As we continued to travel through Mexico, each person we spoke to about our desire to go to Oaxaca lit up. This infectious positive energy surrounding Oaxaca budded in my mind and gave birth to a full-blown desire to see the state I had heard so much about. The land of many moles with a whole host of native Mexican tradition? Yes please, sign me up!
We started our journey in Oaxaca in the capital city of Oaxaca City in the heart of old town. The feeling during our entire stay was a small big town. Everything in the old town where we stayed was walkable aside from the excursions we took. But truly, on top of that, it felt like home. Case in point our first night our hosts graciously brought us some traditional Oaxacan ice cream and a free ride to our dinner. We have stayed in a lot of different places on our journey but it’s rare when a host makes you feel like family. But as Alex and his wife informed us about why the Oaxacan ice cream is special (uses ice from the mountains) and why mole is an integral part of Oaxacan culture (lack of need for refrigeration) I couldn’t help but feel that positive Oaxacan energy.
Speaking of home, our first meal we ordered vegan pizza and craft IPA’s. These were select beers from Oaxacan Brewery the waiter was reluctant to part with as they only get so many. In fact, the only reason he recommended them was because they were getting another shipment tomorrow! Great IPA, from a small brewery where the bottle is still labeled with the number your bottle was in the batch, and which batch it was. As the rain poured down in droves we drank and listened to the storm, contemplating life. Home is rain, craft beer, and pizza apparently, but man it felt good.
Walking the city is a must while in Oaxaca city as their cathedral, zocalo, as well as the smell and taste of the city beg to be explored. We landed at a vegan restaurant for our first Oaxacan mole at a restaurant called Hierba Dulce. When I think mole, I think the rich chocolatey sauce with over 20 ingredients that takes sometimes days to develop the layers of flavor. Turns out there is a near infinite amount of types of mole and as we learned in the cooking class we enrolled in, each offers something unique.
For our cooking class in Oaxaca we went to a mescaleria which has a restaurant they are just launching. After a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and granola we took off for the market with our wicker baskets on our backs. At the market we got a variety of goods from fresh masa, chayote squash, to fresh dried chile paste. Also along the way we got small history lessons about the building materials in local churches and the history behind a bunch of local sights we would have never known. Back in the kitchen we made rice, Oaxacan style with the local herb chepil, and our mole Amarillo, or yellow mole. This had rich flavor from a mixture of veggies, rehydrated chile, garlic, tomato goodness, and the secret thickening weapon, our masa dumplings. Sitting in the backyard eating mole, fresh salad, and sipping mescal we basked in the sun and chatted about our lives.
After exploring the city of Oaxaca we wanted to sink our teeth into some of the areas around the city which had some of the best ancient Mesoamerican sites we had seen yet. We took a colectivo out to Monte Alban, avoiding a guided tour so we can explore the ruins on our own. From the beginning the size of Monte Alban took me by surprise. I had assumed that it would be similar to Guachimontones which although very unique was small in scale. Monte Alban is the opposite of that particularly when you get your first look at the main plaza. In three rows the size of 2-3 football fields different structures pepper the view ranging from pyramids to observatories for the stars.
Getting out early was also very key because it allowed us to snag some shots of the full complex before the tours came through and filled the landscape with people. Yet another reason to get out and explore on your own, the rewards are often rich and bountiful.
On the next section of our journey we elected to not take my advice and join a tour. Sometimes the amount of time needed, different legs of transportation, and cost all equal making the tour the more desirable option. In this case we hopped on a tour that had El Tule, Hierve el Agua, and La Mitla all wrapped into one day. Essentially big old tree, petrified waterfalls, and Mesoamerican site all in one. We had signed up for a tour in English because it makes it hard to follow a tour when you only understand every third word. Unfortunately, little did we know we would be the only English speakers on our tour. We could only feel cheated when our tour guide would speak in Spanish for a good 20 minutes straight then speak in English for maybe 1 minute. We got the cliff notes when we wanted the novel. That being said, the sites were amazing.
Our first stop in El Tule is a small town with the big claim to fame being the ancient tree that is based in the town. The tree’s age is relatively unknown ranging from 6,000 years old to the more scientifically based 1,500 years old. In either case the tree is the stoutest tree in the world with a circumference of 137 feet! I would like a group of 20 of my friends and family to come and give this tree a hug, c’mon guys let’s do it.
After El Tule we drove out to Hierva el Agua, the petrified waterfalls. As our van driver navigated the skinny mountain roads, we knew we had made the right decision in getting out to the falls. The park area surrounding the park was great with some walking trails leading to different viewpoints to the falls as well as a long way around to the base of the falls. Because we wanted to get into the pools of water at the top of the falls, we elected to just scope the viewpoints and enjoy the sunny day. The water was cool, refreshing, and mineral rich.
Last on our itinerary was La Mitla, another of the Mesoamerican sites in the area which really piqued my interest after the stunning views at Monte Alban. In short Mitla was kind of a let-down. Smaller in scale, and aside from the fact you get to go underground into some of the tombs, it didn’t have the awe factor of Monte Alban.
As we hopped back into our van and slogged through traffic back into Oaxaca city it ended up feeling like a whole lot of too much (common feeling after jam packed tours). The sites, smells, and sounds of Oaxaca were some of my favorite of Mexico so far. So far Oaxaca had lived up to the hype and more. Why this isn’t a major tourist destination for Americans is beyond me as once again we were the only Americans. But ya know what? Maybe that’s ok, more for us. 😊