, families and locals come directly to the distiller to purchase their mezcal. Forget about it coming out of large vats into bottles; you need to bring your own bottles, labels to write the type of mezcal you are buying and the distiller will pour it from the plastic containers. Check out the photos below.
Chilling, eating and drinking
Day four was a day of chilling, eating and drinking. We had lost our appetites the previous couple of days, bit of an upset stomach and just wasn’t feeling in the mood for food. We had cancelled our full day tour out to Mitle, waterfalls and more mezcal tasting but by noon we were getting cabin fever and probably a little bit hungry. I had an article from the NY Times, titled “36 hours in Oaxaca” which mentioned a great place for brunch, the sister cafe of the well known Casa Oaxaca here in the city. It was 30 minutes walk in apart of town that we had not been to, so off we went.
We were in for a treat. Casa Oaxaca Café served up the best food we had had in the two weeks. Service was excellent. We were sitting in the garden area and it was bright and airy. For an early Saturday afternoon, I was expecting a lot more people there, but only two other tables were seated. Even though we hadn’t been feeling well, wine and margaritas were served up. The margarita was one of the best made we had tasted. As an appetiser, they brought out the large baked potato tortillas and made the tomato salsa in front of us to our preferred picante and with the choice of coriander and fresh onions to be added to the roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic and a tomato stock. This was followed by a beetroot salad with goats cheese
Fried tortillas filled with fish, served with guacamole, cilantro mayonnaise, and a spicy salsa de chile de árbo. Pasta cannelloni filled with crab and topped in a spinach mole.
Desert; well profiteroles and because we tucked in so quickly to them, no picture was taken. Take my word for it though; they were divine and finished off our shared meal off perfectly. And the bill; well all that food with three glasses of wine, margaritas and a coffee was a hefty £43 w(US$54) with tip.
And this was only the start of Oaxaca. Coffee shops to hang out in as they do grow coffee beans in the region. Chill out in Parque Llano with the trees, the fountains, the busy life of Oaxaca. The historic centre. The cultural museum. The Santo Domingo cathedral.