Oaxaca is defined by its geography. The city is located in a broad valley amoung high mountains. The mountains can be very steep and difficult to traverse – conditions that have allowed the small villages of indigenous people in the area to maintain their traditions to this day. The city itself was first built during colonial times and has maintained a tight grid of city blocks, making it easy to walk around to the various attractions within the city.
To get to Oaxaca, we decided to take Road 175 from the coast over the mountains. We had met several Canadians who warned us that the road was as “as narrow as a shoe string” and “as curvy as a slinky,” so we left the town of Puerto Escondido by 6:30 am to give ourselves plenty of time to travel. Road 175 lived up to its double black diamond reputation. As we started climbing up from the coast we were surrounded by a tropical rainforest, and we passed many roadside stalls selling a myriad of different types of bananas. We swung around a bend at one point to see 6 or 7 women dangerously close to the side of the road. As we slowed down to go around them, we realized that they were actually picking up trash that people had littered in their neighborhood. We waved and passed them slowly – and then kept climbing for several hours. The tropical rainforest gave way to pine forest interspersed with agave plants. It often felt as if we were on a boat, as our van swayed around the tight curves in the road. Luckily we saw few vehicles other than a couple of local taxis, and a logging truck.
I was starting to feel a little car-sick, so we decided to stop at the next restaurant we saw. We reached the top of a mountain and were surprised to see a wood slatted restaurant that was clearly constructed from the pine in the surrounding forest. We were charmed by the fact that it looked like a little Swiss Chalet – unlike anything we expected to see in Mexico. I decided to try a Oaxacan hot chocolate and a quesadilla made with Oaxacan cheese. The Oaxacan cheese tasted very similar to mozarella. The Oaxacan hot chocolate, however, was unlike anything I had ever had before. It was sweet, savory, and slightly musky. It was made with spices – but nothing that would burn the lips or toungue. Delicious!
We continued on for several more hours, and finally made it to the city of Oaxaca. Unfortunately, both the campsites that were located in Oaxaca had closed. Therefore, we had to book ourselves a cheap hotel room for our stay in the city. We ended up choosing a place right in the heart of the city with secured parking. Luckily our small van was just able to fit into the parking garage of the hotel we found…otherwise we would have had to keep searching for another place to stay.
The next morning we woke up early and wandered through some of the artisan collectives. Collectives bring together the artwork of around 100 family workshops from all over Oaxaca to sell products for a fair price – with the proceeds going back to the artisans. The people of Oaxaca are known for creating beautiful textiles, black & green pottery, and fanciful wood carvings of animals (known as alebrijes). Eric and I were particularly interested in the textiles: including the women’s huipil’s (a boxy type shirt), the men’s shirts, the woven bedding. To gain a little more knowledge about what we were looking at, we visited the textile museum a few blocks away. There, we saw expertly crafted textiles from both Oaxaca and from around the world. As we were leaving the museum Eric saw a shirt he liked for sale at the Museum Expo. We learned that the shirt was from a group called Khadi Cotton– and that their products are not only hand woven, but also made with hand spun cotton. Neither Eric nor I had ever seen a shirt quite like it, so he decided to purchase it.
That night we decided to treat ourselves to a delicious meal at one of the highest rated restaurants in Oaxaca, named Danzantes. It was one of the best meals I have had on our travels. I had the baby back ribs and Eric had the rib eye – both prepared with traditional Oaxacan spices and chiles. Our meals were served with toasted blue corn tortillas and butter, giving it the addictive taste of popcorn. I also tasted a locally produced Mezcal – which bit – but not maliciously.
We spent the next morning exploring the stunning ruins of Monte Alban, with beautiful views of the city. We learned a lot about the different groups who lived in the area over the centuries and we were stunned by the monumental architecture.
As we made our way back through the narrow streets of the city, we saw many women cradling what looked like baby dolls. When we got back to the hotel I learned that it was actually a national holiday – called Candelaria. We learned that Candelaria comes 40 days after Christmas, and is the day when Mary took Jesus to be baptized. To celebrate, families take the figurine baby Jesus out of their home Nativity scene and bring the figurine to the Cathedral to be baptized. I was curious to know more about this tradition, so that night we went to the church where the Candelaria celebration was taking place outside. A family shared some sweet bread with us while we waited for the festivities to start. Then a local elementary school performed a play about the meaning of Calendaria, and a band played traditional songs. Many families had brought their representation of baby Jesus with them to the celebration, and each family had a slightly different clothes for their representation of the baby Jesus. Some of the representations were in plain white linens, some were swaddled like modern babies, some were dressed is fine satins, some were wearing velvet and crowns. We could hear fireworks going off in the background, and they continued long into the night.
During our travels, many people have told us that Oaxaca is the soul of Mexico. From what I have seen, I agree. Oaxaca did fascinate me, and I felt as if I could spend several weeks exploring the city and surrounding mountain towns.