Oaxaca

Trip Start Dec 04, 2011
1
6
10
Trip End Jan 12, 2012


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Where I stayed
Palacio Borghese

Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December 20
I woke up at 3am so rang the front desk and cancelled my wake up call. Taxi was waiting for me at 4.30 when I checked out we drove to the airport along nearly deserted streets. I had three hours transit in Mexico City before my connecting flight to Oaxaca left, but luckily noticed that there was an American Express lounge above one of the duty free stores. I'd never seen one of these before so asked the guys at the desk what the entry criteria was. They told me that anyone with a Gold or Platinum Amex could get in for free. Bonus! Started talking to the guys behind the bar who bought out a selection of tequilas for my perusal, so I spent the last hour before boarding having my own personal tequila tasting.

Sat next to an old Oaxacan guy on the flight from Mexico City who told me two things I should know about his city: it's very beautiful, and it will make me fat. So far he seems right on both counts.

The flight arrived about 2.30pm and I bought a ticket for a taxi inside the terminal. Fares are determined by the zone you want to get to. I'm in the closest and therefore the cheapest zone and only had to pay 52 Pesos for my trip – about $4.50 AUD based on the exchange rate of 12:1 I got at Mexico City airport.

My hotel, Palacio Borghese, is very nice. The room is big and has a separate sitting area and a little private courtyard opening off the bedroom. There’s a central courtyard where the restaurant is located. The place is filled with statuary and paintings, all of which are Italianate. It’s also in the old part of Oaxaca and the first thing I saw when I stepped out for my orientation walk was the church of Santo Domingo which is just 2 minutes walk away at the end of Calle Allenda.

Apart from a potato omelette on the flight from Miami I hadn’t eaten all day so my first priority was food. I found a place called Los Danzantes a cvouple of blocks from the hotel where I had a late lunch. Beautiful restaurant in an open courtyard surrounded by high adobe brick walls on three sides and an old house on the fourth. I ordered Tlayudas Camorrones – prawns cooked in a rich sauce and cheese sandwiched between crisp tortillas. It came with two types of salsa (red and green) and fresh bread. Delicious!

Santo Domingo church was close by so I decided to make this my first tourist destination. The outside is quite imposing but austere compared to the interior which is very embellished. There’s a massive alter screen that stretches from the floor to the ceiling that reminded me of one I saw in a church in Seville. It has chapels along both sides, all of which were closed off by wooden screens. The ceiling above the main entrance is also elaborately carved.

Just around the corner in a little park there was a craft market where a French guy and a local woman were giving massages. As the woman was in training I got a 15 minute massage from the guy for just 50 pesos – very good and I plan to return as many times as I can before I leave. There are also a couple of craft stores across the road selling locally made carpets and clothing.

On my way to the church I passed Casa Crespa, a place I had discovered on the net that gives cooking classes so I booked myself into one for tomorrow then had a drink on their roof bar which has a great view of Santo Domingo. I walked to the Zocalo, a generic term for the main square in Mexicn cities. One side is taken up by the cathedral and two of the others by old colonial style buildings which have been converted into restaurants. It was a very balmy evening and the place was packed with people eating, talking or just sitting around taking in the view. There were a lot of shoe shine places with chairs under blue awnings and vendors selling street food – mostly hamburgers and hot dogs.

Walked back to the hotel along cobbled streets lined with beautiful old buildings, street musicians playing guitar and piano accordions, and Indian vendors selling their wares on the footpath. I've only been in Oaxaca for a few hours but I love it already. It's beautiful and relaxed and has a great atmosphere that hit me as soon as I arrived. Brilliant first day.

December 21
Up and out by 7.30. Asked the guy at the front desk directions to Mercardo de la Merced and headed off there for breakfast. A crisp morning – perfect for walking. I found the market and its little food court - which is spread around an open air court yard – and ordered entomatadas from a place called Fonda San Diego. Like most Mexican food this was based on a tortilla which was covered in tomato and garlic salsa, crumbly white cheese, raw onion and a piece of grilled beef. Very tasty, and with a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice the bill was only 55 pesos. I spent some of my change buying a selection of small pastries from a baker inside the market. One tasted like profiterole filled with light sweet cream, another like a brandy snap filled with the same stuff and the third was a coconut tart. All delicious – I'll definitely be back here for snacks.

Took a different route back to the hotel without getting lost – Oaxaca is laid out in a grid pattern so it's fairly easy to get around. Cooking classes at Casa Crespa started at 10am. There was a Swiss couple and a couple of Mexican ladies as well as me. We sat around a big table in the foyer (made out of an old door) and had coffee and fresh bread with jam before walking to the nearby produce market. Our chef, Oscar, explained the local produce to us and bought some things for our class.

We hooked up with four other people at the market who were joining our class – two couples, three of whom were Australian. Class was great and Oscar made sure everyone participated. All the preparation was done on the table we had coffee on when we first arrived.

We started by making our own tortillas and frying these on the stove in the kitchen. Then we made two different types of salsa – red and green – blending different spices including cumin and some sort of worm (the same type they put into bottles of Mezcal) into the red salsa to arrive at different flavours.

We then stuffed our tortillas with string cheese (a white, semihard cheese that you can peel into strips) and either squash blossoms or grasshoppers. I chose the former, however had to taste at least one grasshopper just to see what it was like – very salty and astringent. We also made one of the hundreds of different types of moles (sauces) to have with chicken – ours used almonds and olives – as well as stone soup (so called because you use hot stones to cook the ingredients). While we were waiting for the meal to be prepared we had drinks on the roof. As we started chatting to each other it turned out that two of the Australians were siblings and by some bizarre coincidence I used to work with their brother! Of course we had to have photos taken with the three of us to commemorate this.

The meal was great – delicious food and good company. Drinks were included in the cost so we started with beers and then moved onto the house Mezcal. The class was supposed to finish at 2pm but by 3pm we were still sitting around the dining table talking. Retired to the roof for a final drink, then said our goodbyes on the footpath outside Casa Crespa. Great day and probably the best "tour" of the holiday so far.

December 22
I'd booked a half day tour around Oaxaca online before leaving home and reconfirmed when I arrived yesterday. I was picked up from the hotel about 10.15 and driven to a hotel near the Zocalo where we joined up the rest of the group (including our guide Eduardo). The first stop of the day was Monte Alban. Because I was the only non-Spanish speaker on the bus Eduardo hooked me up with an English speaking guide for the tour of the site.

Monte Alban was a Zapotec city founded about 500BC, making it one of the oldest - and some say the first great – city in the Americas. The site is centred around a large plaza 1,000 feet long and 666 feet wide with temples on its four sides. It was a purely religious site and the Zapotec people didn’t actually live here, but in villages around the base of the mountain the temple complex is built on. Monte Alban is the name given to it by the Spanish and means White Mountain, supposedly as a result of the white blossomed trees that covered it when the conquistadors first reached here.

The largest structure is the North Platform stretching 870 feet from north to south and 635 feet from east to west and contains several major temple clusters. There’s also the Ball Court which our guide told us was used for ritual purposes, not as a sporting arena. Apparently when the city needed to make an important decision, for instance whether to invade a neighbouring city, two teams of warriors were selected - one team playing for the affirmative and one for the negative. The winning team decided the outcome of the question at hand, and the winning team members were then sacrificed to the gods.

There are two raised walks facing each other across the central court which today look like bleachers, however originally these were covered in stucco providing a smooth surface on which the ball could bounce off.

On the western side of the complex is a structure called the Building of Dancers. Archaeologists now believe this might have been a hospital as many of the carvings found here depict medical conditions, including several representations of pregnancy. I had a quick look around the museum while I waited for my tour to return and bought some postcards from the shop.

We visited a carving factory in another village which specialised in "fantasy" carvings of animals and then stopped for lunch at a place called Hacienda Cuilapam. They serve a huge buffet that specialises in local cuisine including different types of mole, BBQ meats, half a dozen different soups, casseroles and deserts. I just loaded a plate with stuff, most of which I couldn’t put a name to but was very good nevertheless. I also had a couple of bowls of a really tasty chicken and vegetable broth. With a bottle of coke the total cost was 140 pesos. Our driver took me to the bar and made them give me a shot of Mezcal served with lemons and chilli powder instead of salt.

We stopped at the oldest Dominican Monastery in Oaxaca which was started in 1555. It’s a superb old building and part of it is still used as a church today – in fact as we were leaving a funeral procession had just arrived, complete with mourners carrying bunches of white lilies and a brass band.

Our last stop of the day was the Dona Rosa pottery shop in San Bartolo Coyotepec which specialises in black pottery made from locally quarried clay. I bought a little black duck for 50 pesos which I very much doubt will make it home in one piece, but for $4 it’s worth a try.

The tour cost 250 pesos, which didn’t include entry to Monte Alban (51 pesos) or lunch. I went out about 7pm for a couple of drinks in the Zocalo then had a nightcap at a bar around the corner from the hotel called Apolonia. There was a guy singing and playing acoustic guitar who was excellent.

December 23
Just found out that a continental breakfast is included in the room tariff so had coffee, toast and juice before heading out for a walk. Another beautiful day in Oaxaca – clear blue skies, warm with a light breeze.

The Mexicans are a very religious people so not surprisingly there are churches everywhere and I decided to spend my last day visiting the major ones. I started at the Basilica Menor de Soledad which is in Avenida Independencia, about four blocks west of the Zocalo. It was completed in the late 1600s and is dedicated to Oaxaca's patron saint, the Virgin of Solitude. Apparently a mysterious donkey sat down a rock on the site of the church and refused to move. When the locals opened the crate it was carrying on its back they found a statue of the Virgin inside and took this as a sign to build a church here. The rock was incorporated into design of the church and is still there today enclosed in a cage of iron bars to the right of the main entrance, and the story is pictured in four stain glass windows in the quirky little museum attached to the main building. There’s a very elaborately dressed statue of Mary above the main altar. Apparently her vestments are encrusted with pearls but I didn't get close enough to verify that.

There’s a little food market next door where I bought a breakfast snack for 10 pesos. It was basically deep fried mashed vegetable – very spicy and tasty. I asked the woman who sold it to me what it was called and I think she said "Matamoles".

I walked back to the Zocalo and visited the Cathedral again. As it’s been dark every time I’ve been here before I hadn’t noticed that the stone the church is built from is actually green in colour. It’s a volcanic rock called cantera or andesite which is pale green when dry (as it is now) but apparently turns a deep, mossy green when wet.  The cathedral is older than Soledad, built in 1553, and incorporates a lovely baroque fašade. There are 14 chapels inside, the most famous dedicated to El Se˝or del Rayo.

Changed some money at a little cambio on Portfirio Diaz – slightly better rate on US dollars than the airport, but no luck changing my AUD. I also found the Post Office just off the Zocalo and posted a batch of postcards (15 pesos per card).

About three blocks south of the Zocalo is  the church and former monastery of Templo de Juan de Dios. Originally built around 1520, it is Oaxaca's oldest church however the current structure dates from the 1600’s. It’s right next door to the Mercado de Noviembre market where I had lunch at one of the little local food places called Comeda Florita. I ordered the Empanada de Champinones (a tortilla filled with fried mushroom and string cheese folded into a half moon shape and grilled on a hot plate) and a Mirinda (orange soda). Tasty and filling and only 40 pesos.

I also stopped at the Templo de San Felipe Neri. One thing I noticed that really bought home how religious the people here are, even if they are just walking by a church and not actually going inside a lot of people cross themselves as the pass the main entrance.

I walked back to Santo Domingo via Armenta y Lopez, passing the recently restored Teatro Alcala on the way. The church was closed unfortunately but I might try and come back later this afternoon to get some pictures of the incredible interior. I was struck again by the number of beggars in the streets of Oaxaca, most of whom appear to be women.

Went back to the hotel where the girl at reception had confirmed my flights – the Mexico City leg has been moved forward by 30 minutes and the Tuxtla one has been delayed by 90, so it looks like another wasted day traveling. At least I know about the American Express lounge now so can spend a few hours there. Also booked a wake up call for 6am and a taxi for 6.30.

Santo Domingo was now open. Flash photography is prohibited inside the church so I tried taking some photos without it - not sure how these will turn out. Had dinner at a restaurant across the road called Casa Oaxaca. I ate on the terrace upstairs which looks back onto the rear of of the church. Before I'd ordered they bought a little bowl of pork crackling and pickled onions and while I nibbled on these the waiter made fresh salsa at my table using a mortar and pestle, asking me if I wanted it mild or spicy.

I had ceviche for entree which was served with a balsamic type vinegar, pineapple and avocado. I’m not sure what fish they used but it was firm and quite tasty. For main I had duck breast with almond and olive mole. The mole was a little stronger in flavour than the one we made in cooking class but delicious nevertheless, and the duck was beautiful.

Stopped at a tiny Mezcaleria next door to Casa Crespa where the owner offered me a tasting of three different mezcals for 100 pesos. There was a guy singing and playing guitar who collected coins from everyone in the bar before leaving, after which I decided to call it a night as well.

Oaxaca has been amazing - the food is incredible, the architecture beautiful, the people friendly and welcoming, and the weather perfect. This is one of the best cities I’ve ever visited and I think the highlight of the trip so far – exquisito!!
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Comments

Kathleen on

You seem to be a solo traveler. Who takes the photos of you in them?.

kstubbs97
kstubbs97 on

Hi Kathleen - I carry a little tripod with me and sometimes set my camera up on a 10 second time delay to take self shots. Most of the time however I just ask people to take a shot for me.

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