Oaxaca This Way

When we first pulled into the outlying parts of Oaxaca City, we thought, this is what we drove 6.5 hours to see? But as soon as we turned into the colonial downtown we knew right away we made the right decision.

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Zócalo

We arrived late in the day, but after a spin around the Zócalo (the main square and center of town), a leisurely bite to eat and an evening of people watching, Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka) began to live up to its billing.   Oaxaca evokes an old European city with a special Mexican touch.  On this and most Sunday evenings the Zócalo is filled with live music, people dancing, families strolling and lovers embracing. IMG_6642

What we found so fascinating was that, even though this is an old city, full of churches, gorgeous old stone buildings, churches, cobble stoned streets, and did I mention churches, it not only preserves the historical but also celebrates the new.

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Church of San Francisco

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Bummed out Jesus

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

The churches range from the highly baroque to the modestly simple and everything in between.  Most of them are working churches and not museum pieces. But Santa Domingo’s former monastery now is home to the fascinating Museum of Oaxacan Cultures and Botanical Garden.

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Museum of Oaxacan Cultures

Blue Tile Skull at Museum of Oaxacan Cultures

Blue Tile Skull at
Museum of Oaxacan Cultures

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view from Museum of Oaxacan Cultures across to Santa Domingo

Pipe Organ in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

Pipe Organ in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

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hand embroidered shirts

DCIM100GOPROIndigenous peoples sell their crafts on the streets and in the markets and along other streets you’ll find young artists selling their creations.

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Art students selling their graphic tshirts

Young people freely show their passion towards each other as well as their political passions through physical protests and visual ones.  The political graffiti is fascinating.  DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO

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oil protest

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Pedestrian only streets

It was just enjoyable walking through the city taking in the bright colors and finding delightful courtyards behind wooden doors.  Impressive stone homes from the 1600s still

stand and house both historical and contemporary museums, art galleries, libraries and host film festivals.  IMG_6778  Click here to check out the cool doors of Oaxaca.

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Museum of Contemporary Art

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Public Library

DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO What also is special about Oaxaca is the number of indigenous people who live here.  We heard estimates that the many indigenous groups, the Zapotec and Mixtec people being the dominate ones, make up 1/3 of the population of Oaxaca, with many of them speaking their languages and not Spanish.   IMG_6782 20140219_104249                                                                                  The woman are tough cookies; strong and noble.   One lady let me have it when I was taking a street shot outside the market place and she did not want to be a part of my tableau.   You don’t have to speak Zapotecan to know she was pissed off.   From then on, I asked for permission to take photos, even if it was of a piece of fruit.   And they always said yes.   Speaking of fruit, click here to read about the food.

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Oaxaca Means Food

This is a food town for sure, with corn, chocolate and mezcal being the cornerstones.  Once again what is compelling about Oaxaca is the way they preserve and celebrate their traditions, but also welcome the modern take on them.  And food is no exception, from the fantastic marketplaces and family restaurants, to today’s chefs putting new twists on locals dishes.

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Comal (griddle) heating nopal (catus)

La Biznaga restaurant

La Biznaga restaurant

Food vendors outside Juarez Market

Food vendors outside Juarez Market

hot cakes

Late night snacks.

Comida

Comida, is the main meal of the day.  It includes  sopa (soup) or ensalada, a main dish and postre (dessert). It is often accompanied by an agua fresca(fruit flavored water). That is the milky looking drink on the table.

One tradition is chapulines, baked and spiced grasshoppers. They sell them by the bagful in the marketplace, but we also saw them on restaurant menus. And yes, we did try them. We just sampled some from a street vendor. Peter’s was spicy and crunchy and mine tasted like a dill pickle and crunchy. Let’s just say we can check that off the list.

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Who knew there were so many grasshopper?

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Cautious, but I did it!

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Unlike Lay’s Potato Chips, you CAN just eat one chapuline.

Chocolate comes in numerous forms from a beautifully crafted hot chocolate to the famous mole poblano.  The complex sauces can be bought throughout the markets and of course ordered in restaurants.  Many debate if there are 6 or 7 official types of moles, so Peter decided not to try just one and ordered a tasting that came with roasted pork in 6 different moles.

6 mole sampler

6 mole sampler

Hot chocolate

Mixing the hot chocolate

Hot and cold chocolate drinks are made with the same intensity as your coffee barista.  They scoop steaming milk into ceramic pitchers and break in chunks of dark chocolate from solid bars and feverishly mix and froth with a traditional wooden dowel called molinillo (moh-lee-NEE-yoh)

One thing Oaxaca is really into is Mezcal – not the rot gut downed by Hollywood banditos, but rather high-end, aged clear Mezcal, sin worm. Mezcal is made from maguey, a type of agave and is meant to be sipped straight. Thanks to a tip from our friend George, we went to a little hole in the wall mezcaleria called In Situ. Its walls were lined with hundreds of bottles of Mezcal, and only Mezcal.

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In Situ mezcaleria

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Owner, Ulisses Torrentera, and friends at the bar

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Bottles of mezcal

IMG_6660 The liqueur is made in dozens of factories around Oaxaca, from Mom and Pop shacks to fancy places with tasting rooms that would not look out-of-place in Napa.  A red-cheeked round little man named Ulisses Torrentera runs In Situ, and he wrote the book on Mezcal (literally – he handed us the book he wrote but alas it was in Spanish).  However, even with his limited English and our nearly non-existent Spanish we learned a great deal from him and tasted several varieties before settling on a bottle with a nice smokey flavor to bring back to the boat.

The bottle we took home.  Traditional mezcal is drunk from these ceramic cups

The bottle we took home.  Traditionally mezcal is drunk from these ceramic cups.

Ulisses tasting a local farmer's mezcal

Ulisses tasting a local farmer’s mezcal

It was fascinating to watch a farmer come into the shop with several large soda bottles filled with his product to sell to Ulisses.  After tasting it, Ulisses let us know under his breath that this particular batch was not very good and he wouldn’t be buying any.  We felt bad for the farmer but that’s business I guess.  Although it isn’t as well know as tequila, mark my words, I predict it will soon be the next drink de jour in the states.

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Mercado entrance

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Camarones (shrimp)

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Sorry Wilbur

The Juárez and 20 de Noviembre mercados are giant labyrinths of food and craft vendors selling everything you can imagine and some things you can’t. On our days, yes we made several trips there, we ate and sampled and bought everything from Oaxaca cheese (like string cheese), chocolate to those damn grasshoppers.

Oaxaca cheese

Oaxaca cheese

DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO IMG_6691Peter was in carnivore’s heaven when we wandered into the smoky carne asada alley.  It’s about 200 feet long and lined with glowing barbecues on each side.  You can barely see your hands in front of you, due the smoke.  He didn’t know what the procedure was, but after a little Spanish and a lot of pantomime, he was handed a plate with raw peppers and scallions and pointed to the row of identical stalls grilling beef and sausage.

DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO He picked one and handed his plate and the vegetables to the grill master and said “mixto”.  What he didn’t know was that the meat was sold by weight and, not specifying an amount, they decided how much he wanted.  We sat and waited and soon a kilo, maybe more, of perfectly grilled meats and the aforementioned scallions and peppers as well as tortillas and salsas were delivered to the table.  It was really a meal for two or three people and all for about $9.  IMG_6683 IMG_6678 I went to another stall in the marketplace for a tlayuda.  This is a pizza-size baked tortilla that is covered with any combination of things, but always based with black bean paste.

Tlayuda stacked up at La Abuelitas

Tlayuda stacked up at La Abuelitas

tlayuda

tlayuda

Again this was enough food to feed the town and was only $5.  I wasn’t successful finishing mine (I shouldn’t have filled up on those grasshoppers 😉

Lucy had room service back at the hotel!

Lucy had room service back at the hotel!

Click here to read other posts on our road trip to Oaxaca or for post on touring the city.