12
Jul-2014

Oaxaca – fiestas and moles

Tuesday, 8th July
We got up early today to have breakfast and get to the National Palace for when it opened at 9am. It’s only a five minute walk from our hostel so we got there soon after 9am and gained entry after going through the security screening without setting any alarms off. We made our way to the second floor of palace around the courtyard where there are some stunning murals by Diego Rivera, our reason for visiting this building. The main mural which covers the entire staircase from ground level up seems to depict recent Mexican history and there are others along the walls which show Mexico before the Spanish arrival and after. Truly amazing murals; in the style, colours, sheer scale and compositions. After marvelling at these works of art we walked around a bit through the other areas of the palace to which we had access and then found the exit, which was manned by more police armed with assault rifles, before heading back to our hostel.

Diego Rivera National Palace Mural

The main Diego Rivera mural surrounding the staircase, inside the National Palace

Diego Rivera National Palace Mural

One of the many Diego Rivera murals inside the National Palace

We checked out of the hostel, grabbed our bags and made for the Metro which would take us to the TAPO bus terminal where we bought our tickets for Oaxaca. The journey took around six hours and took us through the suburbs of Mexico City before hitting some lovely countryside, all very green. We climbed up high and could see far all around. The flora here is so distinctive, with small bushes, trees and cacti covering the sandy coloured ground. The change in colours was interesting, how the earth went from a beige sand through browns to a terracotta colour the higher we got with the consistent shades of greens blanketing the ground.

Mexico City to Oaxaca

The view from the bus on our journey from Mexico City to Oaxaca

Mexico City to Oaxaca

The view from the bus on our journey from Mexico City to Oaxaca

We arrived around 7pm at the ‘First Class Bus Terminal’ in Oaxaca and got some directions to our hostel, we decided to walk the 20 minute journey rather than bus it. It was a nice walk albeit laden with all our stuff. The streets of central Oaxaca (the ‘historic centre’) are all cobbled and lined with beautifully coloured buildings. We got to our hostel easily enough – ‘Casa Angel’ – and checked in. Once we had dropped our bags and gathered ourselves we set off in search of some dinner. We walked around the cobbled streets for a bit before settling on a place called ‘Zandunga’. We opted for the tasting plate, after a recommendation by the waiter, and we were glad we did, it was amazing. On the plate we had garnachas, mototes, pico de gallo, carne horneada, tamale de chambray and totopos. It was all delicious and I will attempt to describe them below:

  • Garnachas – small fried maize rounds topped with minced meat and salsa
  • Molotes – Oaxacan take on the empanada filled with ground beef
  • Pico de gallo – salsa made of tomato, onion, coriander and shrimp
  • Carne horneada – slow cooked beef stew
  • Tamale de chambray – maize-base dough filled with chicken and beef and steamed in a maize leaf packet to cook
  • Totopos – tortilla chips, served with sauces to dip
Oaxacan Street

A Oaxacan Street, leading down to the Santo Domingo church

Oaxacan Tasting Plate

The Oaxacan tasting plate

Once we were finished with dinner we set off for another stroll to counteract the large meal we had just consumed. We walked down some streets until we happened across the main square, ‘Zocalo’, of central Oaxaca by the City Cathedral. It was very lively all around with plenty of people enjoying the mild night. This seems like a place that people like to meander around and aren’t in any particular hurry. We are pleased to be staying here for four nights. Looking forward to all the delicious food we are going to try!

Wednesday, 9th July
Today we got up for breakfast early and after our complimentary eggs headed out to the bus terminal. We had to buy our onward tickets to San Cristobal de la Casas for Saturday. We booked an overnight bus, it’s 11 hours away, so we will arrive on Sunday morning, starting our Spanish course on the Monday at 9am. Once we had successfully booked our bus tickets with our limited Spanish we walked another few minutes to the Cultural Institute of Oaxaca where Envia are based. According to their mission statement, Envia “…support the growth and creation of income-generating businesses, and encourage personal development through participatory programs that promote the empowerment of women, the well being of their families, and the strengthening of community.”. Kirsty had done some research of things to do in Oaxaca and this rated highly amongst reviews. We booked ourselves on a tour for tomorrow that will take us to meet some of the women Envia have funded in local villages so we can see first hand what they are trying to achieve and also get a glimpse into local Oaxacan life. By paying for the tour Envia will channel that money back into financing business plans of local women. Basically a win-win situation for us to see some local life and for the organisation to do some fund and awareness raising. With the ‘to-do’s’ out of the way we set off for the ’20 Novembre’ market which is a local food market. We tried some awesome chocolate, bought some awesome chocolate and had a look at some of the foods we might try later into our stay here. They had one stretch of the market, basically a tunnel of barbecuing meat. I will have to go back. We then wandered the streets a bit. This is the kind of place you can wander, feel safe and get a sense of the local life. It’s a picturesque town from what we have seen with markets, street vendors, colourful buildings and ornate churches dotted about the place. It’s certainly a different pace to Mexico City.

Cactus selling on the street

Pruning and selling cactus on the street

Market Stall

A market stall in one of the many markets of Oaxaca

After a rest back at the hostel where we also booked ourselves on another tour, this time of some a local temple – Monte Alban, we set off once more to find some lunch. We ended up eating at a restaurant on the main square, or Zocalo, which served up a delicious chorizo toasted sandwich and chorizo and cheese topped tostados. With lunch done we had a brief look inside the Cathedral on the square then wandered some more before we came to a cafe that looked like it ight be a good spot to watch the World Cup semi-final between Argentina and Holland, ‘El Popular’. Argentina won on penalties much to the delight of the cafe crowd and we received some free Mezcal, a tequila-like drink which one sips.

We had another rest back at the hostel as per our travelling style these days then ventured out into the Oaxacan moonlight for some wandering and street snacks. Oaxaca really comes alive at night with tourists and locals alike getting food, socialising and watching buskers and clowns do their thing. We found some grilled corn covered in lime juice, slathered in mayonaise, sprinkled with cheese then dusted with chilli powder. Sounds strange but very tasty. We also tried a tamale; maize dough stuffed with a mole sauce and other bits and peices before being steamed. It too was delicious. A successful foray into the world of Mexican street food and no unwanted side effects (you know what I mean).

Thursday, 10th July
Showers out the way (we only get hot water for 2 hours a day here), we ambled downstairs for our complimentary eggs. After breakfast we walked down to the ‘chocolate street’, Calle Francisco Xavier Mina, about a 15 minute walk from our hostel. On our wander we came across an end of term school parade/fiesta through town which stopped at the main square, Zocalo, where the children danced around to the brass band that was belting out tunes. They had dressed up, were waving banners and some were carrying effigies of people, not sure who they were meant to represent. A short walk later and we found a chocolate shop we tried to find the other day, ‘La Soledad’, and had ourselves a couple of hot chocolates. The chocolate here is interesting, made from the cocoa butter and sugar mixed in so it is kind of gritty but indeed tasty and unprocessed with minimal ingredients.

Chocolate

La Soledad, one of the many chocolate shops in Oaxaca

Chocolate

Making chocolate in Oaxaca at La Soledad

We had a tour booked for today with the Envia foundation which was excellent and took us around a couple of towns meeting and talking with a few of the women that had received loans for their small businesses. We talked to a butcher, restaurant owner where we ate lunch (tlayuda oaxaqueña; a folded over tortilla with meat, lettuce, refried beans and thin barbecued steak), a chocolate and sweetcorn drink (atol de elote) maker in one town and some wool weavers in another town. It was fascinating to hear their stories and how they have used their money for their businesses. The skills on display were amazing as well with the weavers having produced beautiful rugs and in the first town we tried some tasty pork crackling and some great chocolate, both the drinking and solid kind as well as the atol de elote (sweetcorn) drink. The tour lasted from 10am until 6pm and took us through Santo Domingo Tomaltepec first where we first stopped for lunch. Then we visited and heard the stories from the three women in their homes which also serve as their places of business. We then headed to Teotitlan de Valle where we looked around a church and then met with the weavers (this town is famous for weaving) and then back to Oaxaca in time for dinner.

Envia Tour

A weaver in the photo and some dyed wool ready for weaving

Envia Tour

The butcher showing her craft in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec

For dinner we went back to the main drag of the central historic area, Calle Macedonio Alcala, on the hunt for some mole. We wandered around a bit and found somewhere with an inside courtyard (‘La Catrina de Alcala’) that looked nice so we ventured inside and used our basic spanish to order some coloradito mole with chicken for me and Kirsty ordered a tlayuda with mole. Mole is the generic name for a number of sauces and the colour denotes their flavour. Oaxaca is known as the ‘land of the seven moles’. The mole negro, the most popular has chocolate as an ingredient. The below information is taken from that trusted source, Wikipedia;

  • Negro (black) – slightly sweet, black in color and contains six different types of chili peppers, plantains, onion, tomatoes, tomatillos, cloves, cinnamon, chocolate, nuts, tortillas, avocado leaves and more depending on the recipe. To gain the desired black color, the chili peppers have to be well toasted but not burnt.
  • Amarillo (yellow) – contains green tomatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, cloves, ancho chili peppers, guajillo chili peppers, hoja santa or cilantro and is garnished with onions, lime and oregano.
  • Coloradito (colored) – is brick red in color and contains ancho chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, sesame seeds, almonds, cinnamon and oregano.
  • Mancha manteles (tablecloth stainer) – is red and uses ancho chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onion, thyme, cloves and almonds.
  • Chichilo (named after the main pepper)
  • Rojo (red) – uses chihuacle, negro, pasilla and mulato chile peppers, tomatoes, marjoram, allspice, cloves and avocado leaves..
  • Verde (green) – contains tomatillos, green chili peppers, onion, garlic, cumin, cloves, ancho and guajillo chili peppers, hoja santa, epazote and parsley. It has a light and herby taste.

Friday, 11th July
After we breakfast we had a tour booked to go and visit the local ruins of a major city of the Zapotec people, Monte Alban. The Zapotecs are an indigenous civilisation to the Valley of Oaxaca that goes back 2,500 years. We had paid for a guided tour to gain some knowledge of the structures and people who lived there. It was fascinating and the condition of the buildings and structures was such that you could really imagine life there. Monte Alban, which means “White Mountain,” is an ancient Zapotec capital and now an archaeological site with a mountain top location overlooking the valleys of Oaxaca. This Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from 500 BC to 850 AD when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began. Today, you can see pyramids, markets squares, ball courts, observatories and other buildings that made up a part of the city with stunning views of the valley beneath down to Oaxaca from almost 2,000 metres above sea level. There are many structures still left uncovered in the surrounding hills.

Monte Alban

The view of the Oaxacan Valley from Monte Alban

Monte Alban

Monte Alban, from a vantage point looking down

I started to feel sick during the tour and once we had got back was in need of a lie down, some stomach thing I think but luckily it lasted no more than 24 hours. That meant the rest of the day was fairly low key. I rested at the hostel and Kirsty got a massage before we met up for dinner at the ‘Mayordomo’ restaurant. I could barely manage a soup whilst Kirsty tucked into a mole negro with chicken. As we were finishing up dinner another fiesta was kicking off and a parade passed by the doorway to our restaurant. We watched for a bit, paid our bill then proceeded to follow the parade down to the main square, the Zocalo, where a crowd gathered for more dancing, music and fireworks. We are really enjoying the vibrancy of this place and the clear enjoyment that the locals get from these parades and fiestas, it seems as though the whole town gets involved. There was even a guy pouring out free mezcal to the crowd, needless to say I didn’t partake. Kirsty got herself a hot chocolate on the way back to the hostel before we retired hoping to feel better the next day.

Fiesta

Parade down the main street in Oaxacan historic downtown

Fiesta

The fiesta outside the City Cathedral, Oaxaca

Saturday, 12th July
We are leaving Oaxaca tonight headed for San Cristobal de la Casas. We got up feeling much better than yesterday and after breakfast packed for the onward journey North up to the Chiapas region of Mexico. Our bus didn’t leave until 9pm being an overnight bus so we threw our luggage in the luggage room of the hostel for the day and set about making the most of our last day in Oaxaca. The good thing about visiting small towns is that you don’t need to run around and do heaps of stuff to feel like you’ve seen it all and be satisfied before you move on. Our first stop was a cafe with an inside courtyard for a cup of coffee, a hot chocolate and some reading. There is a contemporary art gallery here, ‘MACO’ (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca), that we wanted to check out so that was our next stop. It was suitably odd for a contemporary art gallery with various pieces of ‘art’ on a theme of maize on the lower floor and upstairs some audio pieces that I’ll be honest and say I didn’t quite understand. Needless to say all the writing on the walls that might have helped was in Spanish.

We then wandered down to the ’20 Novembre’ food market to have a look for some lunch. Having walked through the alley where various meats were barbecuing over charcoal we decided this is what we shall have. There is a specific system for ordering here and having done it we now understand but there was a lot of confusion to begin with. We chose our meats, some beef and chorizo, then were handed a numbered card and told to sit down further into the alley. We were then handed a basket with tortillas and cooked meat and we handed back the card and some money. There is a different vendor for each component of your meal; the meat, tortillas, vegetables and drinks, and they all coordinate so you get your food in the same basket. We opted not to have the vegetables, being only a choice of onion and chillies both of which wouldn’t have sat well on my stomach after a day of feeling queazy. The lunch was delicious and although I’m sure we paid a tourist price still fairly cheap for the meat we had. Half a kilo of beef steak and a quarter kilo of chorizo with too many tortillas all for under $15. You also get the added atmosphere of buskers working the small space and barbecue smoke wafting through the alley.

Barbecue Alley

Aptly named ‘Barbecue Alley’

Barbecue Alley

Our meal in Barbecue Alley

We walked back through the market and into another market on the way back to the Zocalo and a bar where we could watch the World Cup 3rd/4th play-off match between Brazil and Holland. With the match finished we still have a few hours before our bus so we ambled onwards to the Santo Domingo church and the square area outside where we had a sit down for an hour or so, as per the locals, before heading to ‘Los Pacos’ for a dinner of moles. They do a combination plate there where you can try six different moles, which I ordered. They were fantastic, Oaxaca is known for it’s moles and it was great to try them all in one go to compare them to one another. They have quite distinct different tastes and textures, from the bitter chocolate flavours to the spicy and sweet. We then walked back to the hostel and grabbed our bags before making for the bus terminal and our overnight journey to San Cristobal de la Casas where we will stay for a week.

 

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